Thirty years after she awakened to find a naked man pinning her down and holding a sharp and cold knife against her throat, news anchor Maureen O’Boyle is reliving the most terrifying day of her life with the realization that her rapist could soon be walking free.
James E. Starling, now 53, was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 1986 for the rape of O’Boyle and another woman in Macon, Georgia, and still has 20 years to serve in prison. So O’Boyle, a former host of A Current Affair and Extra, who now anchors the evening news for WBTV in Charlotte, N.C., was shocked to learn recently that Starling could soon be up for parole.
To protect other women from the man she says has a “hatred toward women” and “a desire to control with fear and violence,” the newswoman, 52, has started a petition that she plans to give to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, hoping to prevent Starling’s early release.
So far, she has collected the signatures of nearly 55,000 people on her Facebook page and has received about 500 private messages from other women who have been raped.
“Many of them had assailants who were released from prison and raped again,” O’Boyle, a single mom of a teenage daughter, tells PEOPLE. “This has become something not just for me, but for other victims who never had a voice. Rape is a pervasive, horrible crime, but we live in a culture where it’s not considered the vile, life-altering crime that it is. It is always with you. Always. It never goes away.”
O’Boyle, who first told her story in PEOPLE in 1992, tuned in to the Academy Awards on Feb. 28 with daughter Keegan, 16, just in time to see Lady Gaga perform “Till it Happens to You” from the 2015 documentary film, The Hunting Ground about college campus rape.
“I’d heard the song about four days prior to the Oscars and had been playing it over and over again,” she says. “When I saw Lady Gaga singing it with all of these rape victims and survivors standing around her, I got choked up. I didn’t know how to comfort and ease the fear my daughter saw in me. Keegan said, ‘Mom, how old would the man be now who raped you?’ I wondered about that, so I Googled his name. And there it was: James E. Starling, up for parole in April 2016.”
“I was flabbergasted – my world stopped,” adds O’Boyle. “I’d never been told anything about it. If we hadn’t watched Lady Gaga perform the song, and if Keegan hadn’t asked me that question, I probably still wouldn’t know about it now.”
O Boyle was also unaware that Starling has been considered for parole 10 times since 1993 and was denied.
Horrified, O’Boyle went to Change.org to learn how to draft a petition, and had thousands of signatures within days.
“So many people responded, telling me, ‘I was raped and I never had the courage to tell anyone,’ ” she tells PEOPLE. “And for a long time, I didn’t tell anyone either.”
O’Boyle was 22 years old, working the early-morning anchor job at WMAZ, a CBS affiliate in Macon, when she was unknowingly stalked for months by James Starling, an auto mechanic who regularly watched her morning program at his gas station.
On April 4, 1986, she’d gone to bed at her usual time of 8:30 p.m., knowing that her wake-up call from the station would come at 3 a.m. She never heard Starling break into her garden-level apartment.
“I woke up and there was this naked man on top of me, threatening me with a knife,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t make a noise or I’ll kill you right away. I’m going to kill you and no one will ever find the pieces.’ ”
For the next five hours, Starling terrorized O’Boyle, blindfolding her with a pillowcase, forcing her to be photographed in lingerie he had stolen from other women’s homes, raping her and repeatedly threatening to kill her. She learned that he’d secretly broken into her apartment on numerous occasions to steal underwear and photographs and move her belongings around.
“Having to get up so early, I was always tired,” O’Boyle says, “so when I told people my coffee cup was missing or my bra wasn’t where I’d left it, they just said, ‘Look, you work the early morning news. You need more sleep.’ And all this time, it had actually been him, living in my apartment, looking at my personal belongings and stealing while I was at work. When my roommate moved out, that’s the night he chose to rape me. It was a calculated crime.”
When O’Boyle didn’t show up for work and her coworkers started calling, Starling finally shut her in the bathroom and left. After he was caught breaking into another home a month later and police found he’d saved hundreds of photographs of women and girls in forced sexual poses, he confessed that he’d raped O’Boyle and another woman. Because of that confession, O’Boyle didn’t have to face Starling at a trial.
Three decades later, although it is still difficult to share the details of her trauma, O’Boyle says she is determined to do all she can to protect other women and girls from a serial predator and convicted rapist.
“The healing process happens when you own it, when you share it with others,” she tells PEOPLE.
“My rape was the most terrifying day of my life,” O’Boyle says, “but the horror only escalated when I learned that James Starling, Inmate No. 168978, might be paroled. He took a part of me that day. And he should never have the opportunity to take that from somebody else’s daughter or granddaughter.”