CW: Violent Sexual Assault, Torture
In 1978, Mary Vincent had every reason to look to the future with optimism and hope. She was 15 and a competitive dancer, her instructors confident she could have a career in dance if she wanted it. She dreamt of traveling the world performing. But one night when Vincent was hitchhiking to her grandfather’s house in California, the future she’d envisioned for herself was torn away from her. Not just her future, either — what happened to Mary Vincent that night, and the events that unfolded in the decades following, have changed California law.
Hitchhiking was a common practice in 1978, in a time when many people didn’t own cars. Vincent was with two other hitchhikers at the time, trying to escape the conflict between her parents, who were in the middle of a divorce, and stay with her grandfather instead. Lawrence Singleton, a 50-year-old man, pulled to the side of the road and offered a ride to Vincent only, claiming there wasn’t room for anyone else in his empty van. He promised he’d take Mary as far as Interstate 5, and 15-year-old Mary Vincent climbed into the van.
But Singleton hit on her during the van ride and did not stop at Interstate 5. When Vincent pointed it out and demanded he turn back, he pretended it was an honest mistake and turned the van around. After a few more miles, Singleton pulled the van to the side of the road, saying he needed to go to the bathroom. Vincent got out too, to get some fresh air. While she was bent tying her shoe, Singleton hit her over the head with a hammer. He tied her hands and shoved her in the back of the van. Singleton raped her repeatedly over the course of the night. The next morning, he cut off both of her arms with a hatchet, apparently in an attempt to make it more difficult to identify her body, and threw her into a 30 foot culvert pipe where he left her to die.
As traumatized and broken as she was, 15-year-old Mary Vincent was not ready to die. She packed the stumps of her severed arms with earth to try to stop the bleeding and then climbed up the 30-foot incline and back to the road to try to find help. She kept her arms raised in the air to prevent further blood loss and, according to court documents, to prevent muscles from falling out. She walked three miles from the culvert pipe where Singleton had dumped her.
One car drove right past her after the two men in it saw Mary’s condition. The next vehicle, carrying a young couple, immediately pulled over and rushed Mary to the hospital.
Mary’s description of Singleton was so clear and detailed that when the police sketch went live, Singleton’s neighbor immediately recognized him and reported him to police. Tragically, the laws at the time were so lenient that the maximum penalty Singleton could receive was 14 years in prison, which was the punishment he got after being found guilty of kidnapping, attempted murder, rape, and a series of other serious crimes.
Larry Singleton was released after eight years for “good behavior” even though at the trial, as he was leaving, he told Mary, “I’ll finish this job, if it takes me the rest of my life,” and even though multiple psychiatrists at the San Quentin prison where he was held had reported he was “a paranoid personality, severe,” “schizoid” and capable of “angry and destructive outbursts on those weaker than he.”
Sure enough, in 1997, 19 years after he tried to kill Mary Vincent, Singleton attacked again, this time a woman named Roxanne Hayes, a 31-year-old mother of three and sex worker. He’d been living in Tampa, Florida, and stabbed the woman to death in his own home.
As would be expected, a massive national public outcry arose in response to the second attack. The “Singleton bill” was drafted in California, which prevents the early release of offenders who commit crimes that involve torture. Vincent testified in Singleton’s second trial and supported that California bill. Now the minimum sentence for a crime involving torture is 25 years. Singleton was sentenced to death but died in prison of cancer in 2001.
Mary Vincent is 58 now. She’s lived a difficult life filled with trauma and PTSD because of the man who attacked her. But she had two sons and became proficient at tinkering with spare parts from broken down refrigerators and old stereos to create her own prosthetics, as high-end prosthetics are incredibly expensive. As of 2009, she was a prolific artist, creating images of powerful women as female action figures. But she has said in multiple interviews over the years that she wants to be left alone to live her life.
We’ve made progress on how we prosecute sex offenders, but we still have a long way to go. Today, according to RAINN, out of every 1,000 reported sexual assaults, only 230 are reported to police, and only 46 reports will lead to an arrest. 995 will go free. Less than a half of a percent of reported rapes will lead to conviction and incarceration. Perpetrators of sexual violence are still the least likely type of convicted criminal to serve prison time.