SITTING IN THE TINY COURT-room in Gouverneur, N.Y., Krista Absalon felt a sickening sense of dejection. It was June 1993, 19 months after she was allegedly gang-raped by five men she had considered her friends. Yet Absalon was unconscious at the time. She had passed out after an evening of drinking and recalled nothing of the attack. Moreover there was no physical evidence, so even though four of the men had confessed to the assault, the local district attorney allowed them to plead guilty to reduced charges of "sexual misconduct." The final indignity came when local magistrate Judge Wallace Sibley, a fertilizer salesman four days of the week, meted out punishment: Each of the defendants was to pay a fine of $840. Period. Absalon's family and friends erupted. "The room went wild," says Absalon, a hospital lab technician. "I screamed, 'That's if?' "
Thanks to her outrage, it wasn't. Absalon, now 27, told her story to the national media and, thanks to her protests, the case was reopened. The first trial was declared invalid when the local court was ruled to lack jurisdiction, and her attackers have now been charged with first-degree rape. Absalon, who is divorced and now lives 2 hours from Gouverneur with her two young children, will get another chance at justice this fall—and she's counting the minutes. "It's hard seeing those guys—who have never apologized to me—out shoveling a driveway or walking down my street," she says.
Absalon was looking to forget her troubles when she headed out on a chilly October night in 1991 with a boyfriend for the Casablanca, a local bar. Feeling depressed after work—her boss had denied her a raise, and she was battling her ex-husband for custody of their son and daughter—Absalon says she "was on a mission to drown my sorrows." Her bartender friend Mario Pistolesi, now 31, son of the Casablanca's owner, was happy to contribute free kamikazes—concoctions of vodka, lime juice and triple sec. Around midnight her date went to his truck, where he passed out. Absalon also passed out, in the ladies room, around 2:30 a.m. The next thing she remembers, she says, is thanking her friends Greg Streeter, 29, and David Cummings, 30, for giving her a ride home.
A week later she began to hear the gossip: Pistolesi, Streeter, Cummings and two others—Mike Curcio, now 25, and Mark Hartle, 29—all of whom she knew, were bragging that they had had sex with her. Absalon confronted Pistolesi, whose response—"If you don't remember, nothing happened"—left her devastated. "I didn't want to get out of bed," she says.
Although uncertain exactly what had happened at the Casablanca, Absalon called state police, who quickly obtained four confessions. After finding Absalon unconscious, her attackers admitted, they had carried her to a booth in the empty bar, undressed her and raped her, taking breaks to eat sandwiches and drink beer. Absalon came to once or twice, according to the defendants, but never seemed aware of her plight. "I've felt very guilty about this," Hartle told police. "I wouldn't want anyone doing it to my sister."
Incredibly, sentiment in the town of 4,600 wasn't with the victim. "Her family and friends care, I guess, but the town isn't exactly breaking up too much over this," says one patron at Jumbo's Dinette on Main Street. As Absalon ruefully recalls, "People said, 'Well, she was drunk,' or they talked about what I was wearing—which happened to be a long-sleeved shirt and baggy jeans." If there was sympathy, she says, it was for the Casablanca's owner, who lost his liquor license for failing to exercise proper control over the premises. When DA Richard Manning decided to plea-bargain with the men, only Absalon and a few friends hit the roof. "Krista was victimized twice: first by those men and then by the justice system," says Sharon Fawley, president of the New York state chapter of the National Organization for Women, who attended a rally in support of Absalon. Absalon expected the five men to get at least some jail time. Judge Sibley decided otherwise. To this day, Manning defends his decision to get a plea bargain, arguing that the five could have been acquitted in a trial and that he at least got them to admit their involvement. "I don't blame her for being upset about the sentence, but I had nothing to do with that," says Manning. "I think I did justice. I know I did justice."
The defendants, certainly, were pleased by the outcome and evidently thought their troubles were over. One of them, Mike Curcio, was bold enough to talk to NBC's NOW program. "The truth is, it was a gang bang," he blithely told a reporter. "Gang bangs have been going on since the turn of the century."
Their sense of freedom, however, was short-lived. Once Absalon began giving speeches to women's groups and rape-awareness organizations and granting interviews, the case came to the attention of state officials. The problem was how to put the five on trial again without trampling the constitutional guarantee against double jeopardy. A special prosecutor determined that the town court, which is supposed to handle relatively minor offenses, lacked authority to take the case in the first place. In April 1994 the New York state supreme court agreed, ruling that the first trial was null and void and that a new prosecution could proceed.
This time the five defendants—none of whom would speak with PEOPLE—will be divided into three groups for trial, and prosecutors will be allowed to introduce the confessions of only three of the men. (Mario Pistolesi's statement has been suppressed because his request for a lawyer during questioning was denied; David Cummings acknowledged that the rape took place but denied participating in it.) The evidence against the accused seems compelling. But Absalon and her family are far from certain there will ever be a guilty verdict. "We don't take it for granted they'll be convicted," says Krista's sister Clover, 39. And no matter what the outcome, the family is bracing for a wrenching experience—Absalon will likely have to testify and be cross-examined. "We can't stand being in the same room with those five in the first place," says her sister Robin, 33. "It's not going to be easy."
Their apprehension is probably well-founded, since the defense appears determined to mount a vigorous attack on Absalon's credibility. "I've never met anyone who enjoyed being cross-examined," says Mary Fahey, the lawyer for Mario Pistolesi. "And I'm very good at it." The defense case will plainly also be helped by the absence of physical evidence and the fact that Absalon herself has no memory of the attack. If convicted, the five defendants could face 25-year sentences, and Absalon has filed a $4 million civil suit against the five men and the restaurant.
The prospect that she may be vindicated in court has relieved Krista of some of her anger and anguish. She no longer spends hours sobbing in her bathroom, she says, and she has sworn off the sleeping pills she used in a suicide attempt last year. Her reason for moving away from Gouverneur: partly to be with a new boyfriend and partly to rid herself of the label of rape victim. The approaching trial weighs heavily on her mind. "I'm scared—I don't deny that," she says. "But I want it over with. I'm trying to make a new start. I want this to be part of my past."
MARIA EFTIMIADES in Gouverneur
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