Wyoming Craigslist rape survivor rebuilds her life, plans for marriage
Sarah Kostovny poses with her fiance, Ian Kelso, in a park near their home on Friday in Casper. The two are getting married in about a week. Kostovny was raped by Ty McDowell earlier this year after he responded to a rape fantasy ad, which was placed by Kostovny's former boyfriend posing as her. The two men have been sentenced to 60 years to life in prison. (Dan Cepeda/Casper Star-Tribune)

Sarah Kostovny is in her living room near the spot where it happened, describing how sometimes, unprovoked and out of nowhere, tears fall from her eyes.

"I'm extremely happy and everything is great in my life," she says, "but I'm sad. I know those are very contradictory ideas, emotions. But there are times that I will just start bawling uncontrollably, and I have no idea why."

She and her fiancee have tried to erase reminders. They replaced the carpet stained with her blood. They threw away the knife block that once held the weapon pressed against her throat. Still, memories are triggered.

"Every day she opens her door, she has that fear," said Betty Greco, the victim-witness coordinator that worked with Kostovny.

One of Kostovny's dogs sometimes scratches at the spot where it happened. There's the metal air-conditioning vent she remembers being pulled over. Not far away, the front door's frame still bears damage from where authorities kicked open the door the rapist locked as he left.

"This," she says, motioning around her living room, "is my crime scene."

It's also where she's begun peeking through the darkness.

It's here, in view of this chipped doorframe, that Kostovny made the decision to begin pursuing a master's degree. It's here, under this roof where she suffered a woman's nightmare, that she's planned her wedding. It's here, where bound, naked and blindfolded, she crawled across cool linoleum, that she's begun seeing herself as a survivor, not a victim.

"Life still goes on," she says. "The sun came up the next morning, and I had to go with it."


She remembers Dec. 11 with a sharp, painful precision. It was a Friday. She took her fiance, Ian Kelso, to work, dropping him off at 6:52 a.m. Pulling back into her driveway, a song called "Into the Field," by the band, "Deepfield," was on the radio.

"I listened to the rest of that song," she said. "Then I got out and walked to the door. I was thinking about the things that I needed to do."

Through the snow toward the door, she went over the list. Immediate: Let the dogs out. Then shower, dress and -- job-hunting since July -- go sign papers for a temporary job. Be done before 3:30 p.m. and pick Kelso up from work.

"That morning did not turn out like that all," she said.

Her mind on errands, she hardly noticed the red truck parked across the street. After all, it had been there, off and on, all week.


Kostovny grew up in Hanna an only child. She was a cheerleader at Hanna-Elk Mountain High School. Her graduating class, in 2003, had 32 people in it.

At the University of Wyoming she majored in criminal justice and psychology, was a member of Chi Omega sorority and graduated, with honors, in 2007. She thought of law school, "but I started working, real life kicked in, and then I have bills to pay, so I have to take care of those."

She found a job in Rawlins working for the Carbon County School District. One night in September 2008, at a social gathering, she was introduced to a girlfriend's cousin home on leave from the U.S. Marine Corps. He was Jebidiah James Stipe, and Kostovny spent the better part of the next three days with him and his cousin. They went to a UW football game in Laramie.

"It was carefree," she said. "Just normal stuff."

Stipe went back to his base in Twentynine Palms, Calif. For New Year's Eve 2008, Kostovny's parents bought her a plane ticket to California so she could visit Stipe. She spent four days there and came home Jan. 3.

"He was different in California," she said. "But I just took it as we were different people. When I got on the plane to come back to Wyoming, I knew that I would probably never talk to him again."

In February 2009, she secured a job at Central Wyoming Counseling Center as a residential specialist dealing with addictions and mental health disorders. She moved to Casper.

In July, she learned she needed a hysterectomy. She was single, scared and started seeing a counselor.

"At 24, knowing you'll never have children, it's kind of a big thing to take in," she said. "It was hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that I would never be able to do that."

The day of her surgery, she learned she had lost her job.

July, though, wasn't a total loss. She also met Kelso that month and the two began dating. Six weeks later, they were engaged. A date was set. Kostovny, in love and excited about her future, sent a mass text message to every contact in her phone with the news.

In early December, Stipe called her. He asked for her home address. He said he wanted to send an engagement gift.

"Ian didn't think anything of it, I didn't think anything of it," Kostovny said. "People send engagement gifts. Just not violent ones."


The red truck belonged to Ty Oliver McDowell. Authorities would later say they found a picture of Kostovny's home in his possession.

When she reached her front door, he used his weight to shove her inside. He closed the door behind them and, as she began struggling, stripped off her long-sleeve yellow shirt and flannel pajama bottoms with hearts on them. Then he tied her wrists, blindfolded her eyes. He told her, again and again, he would kill her if she moved. She didn't stop resisting, though, until he held a knife to her throat.

On the living room floor, beside her Christmas tree and a few gifts she had ordered for her mother, McDowell raped Kostovny for approximately 30 minutes. At one point, he used a knife sharpener.

While it happened, her dogs -- Kahlua and Captain Hook -- whimpered in their kennels. "I knew as long as I could hear them, I was still alive," she said.

When McDowell left, she crawled across the floor and pressed her face against the doorknob, using it to slide the blindfold down around her neck. Her telephone, a Blackberry Storm, had been knocked beneath her kitchen table. Using voice-activated dialing, she called for help.

Within a week, the Natrona County Sheriff's Office arrested McDowell, a married father of two who lived in Bar Nunn, and Stipe, the Carbon County native Kostovny had spent a total of seven days with. Investigators would learn Stipe, posing as Kostovny, had placed an advertisement on Craigslist on Dec. 5 requesting a rape fantasy. McDowell was one of 161 people who responded. Stipe gave him Kostovny's address.

McDowell and Stipe both pleaded guilty to their roles in the crime and were sentenced, on back-to-back days, by Natrona County District Judge David Park to 60 years to life in prison.

After McDowell's sentencing, Kostovny and friends went to a local Mexican restaurant for food, margaritas and something of a celebration. After Stipe's, there was something different.

"I was overwhelmed," she said. "I didn't know how to react. ... The next couple of days I felt loss because this was something that became such a huge part of my life -- of all of our lives -- that wasn't there anymore."

Kostovny says she recently received letters from the Wyoming Department of Corrections telling her the earliest possible time both men could be up for parole: April 30, 2050.

To this day, she hesitates to speak their names.


"Her question to me, all the time, has been, 'Am I crazy?'" Greco said last week.

While Kostovny sometimes still struggles to deal with her emotions -- which like many sexual assault victims' bounce from anger to shame to fear to blame -- Greco pushes her to accept what she feels. And to lean on positives.

The morning following Kostovny's first night in her home after the rape, she called Greco upset and scared.

"I told her, 'But you made it through the night. You did it,'" Greco said. "She understood that she could do this, that it was going to be OK.

"We talk a lot about her being a survivor, not a victim."

Nancy Johnson, director of the victim-witness unit at the Natrona County District Attorney's office, said she urges victims of sexual assault to not only come forward with the crimes committed against them, but to express to the courts what they feel.

"It becomes, often times, a catharsis," Johnson said. "They get to focus on themselves, their emotions, not the facts of the case.

"Those that really heal are those that have been involved," she said, "those that see it to the end."

When McDowell and Stipe were sentenced, Kostovny spoke at both of the hearings, explaining her feelings to the judge. Trying to decide what to say, she gleaned the journal she began keeping after the attack.

"Getting the feelings out on paper, through the tears and everything else, that was a good release for me," she said. "It helped me see myself."

Last month, Kostovny began pursuing her master's degree in mental health counseling.

"Just anything I can do to turn my negative situation into something positive for somebody else, it will make everything worth it," she said. "I can't change it, I can't wake up from this. It's not a bad dream, it doesn't go away."


They chose October because Kostovny has always imagined a fall wedding. Also, Halloween is her favorite holiday. There's a Roaring '20s theme and the cake will be in the shape of a Cheshire cat inspired by the book "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." The cake will be chocolate, with raspberry filling.

"That way, when you cut it, it looks like it's bleeding," Kostovny said.

Kostovny -- or "Bonnie," as Kelso calls her -- is a small woman with black hair and penetrating eyes. When talking about her upcoming wedding, she tilts her head to the side and, in a tone adoring and childlike, says things brides will about grooms.

"No matter how bad things are, Ian will always do something really stupid that makes me laugh. Always," she says. "The way he acts just makes me smile."

Leaning forward to explain, she lowers her voice to a whisper and, grinning like a woman in love, says, "He's so goofy! He gets really excited to watch [the television sitcom comedy] 'Scrubs.' And it makes me laugh, because, it's 'Scrubs!' It's like seven years old."

Then, still in her living room, she leans back and continues talking about Kelso.

"He is, without a doubt, my rock," she says. "He has been my voice of reason when I didn't want to have one. He has been my strength when I wanted to give up. He's been my whipping post and, I don't like saying that, but he's had to experience it all. ... But I know that if we've made it through this, marriage is going to be easy."

Their marriage begins Saturday. There will be flowers, family, friends and probably tears. And after Kelso takes Kostovny's left wrist -- the one she had tattooed over with a hummingbird to cover the scars -- he'll slide a ring down her finger and they'll begin a new life together.

A life when maybe, unprovoked and out of nowhere, smiles bend across her face.

Reach reporter William Browning at (307) 266-0534 or at william.browning@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @wtbrowning.

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