Peter Carlson
April 22, 1985 12:00 PM

When Barbara Dotson took the phone call, she was sitting at her desk at the Allstate Appraisal Co. in Chicago Heights, III. Overwhelmed, she broke down and wept while her coworkers gathered around to comfort her. “They thought somebody had died,” says Dotson, 48, a secretary and widowed mother of seven, “but I knew somebody had just been reborn.”

The somebody was her son Gary, 28. The next day Barbara and two of her daughters traveled to Joliet Correctional Center, where Gary was serving the sixth year of his 25-to 50-year sentence for kidnapping and raping a 16-year-old girl. As they ate pizza and drank soda, Barbara broke the news to Gary: Cathleen Crowell Webb, 23, the woman whose testimony had convicted him, now admitted that her story had been a lie. When Gary heard that, he didn’t weep. He didn’t even speak. He just stared.

“Gary,” said his sister Laura, 22, “aren’t you going to laugh or cry or scream?” He replied, “Not until those doors open, and I walk out a free man.”

As the victim of what now seems an appalling miscarriage of justice, Gary Dotson had ample reason to be skeptical. His life had been an expanding nightmare ever since July 15, 1977. Then 20, Gary had just finished a day’s work as a landscaper in the south Chicago suburbs when two detectives arrived to arrest him for rape. “You gotta be kidding,” he said with a laugh.

Six days earlier, at about 10:30 on the night of July 9, a policeman found Cathleen Crowell staggering dazed and bleeding through a wooded area in Homewood, III. An honor student and a junior varsity swimmer, Crowell claimed that three men had dragged her into a car, where one of them had raped her, then cut her with a broken beer bottle. She gave a description of the rapist to a police artist, who drew a sketch. A cop in the nearby city of Country Club Hills thought the sketch resembled Gary Dotson, a local high school dropout, one of a gang of kids who’d attracted some unfavorable attention for drinking and hot-rodding and petty thefts. The cops had photographed Dotson in connection with a 1975 conviction for possession of a stolen TV, for which he was placed on one year’s probation. They showed the mug shot to Crowell, who identified him as the rapist. That night Dotson was crying when he called home from the police station: “Mom, they got me on rape, but I didn’t rape anyone.”

It took nearly two years for the case to come to trial, but Cathleen Crowell’s memory seemed very sharp. In vivid, convincing detail, she described the rape and the face of the rapist. “I can never forget that face,” she said.

The defense presented Dotson, who stated that he had been partying that night; three friends swore that they’d been with him. Defense attorney Paul Foxgrover also stressed the inconsistencies of the prosecution’s case. Crowell said her attacker was clean-shaven; Dotson had a moustache. The bloodstain in the victim’s underwear showed traces of type A; both Crowell and Dotson had type B (a discrepancy still not satisfactorily explained). But the jury was impressed by Crowell’s virtuosity on the witness stand. They took just 96 minutes to find Dotson guilty. “I didn’t do it,” he told the judge, sobbing.

His mother believed him. On her social security income and wages from a factory job, she hired a lawyer she could scarcely afford. He filed appeals and, when that failed, she wrote letters to judges and prosecutors and politicians. “No one answered,” she recalls. “I’d sit down late at night and cry and write letters. After a while I stopped mailing them because I didn’t know who to mail them to.” In prison, Gary read science fiction and wrote poetry and, after his appeal was turned down in 1981, he despaired. “I stopped thinking about the outside,” he says. “I had no choice. I told myself, ‘I’ll be here for 12 to 15 years.’ ” He urged friends not to bother corresponding with him. “He told us he had nothing to write back,” says his buddy, Mickey Marcum.

Meanwhile, in July 1981, Cathleen Crowell eloped with David Webb, a former high school classmate, and moved to Jaffrey, N.H., where they are now raising two children in a neat clapboard house. It was her first real home since her parents divorced when she was 5. Shuttled between various surrogate parents, she had never felt secure. It was that insecurity, she says, that led her to have sex with a 17-year-old boy and then, seized with guilt and fear, to concoct a story of rape: “I panicked because I thought I was pregnant and that I’d be removed from the foster home.” Now a born-again Christian, Crowell last month confessed the deception to her Baptist minister, who urged her to recant. Some two weeks ago Crowell told her story to the judge who had presided at the original trial. “I made a decision based on faith in Jesus Christ,” she explained. “Three years ago He told me to make restitution, and He hasn’t left me alone since.”

On April 4, as his prison mates cheered, Gary Dotson was released from Joliet on $100,000 bail. Outside the prison’s stone walls a crowd of reporters wanted to know how he felt. “I haven’t had a chance to feel anything yet,” he said. “But I feel gratitude to her for coming forward.”

Now, while Dotson hopes to have his name cleared by the courts, Cathleen Crowell Webb’s future is also uncertain. She could face perjury charges. If so, Webb, mother of a 2-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter, plans to ask for mercy. “My going to prison wouldn’t get back the six years of his life,” she says. “It wouldn’t do him any good and it wouldn’t do any good to me or my children.”

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