After Stephanie Montgomery says she was raped at the strip club where she worked, she went to the manager and the police. Nothing happened. That’s when she decided to tell her story as big as she could.
When the painting is rolled out across the billboard, cheers and shouts erupt from the street below. “Ohhh, damn!” “Hell, yeah, man!” A woman bursts into tears.
The artwork, 48-by-14 feet and hung above Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, depicts a superhero-sized woman in a pink dress and combat boots beheading a man. In her left hand, she holds up his head, dripping green goop; her right boot is planted on his body, suggesting she tore off the head with her bare hands. The background shows a strip club with a neon sign that says: “Fresh Meat.” Rats cluster around a doorway marked VIP, and, in the distance, zombies shamble toward the club. The lights cast eerie halos. The sky is a violent churn of blue-green clouds. “I’m Stephanie,” the billboard reads. “I was raped by a guy like this in a place like that. I told the club and the police, but no one did anything. So I painted this billboard.”
The billboard sits at the entrance to the I-10, one of the city’s busiest freeways, so there’s a steady stream of traffic on this Monday morning in February. Cars slow, drivers craning over their steering wheels to look up. Truck drivers downshift, then turn to study the people clustered on the sidewalk. Some of the drivers honk their horns or give a thumbs-up. A few look stricken. The artist, Stephanie Montgomery, 28 years old, dark-haired, hazel-eyed, a drop of a woman at 5-foot-2, gazes up at her work. “Oh my fucking Jesus Christ!” she says. Down at the end of the block is the strip club where she used to work and where she says she was raped last June.
That was eight months ago, but unless you knew who she was and all the things that happened in that time and all that didn’t, you could only guess at what led her here. Still, as soon as the billboard unfurled, it felt foretold by every failed sexual-assault investigation and nonexistent prosecution, by each undertrained and overwhelmed detective and every risk-averse district attorney, an entire justice system that still doesn’t take rape seriously.
Stephanie continues to stare upward. Then she begins to laugh in a short staccato, “Ha, ha, ha, ha!” Each “ha” a sharp exhalation of breath — “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” — until it sounds less like a laugh than some ancient chant of victory.
Stephanie was 3 years old when her father, a soldier stationed at Fort Hood in Central Texas, died in a Humvee accident. She has watercolor memories of him: blond hair, blue eyes, “tickling me till I couldn’t breathe and, like, doing this monster thing with his arms.” Her mother told her, and she felt it in her bones: He had loved her very much. They had two birds at the time of her father’s death, and the boy bird died. The girl bird would cry, and Stephanie would lie next to the bird and cry, and her mom would weep watching them.
Her teenage half-brother and his girlfriend helped raise her in Copperas Cove, a small town outside Fort Hood, while her mother worked full time at Walmart. Mom was born in Panama, and Stephanie inherited both her raven-colored hair and her vitality. Mom was a live wire: lots of fireworks, lots of opinions. She loved to gossip, to intrigue, argue, flirt but was deeply and forever wedded to Stephanie’s father, and she never married again. As Stephanie grew up, mother and daughter would clash and clash hard. Why you want to be an artist, mima? Why you use those colors? That’s not right. Drawing close to her, lips against her ear, Mima, it’s ugly.
At 12, Stephanie was a full-on goth kid obsessed with death, with murder, with suicide, and the ever after. Maggots, blue skies, an eternity of bones. She was in class, writing in her journal, when a teacher snatched it from her hands. It was four years after Columbine, and the school principal screamed, “You want to kill people?” The counselor asked if she wanted to kill herself. Her family was given a choice between juvie and the children’s psych ward. She got her hospital socks, hospital robe, and hospital washcloth. Went to group therapy with a scary girl who chased a neighbor down the street with a knife. Was told that she was acting out because of her father’s death. She agreed to everything. They put her on antipsychotics and antidepressants and after a week allowed her to go home.
Her world was now a dirty gray. Her short-term memory shot to hell, so schoolwork was difficult. Her mom, that canny and unapologetic fighter in or out of her corner, did some reading and slowly weaned Stephanie off the medication. Whenever the social worker came to check on her, Mom said, Yes, ma’am, she’s taking her meds still. Stephanie decided to act happy, happy all the time and super enthusiastic about, well, everything, so she would never be taken away and locked up again. She took all of her journals to school, tore the pages to bits, and threw them away. A fitting place for a burial.
She kept drawing, kept painting. She attended the Art Institute of Dallas until her boyfriend joined the Army. “I couldn’t handle it,” she says. She went into flight mode. Took off to San Antonio and began attending the Art Institute there. Then, when her best friend, Christine Boomhower, said, “I’m leaving for L.A. Do you want to come along?” Stephanie said, “Hell, yes.” She was 22.
In order to save money for the move, Stephanie began to dance at a high-end Dallas strip club. Stephanie often described herself as a person without shame. “My embarrassment meter is, like, nonexistent.” She’d gone to strip clubs before, and the dancers had mesmerized her. They were sexy and fluid and strong, like airborne mermaids. She felt free when she was naked; she loved nude figurative-art modeling, which she began doing at art school. It felt so right that she figured she’d retire to a nudist colony when she was old. For her, dancing was like revealing her deepest, unadorned self in a secret place to secret people whom she would never see outside the club. It felt … beautiful. Like some hot and holy gift to the universe.
When she and Christine arrived in Los Angeles in January 2013, they rented a studio apartment north of Koreatown. Christine landed an unpaid internship with an independent designer, and Stephanie supported them both by dancing at Skin, “a gentlemen’s lounge,” on Robertson Boulevard. She chose Skin after looking up strip-club reviews on Yelp. The photos made it look classy. She didn’t want to dance for drunken party boys yelling, “Show us your titties!” She wanted to perform.
She always had her sketchbook with her, and during downtime at the club, she would draw the girls, the customers — sharp and whimsical renderings where the men sometimes appeared as wild hogs and the girls grew penises out of their foreheads like unicorns. She had fun dancing at first, but bit by bit the joy and the ease got all tangled up in some sticky web of men’s entitlement and contempt.
When she began at Skin, she had that super-adorable, perfectly indulgent, girl-next-door persona. She wore her hair long and natural, sported cute little glasses, was all Texas sugar and sexiness, especially with the older men. Lonely old dudes who want to feel special were her favorite customers. But over time, the girl next door was ground down, eroded by a steady drip, drip, drip of assholery. One time, she was in a VIP room with a customer who dropped his pants and told her to get busy. She refused. He demanded. She did her liquid-honey routine: “Let’s just enjoy our time together. I can take my clothes off for you. O0h, isn’t that fun?” He wouldn’t stop. She threatened to walk out with his money if he kept it up. Suck my dick! Suck my dick! he wailed, so she got up and left. Within minutes, a manager, who has since left the club, called her in, telling her a customer had complained that she was trying to gouge him for more money. Stephanie says she explained what had happened, but the manager insisted she return the client’s fee. She refused and was fired.
When she went back to Skin a few weeks later — “Being stripper fired is not like being regular fired” — she had shaved the back of her head and begun dying her hair yellow, blue, pink, green, whatever suited her at the moment. She stopped coddling and wheedling, being adorable while peeling their hands off of her. She would give those hands a swift schoolteacher’s smack. She felt as though she could breathe again. Eventually, her clientele shifted to those guys who liked a little managing.
One night in her studio apartment after the end of her shift. Stephanie lived alone now. Christine had moved out. The apartment was a dirty mess. Just walking into it exhausted her. Stephanie had been dancing for one and a half years, and she was losing heart. Nothing was happening with her art. She’d partnered up with some street artists, participated in some group shows at galleries, gotten a few commissions, mostly from friends and acquaintances, but they’d only led to more of the same. She was dog paddling in a rain-filled rut.
She was scared that night. She felt something cracking inside. She began to cry and couldn’t stop. She wasn’t going to make it. The darkness of that thought nearly swallowed her. Please, I need help, she begged. The sun was just coming up, no lie, and it sent a bright streak across the floor. Her shoulders dropped; something washed over her. A sense of peace, a calm, that said, It’s going to be OK. Stephanie, you’re going to be all right.
For months afterward, she followed that light. Took it wherever it led her. To the beach at Santa Monica, breathing in the soft and salty air. To a chakra healer who let her pour out her soul while taking all of her hard-earned cash, the beaucoup money she was making at Skin, but so what? For the first time, someone was listening. To a bookstore downtown, where she went straight upstairs as though she were being pulled by a rope, directly to a shelf where one book gleamed. She took it down. A kids book, What Is Death? She sat on the floor, read it, and sobbed. She began to write in a journal again. After deciding she would date only in a serious way, she managed to pick one bore after the other. Meanwhile, she was constantly texting with Dakota Cann, this cute boy she had met at the Art Institute of Dallas. She’d always had a crush on him, but now they were becoming friends. Both Bore Number One and Bore Number Two demanded she cut this guy out of her life.
She quit Skin and took a job running a salad bar at a restaurant and then began to work at a frame shop. She was hardly making any money, so she moved back in with Christine, taking a couch in her living room. Stephanie was painting goddesses, earth mothers and queens, strippers and dominatrixes — energetic, sexy, fantastical work. She wanted her art to be fun, and she wanted it to empower women. That summer of 2017, she traveled through the Southwest to various music festivals as an artist’s assistant, doing pop-up shops and murals. The trip was an eye-opener. She realized a way forward. She could do this with her own work. But she needed money, not salad-bar money or frame-shop money, for a truck and display panels, for canvases and entrance fees, so she decided to go back to Skin. This time with a goal and an exit plan.
Five years had passed since she’d arrived in L.A. She was 27. More self-aware, confident of herself as an artist, her demons tempered, if not exactly house-trained. She returned to Skin in March 2018. She tried hard to hold on to the sense that this was just a means to an end and she was just passing through. April … May … But Skin was a poisonous place. An illusion. The red velvet. The chandeliers. The ridiculous throwback version of luxury. The gilt-framed mirrors and the paintings of naked blond women. When Stephanie looked into those mirrors, she could’ve sworn she saw a butcher shop reflected back.
“Skin. For men who have taste. For men who have style. For men who want it all.” In L.A.’s crowded strip-club scene, Skin flies under the radar, hardly as well-known as Jumbo’s Clown Room or Spearmint Rhino, for instance. It’s been described as a discreet clubhouse for TV and film executives and the occasional B-list celeb. The club is often empty, but that’s made up for by the heavy spenders who walk through the door.
Tables and banquettes face the small stage. Lap dances are performed in an adjoining room, but the VIP rooms, some with couches, some with beds, are the money-makers. The prices are among the highest of any club in L.A. Forty dollars for a one-song lap dance, $300 for five songs in a regular VIP room, $600 for 15 songs in a room with a couch, and $900 for a room with a bed. The dancers give half their take to the club. They’re also expected to tip every nondancer working that shift — the bartender, the DJ, the bouncer, the manager. Tipping them well means getting high rollers pushed your way and being treated decently by management.
In the parking lot behind the club, there’s a super-VIP room, a kind of VVIP room, available to the big ballers and special friends of the owners. It looks like a concrete bunker, whitewashed cement and windowless, like some place you might store tools or auto parts. But inside there are curved couches, a private dancing booth, and a bathroom. Stephanie used to describe it as the place where you “sexily avoid being raped.”
Shifts can be tedious. Hours go by with no one in the club. The girls lie on the floor or sit against the wall, working their cellphones. They take naps in the VIP rooms. When someone rolls up to the entrance, the doorman notifies the DJ — cameras linked to the manager’s office catch every arrival — and, presto, the girls shed their robes or hoodies, bobble into their heels, the DJ starts up the music, the bartender takes up her station, and when the customer walks in, the DJ is mid-croon, “Sexy, hot, hot, hot Cayenne on stage!” and a girl is working the pole to Doja Cat’s “Go to Town.”
It’s a fully nude club, so serving alcohol is illegal. The bar offers astronomically priced Red Bulls and water, but according to four dancers who have worked there, anything goes in the VIP rooms. Alcohol’s offered there. Coke. And some of the dancers will have sex, which they say management is aware of. The club is owned by Stanley Yang and David Chew, co-owners of another fully nude club in L.A., Silver Reign.
It’s a hangout for their rich friends, one dancer says. “It’s very slow, and it makes it so you can’t, like, do honest work. You can’t just go and dance and entertain men. They cater to the needs of these, like, sick men, sick, sick men.” Probably half the dancers played it on the up and up, Stephanie says. They were hired as dancers, and that’s what they offered.
(Reached by phone, David Chew denied that alcohol, drugs, or sex were offered or sold at Skin. “It’s against the law,” he said. “Strip clubs are regulated by the police department. They have vice-squad units that monitor the clubs, and my clubs are constantly under police supervision. If those activities were going on, I would no longer be owning and operating clubs. LAPD would have put me out of business.” When asked if it was possible that drugs and alcohol were offered or sold by the dancers in the VIP rooms without his knowing, he said it was. “If a dancer chooses to sell drugs in the VIP room, it’s out of view, and I wouldn’t necessarily know.”)
June 10, 2018, after midnight. Stephanie was sitting outside, smoking a menthol she’d bummed from one of the other girls. It was a humid, mild, starless night. A baby breeze touched her hair, no more than a kiss. Jason Borba walked up and asked if she wanted to go to the back VIP room. In the messed-up family that was Skin, Jason seemed to be a favorite son. He used to work there as a bouncer. He was a mixed-martial-arts fighter and trainer, ripped, good-looking, young — the management loved him. Two weeks earlier, Stephanie had gone to the VVIP room with him and another girl, and it was just normal sexy stuff, so she didn’t think twice about going back there with him again.
But this time, as soon as they got inside and Stephanie began fiddling with the lights, getting the mood right, she says Jason pulled off his pants. “Whoa!” she told him. “That’s not how this works! I’m the one who takes my clothes off.” She’d always slipped into this humorous, soothing tone when things began to go a little haywire. But she might as well have been voiceless because — as she would later report to the police — he just stripped off his shirt and then grabbed his pants from the couch, fishing a condom out of one of his pockets.
“I don’t know what you think you’re gonna do with that, but we’re not gonna do that, OK?” Stephanie said, keeping her voice light. She was wearing all white, white bra, white garter belt, white stockings, and white panties, and he began yanking off her clothes. Then he was trying to finger her. “You need to chill out! Just relax!” She pushed him away, but he was right back on her. A fast-cutting commentary began running through her head. Ohhh, OK. He’s just gonna be one of these overly aggressive customers, and I just need to make my money and get out of here. But then Jason grabbed her and threw her down onto the couch.
“Borba placed his hand on the victim’s throat,” the police report reads. “He did not strangle the victim however he used his hand as a way to prevent her from standing up.” Stephanie scrambled against her own panic. OK, that’s fine. I see what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to do some domination-fantasy play. OK, that’s fine. He’s not choking me. He’s not hurting me, so it’s cool, it’s cool.
“This is not going to happen,” she told him, trying to push him off her. She tried to choke him back, and as they struggled, the condom slipped off. “Borba kept his hand on the victim’s throat and with his other hand placed his fingers inside the victim’s vagina,” the report continues. “Borba pulled his fingers out of the victim’s vagina and forced his penis into the victim’s vagina.” Stephanie’s brain shut off. Too late. It was over. “I was like, that’s it for me. I have no control over this situation. And it’s already done, so I just kind of lay there and let it happen.”
“Borba thrust into the victim several times on the couch, then picked the victim up and pushed her up against a wall,” the report goes on. “Borba then forced his penis into the victim’s vagina while he held her up against the wall. Borba then push [sic] the victim down to the floor. The victim was on her hands and knees and Borba forced his penis into her vagina from behind. Then Borba picked her up and placed her on the couch again. Borba forced his penis into her vagina serval [sic] more times, Borba then pulled out and ejaculated on the floor.”
After Jason went into the bathroom to clean up, he asked her how much money she wanted for the room. She said a thousand. It was for her time in the room. The usual fee. Jason was incredulous, Stephanie says. He always got discounts, and he wanted one now.
Her chest went tight. She couldn’t even tell if it was panic or anger gripping her, but she was like an animal clawing for balance, for some way to right herself. “Well, what’s in your pockets? Empty your bank account. Give me something for this shit!” He Venmoed her $350. “Then I just left, like, I just walked out of there. Actually, I walked out of there, and I had a cigarette with him. Isn’t that fucked up? We walked out, and he lit up a cigarette, and I’m like, ‘Give me a cigarette.’ ”
After she smoked, she went inside into the dressing room and sat there. It happened, she thought. Then she thought nothing for a full minute. So blank and still she seemed frozen. Her mother was arriving from Texas the next day to spend a week with her. Dakota, now her boyfriend, was flying up after that. She had to pull herself together. She could handle this. She was young, she didn’t know how to make her life work just yet, but she knew she could take a hit. The thing that had just happened to her? Didn’t happen. She would chalk it up as a loss. She would bury it alive. She took a deep breath, steeled herself, and walked out into the club, but inside she was on the run, running like mad, away.
(A call to Jason Borba was returned by his lawyer, Glen Jonas, who provided this statement: “Miss Montgomery is an exploitive attention-seeker making false allegations against my client so she can elevate her failing art career.” He declined to answer any questions. Co-owner David Chew said he was not aware of Stephanie’s allegation until the billboard went up in February. “Once we found out,” he said, “we did an internal investigation and determined that the assault did not happen.”)
All that week, as she showed her mother around, Stephanie wore her happy face. It’s not like she couldn’t tell her mother; there were no taboo topics with Mom, but Stephanie couldn’t go near the images, never mind let the words come stumbling out into what would be a torrent of her mom’s emotions. It Did Not Happen.
When Dakota arrived, she was still sailing along in full-speed denial, but at the end of the weekend, when the two of them began showing symptoms of an STD, she was yanked up short. Now she had to tell him about what happened that night. Dakota was what she called “baby-sized” when it comes to romantic, sexual relationships. He hadn’t been in a ton of them. He’s a nerd — she loves nerds — a gamer, an artist, a sweet, good, hilarious guy whom she considers her best friend. When she began to talk, it almost sounded like she was confessing an affair. She felt horribly guilty “for not addressing the situation immediately and thinking I could just cut it off and that it would only affect me. I felt dirty and wrong and like he didn’t deserve a gross-out bitch like me.” Dakota was furious at Jason. “He’s disgusting! What a pig!” he said.
The next day, they went to Planned Parenthood, and Stephanie found herself sitting in the exam room, facing the nurse who faced her computer screen. Just a couple of questions. Out in the hallway, steps, a laugh, a door shutting. Name? Date of birth? Tap, tap, tap, tap. How many partners have you had? “Voluntarily? One.” The nurse looked at her. Sharp, wary. Involuntarily? “Well, that’s what the issue is,” Stephanie said.
Have you reported it to the police? No. Do you want to? No. She just wanted to be tested for STDs, reassure herself, reassure her boyfriend, then shove it all away from her. Again. She knew that if she let this thing in, it would come at her like a wrecking ball. The nurse looked slightly horrified, but she didn’t say anything more and just continued with the paperwork.
But when it came time for the exam, the doctor brought it up. She sat Stephanie down and, holding her gaze, spoke about her own rape. She was straightforward and kind. Look, you seem to be handling it just fine, but if you’re not going to report it to the police, you need to talk to your management so that this person doesn’t do it to anybody else. It’s great that you can walk away from this, but imagine the next girl. This could be the thing that breaks her.
Stephanie tried to keep working at Skin. She was so numb, she didn’t even know what parts of her had been amputated. Once, she saw Jason enter the club, wave at her, and then disappear. She and Dakota hadn’t contracted an STD, so she was doing everything she could to forget. On her fifth night back, one of the newer girls, a dancer called Zaria*, started chatting with her.
Zaria had liked Stephanie from the first time she saw her with her punk hair and her sketchbook. Stephanie had an air of confidence, of having a life outside the club and inside her head. She managed to keep away from the cutthroat cliques and the gossip, while still being nice to everyone — and she could really dance. Zaria was intrigued. “I love your hair,” she told Stephanie the first day she saw her. But on this night, Zaria noticed that Stephanie was deflated; her eyes looked sad. So she took a minute to ask how everything was going. “I haven’t come in a lot because something awful went down here,” Stephanie told her.
Without missing a beat, Zaria asked her, “Was it Jason?” Stephanie was floored. What? How did you …? Stephanie needed to hear the whole story, so she and Zaria went outside to talk.
Shortly after being hired, Zaria was asked by another dancer to go with her into the VIP room — a customer wanted two girls. It was 4 a.m., the club was closing, but this guy was friends with the management, Zaria was told, a regular at the club. They’d stay open late for him. Of course, the manager, the bouncer, the DJ all expected big tips because, the logic went, they were all staying late so the two girls could make money.
When Jason took off his pants, she was so new, Zaria remembers, that she almost cried out, “That’s illegal!” Jason began grabbing at her butt and trying to put his finger inside her vagina, she told Stephanie, and Zaria found herself trying to wriggle away from him, making nonoffensive attempts to get his hands off her. Whoops! Whoopsie! Twist, turn. Then he started trying to push himself inside her.
“I felt completely trapped,” she said. Jason was strong and relentless. Everyone seemed to love him, her job depended on making a guy like this feel good, and he was getting increasingly unhappy with her. She just kept twisting and dodging while smiling and cooing. OK, OK, I don’t need you here, she remembers Jason saying. You can just leave.
Dismissed, she walked out of the room, a look of shock and humiliation slapped on her face. The manager, the bouncer, the other dancers glanced at her and then looked away. “I knew that they knew what they put me into,” Zaria said, “and I felt so betrayed.” After that night, Zaria stayed home for a couple weeks; the other dancer wasn’t seen at the club for months. (When asked about the incident, Jason Borba’s lawyer declined to respond.)
For Stephanie, Zaria’s story was an unlocking. Every emotion wrapped up tight surged forward. Soon some other girl, new to the club, perhaps, an 18- or 19-year-old, would be thrown into a room with Jason. She decided, OK, yes, she would talk to the management.
Of the two managers, BeckySue Sheely was the sweetest and chummiest, the craziest and cruelest. She could turn on a dime. She was the Queen Bee at Skin, and Zaria cautioned Stephanie about talking to her. “She and Jason are friends, just remember that. She’ll be on his side.”
So Stephanie decided to talk to Raoul Villareal, who was more of a daddy figure at the club. He was in his early 40s and liked to bring in food for his favorites. He also liked to stir the pot, repeating something mean one girl had said about another, and then turning around and settling everyone down.
When Stephanie asked Raoul if she could talk to him for a minute, he agreed, but when she wanted to close the door to the office, he looked nervous. After telling him that Jason had raped her, it was some comfort to see the dismay on his face. He thought they should tell Becky. Stephanie wanted to think about that first. Ever since the rape, she’d been trying to get her hands back on the reins, slow things down, choose the pace.
Even though Raoul promised not to tell Becky, not yet at least, Stephanie got a text from her the next day, asking her to come in and talk. She showed up at the club in nonwork clothes, just a tank top, jeans, flip-flops, no makeup. They sat at the little table outside, where Jason had approached her that night.
Becky asked her what she wanted done. She didn’t ask what had happened, Stephanie says. She’d already heard. So what next? You want him to get into trouble? You want to take him to court, make him pay, what? Becky had a strong jaw, a blunt manner, big boobs, all of which made her seem aggressive that evening, like, Hey, I can do the sugar and the honey, the best-girlfriend routine, but right now I’m done. What’s the problem?
“I really don’t know what I want,” Stephanie told her. “I just don’t want it to happen to anybody else. Like, something needs to be done.”
Stephanie realized she hadn’t thought it out. She had gotten as far as I’ll tell my bosses what went down, and then they’ll take over. Now Becky was reasoning with her. As awful as it is, in this line of work, it happens. And Jason, well, you know Jason. He likes to party with the girls, and some actually want to have sex with him. He’s a good-looking guy.
Then Becky, using her intimate, caring voice, offered money. Not that money would make it all go away, but it could make things better. Think about the amount of money that would make this as good as it can be.
(Reached by phone, BeckySue Sheely said, “I do not want to talk about this.” Raoul Villareal did not respond to queries.)
Suddenly, Stephanie felt exhausted. “I don’t know. I wasn’t even thinking about that,” she told Becky. “Maybe we can talk about this later.” She wanted to be home, curled under the covers of her bed.
The next morning, Stephanie woke in a fury. She was offering me hush money! “That’s when I was like, I need to fuck this place up. Like, I need to spray them top to bottom.” She talked with some friends who have a graffiti crew, and they were like, “Yeah, let’s do this mother!” Then a guy she knew vaguely from the street-art scene, Ari Sturm, called out of the blue. They chatted about nothing until Stephanie asked him what would be the legal repercussions of spray painting a building. Ari told her to just be polite to anyone who complains and paint it over.
After they hung up, Stephanie called back. “Actually, I don’t think you understood what I meant. I mean, if I bomb the fuck out of this place. I destroy it. Like, I don’t care about their goddamn doors, or their plants, or their goddamn windows, or their cars. And I just fucking blow it up.” She paused and then asked, “What are the legal repercussions of that?”
When Ari, taken aback, asked what was going on, Stephanie told him something really bad had happened at the club. When she first began telling friends, that’s how she put it, in general terms, the pitch and quake of her voice indicating so much more.
Stephanie and Ari had met earlier in the year at the Fame Yard, a parking lot on Melrose known for its ever-changing parade of street art. Stephanie was working on a mural there. Ari, who’s in his 40s, had knocked around the entertainment industry as a TV and film producer, writer, photographer, contestant on Fear Factor. He once described himself as “your dead-hooker friend,” the guy you call if you should wake up and find one in your bed. Recently, he had went from photographing street artists and their work to being one himself. As TrustyScribe, he paints word bubbles on walls and buildings, saying things like “Love Is the Only Language I Speak Fluently” and “Music Is the Sound My Soul Makes When It Dreams.” Ari advised her to go to the police and file a report.
When Stephanie went to the police, she took a friend along, a woman who had been raped in her teens. They hit three police stations before they landed at the right one, and each time, Stephanie had to say, “I’m here to report a rape,” only to be directed to another location. The absurdity of it almost made her want to laugh. How hard did it have to be? Finally, she had the correct station. As soon as the words came out of her mouth, the male officer quickly left and returned with a female cop.
They stood at the end of the counter, the pony-tailed cop across from her. Straight off, the officer told Stephanie she was so sorry this had happened to her. The brisk, practical manner Stephanie had adopted for reporting gave way. She felt a hunger well up. This is the only time you will have to tell this story, the officer reassured her. We’ll take over from here. As Stephanie talked, the lobby and everyone in it faded. There was just this police person telling her none of it was her fault, she was doing the right thing, and they would do everything possible to get this guy. “I was like, Oh my god, maybe I can trust the authorities. Like, maybe this is actually a thing, you know?” The officer told her they would put her in contact with a detective.
On the way home, the Uber driver was chatty. He was having an awesome day so far. So, how’s your day going?
When Stephanie told him they had just left the police department, he perked up even more. Could she tell him why? I mean, if she didn’t mind, he was curious.
“Filing a rape report,” Stephanie said flatly.
Yeah, I was raped, she was raped, probably a lot of women you know were raped, she wanted to tell him. It’s a thing, an actual thing, Mr. Sunny-side Up. Chairs, chalk, earthquakes, actual things. They exist. Guitars, cactuses, Big Macs, rape. Real, real, real, as real as who you’re seeing in your rearview mirror. Hi, I’m Stephanie. I was raped.
The summer left, fall came in, and, back at the frame shop, her co-worker Day Riggle wondered where the hell the old Stephanie had gone. Day had always thought of Stephanie as her “bright light,” a reliably cheerful shot of sunshine, but now it seemed Stephanie was always disappearing, and Day would find her in the parking lot, wild-eyed and sobbing. She’d become quick-tempered, too. Anything could set her off, a mistake on a piece of mat she was cutting, and her face would go deep red and she’d start cursing. She’d even begun to think some of the customers were looking down on her, but Stephanie wouldn’t tell Day what was going on.
Whammed by anger or sadness, flashing back on her whole life and seeing it fatalistically, the rape set like a trap at the end of it. If my father hadn’t died…. If I hadn’t then been left alone with my mother…. If we hadn’t been so poor…. She was haunted by the feeling that she was going to die soon. She didn’t know if these waves of emotion were normal or crazy. How would she know what to expect, how to manage the aftermath of rape? There’s no prep for girls, no resiliency training for trauma, the way there is for soldiers. So she talked to friends and found that being raped is like a litmus test. Friends who supported her, who got it, like Day, who hugged her when she finally found out and told her, No, no, no, you have nothing to be ashamed of, and friends who shocked the hell out of her.
One guy asked her to define what she meant by rape because, you know, that’s so political now with the #MeToo movement. Every guy’s a rapist, so, like, how do you define rape? You could research this by yourself and have this conversation with someone else, but you want to have it with me? Stephanie thought. Let’s have it. Let’s have this fucking conversation. As gently as I possibly can. Because I love you, and I’m gonna use this as a form of education for you because I’m being goddamn patient. And graceful. Still, she began to use air quotes when she mentioned some of her “friends.”
No word from the detective assigned to the case, Russel Hess. The first and only time they met, a few days after Stephanie filed the police report in August, he seemed standoffish to her. That earlier feeling she’d had of doing the right thing, of how her reporting might help another woman even if it didn’t help her, dissolved.
She called him once that fall, and he said they were tracking Jason’s movements. So when the time came … they could, like, I don’t know, pounce? Stephanie wondered. Ari referred her to a lawyer, who told her rapes are common and hard cases to win — he knows because he’s represented both sides. The lawyer recommended she call an attorney who worked at the law offices of Gloria Allred, the famed women’s rights advocate. When she called, the attorney told her it was a difficult case, a he said/she said case. “She’s like, ‘If you want to contact a job-injury lawyer, they might take interest in it,’ and I’m like, ‘Cool. So, like, those corny guys you see on commercials that are like, “Have you been bitten by a dog? Call us! Call Chank the Hank!” OK, so, like, you want me to call this dude? Got it.’ ”
She’d been told so many times that her rape was a “he said/she said” case, his word against hers, that she believed it. So it almost seemed like she was at fault for giving the authorities so little to go on. Only her word, and that word — no one would say this out loud, but she knew it’s what they felt — was the word of a stripper.
She felt bad for reporting late, too, not knowing how common it is for women to put off reporting because they don’t trust the police or they’re scared or in shock or ashamed. She didn’t know that trained investigators can work around the delayed reporting, or that for them, he said/she said is a lazy, out-of-date way of thinking. But she began to pick up information here and there, enough to wonder why Hess had never asked her whom she’d talked to about the rape in the aftermath, people who could help establish her truthfulness, or checked the CCTV footage at the club, or talked to the people who were in Skin that night and might’ve seen her and Jason go back to the VVIP room. No offer of a call, during which the police would listen in while she tried to get Jason to admit to the attack. Just silence, a lengthening silence where her questions whirled.
Stephanie came to realize she’d reached the dead end of a road she had never wanted to be on in the first place. Nothing was going to happen. No justice, just another rape, the world moved on. The #MeToo movement had opened up the conversation, sure, and it had also spurred men into hyperdefensiveness and aggression, but when the smoke cleared, had anything really changed? Where were the arrests, the convictions? Did a stripper have a bigger voice, a better shot at justice than she would’ve two or five or twenty years ago?
As the months passed, something boiled and wept inside her; she couldn’t live with the silence, couldn’t let the rape go unanswered or pretend it never happened, as she had first hoped to do. An idea began to take hold. She was going to paint something, something huge, something public, and call out the rapist, the strip club, the LAPD.
She needed someone to help her, somebody who knew how to make things happen, and Ari Sturm was ready and waiting. They began to rough things out. The text came together first, and Stephanie made some preliminary sketches. Ari took $5,000 of his own money to rent the billboard for a month, starting on February 11, 2019. He found a warehouse where the vinyl canvas could be hung and painted. Meanwhile, Stephanie had decided to leave L.A. She’d been thinking about returning to Texas for a while. Dakota had been urging her to move in with him, but she put it off because she didn’t want the start of their life together to be tangled up in the rape. She wasn’t going to be driven from L.A.; she was going to choose Dakota. By January, it felt right.
Three days before leaving town, Stephanie decided to call Detective Hess again and see how the case was going. It’d been over five months since she’d filed a report. Well, it’s been a little slow because of the holiday season, he told her. I’ve also been making a lot of arrests, and that’s meant a lot of paperwork. He had verified where Jason lived, and he had talked to his neighbors and roommates. He’d also reached out to the management of Skin, but they didn’t want to speak to him. He was going to go in person and see if that changed their disposition.
When Stephanie got off the phone, she sat quietly for a while. She tried to figure out if the case was moving along or not. “I don’t know how this works. I don’t know how, like, anything legal works.” He was super busy because of the holidays? Because of making lots and lots of arrests? Obviously her case, filed last summer, was at the bottom of some ginormous pile of Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas presents and dozens of other rapes with better victims than her. “Literally, nobody gives a shit.” She sat on Ari’s couch in paint-covered black jeans, her cell still clutched in her hand. Tears started running down her face. She wasn’t sobbing, though. She was whispering, a shaky, fierce whisper. “I’m just so angry. I’m so angry. I’m so angry. I’m so angry.” She took a deep breath; a sob escaped. “Excuse me.” Pause. Whisper. “I’m so angry.”
Inside the warehouse, it was chilly and damp. Klieg lights shone on the huge canvas, which hung from the ceiling to the cement floor, so tall that Stephanie had to use a scissor lift to paint the top two-thirds. She and Ari worked 12- to 13-hour days, for six straight days. A lot of Ari’s work was sous chef kind of work, getting Stephanie wet rags when she needed them, handing her pens or brushes, adjusting the lights, making a coffee run. He stenciled the letters on the first morning. He would fill them in on the last day.
While she was in Texas, figuring out the composition, Stephanie had toyed with the idea of making Jason a dog, and maybe she could have him on a leash. But that didn’t sit right. Finally, she’d come up with making him a zombie, and she would be his slayer. To depict herself and Jason as realistically as possible, she worked from photographs. The female zombie rising from the corner of the painting was drawn from memory to look like Becky.
She put off painting Jason’s face for as long as she could, finally downing a couple shots of booze, “like you do before you jump into a bar fight.” But instead of plunging in, she tunneled into every loss and hurt and hard thing that had happened in her life. By the time Dakota came home from work, she was a sobbing mess. The next day, though, she got it done, stone-cold sober. At the warehouse, she had to paint him all over again, but this time 4-feet high.
Zaria came by almost every day. When she wasn’t around, she would send Stephanie funny memes. The two were so close, so attuned, that they sometimes just made noises at each other, a conversation of squeaks, clicks, and grunts that only they seemed to understand. As Stephanie painted Jason, Zaria watched from below. “You should make Jason look more tired and gaunt.”
When the painting was done, it was carefully lowered to the floor and spread out, ready to be rolled up and transported to the billboard site. Stephanie took off her black combat boots and began to dance on it. Arms out, legs stomping on Jason’s face. “Ha, ha, ha, you thought you could break me.” She stamped and whirled across the canvas. The baby-doll dress, the neck goop, the zombies trundling toward their promised land.
When the billboard was unveiled that sunny February morning, Stephanie asked that it be unrolled right to left, so first the club appeared, the rats, the severed head. Then the zombie slayer in her pink dress, head up, body thrust forward, almost stepping out of the painting, and, finally, the words: “I’m Stephanie. I was raped by a guy like this in a place like that….” She hoped a thousand women would look up and feel vindicated and every bastard that had done something similar would burn in shame and hurry on. Revenge for me, justice for other women, she thought.
In the next few days, before returning to Dallas, she would hang with a tight group of friends. She would cuddle with Dakota. She would post a photograph of the billboard on Instagram and receive close to 700 likes, while over at Reddit the response would be mixed with commenters doubting the police had done nothing or pointing out the risks she’d taken working as a stripper. An NBC news outlet would interview Stephanie, but the segment would never air.
The day before returning home, she would go see Detective Hess. She would show him a photo of the billboard on her cellphone, which he would look at silently for a long time. She would hand him a list of all the people she talked to about the rape and push him to call them. She would say, “Just do your job!” He would tell her he got a statement from Jason before he lawyered up. He’d say no one wants to work sex crimes — he had 250 cases last year — but he volunteered for this job. He put it before his own family. He wouldn’t have done anything different with this case. When she continued to berate him, he’d say she was being passive-aggressive. I hope I’m not being passive, she’d reply. (Citing confidentiality, Hess said he could not comment on the case.)
She would miss her plane home and break down at the airport. But she would eventually get there.
In Dallas, she took a job at a frame shop. She started an art project featuring Monty the Monster Slayer, where she began to take all the crazy, stupid things she had heard since the rape, turn them into monsters, and kill them. She began to work on a graphic novel about Skin.
Stephanie heard that Becky had told the employees at Skin not to talk to outsiders and that Stephanie was a liar. In April, the district attorney declined to press charges against Jason Borba. Stephanie was visiting L.A. when Detective Hess called with the news. When he reminded her that she had waited to report the rape for two months, so there wasn’t much he could do in the investigation, Stephanie asked if she could fire him and get another detective on her case. He told her it didn’t work that way. Late that night, she wheat-pasted a drawing on a wall next to the police station. In it, a skeleton sloth talks on a cellphone. “Have you made any progress on my rape case?” the caller asks. “I’ve been busy with the holidays,” the sloth replies.
Stephanie never had many illusions. In January, while she was in Texas struggling with how to depict Jason and herself in the painting, overwhelmed by the momentousness of picking the image, one image to say it all, she told me that since Jason had taken her power away, and no one was willing to make that right, the billboard was the only way she saw to get her power back. “While I’m calling for justice, I don’t expect it to happen,” she said. “I want this to be my justice.” It had to be, because it was all she ever got, and she got it herself.