April 11, 1994 12:00 PM

ON DEC. 2, 1992, JACQUELINE HEDBERG WAS raped at knifepoint in her Salt Lake City condominium. Fighting to recover from the trauma, she returned to her job as a bookkeeper just four days later. But on her fifth day back in the office, she was fired by her boss—Sara Eubank, a feminist Utah state representative and head of the staff-leasing firm where Hedberg worked. The reason cited by Eubank at the time: Hedberg was so distraught about the rape that she could no longer handle her work.

“I felt like I was raped once and then raped again,” says Hedberg, 33, who has brought a wrongful-termination suit against Eubank, a Democrat. “I was thrown out with the trash.”

The case has become a cause célèbre in Salt Lake City—one that may cost Eubank her political career. Though some women’s groups, loath to abandon one of their best legislative allies, have been reluctant to criticize Eubank (“She’s a proven women’s advocate,” says Robin Frodge, executive coordinator of NOW’s Utah chapter), public reaction to the firing has been a mixture of shock and disbelief. Bud Scruggs, assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, believes even hard-shell feminists are embarrassed by the contretemps. “There’s no question,” he says, “that if a middle-aged Republican man had fired Ms. Hedberg, he would have been savaged by the very groups now sitting on their hands.”

For Hedberg, the nightmare began 16 months ago, when Aaron Gene Mace, then 19, talked his way into her apartment and asked to use the bathroom. He emerged wearing rubber gloves and brandishing a knife. Mace tied Hedberg up, raped her and then forced her to drive with him in her car toward the desert. “I suspected he was going to kill me,” she says. The four-hour ordeal ended when Mace left the car to make a phone call, and Hedberg drove away. She reported the crime after a policeman noticed her erratic driving and approached her.

Hedberg was anxious to return to her $20,000-a-year job. But she admits it was difficult to concentrate while taking calls from the sheriffs office about her case. (Mace confessed to the crime and received a sentence of five years to life.)

For her part, Eubank, 41, a divorced mother of two, now claims that Hedberg was a below-par employee, who’d got numerous critical evaluations. “The decision had pretty much been made [to fire her],” says Eubank’s lawyer, Janet Hugie Smith. “Then, unfortunately, she was raped.”

Hedberg denies receiving complaints about her performance. To back her claim of wrongful dismissal, she cites a letter Eubank submitted to the Utah Office of Crime Victim Reparations. “We found, after the trauma Jacquie experienced from the rape incident, she could not continue to maintain the level of productivity required,” wrote Eubank. Hedberg was awarded $3,100 for lost wages.

In a written statement, Eubank said: “I believe I will be vindicated in court.” Nevertheless, few expect Eubank, who won her seat by only 364 votes, to survive next November’s election. As for Hedberg, though she still lives with what she describes as “a kind of silent pain” and has bought a handgun for protection, she is pulling her life back together. In April 1993 she began working as a bookkeeper at an engineering firm, where she met Troy, 24, an electronics technician. They were wed in February. Though the lawsuit has forced her to relive the rape, Hedberg insists the principle at stake makes it worthwhile. “People should be protected,” she declares, “from losing their jobs after being victims of a heinous crime.”


LYNDON STAMBLER in Salt lake City

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