What Is The ‘Unbelievable’ True Story? Netflix Adapts The Horrifying Case
Netflix's latest true crime miniseries brings together a deep bench of Emmy winners for a compelling dramatization of a woman known only as Marie's harrowing story. With United States of Tara's Toni Colette and Nurse Jackie's Merritt Wever starring and The Kids Are Alright director Lisa Cholodenko directing three episodes, Unbelievable is poised to deliver a hard-hitting look at how Marie's rape case was solved. But viewers who aren't familiar with the source material might be wondering what the true story behind Unbelievable is.
The miniseries is a carefully told adaptation of the 2015 ProPublica article "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," published in conjunction with The Marshall Project. Ken Armstrong, a writer for The Marshall Project, and T. Christian Miller, a senior reporter for ProPublica, spent nearly a year reporting the story, reviewing hundreds of legal documents, and submitting multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, according to ProPublica. In February 2016, the piece was turned into a This American Life episode titled "Anatomy of Doubt," and that April, Armstrong and Miller won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for their work.
At the heart of the story is Marie, a former foster child who, in 2008, after successfully living on her own for a few months, filed a police report claiming an intruder had broken into her home and raped her. What followed was a horrifically botched investigation that resulted in Marie being punished for reporting her own rape.
After surviving a tumultuous life in the foster care system, including sexual and physical abuse and being moved several times with no explanation, Marie had finally managed to carve out a life for herself with the help of a pilot program called Project Ladder. Project Ladder helped foster kids transition to adulthood with housing assistance, community building support, and financial planning tools. With the help of a case manager, Marie had found a job after getting her GED and was living alone in an apartment complex in Lynnwood, WA. She remained close with two of her former foster parents, Shannon McQuery and Peggy Cunningham.
But after 18-year-old Marie reported being bound, blindfolded, and raped at knifepoint by a stranger who broke into her apartment, both McQuery and Cunningham had doubts about the veracity of her story. Police were already beginning to question her account, because she gave "inconsistent" recollections over the course of two sessions with police. Furthermore, Cunningham called the detectives on Marie's case — who had very little experience investigating rape, according to the ProPublica report — and told them she suspected Marie was not being truthful.
Police eventually pressured Marie into saying she had lied about being raped and charged her with filing a false police report. She paid a fine of $500. Later, she recanted her recantation. But it wasn't until 2011, when Colorado detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot discovered photos of Marie in the computer files of a serial rapist they'd caught, which showed her bound in her bedroom, that her story was believed. In the end, Marc O'Leary, the man Galbraith and Hendershot had been investigating for a string of Colorado rapes with similar M.O.s to Marie's, pleaded guilty to 28 counts of rape and was sentenced to 327 1/2 years in prison. He will never be released.
Unbelievable, which Marie serves as an executive producer on, is now streaming on Netflix.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.