Once Wrongly Imprisoned, Gary Dotson Can't Stay Free

updated 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

I feel like I'm in a revolving door," cried Gary Dotson, red-eyed and trembling in the Calumet City, Ill., jail. In fact the 30-year-old Dotson may have gone around at least one time too often. Since acquiring a strange kind of celebrity in 1985, when the woman he had been convicted of raping recanted the accusation that had sent him to prison, Dotson has tried in vain to escape his past. Freed on parole after serving six years on the rape conviction, which the state did not drop, Dotson ricocheted through a series of well-publicized scrapes with the law, most of which involved drinking. Last September, following a boozy domestic dispute, he was ordered back to prison. Then, on Christmas Eve, Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, responding to pleas on Dotson's behalf, granted him a "last chance" parole. One more transgression, Thompson warned, and the state's most controversial parolee would be returned to prison to serve out the remaining 16 years of his sentence for a rape his supposed victim says never happened.

Two days later Dotson and his brother-in-law Terry Nash dropped by a Calumet City dive called the Zig Zag Tavern. There was a fight with the club's cook, Mary Slaughter, 67, and Dotson was arrested on the spot. "I can't go on this way," Dotson screamed later, bolting from his chair and smashing his fist against the jail-house wall. "I have no one to talk to. No one understands what I've been through. I can't take any more. I can't handle the pain. I want to end it all."

Indeed, Dotson seems unable to halt the self-destructive cycle that has led him to squander the chances offered by the Illinois criminal justice system to reclaim his freedom. Back in March 1985, the former landscape gardener's luck seemed to have changed when his alleged victim, Cathleen Crowell Webb, came forward to declare him innocent. By then a 23-year-old New Hampshire housewife and mother of two, Webb said her newfound Christian faith had given her the courage to admit she had falsely accused Dotson to cover up a possible pregnancy by a boyfriend. Nonetheless, the trial judge found Webb's original testimony more convincing than her recantation and reaffirmed Dotson's conviction. Governor Thompson agreed but commuted Dotson's sentence to time served and paroled him.

For Dotson the new opportunity was short-lived. If he went into prison a pariah, he came out a reluctant media star who dutifully mouthed before the cameras, sat for the talk shows and signed a movie option on his story. But strangers who'd seen him on TV still walked up and asked him whether he really had raped Webb, and reporters had a story anytime he took a wrong turn—which was often. "I didn't know what I was feeling or how I was supposed to react to things," recalls Dotson. "I was sent to prison before I had a chance to grow, and I wanted to try to sort things out and find myself." Floundering for a source of stability, Dotson eloped in November 1985, with Camille Dardanes, a 21-year-old bartender who, after following Dotson's case in the media, had presented him with a white carnation at his clemency hearing.

But marriage didn't end Dotson's turmoil. His $5,500 share of a movie advance and the $17,500 Webb gave him from royalties on her autobiography were eaten up by a Las Vegas honeymoon and new furniture. While Camille took a job as a waitress, Dotson couldn't find steady work. Employers refused to return his calls when he left his name, he says. His car broke down, his movie deal fell through, and he and Camille were evicted from their apartment and had to move in with his mother. Last January the birth of his daughter, Ashley, only seemed to heighten the stress. "I felt like a failure," says Gary. "We got married too soon," admits Camille. "The pressure kept building, and the only way he knew how to cope was to get drunk. Then all his anger and bitterness came out."

A problem drinker since the age of 15, Dotson now began to rack up various alcohol-related traffic violations. Following a drunk-driving conviction a year ago, he was sentenced to an alcohol-treatment program, but the cure didn't take. "It was a catch-22," Dotson explains. "I was always so worried about doing something wrong and being sent back to prison that the pressure made me drink. And the more I drank, the more I screwed up." Last August, Camille swore a complaint against him for assaulting her and threatening the baby. She later tried to withdraw the charges, and the judge dismissed the case, but the parole board nevertheless voted to send Dotson back to Dixon Correctional Center to serve out his rape sentence.

When he was released again Christmas Eve, Dotson had been taking an antidepressant drug prescribed by a prison psychiatrist. But the medication apparently wasn't enough to help him cope with life on the outside. Returning to his mother's house, he was met once again by a pack of reporters. After answering their questions, he phoned Camille, who told him she had filed for divorce. It was, says Dotson, the final blow. "All the time I was in prison, I was holding on to my dreams about my wife and daughter," he says. "Then suddenly it was taken from me just when I was released. I needed to talk to my wife, and she wasn't there for me."

It was in this distraught state, Dotson says, that he set off with Nash and ended up at the Zig Zag. Witnesses dispute Slaughter's claim that Dotson assaulted her, and some regulars suspect that Dotson is being blamed to keep the violence-prone bar from losing its license. Dotson now faces a court hearing Feb. 2 and yet another appearance before the prisoner review board, which could return him to prison until the year 2003.

Dotson's family and friends blame his troubles on the lingering stigma of his rape conviction. "He's never been able to shake the label of rapist," says his mother, Barbara. "If the Governor had pardoned him, he might have been able to get his thoughts and life together. They took a young man's life and turned it inside out. I only hope the day will come when they can prove he was innocent of the crime." Webb has said that she still feels guilty about Dotson and is upset by his continuing troubles.

Dotson's lawyer, Thomas Breen, has filed a motion requiring the state of Illinois to release Webb's semen-stained underpants for a new DNA matching, or "fingerprinting," test. Breen says he hopes to prove conclusively that the semen could not have been Dotson's. "I want to keep up my hope that my name will finally be cleared," says Dotson. "But it is hard to keep hoping when you're treated like this for something you didn't do. No one knows what it's like to have to live the role of the guilty man, knowing that you are innocent. There's more to life than what I've been getting, but I can't find it."

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