“I CROWDFUNDED TO PUT THE MAN WHO RAPED ME BEHIND BARS” The woman who found justice via strangers
Drugged and sexually assaulted while on holiday in South Korea, teacher Airdre Mattner, 26, expected the police to help. When they didn’t, she asked 560 complete strangers instead...
My phone screen flashed with a notification: I had a new Facebook friend request. I didn’t recognise the name, and we had no mutual connections. But as I focused in on the profile picture, I felt a shudder. It was a face I knew. One that I would never forget. The man wanting to be my ‘friend’ was the same one who, less than 48 hours earlier, had drugged and abducted me, taken me to a seedy motel and raped me, before leaving me to wake up naked and alone, trying to piece together the horrific details of what had happened. I had no idea why he was contacting me, or even how he knew my full name – only that he was still out there, apparently so arrogant that he’d had the nerve to get in touch and taunt me. I must have gone sheet-white, and my hands were shaking so badly I had to put the phone down beside me on the bunk bed I was sharing in a hostel dorm. A couple of girls close to my age were fluttering around me, excited for a night out that lay ahead. One spotted my ashen face. “Are you OK?” she said. “Yeah, fine,” I replied. “Just make sure you look out for each other tonight, yeah?”
The thought of them heading out full of excitement, as I had just a few days before, spurred me into action. I picked up my phone and took a screen shot of his picture and information and sent it, straight away, to an email address I’d been given by the police. He needed to be caught before he did this again – and, at that point at least, I was sure this would help them get him as soon as possible.
It was September 2015, and I was on holiday – an Australian in Seoul, South Korea. My then-boyfriend and another good friend had been with me, but had both gone back to Japan, where we lived, for work, while I stayed on for a few more days’ exploring before joining them. I was working as an English teacher and loved it. A friend who knew the city had recommended an organised pub crawl in the Hongdae district – famous for its nightlife. A group night out felt like a safe and easy way to experience it, and a fun way to meet new people.
As we hopped from one neon-lit bar to the next, weaving our way through the buzzing streets, I was having a great time. By our third stop, around midnight, I’d got talking to a group of friendly female ex-pats who were living in the city. On my third drink of the night, I could feel a slight tipsiness creeping in, but I was alert and happy as I laughed and chatted with my new companions. And then… everything goes blank.
The next thing I was aware of was blinking my eyes open, feeling dizzy and nauseous. I was in the back of a taxi. There was a man next to me, but I didn’t recognise him from the pub crawl. I started to throw up. I hadn’t drunk that much, I was sure, and even in my state, I knew something was horribly wrong.
I pleaded with the taxi driver to help, rummaging in my bag for my phone to look for the address of my hostel and asking him to take me there. But as I pushed it towards the front seat the man next to me snatched it away and told him to ignore me. I could hear him telling the driver to go somewhere else, somewhere I didn’t recognise, as I felt myself slipping out of consciousness.
When I came to again I was lying down. I felt extremely disorientated,
but I could tell I was naked and could feel the weight of a man on top of me, pinning down my hands on the bed as he forced himself inside me. I wriggled my body and tried to push him away, but he was too strong.
I must have blacked out yet again, because the next time I opened my eyes, I was alone on a bed. The room was sparse, a dingy hotel. Light was streaming through the window. Still naked, I could see the white dress I’d had on that night on the floor, ripped. My bloody underwear was nearby, my tampon discarded on the carpet.
Terrified and unsure if the man was still around, I pulled on my torn dress, threw the underwear in the bin, grabbed my bag and ran out of the room, remembering the number as I left. I walked out to find myself in a narrow alleyway. A neon sign above the door said ‘View Motel.’
On the main street, I hailed a cab, but as I opened my bag in the back seat, I saw all my money was gone. I was thankful to feel my phone still there.
I didn’t know anyone in Seoul, so I called the friend who’d been with me on holiday earlier, telling him I was sure I’d been raped and didn’t know what to do. He told me to call the hostel, tell them what had happened and ask for their help, so I did. The owner was waiting when I arrived, and paid the fare before leading me – faint, dizzy and shaking – into a private room to rest. Later that day, she, along with a Korean friend of my boyfriend, took me to the local hospital, which had a police unit attached, to report the rape.
I spent the next 12 hours being sent back and forth between the hospital and the police station.
Blood and urine samples were taken – they proved I hadn’t drunk enough to pass out like I did. Then two women hoisted my legs into stirrups and pulled a curtain across my body so I could only feel, not see, as they examined me and took evidence – strangers invading my body for the second time in 24 hours.
I spent several hours giving a statement, telling police every detail I could remember about that night – from the name of the company who organised the pub crawl, to the bars we went to, so they could get CCTV footage. I told them about the people I was talking to – then what I could remember about the man who raped me and the motel I woke up in.
They wanted more details.“How much did you drink that night?” a female officer asked.“Why were you out alone?”“How often do you drink per week?”“How do you know for sure you were raped?” They suggested my memories might be hazy, perhaps unreliable, because I’d been drinking. I’d given a very clear description of my attacker, but I felt like I was defending myself.
I was assigned a translator, but the police and hospital staff often ignored her – and me – instead speaking among themselves in Korean. Even if they believed I’d been attacked, which it didn’t feel like they did, they barely seemed to care.
Back at the hostel, I asked to be moved into a femaleonly dorm, as I was too afraid to sleep alone. I awoke to my phone lit up with messages of concern – and the request from my attacker. The following day, I flew back to Japan. I was signed off sick from work, and locked myself in my room. I was prescribed antidepressants, sleeping tablets and medication for anxiety. My boyfriend barely left my side, but I felt
“When I came to I could feel the weight of a man on me”
desperate. I struggled to sleep and had regular panic attacks. When I emailed police in South Korea to find out what was happening, I heard nothing back.
Frustrated, I went to the Australian Embassy, giving them power of attorney to communicate with South Korean police on my behalf. Almost a month after I was attacked, they finally secured the medical report I’d been promised weeks earlier.
I read it, stunned. The report said I’d lost consciousness after drinking heavily, that I’d been out at clubs in Hongdae on my own. There was no record of me being tested for drugs like GHB or Rohypnol. Despite the intrusive procedures at the hospital, they’d also failed to collect DNA evidence from my mouth, nails or hair, and no photographs were taken.
Weeks passed with no more news until, in January 2016, the embassy sent an email to say there had been significant developments. For the first time in months, I felt positive, certain they would tell me an arrest had been made. Instead, I was told over the phone that police had decided to close my case and mark it as unsolved. It was devastating, especially when I felt I’d given so much information to go on. I knew who my attacker was, and he was still out there.
I realised I had to take matters into my own hands. I did some digging myself – the man who raped me has a really unusual name and I tracked down another Facebook profile of his, with all his friends and family (the one he added me from only had women as ‘friends’). It also listed his job description: it said he was a community support officer in London, for the Metropolitan Police. I felt sick knowing he was in a position of authority. I knew I would have to waive my right to anonymity so I could go public with what had happened, how I’d been treated, and hope it would force the South Korean police to take action. I also knew, if I was going to pursue my case, I’d need a lawyer – which I couldn’t afford.
I’d never heard of crowdfunding, but a friend mentioned it and, six months after my attack, in March 2016, I created a GoFundMe page online. I wrote a long and raw post detailing exactly what had happened to me that night and my experience afterwards. I explained what I hoped to do next – return to Seoul to collect my case file before flying to the UK to find a lawyer and pursue legal action there. I asked people to share my story and, if they could, donate a small amount to help fund my case.
Friends and family were brilliant, and all shared the post, but it only really began to get noticed when high-
profile Australian feminist Clementine Ford tweeted about it. My story got picked up by news outlets, first back home in Australia, then across the world – including BBC online. In two weeks, I’d raised around £6,500, and the money kept coming in – complete strangers were donating anything from £5 to several hundred.*
Besides donations, I received dozens of messages of support from people urging me to stay strong, and encouraging me to keep fighting. Then there were the stories like mine – a steady trickle of messages from other women who’d also experienced horrific sexual attacks in South Korea and further abroad, and had felt let down and dismissed by the police. Reading their accounts was upsetting, but it also strengthened my resolve.
Then, a couple of weeks after that, I received an email out of the blue from the police. They denied they’d ever closed the case, even though it was the first time they’d contacted me directly in over six months.“We arrested two suspects,” it read. Attached to the email were screen grabs of CCTV footage from the night of my attack. They were grainy and black and white, but I recognised myself immediately. It was the first time I’d been made aware that I’d even been attacked by two men. I broke down. I was sitting at my desk at work and pushed myself up, making my way hazily to the toilets, where I threw up over and over again.
I could only comfort myself with the knowledge that at least they’d made arrests. But even that was short-lived – a few days later they revealed that it was only one man not two who had been arrested – a Nigerian-born man, who was outside a nightclub in Seoul. He wasn’t who I could remember, but he was shown in CCTV footage with me. Two months later, he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for ‘semi-forcible sexual molestation.’ It was justice – of sorts. It’s the longest sentence ever served for that crime – he wasn’t charged with full rape, because police said they couldn’t prove I didn’t consent.
The other man in the CCTV footage – the one who contacted me on Facebook and is now in London – has still not been found. I hope I can bring him to account, though with such a botched case, the chances are slim. But I want to do something to stop him from doing this again – even if it’s just exposing who he is to the world. There’s currently an Interpol investigation into him, and I am suing the police in South Korea for negligence and misconduct, using the money from my crowdfunding to pay my legal fees. But despite still having a long way to go, I see where I have got to now, with one attacker jailed, as a success. I shouldn’t have had to turn to them, but the kindness of strangers made it all possible, and has given me the strength to keep on fighting.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this piece, go to Rapecrisis.org. uk. For updates on Airdre’s case, visit Justiceforairdre.wordpress.com. To donate, visit Gofundme.com/justiceforairdre
FROM TOP: Airdre and her boyfriend at the time of her attack, in Seoul in September 2015; in Japan where she had been working as an English teacher
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Airdre and her then boyfriend (centre) the day before the attack; dressed as an apprentice geisha in Japan; on Christmas Day 2015 forcing a smile to send to family and friends back in Australia