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A Victim's Life Sentence

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In a nation beset by violent crime, even the most spectacularly vicious acts often fade quickly from the public consciousness, as if some sort of collective repression simply buries images too ghastly to retain. Certain horrors, however, seize the imagination and provoke public outrage years after the hideous drama has been concluded.

Nine years ago, Larry Singleton was convicted of raping 15-year-old Mary Vincent, hacking her forearms off and leaving her for dead in a California canyon. It was an act so barbaric that it was never forgotten; when Singleton, now 60, was paroled last year, he was hounded out of one community after another. Not one town would have him, and the outcry forced him to accept refuge within the walls of San Quentin Prison, where he remained for the duration of his parole.

On April 25, Singleton will leave San Quentin for the last time. He has served eight years and four months of his 14-year sentence and with time off for good behavior, he will be free to settle in any community that will accept him. Although a jury found the evidence against him compelling, Singleton swears that he is innocent; and in a bizarre show of denial, he is filing a complaint against his victim—charging her with “forcible kidnap for the purposes of robbery.” If nothing else, the move will lessen the already-slim chance that Singleton will be able to slip back into obscurity: Presenting himself as the victim in Placer County Superior Court will only remind angry Californians that one of the most despised convicts in the state’s history is free and unrepentant.

Lost in the fury that has surrounded her attacker is the awful plight of 24-year-old Mary Vincent, whose life since the attack has been a daily struggle with her physical and psychological wounds. Emerging from years of seclusion to talk about her ordeal, Mary insisted on conditions of extreme secrecy and seemed distraught and fearful. It was painfully obvious that while Singleton may have paid his legal debt to society, his victim had been sentenced to an indefinite term of suffering. Living on welfare in a small town in the northwestern U.S., where few know her history, she has not found God or been rescued by a good man or signed a sweet deal with an ambulance-chasing film producer. Consumed by anger, haunted by cold-sweat dreams in which “the accident,” as she calls it, spins itself out in terrible detail, she has been crippled by a sense of defeat: She considered suicide, she said, but rejected the idea because “I’d chicken out, and a part of me would feel like ‘I can’t even do that right.’ ” She could talk haltingly about the psychic aftershocks of her experience, but could not offer any tidy morals. Although she said her son, now 18 months, has given her a reason to live, her spirit seemed to have been destroyed. “I’ll never get over this,” she said.

When she climbed into Larry Singleton’s blue van on Sept. 29, 1978, Mary Vincent was a fresh-faced, dark-haired kid who was growing up too quickly. Raised in fast-and-loose Las Vegas—where mother Lucy was a casino dealer and father Herb a gambling-machine repairman—she had frustrated her strict parents by cutting classes, wearing makeup and running away from home. Part of that summer had been spent in Sausalito, Calif., where she lived with her boyfriend in his car; when he was arrested for allegedly raping a high school girl, Mary had gone back on the road—taking refuge, at times, with an uncle in the small village of Soquel, Calif. She said goodbye to her uncle that morning and later decided to hitchhike the 400 or so miles south to Corona, Calif., where her grandfather lived.

The driver who picked her up in Berkeley, Calif., that torpid afternoon was a balding, middle-age man whose blue jumpsuit was stretched over a generous beer paunch. A merchant seaman, Larry Singleton was a heavy drinker who had been convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Mild-tempered enough when he was sober, he turned into a vengeful Mr. Hyde when he’d had enough to drink. He had spent much of his time on the high seas, and his episodic family life was marked by frustration: After a divorce from his wife Shirley in 1971, hewed Mary Collins, a nurse, in 1976. Although the two would remain friends, their marriage fell apart after just two years. At the beginning of the summer, Larry had quarreled fiercely with daughter Debra—a defiant teenager who resisted his attempts at discipline—and he was still distraught. “He just didn’t seem to find any sense in living,” his ex-wife would say later. Mary’s account of what happened after she met Singleton is taken from information she later gave to law enforcement officers. Telling the young hitchhiker he was actually headed to Reno, he promised to make an improbable detour and drop her in Los Angeles. Blithely settling in for the ride, Mary pulled out a cigarette; the smoke made her sneeze, and she felt a hand on the back of her neck. “Let’s see if you’re sick,” Singleton said, pulling her toward him. Irritated at being hit on so soon and so crudely, she jerked away and settled against the door out of his reach.

A runaway with street smarts might have been alarmed, but for all of her wanderings, Mary was dangerously naive. Singleton told her he wanted to stop at his house near San Francisco to pick up some laundry; she agreed to help him tote the bundles to the van, and, although he began drinking from a milk carton filled with liquor as soon as they were back on the road, she trustingly fell asleep.

Only when she awoke did the situation become clear: Singleton’s voice had grown more strident, and the road signs indicated they were going in the wrong direction, heading straight toward Nevada. Angered, she felt around her seat until she found a long, pointed stick; she brandished it at Larry. “I can take care of myself,” she said in her thin, little-girl voice. “Turn around right now.” To her surprise, he did as she ordered. “I’m just an honest man who made an honest mistake,” he said. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”

The nightmare began when Singleton pulled off the freeway soon after sunset and followed a deserted road down a canyon, saying he had to go to the bathroom. Mary relieved herself by the side of the road, and as she was tying her sneaker, she felt a crushing blow across her back. A second punch exploded against the back of her head. With one hand, Singleton slid open the van door and shoved her inside. “Don’t scream or I’ll kill you,” he said.

Within seconds, Mary was lying in the back of the van, her hands tied behind her. When the sexual assault was over, he left her on the floor of the van; heaving himself stark naked into the driver’s seat, he drove a few miles down the canyon road before stopping again. Cutting her hands loose, he told her he would set her free if she obeyed him. She was presented with a cupful of liquor: “Drink it or I’ll kill you,” he ordered.

Raped a second time, stunned by terror and alcohol, Mary passed out. When she came to, Singleton told her to get out and lie on the edge of the road. Terrified, she heard him go to the van, rummage around a little and then walk back. Grabbing her left hand, he screamed, “You want to be free? I’ll set you free.” The ax fell first on Mary’s left arm, then her right. Screaming, she told herself it would be better if she could only throw up and die.

She was shoved down a steep embankment and stuffed into a concrete pipe. But Mary Vincent didn’t die. Next morning, she was discovered by chance by a couple who had missed the freeway entrance. Naked, holding up her arms to slow the blood loss and keep the muscles from slipping out, she had walked almost three miles from the spot where she had been dumped.

Years later, before she begins to talk, Mary seeks confirmation that the name of the small town where she lives will not be disclosed. Despite the reassuring presence of her sister Vanessa, she seems ready to bolt from the room at any moment. She smokes almost constantly, holding a cigarette between the metal pincers of her prosthesis; her voice is nearly inaudible at times, and her large black eyes brim with tears as she talks about putting her life back together after “the accident.” Only son Luke makes her relax a little; she picks him up expertly, even when she has shrugged out of her arm harness. When he drops his white teddy bear, Mary casually reaches over with her bare foot, picks it up with her toes, and tosses it into a chair.

Learning to function without her hands, she says, was painful: “I wanted to totally give up. But whenever I said, ‘I can’t do it, I won’t do it and I don’t want to,’ a very stubborn hospital therapist would say, ‘You can, you will and you must.’ ” While she is now skilled enough to shoot pool and write, quotidian tasks can still be trying. “There are times when it takes an hour or two to get myself together in the morning because I get so frustrated that I cannot stop crying,” she says.

Mary’s emotional recovery has been slowed by the sensational nature of her ordeal: Five months after she was released from the hospital, she was required to appear in court when Singleton was tried on charges of rape, sodomy, oral copulation, kidnapping, mayhem and attempted murder. With Mary present, the recording of Singleton’s statement to police at the time of his arrest was played in court. He said that the girl was a hard-bitten runaway who smoked “reefers” and threatened to maim him and accuse him of rape if he refused to drive her to L.A. According to Singleton, she had sex with two other scruffy hitchhikers (whom he assumes later attacked her), then offered to have sex with him as well.

The 15-year-old took the stand and testified in a firm voice, but she couldn’t look at Larry Singleton. In describing the rapes, she said, “I hurted. I hurted.”

In the years that followed, while Singleton was doing his time in prison, Mary and her family were falling apart. Living in Las Vegas, where Herb and Lucy sent her to a school for the handicapped, she began seeing a psychiatrist. As therapy brought up unpleasant memories, “she started getting wild again,” says Lucy. Herb began collecting guns and fabricating plots to kill Singleton; there were loud arguments, and finally the family splintered. Herb eventually retreated to Alaska, Lucy stayed in Las Vegas, and their seven children scattered throughout Nevada and the Northwest.

After she graduated from high school, Mary stayed in Las Vegas, struggling against her sense of isolation. “When this happened, all my old friends—everything just changed. I ended up having a different set of friends. [The old ones] just hated me or they were so uncomfortable that they couldn’t deal with it. I felt like a public spectacle…. They always said, ‘Oh, you’re the girl who had that accident.’ ”

Her attempts to find a sense of meaning were fruitless. For a time, she says, “I went around talking in schools, telling kids not to hitchhike. I gave it up after a while because some people were making very rude comments and saying, ‘Hey, that won’t happen to me.’ I just couldn’t let them drag me down.”

Over the years, Mary’s psychic wounds have festered. Joining victims’ groups simply didn’t help, she says. “They didn’t realize I was bottling it up inside, so they told me that nothing was wrong with me.” In turn, psychologists “were telling me that it was harder for my family to deal with what had happened than it was for me,” she says. “No one at the time knew how to deal with it. It was the first time they had experienced someone like me…. After a while, I just stopped going.”

Her fitful relationships with men have been tainted by a deep, undying anger. “I don’t think too highly of them anymore,” she says. “Luke’s father, he understood me, and I basically understood him, but he is like [other] people who want to care about somebody who went through a bad trauma: They can’t cope with the hurt that goes on inside me or any other victim.”

Dr. Chris Hatcher, a San Francisco psychologist who is an expert on victimization and forensics, observes that a victim’s psychological ordeal resembles those of others touched by violent crime. “They have a profound sense of isolation,” says Dr. Hatcher. “They have experienced the unimaginable and are reminded of it constantly. Often they’re approached by individuals who are interested in the crime or find the fact that they have undergone the experience sexually attractive…. Almost all victims are able to achieve some recovery; but almost every crisis will bring forward a resurgence of their fear.”

Mary has found comfort where she could—in her relationship with her landlady, who helps her care for Luke; in her new friends; in her carefully protected anonymity. Others in the small community where she lives are unaware of her connection to Singleton and his crime. “Most people,” she says, “know me because of who I am, not just what happened to me…. They just assume I was born this way.”

She believes that, to them, she is simply a handicapped single mother besotted with her small son. If she dreads Singleton’s release from prison, she says, it is not because she fears for herself, but for Luke. “I don’t want anything to happen to him,” she says firmly. “I treasure him like life itself. He is my life.”

It seems inevitable that, at some point, her son will want to know about Larry Singleton. “I’ll just tell him the truth,” Mary says. “And I’ll teach him not to be so trusting.”

Guarded around the clock, Singleton has spent his last year on parole in a trailer on the grounds of San Quentin, living comfortably under a 10 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew. He was able to go out two to three times a week for groceries and an occasional movie—paid for by his disability benefits and occasional gifts of cash sent by his family. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and he acknowledges the role that drinking has played in his life. But in his vastly distorted memory and rationalization of his crimes against Mary Vincent, he betrays the madness in which those crimes must be rooted.

In the days after he was arrested, Singleton says, he searched his conscience, “thinking that, just possibly, I was guilty of this heinous crime. Just thinking, ‘How did the blood get on my clothes and hatchet?’ ” He says he felt “revulsion” when he considered the notion that he might have attacked the girl in an alcoholic haze, and claims to have been cowed by Mary’s threat to accuse him of rape. “I was so afraid of the rape charge,” he says. “[I wondered,] ‘Did this trigger violence in me?’ ”

Eventually, Singleton concluded that he, rather than Mary, had been the victim. That feeling has only been heightened by his imprisonment. “I wouldn’t be a normal human being,” he says, “if I didn’t work myself into a rage when I think of how I was treated in the courts and also in the media. I have spent 10 years of my life in prison, each day being taunted and threatened.”

His bitterness, he says, is not toward Mary. “I have compassion for the girl…. I have compassion for her family.” Indeed, Singleton says he found it difficult to file his complaint against her. “I almost vomited three times, and I couldn’t sleep [for] several nights,” he says. He did so, he claims, because it was the only way to clear his name.

As outrageous as Singleton’s complaint may be, it has a certain logic, according to Dr. Hatcher: “It’s not uncommon” for a criminal to file a complaint against his victim. “It’s the sort of extreme denial that says it’s really the victim’s fault.”

At the moment, it isn’t certain where Singleton will head when he claims his freedom; he would like to stay in California, and, in advance of his release, no community leaders were threatening to turn him away. That is not to say, of course, that he won’t confront another angry rejection.

Singleton says he understands how his opponents feel. If Mary Vincent’s attacker moved in next door to him, he says, “I would react the way any normal American would—I wouldn’t talk to him. But I don’t think it’s proper to burn crosses in front of people’s houses or put spotlights on their apartment and attract a lynch mob. If that is the American way, I’m living in the wrong country.”

—By Michelle Green, with Dianna Waggoner and Maria Wilhelm in San Francisco