Donna Palomba was alone in bed on a September night in 1993, when she heard the distinct sound of footsteps approaching closer and closer.
Then she saw him. The man in the mask.
With her husband away on business and her children asleep down the hall, the Waterbury, Conn., woman was no match for the shadowy figure in her bedroom. Armed with a knife and a handgun, he cut Palomba's bed clothes and raped her.
When it was over, the man menaced Palomba with the gun and threatened to return and kill her if she told anyone about the assault. Although she did run to the home of a neighbor and called 911, for some time afterward Palomba wondered if calling police was a mistake.
They didn't believe her.
The lead investigator for the Waterbury Police Department accused Palomba of making up the story, and threatened to charge her with making a false police report.
“Why did they think you weren't telling the truth?” TODAY host Meredith Vieira asked Palomba during her first live television interview Friday.
“I think it was due to misinformation, a person who gave them a rumor that had no validity at all,” Palomba said.
The rumor — that Palomba was involved in an extra-marital affair — led police to merely go through the motions. Doctors collected and saved the rapist's DNA during an examination at a hospital, but the investigation stopped there.
Years went by, and Palomba went about her life with the support of her family and a new friend in a high place. Waterbury Police Chief Neil O'Leary was on Palomba's side, and refused to let the case fade away.
Jane Doe No More
Fast-forward 11 years to 2004. A man named John Regan, a close friend of Palomba's husband, was arrested and charged with attacking a 21-year-old co-worker who managed to get away. It started O'Leary thinking, and a DNA sample was taken from Regan.
A few months later, a lab run by Connecticut's famous forensic sleuth, Dr. Henry Lee, linked Regan's DNA to the sample taken from Palomba's rape kit in 1993.
“He had been in our home. He had never acted inappropriately,” Palomba recalled during Friday's interview. “He was someone we'd never think about in the case.”
Despite her experience, Palomba is now telling her story and hopes to persuade other rape victims that they shouldn't let a sometimes flawed system victimize them over and over.
“I want to make that clear. It is very important to come forward and go to the police, even though I went through what I did,” said Palomba. “Had I not done that and not gone to the hospital, the case wouldn't have been solved and he could have still been out there. Right now, he is behind bars, where he should be.”
As part of getting on with her life, Palomba dropped the “Jane Doe” pseudonym prosecutors had been using in court papers. On Sunday, a “Dateline NBC” special “The Man Behind the Mask” (7 ET/6 CT) will chronicle her fight to get police to believe her and investigate her rape.
“I want other victims to know they have done nothing wrong. It's not their fault,” Palomba said. “It doesn't diminish who you are. It is part of my healing process.”
For more information, visit janedoenomore.org.