Likely Suspect

They were, to those who knew them, young and bright and quickly gaining ground in their race toward the American Dream. Gary Faison, an on-the-fast-track disc jockey for radio station KKDA-AM (730), had long aspired to fame and had begun to receive it, at least locally. Gina Cotroneo was prospering as an art director for a Dallas advertising agency, involved in a relationship that looked as if it might be headed for marriage and was eagerly anticipating her debut speech to the Toastmasters organization she'd recently joined.

He was black, 31, charming, flashy and fun-loving; a celebrity whose stature had grown with every morning drive-time broadcast on KKDA and the nighttime appearances he made at trendy local nightclubs. She was white, 30, brown-eyed, outgoing and eternally optimistic--she even picked up pennies for good luck.

In the pitch-dark early morning of June 19, 1997, the lives of these two strangers would collide and crumble. That was when Gina Cotroneo was raped.

In time, Faison would be arrested, tried and convicted of the crime, one his friends and co-workers believed it impossible for him to have committed. Cotroneo would ultimately lose her job, the marriage she'd looked forward to never took place and even her tightly held faith in God was tested.

He went to prison, convicted of rape. Cotroneo went into therapy.

Recently both spoke with the Dallas Observer about the life-altering chain of events that continue to link them. For Cotroneo, the telling of the story has been an ongoing therapeutic exercise. Unlike many rape survivors, she has decided to openly discuss her attack, appearing on talk shows and in Glamour magazine. Last week she joined Dallas Police Chief Terrell Bolton in addressing the YMCA's kickoff for the city's Week Without Violence. For Faison, it marks a long-considered decision to finally speak out after a five-year silence.

They agreed to discuss the case in part for a common reason: They wanted to give a fuller picture of themselves than was offered in news accounts of the case. But Faison--who contacted the Observer--has, of course, an ulterior motive: to profess his innocence. He and a group of vocal supporters maintain that not only was he incapable of such a crime, but that the witness accounts and photographic evidence in no way implicate him.

To be sure, Faison raises interesting points of inconsistency in the case against him. He doesn't quite fit the physical description offered by the victims (he was convicted of two rapes). And he asserts that a photograph of the supposed attacker looks nothing like him.

But what he cannot explain away is the evidence that Gina Cotroneo provided to police--evidence that puts the chances police got the wrong man at one in 300 million.

The route taken to Dallas by Cotroneo, daughter of an electrical engineer father and a mother who was a bookkeeper, wound from her hometown of Rome, New York, to Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Portland before she arrived in Texas in 1993. Along the way, she polished her artistic skill and landed a well-paying job. She also developed a fascination with quantum mechanics, all things spiritual and the mysteries of the paranormal. Her mission in life, she says, had become an ongoing search for knowledge and understanding. Cotroneo welcomed the answers she found in the esoteric books she was constantly reading and thought-provoking, late-into-the-night discussions with friends.

In time, she began to think her calling might not be in the advertising world but as a motivational speaker. For that reason she had joined Toastmasters, a training organization for aspiring speechmakers. After telling her boyfriend goodbye on that Wednesday evening in 1997, she had carefully organized her note cards and practiced the talk she planned to give the following day on modern miracles. Then she removed her contacts and prepared for bed.

Cotroneo would not get to deliver her speech. Instead, she would be providing law enforcement officials and hospital attendants with details of the most harrowing night of her life. Those attending her and taking her statement agreed that she was lucky to be alive.

She'd been startled from sleep by the jarring sound of her front door slamming. For a split second she thought her boyfriend had returned, but that notion quickly vanished as a large, dark figure rushed into her bedroom and was quickly on top of her, placing a beefy hand over her mouth. "Do you want to die?" her attacker asked in a Jamaican accent. "I'll kill you if you scream." When she struggled to prevent his placing a pillowcase over her head, he warned that he had a "partner" waiting outside. Then he raped her. He assaulted her anally, then vaginally a second time.

"Do you have any money?" the intruder demanded. Squinting into a dark blur, she could not make out the man's face, only smell his breath and feel his large, fleshy hands pressing down against her. "In my purse," she said.