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.

"After the first 20 or 30 seconds," she recalls, "some of the terror eased and I made myself think only about survival." She struggled to focus her thoughts on a favored photograph of a stone carving of an angel that hung above the bed where she was being assaulted, silently praying for its protection.

The rapist ordered that she accompany him to the bathroom and told her to shower. She tried to assert herself. "I turned on the water, and he started pushing me," she says. "I told him I wouldn't get in until the spray had warmed. That seemed to shock him a little, but he let me wait. He just told me not to look at him and sat down on the commode, waiting for me to get into the shower."

As she did so, she got her best look at her attacker. Peeking from behind the curtain, she saw only the top of his head and the fashionable black shoes he was wearing. Without her contacts, her vision was seriously hampered, but she got the impression he had "deep-set eyes." Later, she would estimate that the man was probably 6 feet tall and weighed about 250 pounds.

The humiliation was not over. Following her shower, the intruder forced her to perform oral sex on him and ejaculated into her mouth. He then shoved her into a closet, closed the door and disappeared into the night.

The attacker exercised extreme care to leave no physical evidence behind. But he had not anticipated the calm and resolve of his victim.

Once she was certain he'd left her apartment, Cotroneo exited the closet. She hurried into her kitchen and spat his semen into a plastic bag.

"All I could think," she says, "was that I wanted to be sure this guy was caught."

When police arrived, they were amazed at her controlled demeanor. "People deal with trauma in different ways," she says. "At the time, I felt a lot of strong emotions--fear, violation--but not guilt. I knew I had done nothing wrong. What had happened was not my fault."

Above all, she was angry. After the attack, she missed only a single day of work. She spent much of her spare time searching the Internet for information on rape and its victims.

"After about three weeks," she says, "I felt I was ready to be on my own again, to get my life back to normal." She attended a Toastmasters gathering, not anticipating that the first speaker's topic would deal with ways to prevent home break-ins. "I had to get up and leave," she says. "A lady in the group noticed me and came outside to ask if I was OK. When I explained why I'd left she gave me the name of a counselor she recommended I contact.

"I felt I'd been handling things pretty well," she continues, "but I also knew I didn't want to be one of those who suddenly suffers a breakdown in the middle of a shopping mall a year later. So, I spent the next six months in therapy."

"She had an incredible determination to work through what had happened to her," says Patsy D. Phillips, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in trauma. "It was made easier by the fact she absolutely refused to see herself as a victim. Gina was a young woman with a strong spiritual foundation, and she used that to her advantage. She saw what had happened to her as something she needed to learn from. I admire her a great deal."

Cotroneo's progress, in fact, was well ahead of what law enforcement was making. No database match of the DNA sample was found, no suspect singled out.

The man eventually arrested and charged with the attack on Cotroneo and five others had come a long way since leaving Dallas' Hope Cottage when he was just 8 days old, adopted by James and Vera Faison. He'd grown up in a home where his father, a Tom Thumb grocery store manager, demanded discipline and hard work. His mother made sure her new son regularly attended services at the neighborhood Baptist church.

"He was as good a little boy as you could hope to have," says the now widowed Vera Faison. "He'd even save part of his weekly allowance so when Christmas came he could buy gifts with his own money." She proudly remembers him singing in the choir, always quick to lend a hand to others. Hers is the unwavering love of a mother for her child. "I pray for him every day," she says.

By the time he'd entered Garland High, Gary had become an extremely popular youngster who could bring home A-and-B report cards with very little study. He was an outstanding linebacker on the football team and, according to former teachers and fellow students alike, was the school's reigning class clown.

Only in the final days of his senior year did serious trouble visit.

It was, he reflects, the first time he'd "stepped out of bounds." He had begun dating a 16-year-old white girl despite the displeasure of her parents. Still, he says, he was stunned when he learned that the girl, accompanied to the police station by her mother and father, had filed rape charges against him. "She had told them that she was drunk and I sexually assaulted her," Faison says now. The charges, he insists, were unfounded, triggered by an irate father angered over the fact his daughter was dating a black man.

He was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to eight years in prison. The planned visits to the campuses of Rice, SMU and Angelo State, where football coaches were promising scholarships, never occurred. Instead of a college campus, Gary Faison's new home for the next 32 months was the Texas Department of Correction's Ferguson and Beto units.

Once paroled, he found rebuilding his life difficult. For a time he worked in a snack-food warehouse, then with a printing company and, finally, in the deli of a grocery store managed by his father. Briefly, he tried to revive his athletic career, joining a local semi-pro football team. Then, in the summer of 1988, he made a serendipitous phone call that would lead to a new start.

"I was a big fan of The Tom Joyner Show," he says. (Joyner's show was then on KKDA-FM, KKDA-AM's sister station.) "And I called in one day to answer a trivia question." Soon, he'd become acquainted with other on-air personalities such as Willis Johnson and Chris Arnold and re-established ties with an old kindergarten classmate, Aaron Michaels, who was doing a late-night show.

"One night," he says, "Willis invited me to go with him to Players, where he sometimes worked as a DJ." In short order, Faison, in his mid-20s and up to 250 pounds, was serving as Johnson's assistant and bodyguard at the clubs where he was hired to work. One evening, a waitress questioned his age, pointing out that he looked too young to admit. Surprised to learn that Faison had just turned 25, she remarked that his baby face made him look much younger. Faison thus adopted a new moniker that remains to this day. Tinkering a bit with the king's English and to distinguish himself from the well-known R&B singer Babyface, he assigned himself the nickname "Babyfase." Soon he was visiting the Grand Prairie studios of KKDA, spending evenings watching as old friend Michaels did his late-night show. "He began to teach me," Faison says, "and would occasionally let me talk on the air."

In time, Faison was hired to work at the station, and the two became a team. When he wasn't bombarding his audience with an endless string of jokes and music, he was out in the community doing street promotions, offering first callers and those who answered trivia questions correctly a free fill-up of gas, tickets to concerts or copies of the latest releases of popular black recording artists.

Former class clown and ex-con, Gary "Babyfase" Faison had found his niche. By the late '90s he was one of Dallas' better-known radio personalities, not only hosting a daily show and earning top dollar as a club DJ but so active in the black community that it had begun to win him praise and plaques from the NAACP and other civic organizations.

He was, by his own admission, living the dream, with money in his pocket, driving a new Z-28 with personalized plates ("Babyfase," naturally), rubbing elbows with entertainment celebrities and a constant target of women admirers who seemed not at all put off that his weight had ballooned to 320 pounds. Though unmarried, he was the father of two daughters and a son and maintained a close relationship with them and their mothers.

On a Saturday night in July 1998, Faison's bright star suddenly turned dark.

"I'd been invited to a party," he says, "and on the way home I had to take a leak. I'd recently had an appendectomy and had been drinking. I was in pain and needed to go pretty badly." He says he pulled into an apartment parking lot and ran across the street to a row of unlighted bushes where he planned to relieve himself. Almost immediately, however, the flashlight of a security guard was shining in his face and he was being ordered to lie on the ground. Two other guards soon arrived, one handcuffing him while another placed a call to Dallas police.

During a 45-minute wait, Faison learned from those detaining him that a woman living in a nearby apartment had been attacked just a week earlier by a man who had hit her with a barstool from her dining room. There was also talk of the series of break-ins and rapes that had occurred in the general vicinity. "I finally snapped on the fact they were thinking I might be the guy doing all that," Faison says.

When the police arrived, however, they immediately ordered that the handcuffs be removed. "One of the officers seemed a little irritated at the security guards, looking at me and then handing one of them a flier and asking if he'd read it," he remembers. On it, the suspected rapist was described as weighing between 180 and 200 pounds, a weight range the 6-foot-1 Faison hadn't enjoyed since his teen-age years.

Faison was released. Before returning to his car, he recalls, he shook hands with the security officers and police. "I told them I understood they were just doing their job and that there were no hard feelings," he recalls. Aside from receiving what he perceived as a few too many speeding tickets from them, Faison insists he had no negative feelings toward law enforcement in those days. In fact, he says, he'd been occasionally dating a woman lieutenant with the DPD tactical squad, even riding along with her on patrol now and then. In his billfold he carried an honorary deputy constable card that had been issued him from Dallas County Precinct 7.

Early the following week, the KKDA-AM station manager entered the control room while Faison was on the air, asking if there was someone who could sit in for him for the remainder of his show. There were, he explained, detectives in the lobby with a warrant for his arrest.

Soon after being escorted away from the station, Faison was fingerprinted, a blood sample to be used in DNA testing was taken and he was placed under a $1 million bond.

During the mid-to-late '90s, police were convinced that not one, but several, serial rapists were terrorizing northeast Dallas. Ultimately, a 34-year-old man named Ollie Ray Diles, who had been labeled "The Box-Cutter Rapist" after victims described the weapon used to subdue them, was caught in 1997, convicted for three sexual attacks and given three life sentences. Next to be apprehended was Sammie Luckus Cook Jr., 31, who was linked by DNA evidence to as many as 15 rapes dating to 1995.

The litany of details provided by Cook's victims was numbing: Their assailant, each reported, had worn a bandanna over his face and either gloves or socks on his hands to prevent leaving any fingerprints. Purse straps, belts or electrical cords were used to bind their hands and feet, and they were threatened with a knife or scissors. In one case, a woman told of coming out of her bathroom to find a man holding a kitchen fork to the throat of her 6-year-old daughter. The mother managed to grab the youngster but was eventually raped as the terrified child looked on. Another had been eight months pregnant at the time of her attack.

Police, however, were convinced Diles and Cook were not the only rapists terrorizing northeast Dallas.

There had, for instance, been the young woman who, after returning from a week's vacation, was awakened at 2 a.m. by an intruder who entered her apartment bedroom and placed a towel and a gloved hand over her face before raping her. During the attack he had threatened to cut out her eyes if she screamed or resisted. When he asked for money, the victim provided him with her ATM code number. Then, before leaving, he had forced her to shower in an effort to do away with any physical evidence of the attack. She would later tell police that she never saw the assailant's face.

There would, however, be a photograph of a man using the automatic teller machine near the woman's apartment after the assault. Additionally, a palm print was lifted from a window screen that had apparently been removed from the victim's apartment and found nearby.

Two weeks before Christmas in 1995, a 26-year-old SMU graduate student was attacked in the early morning hours by a man who had entered her apartment through a sliding glass door. The assailant covered her head with a pillowcase, bound her hands with a pair of pantyhose and raped her. Throughout the attack, he warned that if she screamed, he would cut her. Following the rape, he had also demanded that she shower before he disappeared into the night.

The victim, who never saw her attacker's face, could only describe him as being 5-foot-10 and weighing approximately 190 pounds. The only clues left behind were partial prints left by the intruder on the front-door deadbolt and a strip of tape used to disable a locking bar.

Unfortunately, as with the previous case, the police had no suspect with whom to compare the prints.

The following July, a young married woman whose husband was out of town on business was dressing for work when a man burst into her apartment bedroom and threw a blanket over her head before sexually assaulting her and taking $20 and a Discover card from her purse. Through the traumatic event, she later told investigators, she had talked of being the mother of a young son and begged that her life be spared. She also asked that her attacker use a condom during the rape. All she could remember the man saying in response was for her to "settle down and shut up."

Though she was unable to provide police with a description of the man who attacked her, a neighbor later told authorities of seeing a black man looking into the woman's apartment window. Another resident said she'd been walking her dog two days earlier and saw an unfamiliar African-American male near the rape victim's apartment.

While relatively certain the same person had committed all three rapes--and perhaps as many as a half dozen others--frustrated investigators had no real suspect on which to focus. The man they had been desperately searching for was little more than a faceless ghost. Until Gary Faison was arrested.

A year had passed since her attack when Gina Cotroneo received a call from DPD Detective James Skelly, informing her that the police had a suspect in custody. He asked if she would come to the station and look at a photo lineup. Despite arguing that she had not gotten a look at her assailant's face, she carefully studied the pictures of six young black men placed on a table in front of her. None looked familiar.

"Still, I could tell that Detective Skelly was excited about the man they had in custody," she says. He explained, in fact, that Faison was a suspect in several assaults. A sample of his blood was being sent off to determine if his DNA matched the semen sample she had provided investigators. First, however, he would be tried for a rape where fingerprint evidence had been found.

By September 1998, Faison had been indicted on three additional counts of sexual assault and one of aggravated assault with bodily injury. Detective Skelly told members of the media that there was the possibility that "three to five more cases" might be linked to Faison once DNA testing was completed.

By the end of the year, he had been convicted and sentenced to 90 years for the 1995 rape of the SMU student. Though the victim could not identify him and there was no DNA evidence presented, a partial fingerprint lifted from the deadbolt latch of the young woman's door and a thumbprint taken from the strip of tape used to disable the locking bar matched his. The jury deliberated only 90 minutes before finding Faison guilty.

And even before Cotroneo's trial date was set, Faison's troubles continued to mount. A woman who had been attacked in the parking lot of her apartment in 1991 saw his photograph in the newspaper and told police he looked like the man who had pulled her from her car, slammed her onto the pavement and attempted to rape her. The assault, she told authorities, had been interrupted by the arrival of another car, and the man had fled to a nearby Toyota.

It was, however, the second trial that offered what then-Assistant District Attorney Lisa Fox called "the jackpot," DNA evidence that experts said had a one-in-300 million chance of belonging to anyone other than Gary Faison.

By the spring of 1999, Gina Cotroneo had a new job and was regaining her positive outlook on life. But nothing could remove the dread she felt as she prepared to take the stand and detail for a group of strangers the assault and degradation she'd been subjected to two years earlier. "On one hand," she recalled as she sipped a cup of Starbucks coffee, "I felt a sense of relief that it was about to finally be over. By the same token, I really had to emotionally prepare myself for what I would have to do.

"I think a lot of my friends expected me to have some big emotional reaction to seeing the man who raped me sitting in the courtroom. Truth is, I didn't."

Not only did she tell her story in graphic detail, but other women Faison was charged with raping took the stand to relive their nightmares. Expert witnesses carefully explained that the DNA evidence linked Faison to Cotroneo's rape. Again he was convicted, this time to a life sentence.

The most dramatic moment in the proceedings came when Cotroneo was allowed to make a victim's statement at the end of the punishment phase of the trial. Even now, she remembers it verbatim:

"When you raped me," she said as she faced Faison, "you took a piece of my soul with you, a piece that I've been grieving for and missing and wandering around without for two years. As I stand here, looking into your eyes, I take it back."

She remembers that he seemed to deflate in front of her. "I told him I could see him shrinking."

As she reflects on the moment, she insists that testifying against Faison was never a "personal" thing, rather just a means to assure that he was denied the power to ever again harm a woman. "I didn't know him; he didn't know me. Do I hate him? No, I don't have time for that."

Nor, she says, did her focus narrow only on the man seated at the defense table. "I was aware that his mother was in the courtroom," she says, "and I felt so badly for her. Seeing her there, imagining what she must be feeling, was heartbreaking."

Many of those who had crowded into state District Judge Faith Johnson's courtroom in support of Faison or testified as character witnesses remain convinced he did not commit the crimes of which he was convicted. "I had visited him in jail shortly after he was arrested," recalls longtime community activist Chester Johnson, "and asked him point-blank if he was guilty. He told me he wasn't. I've known Gary since we were kids, and that kind of crime is not like him in any way."

The Reverend Doyce Wilson is Faison's minister at the Sweet Home Baptist Mission. He and Johnson are members of a Gary Faison support group that writes and visits him regularly. "I never felt that his lawyer really put on a defense," Wilson says. "Gary's told me many times that the Lord knows he's innocent."

Separated from his visitor by a glass partition at New Boston's Telford Unit, Faison is, for the first time, speaking out about his arrest and convictions. Pleasant and personable, he talks in a rapid-fire manner, aware that prison officials have allowed him only two hours to make his case that he is an innocent man.

Even in his white jumpsuit, it is obvious he's much fitter than he was before his incarceration. The 320 pounds have melted away to a trim, solid 210. "Today," he says, "I actually fit the description those women gave of the man who attacked them."

He talks only briefly of the grinding routine of prison life, of time spent reading and watching TV, writing letters, doing research in its law library and looking forward to the weekend visits from family and friends. Mainly, though, he tells of how he is an example of a black man who achieved a degree of success, only to "get knocked down for it." Again, he points out, he had "stepped out of bounds." "I was an ex-con who had developed himself into something."

Someday, Faison insists, he hopes to get it back, to prove he was not a night-stalking rapist, but there is little real optimism in his voice. Still, he makes points about some of the evidence against him: None of those he was accused of attacking was able to identify him, and most estimated his weight to be 100 pounds or more shy of what he actually weighed at the time. Nothing, he says--no fingerprints, hair or fibers--linked to him was ever found inside any of the victims' apartments.

It is obvious that he has prepared himself for the first interview he's given since his arrest. "At my first trial," he remembers, "I was numb. [The victim] testified that her attacker was wearing gloves. Yet, they found those partial prints on the door and the lock that were supposed to match mine. That was the only so-called evidence...and I got 90 years."

He shakes his head. "And she described the man who assaulted her as being 6 feet and 180 pounds. The prosecution obviously couldn't find anyone who remembered me when I weighed less than 300.

"The whole thing made me wonder if common sense really applies in a court of law."

Flipping through the manila folder in front of him, he continues making his case: "That woman who was getting ready for work and was attacked and robbed? They had nothing that showed I'd ever been in that apartment. No hairs, no semen. All they had was a piece of broken window glass--outside the apartment--that they said had my fingerprint on it." The recollection of the woman who said she was attacked in the parking lot before the assailant fled in a Toyota? "I've never driven a Toyota in my life," Faison insists.

What about the man in the ATM photograph, shown using a victim's card shortly after she'd been attacked? "The man," he says, "is wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and you can only see a small part of his face. But you can tell that he's clean-shaven. The only time I didn't have a beard back in 1997 was a four-day period after I'd lost a bet on the Tyson-Holyfield fight. I'd shaved it but immediately began growing it back."

As for the DNA evidence: "All they said was that I could not be eliminated, never that there was a match." There was, he notes, a window screen, found 60 feet away from the victim's apartment, that had a palm print the prosecution said matched his. "Even if it was my palm print--and I'm certainly not saying it was--that kind of evidence hardly placed me inside her home where the attack occurred."

Another woman, who lived less than a mile from Faison's residence at the time, had said that the intruder who raped her had entered her apartment through a small bedroom window she'd left open. Additionally, investigators found traces of semen on the living room floor where she had been forced to perform oral sex. "I was finally eliminated from that one when there was no DNA match," he points out. Then, with the first trace of a smile, "Can you imagine someone 320 getting through a little apartment window?"

Noting that he never knew any of the women he was accused of attacking, he questions whether the police investigated the possibility that other apprehended rapists might have been responsible for the crimes of which he was convicted.

Yet for all his denials, and some logical questions, there is one evidentiary hurdle that remains all but impossible to get over. DNA matching, regarded as a foolproof crime-solving technique, trumps all conjecture about partial or smudged fingerprints and conflicting descriptions. Five years ago Gina Cotroneo spat into a baggie, handed it over to police and the odds against her rapist being anyone other than Faison jumped off the mathematical chart. One in 300 million.

It is not a fact Faison is willing to concede. "When all that first came up," he says, "I knew it wasn't going to match. I was dumbfounded when they said it did."

Today, he remains so convinced that the physical evidence against him was somehow manipulated that he has asked DeSoto lawyer Fred McDaniel to file a motion requesting a new series of DNA tests. McDaniel, court-appointed only for purposes of filing the motion, says they are rarely granted.

Gina Cotroneo looks to her future. "He's on his own path," is all she wishes to say about the man convicted of attacking her. "I'm on mine."

Today she insists that what occurred on that night five years ago didn't change her. "I changed me," she says. Her friends have accepted what she went through and have put it aside. She insists she harbors no lingering suspicion of men and is again dating.

"In a way, what I went through convinced me that I now have the credentials to do what I want to with my life." She looks forward to reaching out to others with a line of inspirational "Soul's Calling" products she has designed and plans to market. She's signed on with a lecture bureau, eager to pursue her goal of becoming a motivational speaker, and she is writing a book.

It was shortly after the Faison trial that she took a trip to the jungles of Peru, visiting sacred Inca sites and participating in meditation ceremonies, returning to her quest for knowledge. "It was a profound experience," she says. "I came back feeling like the rising phoenix."

That, she says, is how she continues to view herself.

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