Ghosts of rape past: Can a survivor find solace in return to the crime scene?

Updated 12:31 PM ET, Mon November 16, 2015

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Tallahassee, Florida (CNN)On game day, 70,000 football fans pack Doak Campbell Stadium to watch Florida State roar to victory. I wait for the post-party quiet of the following morning to wander through campus with Maria, knowing that a return to this place could be risky.

At the main entrance to the university, we run into two high school students from Tampa posing for a photo in garnet and gold Seminole jerseys. They want to enroll at FSU one day soon, they say, their cherubic faces lighting up.
How this story was reported

This narrative of a gang rape on the campus of Florida State University in 1988 was pieced together through hundreds of pages of documents and more than a dozen interviews.

CNN reporter Moni Basu contacted the survivor of the rape through her former attorney, Dean LeBoeuf. Then Basu began a series of conversations with her that culminated in the survivor's return to the FSU campus in Tallahassee for the first time since the attack 27 years ago.

Basu interviewed the district attorney who oversaw the case and an assistant district attorney who prosecuted it; the attorney for defendant Daniel Oltarsh, a Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity member who served time for the rape; FSU professors; the lead police investigator; and the victim's counselor. Basu requested an interview with Oltarsh but his lawyer did not respond to follow-up calls. She also reached out to a fraternity brother who cooperated with the police in exchange for immunity and to two other fraternity members who were indicted. The attempts to reach them were not successful.

Basu also examined hundreds of pages of case files at the Leon County Courthouse in Tallahassee, including the grand jury report and the rape survivor's deposition, as well as archival material at FSU's Strozier Library.

Maria was that way once: young and brimming with hope, excited to start the adult chapter of her life at a prominent state university bustling with students from all over the globe. In the fall of 1987, her mother dropped her off in this very spot, in front of the administrative offices housed in Westcott Building.
But college turned out to be a dark adventure.
Before she could finish her second semester, Maria was gang-raped on campus. Her assault made national headlines partly because the details read like sleazy fiction and partly because it involved one of the most prestigious fraternities on a football powerhouse campus.
It was a case I became intimately aware of as a journalist in Tallahassee at the time and one that I sympathized with as a former FSU student and campus rape survivor.
    I expect the return to FSU to be a difficult journey -- for both Maria and me. It is the first trip back to campus for us since our departures from Tallahassee. In the years since, many things have changed at America's institutions of higher learning. Sadly, some have not.
    It's a problem highlighted in the film "The Hunting Ground," which aired on CNN on November 22. The film delves into a connection between alcohol and sexual assault and explores a campus culture that protects perpetrators.
    It also focuses on the stories of survivors who became activists and took the issue all the way to the White House and prompted a federal investigation of the handling of sexual violence complaints on campuses.
    As the film demonstrates, the Internet and social media made it possible for rape survivors to connect with one another and find a modicum of comfort. Even power. When Maria and I were in college, that was not the case. We felt, and were, very much alone.
    We both chose to keep silent about what happened, except in Maria's case, the crime was so heinous that despite her unwillingness, the state pursued charges against her rapists.
    Maria felt a thousand eyes on her. She bore the brunt of unkind comments. She came back to her dorm room one day to find this message on the white board on her door: Whore. She withdrew, rarely spoke about the incident and even tried to kill herself. She survived through the years, but only barely.
    A couple of months ago, Maria and I watched "The Hunting Ground" together.
      We sat at a desktop computer in a sterile hotel lobby, sharing a pair of earbuds. I used the left one and she, the right. It was the first time I'd met Maria in person, though I had spoken with her once on the phone a few weeks after her rape.
      Amid Spanish moss-draped oaks on FSU's campus, Maria took stock of her painful history as a young student on this campus
      She watched the movie intently. I could see tears gathering behind her glasses and her hands trembling. A few weeks later, she agreed to go back with me to the scene of her attack. After 27 years, she was ready, she said, to come to terms with the incident that altered her life's trajectory.
      I understood all too well the significance of her decision. I, too, had only recently gone public about my rape after a reporting trip to my native India to find a woman named Mathura, a rape survivor who was at the heart of a groundbreaking case.
      I regretted that the newspaper stories I edited about Maria's rape had never given her voice. Throughout her ordeal and the months of court proceedings, she chose to remain anonymous. She was never named publicly and granted only a handful of interviews. The court records were sealed to protect her identity.
      She agreed to speak with me on the condition that CNN not reveal her real name. She wanted to share her ordeal with other young women who have suffered rape or might be assaulted before they graduate.
      "Maybe my story can help them in some way," she said.
      On this Sunday morning in October, a warm sun illuminates her golden hair as we meander down asphalt paths that connect FSU's signature red brick buildings. I respect the courage it takes for her to stand with me on campus.
      A little after 9, her smartphone lights up with a text from her boyfriend: "You've got this. I love you."