It was a shared moment of humanity that neither one will ever forget.
Michelle Corrao and Arthur Billingsley “locked eyes” when he discovered her – bruised, bloody and barely clothed in the trunk of her red Chevrolet Cavalier, her attackers having fled in the woods.
That connection they made is also Corrao's daughter's most cherished moment in “Found: Triumph Over Fear With Grace and Gratitude,” a just-released book written by Michelle Meyer Corrao, the Fort Wayne woman beaten and raped at gunpoint by three local men in 1996, and saved by Billingsley, a Fort Wayne detective.
It was the start of a lasting friendship where Billingsley and Corrao touch base every Sept. 12, the night of the attack. They also share a strong faith.
“When I locked eyes with him, I felt a much needed rush of hope, when my humanity and dignity were acknowledged with so much compassion,” Corrao said last week in a phone interview.
Her book was in the works for more than 10 years as Corrao traveled the country speaking and advocating for victims of violent crime.
Corrao finally found help when she read “Within a Dark Wood,” a book by Jennifer Barr. “It's such a devastating feeling, an alone dark feeling that I had within. The trauma just created a different person. I don't know who Michelle Meyer would have been.” She took the last name of her husband, Chris Corrao, when they married in 1998.
For years after the attack, Corrao had nightmares, couldn't sleep and couldn't be in the darkness, but she wanted to heal.
She had been dating Chris Corrao for about a year. He stood by her when many men abandon a partner after such an attack, she said. Her mother also supported her and wanted to cook for her. She didn't want her daughter to cry. But Michelle didn't want to eat and needed to let the tears fall.
Some longtime friends she made from Harrison Hill Elementary School, Geyer Middle School and at South Side High School where she graduated in 1982 also helped her through. The couple moved to Noblesville a year after they married and the trials of the three men were over. She took a job with Prevail, a center treating victims of crime and abuse in Noblesville.
Her attackers – Bennie C. Copeland,19; Antoine C. Netherly, 23; and James Irby, 21 – were implicated in a series of rapes and kidnappings in which victims were forced into car trunks. Netherly received sentences totaling 530 years; Copeland, 145 years; and Irby, 420 years. All are incarcerated in Indiana prisons.
The night of the attack, Corrao was Michelle Meyer, 32, divorced and living with a friend in a home on Meyer Avenue. A construction company contract administrator and Y aerobics coordinator, she saw her three assailants walking by her home and drove on by to avoid them.
When she circled back around 10:30 p.m., they were gone so she parked her car and walked up to the front door, illuminated by a motion sensor light.
The three had been waiting for her at the side of the house.
She was struck from behind with a gun and dragged to the backyard. Armed with handguns, they told her not to scream and not to look at them.
Corrao said she bargained with them, telling them they could have her car, that she wouldn't tell anyone if they'd let her go. She was gagged, bound, blindfolded and thrown in the trunk of her car.
Once in a garage in an unidentified Fort Wayne location, they ripped off her clothes, struck her and raped her, every moment with a handgun at her head. She doesn't recall anything they said.
“I was just trying to save my life. Honestly, if I would have felt what they were doing, I wouldn't be alive. It was a total out-of-body experience,” said Corrao, who developed a lasting gratitude for first responders.
Meanwhile, Billingsley, a 1981 Snider High school graduate who joined the police force in 1994 and was a second-shift detective, had left work to go home. Even though he was off-duty, he got back into his unmarked cruiser and decided to check on some restaurants that stayed open late at night.
One of those was Bandido's on Winchester Road. He pulled around the back and saw two men standing at the back door. In his unmarked police vehicle, he drove up and activated his police lights on the front dashboard.
The two men took off running, later admitting they planned to rob the restaurant. As Billingsley circled back on Kinnerk Road, he noticed the red Cavalier sitting in the woods near the restaurant and thought it looked suspicious.
As he drove up, he saw the Cavalier's dome light go on and watched three men jump out of the car and run.
“When I got right up on them, that's when they took off,” Billingsley said.
He was able to catch one of them and as he attempted to get him into handcuffs, he heard a thumping sound. Coming out of unconsciousness, Corrao said she heard Billingsley telling the handcuffed man not to resist.
As Billingsley called for backup officers he worried the other two men would be coming back. The one in handcuffs could have easily escaped and his cruiser didn't have a cage to detain him, Billingsley said.
He called in an assist code 84 for urgent. Then he added code 104 for kidnapping. He told Corrao that he would get her out.
“I could tell she'd been beat up,” Billingsley said.
A female officer took Corrao to the hospital after they wrapped a sheet around her. The only clothing she had was her jacket one of the attackers used to cover her, something the attacker hoped jurors would think of as a gesture of caring, Corrao recalled.
The other two suspects were arrested shortly thereafter. Later, someone suggested that one of the assailants played basketball at the Y where she worked, Corrao said.
The men had attacked at least four women before Corrao. Most victims are taken directly to the Sexual Assault Treatment Center if they are medically stable, said Michelle Ditton, executive director.
“Michelle was different,” said Ditton, who considers Corrao a very good friend. “She had lots of injuries. She had bruises all over her body.” She needed scans of her head.
The men were accused of raping several women, Ditton said, but it appeared they'd been raping women every weekend.
“It was escalating, and hers was the most brutal of all. She really believed she was going to die,” Ditton said. The number of women assaulted was inconclusive because not all women press charges or come forward.
The men were known as the “trunk rapists,” said Billingsley, who'd been a detective for six months when the attack took place. In the trunk of her own car, Corrao prayed she'd be able to tell her mother she loved her again. She took off a ring from her grandmother and a bracelet her future husband had given her as evidence of where she'd been, she said.
Since then, Billingsley has spent about 10 years in operations and 16 years in the investigative division. Currently, he is a detective in the financial crimes section.
Throughout his career, he can't recall another time he's been involved in a crime as it was occurring.
“Usually we get called to it. If we get called to a shooting, we already know what to expect. No, I wasn't expecting someone to be in the trunk of a vehicle,” said Billingsley, 57.
The book, available through www.michellecorrao.com and retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon, was written to “give respect and honor to those who don't have a voice,” Corrao said.
“I just want to show what is possible. I hope that when my book is read by somebody who is going through trauma, maybe it doesn't take as long to go through the process,” said Corrao, who credited therapy and journaling with her recovery. “There are no time frames for healing.”
|Year||Reported rapes||Attempted rapes||Sexual battery|
Source: Fort Wayne Police Department
Sexual Assault Treatment Center
• Serves 17 counties and 52 law enforcement agencies
• Serves more than 400 women each year, but four times that many call and ask for options
• 16 to 27 years old is the biggest age group
• Specimens can be taken up to five days after attack
• Rape kits are generally held up to 5 years by the Indiana State Police
Source: Michelle Ditton, SATC executive director