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Battle of the Bobbitts

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NOT SINCE THE TWO CIVIL WAR BATTLES THAT gave the town its initial reputation for gore has Manassas, Va., seen such internecine frenzy—and back then housewives weren’t hawking “Manassas—A Cut Above the Rest,” T-shirts at 10 bucks a pop. As the assault trial of John Wayne Bobbitt unfolded last week, this usually placid town 30 miles west of Washington was transformed. Area radio stations played a song that went, “She could have just trashed my car, but she went too far,” while armies of spectators and reporters lined up outside the Prince William County Court House to gawk at the man with the reattached penis—and the woman who had disattached it in the first place. “We’ve really been inundated,” says weary circuit-court administrator Bob Marsh, who had to install extra phone lines. “There’s never been anything like this.”

In the he-said, she-said annals of marital discord, the case of Lorena and John Bobbitt—in which she sliced off her husband’s member with an eight-inch kitchen knife because, she claims, he repeatedly forced sex on her—is already one of the most memorable. John, 26, a former nightclub host, was the first to go on trial, charged with marital sexual assault. After four hours of deliberation, a jury of nine women and three men returned a verdict of not guilty. “I just want to get on with my life,” said a relieved John. “I’ve got a lot of healing to do.” Lorena, 24, a manicurist, faces her own trial at the end of the month on felony charges of malicious wounding. But if men and women nationwide have seized upon the Bobbitts’ story as a symbol of the battle between the sexes, the intimate truths of the couple’s bloody encounter remain to be seen. As prosecutor Paul Ebert conceded, “No one was in that bedroom. No one knows except those two parties what went on.”

Both sides described a troubled marriage in which neither partner was entirely blameless. Lorena, a Venezuelan immigrant who came to America in 1986, wore a sedate navy-and-white dress as she told the court that only after years of abuse had she taken a knife to the man she married in 1989. “He told me forced sex excited him,” the 5’2″, 93-pound Lorena testified tearfully, while John, sitting nearby in a gray suit and yellow tie, just shook his head. She said that on June 23, John, a 175-pound ex-Marine, returned drunk to their Manassas apartment and overpowered her. Afterward, she said, she ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife. Returning to the bedroom, she told the court, she pulled back the sheets on her sleeping husband and “cut it.”

John Bobbitt’s lawyer, Greg Murphy, insisted that the couple had a powerful sexual attraction—and a consensual sexual relationship. “John may not be the most sensitive lover,” admitted Murphy. “He may not understand foreplay.” But, he maintained, Bobbitt did not assault his wife. Murphy portrayed Lorena as a money-grubbing publicity seeker who, after attacking her husband, hired a media consultant who arranged her appearances on ABC’s 20/20 and in Vanity Fair. And during the trial she admitted that as she fled the house after attacking her husband, she swiped a houseguest’s Nintendo Game Boy off a table.

When John took the stand, he transfixed the courtroom audience with his description of the moment he was cut. He acknowledged he had been out barhopping but said that when he returned home he fell asleep in the middle of making love with his wife. Moments later, he was rudely awakened. “I fell a pull,” Bobbitt testified. “It hurl real bad. I wanted to scream. I didn’t know what had happened.” At that point, according to both sides, Lorena ran out of the apartment, knife in one hand, severed penis in the other, and John, bleeding profusely, had the houseguest, Robert Johnson, drive him to Prince William Hospital. Within hours a contrite Lorena helped police locate the missing member by the side of a road, where she had tossed it while driving frantically away, and it was reattached during nine hours of microsurgery.

Though Bobbitt denied ever forcing sex on his wife, he may not have been a model husband. Prosecutor Ebert presented him with a piece of paper listing names of women Bobbitt had allegedly slept with. Bobbitt admitted only to having “been associated” with them. And he denied, as Ebert claimed, that he had used the list to taunt his wife. “It was my own private copy,” said Bobbitt. “I didn’t show it to her.”

Supporting Lorena’s version of events, prosecution witness Steven Rogue, a court counselor, testified that Lorena had come to his office just days before the attack asking about getting a restraining order against her husband, who she said had abused her.

The Bobbitts, not surprisingly, have filed for divorce. John is regaining sensation in his penis and may, doctors believe, even be able to have intercourse again. But his troubles are far from over. Last week it was revealed that Beatrice Williams, 21, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., Bobbitt’s hometown, had filed a paternity suit claiming that Bobbitt is the father of her 10-month-old son, which Bobbitt denies. Lorena, meanwhile, continues giving manicures as she awaits trial. Even prosecutor Ebert finds it difficult to defend her wholeheartedly. “You might say,” he told the jury last week, “that from the onset these two people deserved each other.”

ELIZABETH GLEICK

ROCHELLE JONES in Manassas