All About the Female Detective Duo Who Caught the Serial Rapist in Netflix's Unbelievable
Stacy Galbraith, one of the Colorado detectives who worked the infamous serial rape case that inspired the Netflix series, discussed the case with PEOPLE
In Netflix’s popular and bingeable new series Unbelievable (which is based on a true story), an 18-year-old Lynnwood, Washington, woman named Marie is woken up one night in 2008 to find a ski-masked stranger on top of her.
The man binds her, gags her and violently rapes her at knifepoint for hours, snapping graphic photographs all the while. When the rapist finally leaves after forcing Marie to shower, the teen — who lives in her own apartment at a center for foster youth — calls police. The officers process the scene and listen to her story, but later begin trying to poke holes in her account.
Under pressure from the investigators, Marie tearfully recants her story, falsely claiming she made up the horrific incident. She’s forced to pay a $500 fine when Lynnwood police charge her with false reporting — and her rapist proceeds to brutally attack a number of additional women in both Washington and Colorado.
Of course, the saga doesn’t end there, and Unbelievable — which has earned both critical praise and viewer raves — doesn’t only follow Marie. It also traces the twisting path of the two whip-smart female detectives who team up to catch the serial predator who brutalized Marie and the others.
The 8-episode series is based on T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 article from ProPublica and the Marshall Project, entitled ”An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” (Miller and Armstrong’s article also became an episode of “This American Life,” in which the real Marie speaks out, as well as a book called A False Report.)
But who are the true-life players that inspired the Netflix series, and where are they now?
In 2011, Golden, Colo., Det. Stacy Galbraith (whose Unbelievable alter-ego, Karen Duvall, is played by actress Merritt Wever) reached out to Det. Edna Hendershot of nearby Westminster, Colo., to ask about a rape that sounded alarm bells.
Det. Galbraith was investigating a violent attack in Golden in which a grad student in her mid-20s was raped at home, at gunpoint, by a masked intruder. The victim noted a distinct birthmark on the rapist’s leg, as well as the pink Sony camera he used to take photos of her throughout the attack.
When Galbraith told her husband, a police officer in nearby Westminster, about the Golden woman’s attack, he made a suggestion. “He immediately said, ‘You have to get in contact with our records department [in Westminster]. We have had two in the recent past that it matches the m.o. for,” Galbraith told the Denver Channel.
Galbraith met Det. Edna Hendershot there. Hendershot (whose Unbelievable character, Grace Rasmussen, is played by Toni Collette) had worked hundreds of previous rape cases — including, the previous year, a case involving a 59-year-old Westminster woman raped by a man in a black mask who had stolen her pink camera. Hendershot was also aware of a similar case in Aurora, Colo., from a year earlier.
After comparing notes, the two detectives realized they were likely pursuing the same rapist (who also happened to be Marie’s attacker, though they didn’t know it yet).
“It was the day after I received the Westmister police report, before I talked to the lead investigator, that I knew those two rapes were connected,” Galbraith recalls to PEOPLE. “After reading their [report], it was clear that Westminster believed their case was related to [the rape in] Aurora — and my eyes were opened to the fact that there was a 99.9 percent chance this was a serial thing, not just a random attack.”
Working together to trace the perp, they found four very different victims, in different cities, who’d experienced eerily similar attacks. “It was truly a stranger attack, which created a very uneasy feeling,” Galbraith says. “You didn’t know where to start, or where he was picking out his victims.”
After a high-pressure investigation, with the help of DNA, a white Mazda truck, Adidas shoeprints, and some telling surveillance video, Galbraith and Hendershot finally caught their criminal: army vet Marc O’Leary.
After closing the dramatic case, Galbraith received an Officer of the Year Award in 2012 for her work on the O’Leary case, as well as her work on a bank robbery and a domestic murder case, according to a release from the city of Golden. She went on to work at the Colorado Bureau of Investigations and is now a criminal investigator for the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office.
In 2013, Hendershot was promoted to sergeant for the Westminster Police, Oxygen reports, and was promoted again in 2017 to patrol commander. She no longer works sexual assault cases, she told Oxygen: “I miss working the hard cases very much, but now have the opportunity to mentor new officers and impress upon them the ‘right’ way to do things.”
Galbraith says that although she and Hendershot don’t collaborate on cases like the O’Leary rapes anymore, they’re “friends” and are called to speak at events and conferences together about twice a year. “In law enforcement, there’s a lot of interest in how we worked together,” she says.
The man convicted of the serial rapes, Marc O’Leary (known as “Chris McCarthy” in the Netflix show) was methodical in his approach to the crimes he committed over multiple towns and jurisdictions. He knew the various police departments weren’t sharing notes. “He was aware that jurisdictions don’t have the means to communicate with each other,” Galbraith tells PEOPLE. “He was counting on us not being able to communicate or connect the dots.”
After he was caught by Galbraith and Hendershot, investigators founds heaps of incriminating evidence, like disturbing digital photos of the women he’d attacked — including Marie in Washington.
O’Leary pleaded guilty to 28 counts of rape in Colorado, and also pleaded guilty in two Washington rape cases. In court, he openly admitted to what he’d done, saying, “I’m out of control. I’ve been out of control for a long time … Words are just inadequate to describe, uh, how just horrible I … acted. I can only hope that, you know, that my sentence today will satisfy them.”
O’Leary was sentenced to more than 300 years in prison and is currently serving his time at Sterling Correctional Facility.
Kaitlyn Dever, who portrays Marie in Unbelievable, told Good Housekeeping that she didn’t work with the real-life victim to develop her character. Producers believed, after all she’d been through, that Marie was entitled to her privacy. “[Her story] just broke my heart the entire time,” Dever said to Entertainment Weekly.
Following O’Leary’s arrest, the real Marie had her record expunged, and the $500 fine she’d paid was returned to her. She also sued the city of Lynnwood, settling for $150,000.
According to ProPublica, Marie went on to become a long-haul trucker, eventually marrying and having kids.
Though Det. Galbraith hasn’t finished watching Unbelievable — she and Hendershot were not involved in the series, and she says producers added some “dramatic flair” to the real story — she hopes the show will boost awareness of the realities of sexual assault.
“The series hopefully highlights what Edna and I train people on: that victims don’t respond to sexual assault and trauma in the same way,” she says.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to online.rainn.org.