Elaine Wagner and her daughter, Stephanie, have a lot in common.
“We both love ‘Criminal Minds,’ ” Elaine Wagner said. “We both bite our nails. We are very open with each other about everything. We also share something else in common. We’re both survivors of very high-profile sexual assault crimes.”
In 1985, Elaine was one of the first reported victims of a serial rapist in Morgantown who later became known as the Sunnyside Rapist. Eighteen years later, Stephanie Wagner was sexually assaulted, at age 11, at the Target in Southridge.
The mother and daughter have never come forward in public about their experiences, but National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, coinciding with Sexual Assault Awareness Month, felt like the right time.
They appeared Monday afternoon at an event hosted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia at the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse, in Charleston, because they wanted to raise awareness of an often underreported and misunderstood crime.
Stephanie Wagner, who is now 24, said she wanted other survivors to realize they aren’t alone.
“I think it happens around us a lot more than people think it does,” she said.
They also wanted to thank Huntington Police Chief Joe Ciccarelli, who was being honored for his work with victims. The women say Ciccarelli, as well as the other law enforcement officers and victim advocates who handled Stephanie Wagner’s case, ensured that she found the support she needed, in contrast to the way Elaine Wagner’s case was handled years earlier.
They also say Ciccarelli put in extra work by collaborating with other jurisdictions. Authorities said Stephanie Wagner’s assailant also had tried to assault a girl in Ashland, Kentucky, the day before she was assaulted.
“We were both assaulted at knifepoint but, other than that, the way everything was handled . . . was totally different,” Elaine Wagner said.
More than 30 women reported sexual assaults or attempted sexual assaults between 1985 and 1992 in the mostly student-populated Sunnyside neighborhood of Morgantown. Police and the news media dubbed the assailant the Sunnyside Rapist.
Jack Hawkins, a former West Virginia University researcher who a victim said told her he was the Sunnyside Rapist, was convicted in February 1995 of raping three female students over a 5-year-period. He was sentenced to three consecutive 15-to-25-year sentences.
Elaine Wagner will never know if he’s the man who assaulted her.
In 1985, while both of her roommates were home, a man waited in her living room, steps away from where a roommate slept. When she arrived home, he pushed her into her roommate’s room, held her at knifepoint and sexually assaulted her.
She was taken to the emergency room, but no victim advocates accompanied her.
“I was 20 and scared to death,” she said. “There were no advocates and no services offered to me.”
She didn’t hear from the police for eight years. In 1993, they contacted her, told her an arrest had been made and asked her to look at a photo line-up. She couldn’t positively identify her attacker, because he had worn a bandanna.
“I asked if they could use the sex-crime kit or any of the other forensic evidence they had — my shorts, my sheets, et cetera,” she said. “I was told the police had lost my evidence. The police department had moved, and they lost it.”
Her daughter worked with victim liaisons, who ensured that Stephanie Wagner knew she could turn to them for support.
“If I kept it all kind of bottled inside, it would have been harder later on,” Stephanie Wagner said. “I had the resources to talk about it to many different people, and I realized it wasn’t just something that happened to me — that it does happen to other people.”
She can’t stop at a gas station or grocery store without seeing someone who sent her a letter, came over with cake or showed some other type of support.
“I think me remembering it, and my mom remembering it, is two different things,” Stephanie Wagner said.
Allen Dwayne Coates assaulted Stephanie Wagner in the South Charleston Target in July 2003. He told her he was a security guard, took her to the gardening section at knifepoint and sexually assaulted her.
“Strongest little 11-year-old you could have met,” Elaine Wagner said. “She was so brave. She wanted life to go on as normal. She didn’t want anybody treating her different or acting different around her. She was such a trouper.”
While Elaine Wagner will never know if her perpetrator is put behind bars, Stephanie knows her assailant was convicted. Coates was sentenced in April 2004 to 18 to 45 years on charges of first-degree sexual assault and abduction.
Both mother and daughter say they wonder every day why each was targeted in such similarly violent attacks.
But they also both say things happen for a reason.
“Sometimes I think, maybe, if it would have happened to somebody else, he wouldn’t be behind bars, because they may not have been able to come forward and tell their story,” Stephanie Wagner said.
Elaine Wagner said maybe she never would have volunteered to be a victim advocate for REACH, the Rape Education, Advocacy, Counseling & Healing program.
“I believe our God is a good god, so he must have had something in mind,” she said. “Maybe it was so that I would join REACH and help someone else, someone who has no one else to be there, like I didn’t back in 1985.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.