I expected jail and lawsuits and that my husband would leave me,” she remembers. She expected physical attacks. She expected attempts at revenge. Most of all she expected to be believed. “I naively thought that if you do what’s right it would all work out,” she says, but now she knows it didn’t.
Instead of being imprisoned for perjury, she was wooed in a wider world than she had ever known by media eager to tell her story. The only assaults on her were made by photographers, reporters and schedulers for TV shows competing for her appearances. Expecting ignominy, she achieved celebrity, rubbing shoulders one recent day in yet another greenroom with Henry Kissinger, awaiting their turns before the talk-show cameras. Hers is now an equivocal notoriety. She’s the sinner whose confession somehow didn’t wash, the bad-girl-turned-good whose past still holds her in thrall. “I’m not a famous person,” insists Cathleen Webb. “I’m an infamous person.”
The strange saga began in March when Webb, a 24-year-old New Hampshire housewife and mother of two, proclaimed that as a 16 year old in a Chicago suburb in 1977, she had faked a rape because she thought she was pregnant by a boyfriend. She ripped her clothes, she says, scratched herself with broken glass and gave police a bogus description of a fictitious attacker, drawing some details of the alleged attack from such heavy-breathing fiction as Rosemary Rogers’s Sweet Savage Love. When the cops arrested a man who fit the description she gave—Gary Dotson, then 20—she perjured herself and testified against him. Dotson was convicted and sentenced to 25 to 50 years. Only after Webb became a born-again Christian, she says, did she work up the courage to tell the truth.
Her shocking recantation made headlines around the country, but it did not convince Cook County Circuit Court Judge Richard Samuels, who had presided over the rape trial. Samuels refused to overturn Dotson’s conviction. Outraged, 70,000 Illinois citizens petitioned Governor James Thompson to free Dotson. Thompson convened a special clemency hearing to sift through the evidence and try to dispel the “cloud over the Illinois justice system.” When it was over, the governor announced that although he was still convinced that Dotson was proved guilty, he would commute his sentence to time served. So, after six years in prison, Gary Dotson went free.
He walked straight into a media circus. NBC promptly flew Webb and Dotson to New York to appear on the Today show. They told their stories to Jane Pauley and then took off to retell the tales on ABC’s Good Morning America and the CBS Morning News. At that last stop, the absurdity rose to some sort of apogee when then-co-host Phyllis George asked the two to shake hands on camera. Reluctantly they complied. Then George escalated her request: “How about a hug?” Respectfully they declined. That night the network news programs went from covering the controversy about the case to covering the controversy about the coverage of the controversial case.
There was more to come. Webb produced an autobiography entitled Forgive Me, co-authored by a born-again Christian counselor whose previous literary credits included Free To Be Thin and Fun To Be Fit. She donated her $12,000 advance to Dotson, who was, at the time, striking a deal for a book of his own. Together, the two sold their stories (for a reported $350,000) to a production company that hopes to turn the tale into a seven-hour miniseries. She claims she is also turning over to Dotson her portion of the movie rights. While Webb tried her best to compensate Dotson for his six years in jail, the state tried to make sure she couldn’t. Illinois has proposed a bill apparently designed to prevent Dotson from profiting by selling his story.
Meanwhile, Dotson announced his engagement to ex-bartender Camille Dardanes, who had presented him with a rose at the clemency hearing, and the two flew to New York to appear on Good Morning America and spend a lavish weekend at ABC’s expense. Then the unemployed couple eloped to Vegas where they married Nov. 12. Cathleen Webb was also back on the talk-show circuit in the fall plugging her book, but she admitted that her season in the spotlight had soured on her. She was going on, she said, only to try to clear Dotson’s name and record. Her public confession destroyed her relations with her foster parents—who refuse to speak to her, she says—and exacted an emotional toll on her husband. “After the clemency hearings, I had to be by myself,” says her husband, David, 25, a welder. “I was sick to death of people.” Now the Webbs are trying to get on with their lives—they are expecting their third child in February—and Cathleen says she has no regrets about the whole ordeal. “If I hadn’t come forward with the truth, it would have been difficult to live with myself,” she says. “Now I have peace.” The peace, she admits, is not without fear. “As public figures,” she says, “we no longer have control over our lives.”