Netflix's true crime drama Unbelievable is based on the true story of Marie, a girl who reported her rape to the police only to be coerced into recanting her story. Marie was later charged with false reporting, while her rapist continued to carry out similar crimes in other areas. It wasn't until three years later, when the man was apprehended and the detectives found photos of Marie taken during her assault, that she was finally exonerated.
Before it became a Netflix show, Marie's story was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning article called An Unbelievable Story of Rape by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, who also wrote a book about the case called A False Report (the book has since been republished under the title Unbelievable, to tie into the show). An episode of the radio program This American Life, titled "Anatomy of Doubt," also covered the case, including interviews with Marie, her former foster mothers, one of the detectives who initially investigated Marie's claims, and others connected to the case.
Unbelievable is based on the extensive research done by Miller and Armstrong, and as a result it sticks very closely to the actual facts of the case. Here's a breakdown of how much of what happens in the show really happened, and what was changed.
Unbelievable Changed Names and Some Biographical Details
Of all the character names in Unbelievable, only Marie's matches the name of her real-life counterpart, and even then it was only her middle name. The real Marie is not called Marie Adler, and since she has made efforts to put the assault behind her, both the show and Miller and Armstrong's article left out her real full name to grant her anonymity. Marie is now 28 years old, married with two children, and has a job as a long-haul trucker. Armstrong, who has been in contact with Marie since Unbelievable was released on Netflix, shared on Twitter that Marie has watched the show and thought that Kaitlyn Dever's performance scene where Marie is coerced into saying she lied about being raped is "perfect" in how it captures her struggle.
The names and some biographical details of the other victims have been changed in order to protect their anonymity, though as depicted in the show they varied significantly in their ages and backgrounds. One of the victims really did jump out of a window to escape her attacker, breaking three ribs and puncturing a lung in the fall.
The real Christopher McCarthy is a man called Marc Patrick O'Leary, and his eventual capture was indeed sealed by his distinctive vehicle: a 1993 white Mazda with a damaged passenger side mirror. Though O'Leary's name was changed for the show, everything else about him is accurate, from his build to his eye color to his army service. O'Leary was living with his brother at the time he was caught, and it was his brother's DNA, taken from a coffee cup after detectives followed him to a diner, that helped to verify him as the serial rapist police were searching for. Another detail that clinched the case, especially when it came to distinguishing O'Leary from his brother as the perpetrator, was the distinctive birth mark on his leg.
The Real-Life Duvall and Rasmussen
Merritt Wever and Toni Collette deliver captivating performances in Unbelievable as detectives Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen. These characters are based on two real-life investigators Det. Stacy Galbraith and Sgt. Edna Hendershot, who uncovered the connection between O'Leary's attacks and ultimately apprehended him. Duvall and Rasmussen's investigation in Unbelievable is based very closely on the real-lif investigation, starting with Galbraith's interview of a 26 year-old engineering student (played by Danielle McDonald in the show) who had become O'Leary's latest victim. As depicted in the show, Galbraith suggested that they sit in her car to talk about the attack, and took swabs from the young woman's face in case of lingering DNA evidence.
A comparison to Armstrong and Miller's original article highlights just how many details from the real case made it into the show - right down to officers at the scene requesting a bathroom break, and Galbraith telling them to keep working. Galbraith's husband (played by Austin Hébert in Unbelievable) was also a detective, but he worked at Westminster police department whereas Stacy worked at Golden. It was David Galbraith who made the connection between Stacy's case and the one that Hendershot was working on over at Westminster. An Unbelievable Story of Rape describes a working relationship between Galbraith and Hendershot that reflects what's shown in Unbelievable.
The two bonded naturally. Both were outgoing. They cracked fast jokes and smiled fast smiles. Galbraith was younger. She crackled energy. She would move “a hundred miles an hour in one direction,” a colleague said. Hendershot was more experienced. She’d worked more than 100 rape cases in her career. Careful, diligent, exacting — she complemented Galbraith. “Sometimes going a hundred miles an hour, you miss some breadcrumbs,” the same colleague noted.
It was Galbraith who ultimately made the arrest of O'Leary after DNA from his brother confirmed that one of the O'Learys was the rapist. "I wanted to see the look on his face," Galbraith recalled. "And for him to know that we figured you out." She patted him down outside his home and then pulling up his pants leg to reveal the birthmark that one of the victims had described. As depicted in the show, O'Leary was sentenced to the maximum of 327.5 years in prison, and remains there to this day.
What Happened to the Detectives Who Accused Marie of Lying
The detectives in Unbelievable, Parker (played by Eric Lange) and Pruitt (Bill Fagerbakke) are based on real-life detectives Jeff Mason and Jerry Rittgarn. Though Marie's account of her interview and the official report differ on who brought up the topic of a lie detector test first, both state that the polygraph was used to threaten Marie. "He told me that if I took a lie detector test and it came back that I was lying, that he was going to take me to jail himself," Marie recalled in "Anatomy of Doubt." It was the fear of going to jail or losing her housing that convinced her to recant her story.
Neither Rittgarn nor Mason were ever formally punished for their conduct in the investigation, and Mason continues to serve with Lynnwood PD in the narcotics division (Rittgarn left the department before O'Leary was caught). Though Mason didn't personally break the news of Marie's rapist being caught to her, the scene in which she goes to the police station and he apologizes to her did happen in real life. An Unbelievable Story of Rape recounts:
Marie made an appointment to visit the Lynnwood police station. She went to a conference room and waited. Rittgarn had already left the department, but Mason came in, looking “like a lost little puppy,” Marie says. “He was rubbing his head and literally looked like he was ashamed about what they had done.” He told Marie he was sorry — “deeply sorry,” Marie says. To Marie, he seemed sincere.
Mason took full responsibility for what happened in Marie's case and, as depicted in the show, it did make him reconsider his job with the police department. "It was so shocking that this has been the one thing where I seriously step back and question if I should continue doing what I'm doing," he said on This American Life. Unbelievable depicts Mason's counterpart, Parker, as the more sympathetic of the two officers, and Armstrong agreed with that portrayal on Twitter. "He is a cop who sat with me and owned his mistakes, horrific as they were," Armstrong wrote. "[Lange] could have made his character a cartoon villain. But he didn't. Because the man he played wasn't."
Unbelievable Highlights a Systemic Problem With Rape Cases
Marie's story may be an extreme case, but sadly it's not an isolated one. In fact, one of the most unusual aspects of it is that her rapist was actually convicted. According to FBI and Department of Justice statistics collected by RAINN, out of every 1000 sexual assaults only 230 are ever reported to police. Of those reported, only 46 result in an arrest and only 4.6 of those arrests end in a conviction. That means that even if the victim of a sexual assault goes to the police, it's extremely unlikely that their attacker will ever face any legal consequences. As depicted in Unbelievable, the process of reporting an assault to the police can be painful, humiliating, and emotionally draining, with the victim required to repeat their story several times (reliving the traumatic experience), be photographed naked, and have evidence collected from their genital region.
Even when a rape kit is done in the immediate aftermath of the attack, there's a good chance that - as in Marie's case - it will never even be tested. A 2019 report by The Atlantic titled "An Epidemic of Disbelief" recounts the story of an assistant prosecutor who, in 2009, found a warehouse full of evidence collected by the Detroit Police Department. In the warehouse were more than 11,000 rape kits, some dating back 30 years, which had never been tested. The report found that the total number of untested rape kits in the United States is confirmed to be at least 200,000, but accounting for 15 states and several cities that haven't offered counts, there may be hundreds of thousands more. The Atlantic describes these untested rape kits as "a mole on the skin that hints at a pervasive cancer just below the surface" - that cancer being "a criminal justice system in which police officers continue to reflexively disbelieve women who say they've been raped."
From the moment a woman calls 911 (and it is almost always a woman; male victims rarely report sexual assaults), a rape allegation becomes, at every stage, more likely to slide into an investigatory crevice. Police may try to discourage the victim from filing a report. If she insists on pursuing a case, it may not be assigned to a detective. If her case is assigned to a detective, it will likely close with little investigation and no arrest. If an arrest is made, the prosecutor may decline to bring charges: no trial, no conviction, no punishment.
This problem appears to have been particularly pronounced in Lynnwood, the city where Marie reported her rape. Miller and Armstrong's investigation found that between 2008 and 2012, Lynnwood Police Department found 21.3 percent cases of reported rape to be "unfounded" - five times the national average of 4.3 percent. Steve Rider, the current commander of Lynnwood's Criminal Investigations Department, admitted that Marie's case was a "major failing," and said that changes have since been made to improve how rape victims are treated. Among them, detectives must now have "definitive proof" of lying before doubting a rape report.
Unbelievable has already drawn attention to the flaws in how rape cases are handled, and we can only hope that the show will have some influence in improving upon the current process - so that what happens to Marie never happens to another victim.