Julie Weil survived the unthinkable — a brutal kidnapping and rape — that kept her homebound for six months until her attacker was caught. It was a DNA match that nailed her attacker, dubbed the “daycare rapist,” and last week, 14 years later and now working as an advocate for rape survivors, Weil was speaking at a conference, unaware that the DNA analyst that solved her case was in the audience.
“I couldn’t believe it. The fact that the person who ran that DNA was right there… she’s my lifesaver,” Weil tells PEOPLE.
It was October 2002 when the then 31-year old mother of two young children was kidnapped from her church parking lot in Miami and repeatedly raped in front of her children.
“He looked at me and said do you believe in God?” she recalls. “He was holding a knife against my throat and he said, ‘Don’t look at me or I’ll kill you because what I’m going to do to you would send me to prison for life.’ ”
Michael Siebert drove her to the Everglades, raping her four times — her 3-year-old daughter and 8-month-old son in the mini-van the whole time. He was sadistic, tormenting her daughter.
“He said to her, ‘Should I kill your mom now?’ She was screaming, ‘Don’t kill my mom.’ He was beating me the whole time. I blacked out, convinced I was going to die.”
Before he finally let her go free, Siebert forced her to wipe down the van, leaving almost no evidence behind.
Lisbeth Colon was the DNA analyst on the case. Her son is the same age as Julie’s, so the case always stayed with her.
“I couldn’t imagine this happening to me with my son in the car. How could someone do that to another human being?” Colon tells PEOPLE. “It was one of the most disturbing cases I’ve ever worked.”
It was also one of the toughest.
“This was a serial rapist case and a high priority,” Colon recalls. “They were swabbing a lot of individuals that fit the description and bringing a lot of things for us to test but a lot of the evidence was negative for semen. Then there were a few small samples on her blouse.”
It took a few months to find and arrest Siebert, but that DNA sample sealed his fate. The judge in the case sentenced him to seven life sentences — one for each rape Julie endured and one for the kidnapping her and each of her kids.
Since then Julie has worked tirelessly on behalf of rape victims, creating the Not Just Me foundation, testifying before Congress about the importance of rape crisis centers and helping pass the SAFER Act, which tracks rape kits. She’s become a sought after speaker and that’s what she was doing last week in Minnesota at a convention for hundreds of forensic scientists from around the world.
“They brought me in to humanize DNA and let people know why they’re doing the work they do. It’s not just slides and samples, these are connected to real life people and real life crimes,” Weil says.
At the conference, Weil was taking questions from the audience and the last one the moderator read was, “Do you know your analyst is here?”
The two women met moments later and admit there were some screams, some tears and a long hug.
“It was a heart-stopping moment, I felt like she was my savior, she was my hero and I realized how much closure meant to me and the power of being able to go to trial and getting that sentence and that’s not possible unless the evidence is there and the people on your team do their job. I couldn’t have lived in a world where he walked free and DNA is what locked him up,” Weil says.
The meeting made Colon, who now trains other forensic scientists in DNA analysis, understand the importance of what she and others do.
“We don’t make a lot of money, we do it because we care and we want to contribute and when you hear someone talk about what you did for them it just makes you feel good about yourself and you realize what you did to help the community and this person.
“I feel really proud to have been the person who handled her case and helped give her the opportunity to come back from it and do all the good she’s doing,” she says.
Weil admits it has been tough on her family, but she says knowing it wasn’t all for nothing has helped give them a purpose.
“Were putting our lives back together,” she says. “What’s been helpful for my kids in the healing process is giving a purpose to our pain. That’s how we’ve put our lives together as a family we’ve committed that this is our journey.”