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News / Northwest

Joining the ranks of the survivors: Spokane woman has pushed for change in victim treatment for decades

By Emma Epperly, The Spokesman-Review
Published: May 5, 2024, 5:52am

SPOKANE — Growing up in Spokane, Sunny remembers how her father gave his five children one mandate: make the world a better place.

“My dad was emphatic that each of these five children of his would in some way make the world a better place,” she said. “From day one, it was clear that we had that assignment.”

She carried that goal with her, even when Sunny was kidnapped from her job at a Maryland library and raped in 1978.

The next year was a grueling lesson in how poorly the criminal justice system treats victims, Sunny said.

Her rapist was convicted and sentenced to life in prison just over a year after the attack.

“I would love to perceive some good derived from this experience, to feel a new lease on life, etc.,” Sunny told the judge at sentencing. “All I see is no reason, no plan, just the need to put one foot in front of the other and with determination to join the ranks of the survivors.”

Sunny, now 81, decided to help her fellow survivors over the next few years by advocating for additional recognition of the trauma their attacks caused and pushing for victim impact statements to be considered at sentencing.

That advocacy led Sunny, who asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her privacy, to the White House, where she met with then-President Ronald Reagan to further the cause.

Disrupting an idyllic life

Sunny and her husband, Mike, grew up in the Spokane area. They met at a dance out in Newman Lake, and the rest is history, the couple said.

They attended Gonzaga University, then married in 1965. Mike went on to get a doctorate and joined the Navy to do medical research, which is what moved the couple to Bethesda, Maryland. The couple had three children in school.

On an August day in 1978, Sunny went to work at the library. She and another librarian were kidnapped at gunpoint in their office.

The man, Robert Chenault, took them to a secluded dam where he raped Sunny.

The three-hour ordeal ended with a high-speed chase after Sunny mouthed “Help” to a gas station attendant and a bank employee was concerned over a large check the assailant forced her to write.

Just under 20% of rapes are committed by a stranger, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Almost immediately after her rescue, she began to be revictimized, Sunny said in her 1979 victim impact statement, this time by the system that was supposed to help her.

At the hospital, a nurse blew smoke in her face while holding her hand and asking questions.

“Aren’t these people trained to deal with victims?” Sunny remembers thinking.

She had to have STD testing done, which made her angry. “Why not test the rapist?” Sunny thought.

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Still, the ordeal was over, and she was determined to get back to normal. Sunny returned to work a week later.

“I always thought depression and mental illness resulted from a weakness of will,” Sunny wrote. “I was strong-willed and courageous and would not succumb!”

Five weeks later, she was extremely depressed. She tried therapy, but it didn’t work, so she quit. Eventually, she found a therapist who helped but was still frustrated that the appointments took time out of her life. Sunny was embarrassed to go to therapy, which was highly looked down upon socially in the 1970s.

Therapy was expensive, but crime victim funds would pay for the appointments. She called to get the bill paid, and a secretary mentioned Sunny’s trial was coming up.

“No one had mentioned it to me,” Sunny said.

The trial continued to get delayed, each time throwing Sunny and Mike’s whole life into disarray.

“I thought that the year was eternity,” she said. “There wasn’t a birthday or holiday that was unaffected by a delay.”

People in Sunny’s life didn’t know what to say or how to be around her, she said.

“All year long I’ve tried to accommodate people’s reactions to my ordeal. Only two people have said something that helped ease my pain. One was another rape victim. The other is dying of rare disease,” Sunny wrote in her victim impact statement. “All the hundreds of others have unconsciously asked me to take care of their needs. They beg me to present them with some assurance the same thing won’t happen to them.”

That awkward dance made Sunny feel ostracized for something that wasn’t her fault, she said.

When the trial took place, over the anniversary of the attack, Sunny said the judge and attorneys treated her like a “piece of evidence,” not a person.

“She got terrible treatment in the courts and recognized early on that she had no status and that she was really evidence,” Mike said.

The judge was wary to let Sunny read her victim impact statement ahead of sentencing, something that judges frequently either did not allow or give much weight to in the 1970s and ‘80s.

After sentencing, Sunny’s attacker mailed her a letter to her home, another moment of victimization that could have been avoided if her private information had been protected.

A better system for victims

Sunny and Mike’s experience with the criminal justice system launched them into years of advocacy work to increase the use of victim impact statements, recognize the trauma crime causes and reduce trial delays, among other issues.

“A terrifying three hours turned into 365 days of terror for myself and my family,” Sunny told the New York Times in 1983. “I could not recommend in good faith that anyone who is raped prosecute, and this is a great loss for me because I had been raised to be a law-abiding citizen.”

Sunny spoke to the President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime in 1982. The next year, she told a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the assault wreaked havoc on her life.

She and her husband spent at least $12,000 on individual and couples’ therapy, and an additional $12,000 on family therapy.

“I have spent many hours of work time in therapy, pretrial hearings, in actual trial and sentencing,” Sunny told the committee. “Even though my husband and I have full-time professional jobs and are covered by insurance plans this has been a considerable financial strain.”

The couple’s children were teenagers when Sunny was assaulted, and the experience victimized them too, Sunny and Mike said. Mike and the children constantly looked out for things that would make Sunny upset, such as assault scenes in movies and news on the radio.

But it was impossible to predict what would bother her. A plane crash was one surprising trigger, she said.

“It isn’t just explicitly rape,” she said.

It wasn’t until one of their boys began acting out that they went to family therapy.

“It’s kind of what saved our family, to have that outlet,” Sunny said.

When Sunny and Mike spoke to the National Judicial College, they were the only couple that came. All the other victims in attendance had gotten divorced after their assaults, Sunny said.

The couple credit the length and depth of their relationship prior to the attack, along with “a fair amount of therapy,” for keeping them together.

Because of her advocacy, Sunny was among a group of victims invited to the White House in March of 1983 to meet with President Ronald Regan.

“It was exciting,” Sunny said of the trip to the Rose Garden at the White House.

Continuing impact

Some of the issues in the criminal justice system that Mike and Sunny were fighting for have been addressed. Victim impact statements are now a federal right for rape victims, except in limited circumstances.

There is increased training on how to avoid re-traumatizing victims throughout the criminal justice system. The percentage of people aged 18 to 44 getting mental health treatment has increased in just the last few years, with 19.2% in 2019 to 21.6% in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think counseling is more common these days, and there’s more talk about mental health,” Sunny said. “People are more accepting of it as an option.”

Still, to this day there are triggers. The anniversary of the attack is always tough to get through, the couple said. Sometimes a smell, a scene in a TV show or a post online will be surprisingly upsetting.

“At 81, I’m still experiencing it, and Mike is still trying to protect me,” Sunny said. “It impacts, probably, your lifetime.”

It can be frustrating when people don’t understand why the trauma is still with the couple, they said.

“One of the most negative things that people say is, ‘Why can’t you put it behind you?’ Well, because you can never put it behind you,” Mike said. “It’s diminished over the years, but it still happens.”

All those years of living with it have helped Sunny know herself and what she needs to cope. It also has made it easy for her to see in others what she assumes people see in her: a survivor.