CHARLOTTE, NC (The Charlotte Observer) - Her name is Karah Abbott. She is Kevin Olsen’s accuser. Here are a few things she wants you to know:
During the two-week rape trial of her former boyfriend, Abbott’s identity was protected by a court order and a general media policy not to identify the alleged victims of sexual assault.
Abbott, 25, says her decision now to lift that veil follows months of personal doubt, emotional turmoil and a self-imposed exile from family and friends. She also says she’s aware that coming forward — after a jury acquitted Olsen of raping her — opens her to criticism that she is more interested in re-arguing the case than in speaking the truth.
Abbott, who sat down with the Observer for a 90-minute interview, says she no longer cares.
“This is in no way about him. This is about me. It’s time to start standing up for myself,” she says.
“I needed to put a face to this woman that nobody had ever seen or heard or anything. I needed people to see me. I don’t know why.”
She offers a possible explanation: “I think a lot of women get scared that people won’t believe them, so they just stop.”
Abbott has kept going. On Oct. 5, two days after Olsen was found not guilty, the UNC Charlotte student went public on her Facebook page. Her 350-word post included four photographs of her face, showing different angles of her blackened left eye.
She testified during the trial that the photos were taken at a hospital near campus in February 2017, several hours after Olsen, then UNCC’s quarterback, had beaten and sexually assaulted her.
“Here’s to all the women like me (who are) terrified, angry, scared, and frankly numb,” she wrote in her Facebook post. “We are human beings coming forward for help. Silence should no longer be the norm.”
She also wants women to understand: Going public carries a cost.
Abbott says her role as the accuser in Charlotte’s most publicized rape trial in years was an even bigger ordeal than she expected. She says she found the questioning by Olsen’s attorneys excessively invasive, and she remains indignant that she was portrayed as a liar.
While testifying, Abbott says, she avoided eye contact with her father. He sat directly in front of her in the courtroom, she says, and was hearing the violent and intimate details of her last night with Olsen for the first time.
After Olsen’s acquittal, Abbott says she and her father rode in silence for most of the 90-minute drive back to her apartment in Winston-Salem. Finally, she says, she spoke.
“I don’t know what just happened,” she remembers saying.
Defense attorney George Laughrun says Olsen won the case for a reason. While those following the trial outside the courtroom did not see Abbott’s face or hear her real voice, the nine men and three women of the jury faced no such obstructions, he says.
“They didn’t hear a masking voice. They didn’t see a black dot over her face like they did on TV,” Laughrun says. “The jury saw the live person testify, and they had a chance to assess her credibility and believability on the rape charges, and they didn’t believe her beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Laughrun says Olsen and his family have no further comment.
As wrenching as her courtroom experience turned out to be, Abbott says she also has come to see the trial as an opportunity to be heard, even if she’s still dealing with the reality of not being believed.
In a nod to the #metoo movement and the roiling debate on college campuses over sexual assault, Abbott says women who have been attacked are “stuck in this weird situation: You want to come forward, but you don’t know if it’s worth coming forward.”
Was it worth it for her?
“Yes,” Abbott says without a pause. “The biggest point in coming forward is to save yourself.”
Experts say that at least 60 percent of sexual-assault cases go unreported. Those who bring charges do so at significant personal risk, says Charlotte attorney Meg Maloney, who has represented numerous clients victimized by sexual violence or harassment.
“At trial, everything about their personal life is fair game,” Maloney says. “They’re attacked all over again, shamed and defamed and revictimized.”
Abbott testified that after Olsen and she spent a night drinking and clubbing in uptown, he became enraged in his bedroom after reading some texts on her phone. He began beating her with a pillow and then his fists before demanding sex, she testified. Abbott told the jury that she was too injured and scared to say no.
While Olsen’s defense team attacked the handling of the case by police and the hospital, Laughrun spent much of his time using messages collected from Abbott’s phone to attack her credibility. In one text she sent a few hours before the alleged assault occurred, Abbott asked Olsen if he wanted to cap the evening with some “hot sex and porn.”
In another text written after Olsen’s arrest, she told a friend that “Kevin is not a rapist.” In a third, she said she wanted to wreck Olsen’s life.
“I can’t take any of those back,” Abbott says now. “Do I regret some of the things I said? Yes. I have a temper. I was a 23-year-old who had been in a toxic relationship. I was stuck. I was confused. I was probably feeling every emotion that a person could possibly feel.”
Abbott says she tried to tell her story, flaws and all, directly to the jurors but found many of them unresponsive. Several, she says, would not look at her. Before their verdict was read aloud, Abbott says, she felt a sense of dread. She says she heard the words “not guilty” with her eyes already closed in fear.
Abbott says she was holed up in the bedroom of her apartment with her dog, Oliver, when she received a message from a former sorority sister, a friend who Abbott says had been inspired by Abbott’s experiences to open up about her assault.
“She told me, I had to get my life back,” Abbott says.
Abbott wrote her Facebook post that same day. She says she was responding to anonymous accusers on social media who said she made up her rape allegations. Her post was also intended, she says, as a rallying cry for sexual-assault victims to take charge of their own lives.
“I am finally free and I will not be silent,” Abbott wrote. “You shouldn’t be either.”
Dozens of women, nearly all of them strangers, responded with messages of support or to share their experiences, she says.
Though she feels better about herself than she has in months, Abbott says she still has work to do. She doesn’t feel safe to return to the UNCC campus to finish her final classwork. She also says she is not ready to resume dating.
Yet, Abbott says she already has had some glimpses of what her life might become. She wants to attend graduate school near the ocean. She credits a “weird awakening” during her emotional struggles that has pointed her toward the study of psychiatry. She says she wants to better understand why people ensnared in destructive relationships stay together as long as they do.
Two depleting days of testimony about her relationship with Olsen, Abbott says, instantaneously gave way to a sense that her ordeal was over.
“The moment I stepped down from the witness stand, I felt this immediate closure. Immediately,” she says. “That I didn’t have to do this anymore ... and I could get on with the rest of my life.”