Man’s conviction plays a part in victim’s healing

Jennifer Niemela

Editor’s note: The full names of some people in this story are withheld to protect the victims’ privacy and safety.

Clara hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in almost 15 months.
However, Antonio Burton’s conviction Friday of rape, burglary and robbery will allow Clara, a robbery victim in the Oct. 8, 1996, Elmwood Apartment crimes, to begin a healing process separate from the court proceedings.
Burton’s trial was one of the last judicial proceedings for the four men implicated for breaking into the three women’s apartment to burglarize it as they slept. The women were awakened and Burton raped Clara’s two roommates while she lay on the floor next to them. Burton is scheduled to receive his sentence on April 16.
“I’m up at night sitting by myself and staring at the wall and trying to make sense of it, and sometimes it’s comforting and sometimes I think I’m going insane. But you start to realize it’s not your fault,” Clara said. With the trial finally finished, she said over spring break she plans to relax, regulate her sleeping patterns and try to move on with her life.
Clara said she felt vindicated when Burton was found guilty of all 11 counts; she said the other men’s sentences were too short. Puiassance Andersen was found guilty of four counts of aiding and abetting burglary and sentenced to 12 years and 10 months.
Giezwa Andersen and Victor Porter plea bargained in exchange for agreeing to testify against Burton. Neither were called as witnesses. Porter received one year and was released after eight months for good behavior. Giezwa Andersen is currently serving a five-year sentence.
“This finally closes the book on the justice system side of it all,” Clara said. “It doesn’t erase it from your mind, though. As soon as I found out, I stepped into a whole different side of it. We’ve been waiting for 16 months since it happened. You finally get what you want.”
The 21-year-old former University student, now a sophomore at another university, said she was nervous none of the men would be found guilty for the rapes. Burton’s defense attorney contended that Puiassance Andersen committed the rapes. He claimed the evidence of Burton’s DNA found on one of the women’s sweater vest outside the building was urine, not semen.
“Anything less I wouldn’t have been satisfied with,” Clara said. “I had a bad feeling that nobody would be found responsible for what happened that night fully. You have those doubts with three down and one to go. It finally shows that something can go right.”
October 8, 1996
Moving into an apartment was a significant step for Clara.
Three months before Clara and two friends from high school moved into their first apartment, her father was killed in a car accident.
“I moved out to be close to the U but be close to home,” said Clara, who grew up in a metro-area suburb. “I was moving on with my life.”
The back door of the second-level apartment hadn’t been locking properly. On the night of Oct. 7, 1996, Clara went to bed around 11:00 p.m. before her roommates, who shared the other bedroom, got home. So when she woke up to the noise of people moving around at 3:00 a.m., she didn’t think anything of it at first.
“I thought it was (one roommate) coming home late again,” she said. “Then all of a sudden it’s like, Oh, who are you?’ Roll over on your stomach.’ Okay.’ He stuck a knife in the back of my neck, demanded money, kept me pressed to the bed.”
The men entered Clara’s room first because it was closest to the back door, but quickly awoke the other two women and led them into Clara’s room. The men kept the women’s heads either pushed down or covered with blankets during the entire incident, so the women never saw the men’s faces.
“I knew it was four guys,” Clara said. “I had no doubt in my mind how many voices there were because I was counting them. That’s the only thing I could do because every time I tried to look up, they’d push my head back down.”
The women were laid on their stomachs side by side on the floor. Their heads were covered with blankets. Clara said she knew she was on the end farthest from the door because she could see one roommate’s leg next to her and could hear her other roommate farther down.
“I thought they were going to kill us. I never thought they were going to rape us,” she said, adding that when she realized Burton was going to sexually assault her roommates, “I thought, Oh my God, they’re going to rape us. OK, so we’re not going to die. OK, which one do I want?’
“(My two roommates) were assaulted, and I honestly don’t know why I wasn’t. You know you’re next because it’s (one roommate) and then (the next) and then you know you’re next. It’s like being in a cell with four concrete walls, there’s no way to get out of it.
“I prayed. I prayed to my dad. I prayed the whole time (my roommates) were getting assaulted and your body goes into total numbness.”
Clara said she credits one roommate with getting the men out of the apartment. When the men would ask the women questions, like whether they had boyfriends, the women were so shocked they wouldn’t answer. But finally her roommate offered to give the men her cash card and car if they’d leave.
“She’s my hero,” Clara said. “I credit her with getting us out of there alive and in one piece. She was like, Take everything. Here’s my five-digit PIN number.’ She just took the chance of if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
“Within 10 minutes they were gone. It was like, wow, you just never thought it was going to end. We never thought they were going to leave.”
The men had been in the apartment less than 30 minutes.
After the men left, the women stayed on the floor for a minute or so, afraid the men would come back. Clara got up to put her glasses on and quickly laid back down. She wasn’t sure if they had left. After what she said felt like an hour, she got up.
“It was so scary taking that first step out of my room,” she said. “I didn’t know if they were still standing there. That was the scariest step I ever took.”
The aftermath
When the three women testified at Burton’s trial last week, it was the first time they’d been in the same room together since the break-in. Even during Puiassance Andersen’s trial, the busy schedules of the three young women prevented them all from testifying on the same day.
It’s time-consuming to be a witness in a rape trial.
Clara, who had to skip up to four days of classes per week to make the drive from her school to Minneapolis to testify in Burton’s trial, said she’d probably have to drop her classes this semester because of the trial.
“It takes a week or two to really get in that (trial) mindset,” she said. “It really takes over your life.”
Clara transferred to a different university this spring to escape from the memories of the incident; that was the right decision, she said. However, if she had stayed at the University — whose police department was involved in investigating the incident — her adviser would have known about the trials and it would’ve been easier to work her academic schedule around the trials.
As it is, she hasn’t told any of her professors at her current school about the Burton trial. “They think I’m a lunatic. It sucks. It really takes over your whole life.”
While transferring schools might have been an escape from the geographic reminders of the crime, there are certain aspects of the aftermath from which escape is impossible. For example, Clara’s sleep patterns are erratic; she doesn’t fall asleep until very late at night and therefore can’t register for morning classes because she needs to sleep all morning.
“It happened while I was sleeping, and you’re supposed to be safe while you’re in bed. You think in the morning everything will be fine,” she said.
Clara said it was difficult to come to grips with being the one who wasn’t sexually assaulted. She experiences a sort of survivor’s guilt and constantly wonders why she wasn’t next after her two roommates were assaulted.
“I feel like I was mentally raped, because I had to be there when they were, and it’s a very hard thing to sit through,” she said. “Your best friends are going through this and you’re like, Wow, I can’t do anything.’ You’re so hopeless and helpless.”
Starting to heal
Right after the incident, Clara moved back to her mother’s house. For the next six months she didn’t do much of anything except try to deal with the emotional aftermath. It was difficult for her because her family was still dealing with her father’s death.
“To bring home another tragedy was very difficult,” she said. “I haven’t involved my mother in any of this because she’s still dealing with that. Instead, I reached out for my resources.”
Clara said she has relied on friends for support. However, the never-ending journey toward healing is travelled largely by her alone. She is optimistic about the future, though.
Right before Puiassance Andersen’s trial, Clara took a vacation to Arizona to clear her mind and visit relatives.
“I was like, wow, this is so peaceful and I could still enjoy it,” she said. “Those are the times you realize you’re just glad you made it through. You realize you can’t let it take control of your life. I didn’t die, so that’s good. You still have things to look forward to in life.”
The ordeal has affected Clara’s life in a positive way as well. Before the incident she had planned to go into journalism, but now she wants to be a police detective.
“I wasn’t going to help anyone as a writer,” she said. “I mean you can report what happened, or you can go in and help the victim. You can’t put a guard at the door of every house, but you can do what you can to help after.”
Now that the trials are over, Clara said she’ll be able to concentrate her energies on healing herself. She realizes this is something she’ll have to deal with for the rest of her life. Even now, she can’t watch a violent scene in a movie without turning it off or turning away.
It’s also affected some of her relationships. Six weeks ago, she and her boyfriend of two years broke up largely because he couldn’t understand the emotional whirlwind she experiences everyday as a result of the crime.
There were times before she moved away from Minneapolis that she thought this would sink her.
“I just wanted to get in my truck and drive and drive and drive,” she said. “I didn’t know where I was going to go.”
But Clara said she knows she’ll make it through the erratic punches her emotions will throw at her. Her roommates and friends at her new school have been a good support network and made things normal for her. She’ll probably even move back to Minneapolis someday.
“We’re OK, and that’s what’s good,” she said. “We just want to get on with our lives. Nobody was hurt so bad that we couldn’t move on.”