February 16, 2004 12:00 PM

Two weeks after Laura Neuman moved into her new apartment, a stranger climbed in through a window and put a pillow over her face and a gun to her temple. Then he raped her. “I was paralyzed with fear,” Neuman, now 39, says of the October 1983 attack. “I was afraid that he’d return.” But her ordeal didn’t end there: Because she suffered no physical injuries, the Baltimore city police were skeptical that Neuman had been raped. And her family says police convinced them that she had had sex with an acquaintance and was trying to hide a pregnancy. “They thought I staged it,” she says. “I wanted them to believe me.”

For 19 years Neuman made dozens of calls to police and hired lawyers to push her case, even as she struggled to overcome an overwhelming fear of being by herself. Finally, with the help of two dedicated Baltimore cops, her attacker was caught in 2002 and sent to prison. Now, afraid no more, Neuman has started a foundation to help other rape victims get their cases prosecuted. “She’s the hero,” says Det. Bernard Holthaus, one of the cops who helped solve Neuman’s case. “She’s the guardian angel who never forgot, who never gave up on the crime.”

After she was attacked, Neuman, the third of five children, moved back into the home of her parents—John, a draftsman who died in 1995, and Diane, a homemaker—a conservative household where she hadn’t been allowed to watch risqué shows like Three’s Company. “There was never someone giving me a hug and saying it’s going to be all right,” she says. Though police had fingerprints and semen samples, the investigation foundered. “It was a different world back then,” says Det. Chester Norton, Holthaus’s partner. “There wasn’t a lot of training on how to deal with rape victims.” Or their families. Her brother Jay Neuman says police took him through the apartment to show why they doubted Laura’s story. “Because of that, we never knew quite what to make of the whole thing,” says Diane, 62.

In the following years Neuman channeled her anger into her career and became a successful entrepreneur. “She was always very determined,” says her friend Dean Dalfonzo, an artist. “But Laura definitely had problems being alone.” Almost every night she’d search each room in her house; she always had housemates to avoid living by herself.

Then, in January 2002, Neuman—who lives in Annapolis, Md.—saw a TV news program on unsolved rapes. “That made me more determined,” she says. “You just assume the system is going to work, [but] you have to make it work.” In April she reached Holthaus and Norton in the cold-case sex-offense unit. Her assailant’s fingerprints remained on file; the detectives ran them through a statewide database and got a hit in about an hour. Five days later they arrested Alphonso Hill, now 52. He pled guilty on Sept. 30, 2002, to second-degree rape and is serving 15 years. “You’d think I would be jubilant, but I wasn’t,” Neuman says. “We’re not applying resources to solve [rape] cases. It’s a travesty.”

Once again Neuman turned her anger into good, pouring her own money into her foundation. In eight months she and 12 volunteers have advised more than 100 victims and helped about 25 reopen their cases. “It wasn’t until I saw Laura,” says Tonya Wyley, who was raped in 1982, “that I knew [getting my case solved] was an option.”

Since Hill went to jail, Neuman’s sense of security has soared, but her relationship with her mother, whom she rarely sees, remains strained. “My hope,” says Diane, “is that we can move toward happier times.” Neuman is making progress on another front. The night of Hill’s June 2002 arraignment, she met Paul Volkman, 43, a sales exec. The two were engaged in August and plan to wed this month. “He sent me the sweetest note I’ve ever seen,” says Neuman, “saying he’s my family now.”

Bob Meadows. Susan Schneider Simison in Washington, D.C.

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