‘I remember thinking ... Am I really alive?’

  • Carissa Dowd walks her dog, Dacri, along a Grantham road earlier this month. Dowd was sexually assaulted during a walk with her two young daughters along a dirt road in Vermont in 2000. She has rebuilt her life, one day at a time, since that day. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Carissa Dowd changes her shoes in a doorway of her Grantham home April 2. Dowd lived in fear for years following a sexual assault, and there was a time she would check all the rooms in her house when she came home. ELIZABETH FRANTZ Monitor staff

  • Carissa Dowd walks her 12-year-old yellow lab, Dacri, around her Grantham neighborhood on Sunday, April 2, 2017. Dowd lived in fear for years following a sexual assault on a quiet dirt road. She has rebuilt her life, one day at a time, since that day in 2000. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Carissa Dowd runs errands in West Lebanon on Sunday, April 2, 2017. Dowd was sexually assaulted in 2000 during a walk with her two young daughters along a quiet dirt road. Her perpetrator, now out of prison, lives in a nearby town. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Carissa Dowd returns to her home in Grantham after running errands on Sunday, April 2, 2017. Dowd lived in fear for years following a sexual assault, and there was a time she would check all the rooms in her house when she came home. She has rebuilt her life, one day at a time, since that day in 2000. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Carissa Dowd stands for a photo along a wooded Grantham road on Sunday, April 2, 2017. Dowd was sexually assaulted in 2000 during a walk with her two young daughters along a dirt road in Vermont. She has rebuilt her life, one day at a time, since that day. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Monday, April 17, 2017

Carissa Dowd says she wouldn’t have taken such a public stance as a sexual assault survivor had she not been attacked in front of her two daughters.

Alan Benoit, a stranger driving by on a quiet rural road, had ordered her and the young girls, ages 3 and 14 months, into his red Oldsmobile, and then demanded she perform a sex act. The girls were only a few feet away, in a back seat littered with soiled laundry and beer cans.

Dowd, who today lives in Grantham, had never met Benoit before that spring night in May 2000. She was walking with her children on Old Ferry Road in Weathersfield, Vt., when he drove by a couple of times before finally stopping and asking what road they were on. When she could not answer, he got out of his car while gripping a tire iron in one hand. Dowd, fearing for her children’s safety, told him “she would do anything he wanted,” according to a police affidavit.

In that moment, Dowd, 30, feared not just physical injury but death. She speculated many times about why Benoit had chosen that rural dirt road along the Connecticut River, and why he then let them go unharmed.

“When the car drove away, I remember thinking ‘maybe I’m not alive. Am I really alive?’ ”

Dowd immediately reported the assault to police once safely back at a relative’s home where she’d been staying. She was able to provide detectives with a detailed description of Benoit and his car. Police used that information to apprehend Benoit, then 20, at his Springfield, Vt., home, just hours later. They drove Dowd there, too, so she could make a positive identification.

A plea deal

The arrest began a more-than-two-year criminal process that ended in a plea bargain. Dowd said she considered the deal too lenient and had hoped for a jury trial. She wanted a judge to sentence Benoit to a minimum of 20 years in prison to buy her daughters time to mature and herself time to heal.

“I felt like my kids might some day ask me, ‘Why didn’t you fight?’ ... I needed to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say I had done everything I could for them.”

Rarely had sexual assault victims spoken out publicly against the legal system, but Dowd said she felt a moral obligation to herself and to past victims to be heard. Allowing her name to be printed in newspaper articles, she denounced the lighter sentences other sex offenders had received and pushed for more prison time for Benoit.

“I was fighting for a precedent that would allow the next person who came into their office to not have to listen to, ‘Well, the last guy got only a couple of years, so why do you expect to get more?’ You can’t use previous cases anymore to justify giving these light sentences,” Dowd said. “And, if you do something like this and there are children there, too, they should be taken into consideration.”

Prosecutors recommended 16 years to life imprisonment on a charge of aggravated sexual assault, to which Benoit pleaded no contest. Benoit’s attorney asked for 12 to 30 years, arguing his client would benefit more from treatment than imprisonment.

The judge sided with the state.

In the end, she considered the sentence a small victory, not just for herself and her daughters but for other survivors who might one day face the criminal justice system.

25 miles apart

At the outset, Dowd questioned Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand about why his office had not levied kidnapping charges, naming her daughters as victims. She told prosecutors they were sending a message to would-be perpetrators to pick a mother, because she’d do anything to protect her children and because the crime wouldn’t result in additional charges.

According to newspaper reports from 2000, the county attorney’s office filed a kidnapping charge, naming the two girls as victims, more than two months after Benoit’s arrest. In the plea deal he struck with prosecutors two years later, he pleaded no contest to lesser charges of unlawful restraint, which alleged that he had held the girls against their will.

Benoit served about 10 years of his 16-year sentence for sexual assault and was released in late 2010. He was eligible for early release, because of state laws in place at the time of his crimes. But he returned to prison in fall 2014 on a probation violation, for which he served several months.

Dowd received an electronic notification through the Vermont Automated Notification Service (VAN Service) in April 2015 that Benoit was scheduled to be re-released back into the community. That notification prompted her to contact the district attorney’s office for more details, including his new home address.

Three months passed before she received responses from then-state’s attorney Michael Kainen and from the probation officers assigned to Benoit’s case. Dowd learned the department of corrections had approved Benoit’s request to live with family in Claremont in mid-May, but never informed her of the change in address.

Vermont probation records show that following his official transfer he also failed to register as a sex offender in New Hampshire – a crime he would serve an additional 10 days in prison for later that year.

Dowd and Benoit were living roughly 25 miles apart, and yet she had no idea.

“My concern is not so much that three months went by where I had not been notified that the man who violently kidnapped and raped me in front of my children is living a few towns over, but more importantly, the tool I use to know these things, the sex offender registry, is also not a reliable source of information,” Dowd wrote in a letter she mailed to several political representatives in Vermont and New Hampshire in July 2015.

Within days of her letter, Kainen had drafted a two-page response to Dowd in which he admits to state agencies’ lack of oversight. In his response, he indicates that Benoit had first proposed returning to his Vermont residence, but, that for reasons unknown to the state’s attorney, the department of corrections denied the request.

When Vermont probation and parole notified the state’s attorney’s office about Benoit’s relocation to New Hampshire in May 2015, neither agency contacted Dowd. Kainen wrote in his letter to her, “I am not sure where this slipped through the cracks.”

Finding her voice

Anger was an emotion that Dowd said she held onto for a long time and struggled to understand. She was angry about the sexual assault, angry that state prosecutors hadn’t fought for her in the aftermath, and angry at a corrections system that failed her 15 years later.

When Dowd had gone for a walk on the evening of May 6, 2000, she felt safe. But in the blink of an eye, one man had changed everything.

Dowd said she agonized about whether to go public with her story, especially in such a small town. She first sought out published materials, thinking someone with a similar experience must have documented it. Their words, she thought, could provide her insight into the healing process.

“I didn’t find anything out there. That was hard in two ways. I thought that maybe nobody wants to talk so maybe I should just be quiet. Worse, maybe I’m the outlier. Maybe I’m the only one who had this bad experience because I did something to deserve this.”

Dowd said she most wanted to get her life back to the way it was before Benoit found her on that quiet dirt road, where she’d been picking flowers with her girls. She wished for years for a “magic potion” that cured fear. She said she was fighting her own version of Freddy Krueger, the serial killer in the Nightmare on Elm Street film series.

In many ways, the assault had immobilized her.

“Eventually you have to learn how to have a barometer, and how to judge your own safety,” she said, noting that regular therapy sessions helped her acquire those skills. “You can’t go through your whole life on high alert thinking the tiger is going to eat you.”

Today, she is not terrified by other survivors’ stories; instead, she feels a sense of empowerment for them. She said she understands her experience was different than most victims of sexual assault, because she didn’t know her attacker and, therefore, reporting the crime required little mental forethought.

“I’ve always been uncomfortable when people tell me I’m brave, because if we expect victims who are attacked by strangers to be silent, you can only imagine what it must feel like for the overwhelming majority of victims who are familiar with their attacker.”

That culture of silence exists, in part, because victims don’t think they will be believed, she said. How a person responds to a disclosure of sexual assault can greatly influence how the victim decides to proceed, she said.

“In my case, even though I was attacked by a stranger, I’ve been asked by hundreds of different people, why I didn’t fight,” she said. “I don’t owe anyone an explanation for not having fought, and, yet, that one point in all of those hundreds of people’s minds is where I went wrong.”

Despite the personal and legal challenges she faced along the way, Dowd said she overcame the odds and rebuilt her life, one day at a time, over several years.

“It was hard work and there were a lot of instances where I had to be brave in situations that didn’t seem important at all, or wouldn’t on the surface be hard for anyone else. You understand that nobody gets it, but you just have to be brave and persevere.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)