Justice in Indianapolis rape case comes more than 20 years after the attack

Amy McKnight reads her victim impact statement at her home in Wisconsin. (WTHR / Ryan Thedwall)

LA CROSSE, Wisc. (WTHR) — Amy McKnight is a 50-year-old mother to five-year-old Fiona. She and her daughter sit on the floor putting a puzzle together in the family room of their cozy, classic home in the Mississippi River town of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Having a baby in her mid-forties surprised Amy and her husband, Barry.

"You know we'll probably be in walkers and stuff when she goes to college, but whatever," said Amy. "So, she'll keep us young."

Amy left Indianapolis about 20 years ago. After moves to the east coast and Chicago, she rebuilt her life in La Crosse. That journey included a couple of miscarriages in a failed first marriage. She met Barry on Match.com about seven years ago. Both had tried to have children in previous relationships, so they were stunned and thrilled when Amy got pregnant and became a mother at the age of 45 with no complications.

Amy McKnight's Story

Amy McKnight lived in this unit of Eagle Creek Apartments in the late 90s. (WTHR)
Investigators took this photo of Amy McKnight's unit at the Eagle Creek Apartments in 1998. (Marion Co. Prosecutor)

Back in 1998, Amy was single, 29 years old, pursuing a graduate degree in educational psychology at IUPUI.

Amy McKnight shared this photo of her from the late 90s with Eyewitness News.
Amy McKnight shared this photo of herself from the late 90s with Eyewitness News.

She moved into a second-floor apartment at Eagle Creek Apartments on the northwest side of Indianapolis in the summer. She had just lost her job and remembers looking through the want ads on the morning of September 2.

She went for a walk around 10:00 a.m. and noticed a man walking some distance behind her. That stranger knocked on her door a few minutes later and asked to use her phone.

Amy brought the cordless phone out and let him make a call from her second-floor landing.

He wanted to return in 15 minutes to make another call, and she agreed to help. The man returned and Amy brought him the phone again and then went back inside to wash dishes.

The next thing Amy remembers is the man holding a gun to her head.

"He said, 'Do you want to have some fun?' I said, 'No.' And he said, 'Well, do you want to die?' And I said, 'No,'" Amy recalled. "When he tied my hands, he kind of sat on top of me and he put his knee on my back. I remember at that time thinking, 'This is going to go badly.'"

Raped in an Indianapolis Apartment

Crime scene photos obtained by Eyewitness News show clothes on the floor of Amy's apartment.
Crime scene photos show clothes on the floor of Amy McKnight's apartment. (Marion Co. Prosecutor)

The man took Amy to the bedroom, cut off her tank top and bra with a knife, raped her, forced her to perform oral sex, then tried to suffocate her.

"He came back with a pillow, and he shoved it in my face, and I thought, 'Oh God! This was some other horrific sex thing,'" she said. "But then I realized he was trying to keep me from breathing. I started kind of fighting. He finally got off me, and at that point I just said, 'If you're going to kill me, just shoot me.'"

“I don't know how many times I thought, 'I wish I was someone other than me.'”

The man finally told Amy he wasn't going to kill her. He untied her, allowed her to get dressed, and quit pointing the gun at her. He wanted to talk. He told Amy his father had recently died. Amy eventually persuaded her attacker to just leave.

She went to the phone, but it was dead. Afraid that he might still be watching the front door, Amy jumped from her second-floor balcony and found a neighbor lady outside. The woman called police.

Amy completed a rape exam at St. Vincent Hospital, was interviewed by detectives and even helped provide a sketch of the suspect. She never returned to the apartment. Friends and family moved her belongings out. She moved downtown to the Riley Tower Apartments, where she felt safer in the high-rise building.

Amy also never heard again from police. She doubts the detective believed her.

"I felt like it was my fault," Amy said. "I opened the door. I don't know how many times I thought I wish I was someone other than me. Any kind of confidence I had was gone. Any kind of trust I had was gone. Everything was scary. Somehow you just have to rebuild yourself."

DNA Evidence Reopens the Case

The evidence photo of Amy McKnight's sports bra shows where her attacker cut the fabric. (Marion Co. Prosecutor)

In December 2015, IMPD investigators used money from a grant for cold cases to submit evidence from Amy's rape case for DNA testing. The current forensic science was not available at the time Amy was raped in 1998. Investigators discovered her rape kit was lost or destroyed and could not be tested. However, a sample from the underpants they tested matched a profile in the national Combined DNA Index System (CODIS.)

Donald Thomas was convicted by a jury of the 1998 rape and sentenced to 70 years in prison. (Photo via IMPD)
Tests revealed the DNA of Amy McKnight's neighbor Donald Thomas on some of the evidence. (Marion Co. Sheriff's Department)

The DNA hit was for Donald Thomas, a convicted felon who, at the time Amy was raped, lived with his parents in the same apartment complex just a street over.

"I mean, my God, he was right there! He had priors. Honestly, I don't understand that. The guy told me he was a neighbor. I told police that he said he was a neighbor," said Amy.

Amy had no idea her case was being investigated again until two La Crosse policemen knocked on her door in October 2016. The officers told her that IMPD Detective Michelle Floyd was trying to reach her because a suspect in her 1998 rape case had been identified.

"I was absolutely shocked," said Amy. "One of the guys was like, 'Are you okay?' Like yeah, Wow!"

Amy had seen counselors and worked in therapy for years to move on after the sexual assault. Now she was faced with reliving and recalling the attack in hopes of justice.

"It's her choice on what I do," said Detective Floyd. "I explained to her the options. I told her we can continue forward. We can stop and just put his name on it and just stop the case. She said, 'Let's go forward.'"

"Why would I say, 'Oh, let's not do it?' Here was hope to put something away that I still struggled with and in a way had become something that defined me," said Amy.

For the past decade, Thomas lived quietly in the village of Hales Corners, Wisconsin, just outside Milwaukee. He lived with and cared for his elderly mother and had no trouble with the law.

Detective Floyd went to Thomas' apartment in Hales Corners. He cooperated, claimed it was a consensual sexual encounter, and provided a fresh DNA sample. His DNA matched DNA on the underpants and a towel at the 1998 crime scene.

On the other side of Wisconsin, Amy went to La Crosse police headquarters and picked Thomas out of photo array.

He was arrested in Hales Corners in January 2018, extradited to Indianapolis, and jailed until the jury trial last July.

The Jury Convicts Thomas

“It was all a bunch of really bad ass women who knew what the truth was and were going to make sure things happened”

Marion County deputy prosecutors Linda Major and Jenna Pilipovich tried Thomas for rape and criminal deviate conduct.

"We had strong evidence," said Major. "We had a victim who was willing to cooperate and a detective that was willing to go the full way."

"It was all a bunch of really badass women who knew what the truth was and were going to make sure things happened as they should," said Amy.

"She deserved someone to fight for her, and that's what we did," said Pilipovich.

The underwear became inadmissible. The prosecutors used other evidence including photos of the apartment after the attack, Amy's clothes that were cut off with a knife, and the towel with the DNA match.

"That was in fact the largest part of what brought the conviction," said Major. "But I also think that without the compelling, courageous testimony of the victim that it would not have stood alone."

"Everybody experiences things differently," said Pilipovich. "Everybody copes with things differently. For her wanting to tell this story, to hold this person accountable, arguably was part of her healing process."

Amy McKnight tears up and smiles as she recalls talking to and hugging jurors after they convicted the man who attacked her. (WTHR / Ryan Thedwall)
Amy McKnight tears up and smiles as she recalls talking to and hugging jurors after they convicted the man who attacked her. (WTHR / Ryan Thedwall)

"I remember long ago thinking, ‘Someday I'm going to tell the story, and I'm going to give it away, and it'll be done.' For me, that's what the trial was. I told the story. I told the whole story to a room full of strangers. And it is done." said Amy.

"Her testifying in front of the jury... I'm sort of sitting right opposite the witness stand," recalled Amy's husband, Barry. "Just watching her, the courage that took was staggering."

After listening to two days of testimony, the jury needed just 40 minutes to return with a verdict of guilty on both counts - rape and criminal deviate conduct.

"I just put my head down," Amy recalled. "Oh my God! I just couldn't believe that. It was so fast. For 20 years he had been free, and I didn't think people believed me or the cops didn't believe me. This would never come to this. And 40 minutes, they were done, and he was guilty."

"It's one of those cases you will remember because of the fact it was a DNA hit," said detective Floyd. "I had to rebuild that case. There was nothing there. You had to start from scratch basically. It was nice to see a jury saw all that went into it and found him guilty."

A 70 Year Sentence

“His freedoms need to be taken away because mine were taken away”

In August, Donald Thomas received a 70-year sentence, 35 years on each count to be served consecutively.

"The victim had been in the prison for over 20 years that the defendant had created for her," said Major. "So, I think it absolutely is just that the offender on this case is serving a sentence at least as long."

"His freedoms need to be taken away because mine were taken away in such a horrific manner," said Amy. "I do feel like justice was done. And in a day and age where it feels like there is very little justice and very little is right in our system, it's pretty amazing."

A mom and wife received justice unexpectedly after more than two decades of waiting and healing.

Thomas, now 56, is serving his time at the Miami Correctional Facility, and his earliest release date is January 18, 2053.

Thomas' attorneys filed his appeal in January, asking for his sentence to be reduced. They contend the judge improperly considered the nature of the crime and its impact on the victim as an aggravating factor. Thomas' appeal says jurors should have heard and considered whether those factors should be taken into account. The state will have time to respond before the Court issues its decision.

Amy McKnight's Victim Impact Statement

Amy shared her victim impact letter submitted for the trial with Eyewitness News.

"21 years ago, I opened my door and let in a rapist. That statement alone has caused me so much anger and self-hatred. I opened the door. Nothing warned me something might be wrong, that I should be careful, that people are not to be trusted, or that the person on the other side of the door was someone who wished me harm. How stupid I was to open that door! And what was wrong with my intuition, my ‘spidey-sense', that feminine intuition we're supposed to have? How would I ever feel safe again if I couldn't trust myself? And how do you rebuild yourself when you don't really believe you can?

After this incident, I experienced the feeling of a veil being lifted, that now I could see all the evil that could happen, all the bad things potentially lurking out there in the world. A man in a long coat could pull out a rifle and start shooting. A repairman working in the basement could come running up the stairs and hold us all hostage. Everywhere I looked, a seemingly normal situation could easily go so very wrong. I became fearful and untrusting and kept to myself. I stayed with my boyfriend for a few weeks, and then moved into a studio apartment in a secure, high-rise building downtown. I could see the whole apartment from my bed and that made me feel safe. Although I had been working towards an M.S. degree prior to the rape, I got a job as a secretary because that was all I felt I could manage. I married a bookish man that I met there – he was kind and unassuming and I felt that if sex could be so badly used against me, I didn't really want it in my life.

There were - and still are - so many triggers that set me off. A man walking too close behind me still frightens me. Male dentists, doctors, and eye doctors make me apprehensive, as you could end up in a vulnerable situation, alone with a strange man. For years, the smell of his cologne – we finally discovered it was Black Suede – could sneak up on me and leave my heart racing. I continue to be hyper aware of any situation where I might be alone with a strange man in an enclosed space – repairmen in my house, elevators, walking to my car in a garage.

After about 10 years, I realized I had cut off an important part of my being, and I divorced my husband and moved to the state where I had been born, where my parents lived. I was ready to move past the choices I had made out of fear and start again, hopefully a little more whole. I live in a small city now, but I remain hyper vigilant about my surroundings.

I remarried, and miraculously had a baby at 45. I experienced post-partum depression in the first six months and found a wonderful counselor who supported me. Just five years ago, I remember talking about the rape, and weeping and talking about how I felt it had been my fault. Her clarity that it was absolutely not my fault and her insistence that I had to stop carrying that burden, not just for me, but for my daughter, helped me in so many ways. We began to work through all those feelings, and I felt that finally, I was beginning to put it behind me. I went back to school to pursue an associate's degree in accounting, hoping I could get out of low-level administrative work and help to better support our family.

And then there was another knock on my door. This time there were two policemen, who informed me that a detective had been trying to reach me regarding an old case. They gave me her contact information, and left me there, stunned, with a two-year-old needing my attention.

I called the detective, and she told me they had DNA evidence and asked if I wanted to pursue the case. After losing so many years of my life to fear, guilt and shame, I absolutely wanted to pursue the case. This stranger who had lied to get into my home, then raped, sodomized, and tried to kill me had been walking free all these years, believing he had gotten away with what he'd done. There are too many stories of rapists going free, or getting miniscule sentences, and I had new hope for some justice, even after all this time. It is my belief that if the backlog of rape kits that have sat untouched for years begin to be examined, there will be other victims of this man. It is impossible to believe he did this once, got away with it, and stopped there.

But reopening the case also reopened all my fears, as well as a huge bubbling up of anger. Rehashing the whole incident, trying to recall horrific details, I felt so angry again, at myself, at the system, at my whole life being turned upside down once more. I had done everything right at the time, called the police immediately and had a rape kit done at the hospital. I gave the police a statement, and even attempted a computerized sketch of this man. Nothing happened. I never heard a single word from the male detective, and I felt at the time that he had not even believed me.

It is hard to understand why anyone would think a woman would lie about such a thing. Why would I go to the police, to the hospital, file a statement, see a counselor for years, if I was making a story up? Aren't the police supposed to be protecting us from criminals? Isn't cutting off someone's clothing with a knife, and raping them at gunpoint a crime? Now I know that he did indeed live in my apartment complex. He was actually a neighbor, as he had said, and as I had told the police. How could he not have been found at that time? I would have recognized him immediately and he would have gone to jail.

All this anger bubbling up caused trouble for me at home with my daughter. If she grabbed at me, or licked me, or held me so I couldn't move, I would be overwhelmed with anger. My husband and I went to family counseling to try to work through these triggers, so I could be better with my daughter, and I continued to work with my counselor. As the case progressed, and we met with roadblocks with the chain of custody of the clothing that had his DNA on it, or when the detective told me he had said it had been consensual, waves of anger and helplessness would roll through me. When could I stop being a victim of what this man had done to me?

When this amazing detective finally told me that the prosecutors had accepted my case, and this man was in custody, I was ecstatic. Finally, I could put this behind me. But then we had another 18 months of holding on to the details so I wouldn't forget, every month a new trial date, and every month a continuation. Every month trying to figure out logistics of getting to Indianapolis, if my husband could go with me, and what would we do with my daughter.

But finally, it feels that it will all be worth it. I thought my heart was going to explode as we sat in that courtroom and waited for the jury to give us their verdict. I wept when they said guilty on both counts. I could hardly believe it was over; that I had been believed and that justice had caught up to me after more than 20 years. Unbelievable. The hugs and love from every member of that jury was an overwhelmingly healing experience. Those jurors were young, old, male, female, black, white, blue-collar, white-collar, it didn't matter. They believed me, and they unanimously found him guilty in just forty minutes. Astounding! I will be eternally grateful to the detective and prosecutors – all female - who believed me and pushed to put this man in prison where he belongs. Maybe one day soon it won't just be women who believe us when we say a crime has been committed.

For me, this is an amazing end to a terrible event in my life. But in the rape culture we live in, this is just one drop in a bucket in the movement to change the way our system works, and how it fails women who have been abused, assaulted and dehumanized. In the course of the above years, I have contacted the FBI, the Joyful Heart Foundation, both Indiana and Wisconsin sexual assault support organizations, a retired prosecutor in WI who specialized in DNA cases, and many others. I was met by overwhelming support from all these contacts, and each one encouraged me to keep fighting. After sentencing, I will be getting back in touch with these wonderful individuals who gave me advice, contacts, and their belief in my story. It is my hope that this story might encourage others to share their stories, to report crimes that have been committed, and to continue to fight for our rights and the respect that each and every one of us deserve as human beings.

Thank you for your time in reading this and for your consideration of my story in the sentencing."

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