Part 2: Views from the bench: In 'Block Island II,' the judge is the jury;
November 3, 1996
Sue Littlefield, a beekeeper, should have been happy.
It was the morning of Saturday, Oct. 12 - Columbus Day weekend - the day of Block Island's annual Harvest Festival. More than just a good time, this was Littlefield's last big chance to sell honey after a tourist season marred by bad weather and a Labor Day - weekend hurricane.
The day dawned clear and sunny.
Within a few hours, the lawn of the Harbor Church would be thronged with people buying and selling jewelry, fall vegetables, jellies and jams and hand-knitted sweaters. They would be gawking at antique cars and bopping to tunes played by a Navy band. The schoolkids would be selling raffle tickets to pay for their class trip.
A perfect autumn day at a pleasant island resort in New England.
Yet, Littlefield, 40, was filled with dread.
"I have to go and sell my stuff? Can I emotionally do that?" she remembers thinking. "I am in so much pain. I don't want to go. I don't feel like being out in public."
But a long, lean winter loomed, so she went.
All day long, she says, islanders stopped by her table, letting her know she is not the only one troubled by "a malaise, a melancholy." In their bones, she says, all are registering the aftershocks of a seismic event:
On Oct. 6, a Block Island waitress complained to police that she was raped by three men. One of the men she named was Ed McGovern, the town's top elected official and the proprietor of McGovern's Yellow Kittens, the bar where the crime is said to have happened. The other men, as well liked as McGovern, were Giacomo "Jack" Capizzano, who owns Capizzano's Pizza, and Phil O'Donnell, a chef at Winfield's restaurant.
An immediate investigation by the local and state police was launched, but, until last week, no arrests were made and no information was forthcoming.
Not that mere information could provide what the islanders seemed most deeply to need. For weeks, says Sue Littlefield, people moved about the island distractedly, in a confusion of anger and sadness.
"I woke up thinking about it, first thing," says Pamela Pearce, who works for Littlefield and studies holistic health, "and the rest of the day was feeling clumsy, thick, foggy. At work, we were doing dumb things. Not being able to think forward, really feeling in a fog. I was reading a book for school, and not able to remember the page before. I was feeling heavy in my heart."
It was "like walking through sludge," says Emily Reeve, who teaches children's theater and works in substance-abuse prevention and education.
Cradling coffee cups in the Victorian parlor of the Gables Inn, Littlefield, Pearce and Reeve talked last week about how the rape charge was affecting Block Island's year-round community of 800 people.
In a dramatic way, they said, it was bringing to the surface feelings and memories that some people had long ago forgotten or put aside.
Littlefield herself has suffered abuse, and though she prefers not to recount it in the newspaper, Block Islanders know her interest in these issues.
Since the alleged rape, she says, many have come up to her with stories of their own rape or other sexual abuse, stories of "trauma, loss, grief" - stories going back 50 years that, in some cases, have never been told before.
Both Bob Davidowicz, a Cranston psychotherapist who sees clients on the island twice a month, and the Rev. Donal R. Kehew, pastor of St. Andrew's Catholic Church here, say that since the rape, islanders have reported vividly re-living past traumas.
"That sense of outrage at the violation - this only brings it back to the surface and causes some very strong and very painful memories and sense of injustice," says Father Kehew, who is also a professor of philosophy at Providence College.
All of this turmoil is making some people question the dynamics of island life. Reeve says they are asking themselves whether, by looking away from occasional "let's call it inappropriate behavior," on the part of some islanders, they have helped create an environment in which rape is possible.
Residents freely admit that, in order to maintain any privacy at all, they close up around their troubles, and pretend to ignore those of others.
"Every place has an underbelly," says one woman, who asked to remain anonymous. "Because of how an island has to function, you try to keep one another's secrets."
That's how people survive the exposed life on a small island, says Davidowicz, the therapist. "One cannot hide on Block Island as one can in the city."
"To live on an island is like a two-edged sword," says Father Kehew, the priest. "It's a tremendous community, but often you lose your privacy."
"People really can't get away with anything," says another woman who asked to remain anonymous. Every illicit love affair, she says, is an open secret - "We know where your car is, whatever. But we turn our heads to certain things."
It's a practical matter, says lifelong islander Edith Blane, 67.
The person whose behavior you criticize, she says, may be the person who sorts your mail, or who puts out the fire at your house, or who rushes you to the doctor.
The woman who spoke of people's turning their heads said, "There are a limited number of human resources. If you turn everybody in, there won't be anybody left to do anything."
Blane worries, though, that people have become too tolerant - especially when it comes to the abuse of alcohol.
Blane, who served as the island's first warden until losing to McGovern, eight years ago, and who was town clerk before that, says that drinking is woven into Block Island life.
"It's a fishing place," she says. "Fishing and hard liquor go together."
"And now hard liquor and tourism go together," adds Littlefield. "It's how people make their money."
On top of that, Block Island is "a lonely place," says 59-year-old Marilyn Wolfe, who owns Wolfie's Taxi but used to run a bar. "Nothing to do, nowhere to go, so you go to a bar for camaraderie."
Except for a few sandwich shops, all of the town's 30-odd food-and-drink establishments are licensed to serve liquor, say the town officials.
It seemed significant to Blane that the alleged rape happened in a bar, and that all of those involved had reportedly been drinking.
"I think this is a wake-up call to all of us," she says, "and we'd be foolish not to face it."
This is the waitress's account of what happened, as related by the police in two affidavits filed in District Court in Wakefield.
On Oct. 5, a Saturday, the waitress worked all day at one restaurant, and all night at another, and then, after 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, wrapped up the night by having two drinks at the Yellow Kittens.
She had only partly finished the second drink when she returned from the women's room to find it missing. Jack Capizzano gave her the mixed drink he had in his hand, and she drank it.
As she sat and talked with him and McGovern, both men began flirting with her. McGovern stroked her leg.
The waitress said she didn't feel well and rose to go back to the women's room, partly to ease her discomfort, and partly to avoid the men's behavior. She became aware that she was "very drunk." She was inside the restroom when she realized that Ed McGovern had followed her in, and he tried to kiss her, but she pushed him away and out of the restroom.
Police have determined that what happened next occurred at about 2:55 a.m., after the bar's employees had left.
The waitress came out of the restroom feeling dizzy, weak and sick to her stomach, and she collapsed on the floor of the bar, near where the two men and Phil O'Donnell, sat.
Ed McGovern held out his hand to help her up, but she said she wasn't feeling well, so she was left on the floor. She was confused and unable to move, and finally lost consciousness.
She awoke to find the three men were huddled around her, and were molesting her. They had removed her shoes, pants and underwear, and had lifted her shirt and bra away.
She was overwhelmed by their aggression, the documents say, and could not stop them. She said the men performed sexual acts upon her, but she was unable to resist and did not consent to any of it. The affidavits go on to say that, after the men were done, McGovern and O'Donnell held her up to dress her. Then McGovern left the tavern, and Capizzano and O'Donnell escorted her back to her apartment. Along the way, she became ill and vomited. After she got inside her apartment and changed into her pajamas, O'Donnell left, but Capizzano stayed and began to rub her back as she lay in bed, still incapacitated.
When he tried to feel under her top, she swung her arm at him and told him to get out. She spent the rest of the night in a semi-conscious state, vomiting and trying to regain her composure.
Later, say the affidavits, at about 11:30 a.m., Capizzano returned to her apartment, offered her coffee, and wept as he expressed remorse about what had happened. He claimed to have been very drunk, and acknowledged that he and the other two men were wrong. She refused to talk to him.
He offered to return to the bar to find a pair of emerald earrings she had lost during the incident, but returned a short time later with only one.
At about noon, the woman told an acquaintance that she had been raped, and that she did not know what to do. The acquaintance called a rape-crisis agency, which said she should see a doctor and notify the police.
That afternoon, say the documents, O'Donnell went to the apartment to speak to the woman, but she did not want to see him. McGovern telephoned her, but was told by the person who answered to come by at 4 p.m. Later, a note, believed to have been written by McGovern, was found, saying he had been there.
At about 4:45 p.m., the woman reported the incident to the local police department. A flight to Westerly was arranged so she could be examined at Westerly Hospital. The state police, aware of the woman's "exhaustion and trauma," waited until the next day - Monday - to take a formal statement.
Also that day, as he was dumping refuse at the local transfer station, Capizzano was confronted by the police. He agreed to give a statement, and drove himself to the police station.
There, say the affidavits, after being read his rights, Capizzano acknowledged having had sexual intercourse with the woman, and performing oral sex upon her. He said that he had been with McGovern and O'Donnell, and that they, too, had performed sexual acts. He said that he and O'Donnell had used Magnum Gold condoms, and that he disposed of his in a refuse container at the bar.
Capizzano also admitted being upset by what he had done, according to the affidavits, but he said that the woman had participated willingly with all three men. He acknowledged having returned for the lost earrings.
That Friday, the results of the hospital's examination showed that semen was present in the woman's vagina.
In need of healing
As Block Islanders picked up more bits and pieces of the story, their discomfort grew.
By the middle of October, some were in such "overwhelming grief" that they felt they had to do something - soon.
A dozen or so people, including Sue Littlefield, got together to share ideas: They would host a public forum on rape and other sexual abuse. They would plan a program for the school. They would establish a non-alcoholic gathering place for teenagers.
If nothing else, they would have a ritual, a "grieving ceremony" in which they could vent their pain, and feel better.
Some people in the group were nervous about this. They thought people might see it as a "condemn Ed McGovern" rally, and suggested waiting until the men were officially implicated in the alleged crime.
"No]" said an angry Littlefield.
In her mind, this vigil was a separate thing. Politics and legalities - they shouldn't even be discussed, she said. "This is for the healing and expression of grief."
In fact, if the three accused men wanted to come, they were welcome.
It's perhaps a testament to the intimacy of island life that one of Jack Capizzano's employees posted a flier advertising the event - "in response to our Island's need of healing" - in his pizza parlor.
Sharing the grief
On Sunday, Oct. 27, the marquee of the Empire Theater read: Community Meeting. Healing and Hope - 3 p.m. today.
The movie house had been closed for the season, but its owner, Gary Pollard, came up from New York to unlock the doors.
Solemnly, the people trickled in. There were 70 in all - men and women, young and old, plus clergy of three faiths. At the front of the theater they formed a circle around some branches of tangled bittersweet, meant to symbolize pain and healing.
"These difficult times in our community not only hurt us . . . but remind us of other sorrows, other times, and other people, some very dear to our hearts," said Littlefield, reading a greeting she'd prepared.
"Beneath the rage, fear and confusion lie a deep sadness and sense of loss," she said. "The heartache can be felt throughout the community."
She invited the group to quiet their minds of racing thoughts, to "step beyond the rumors, allegations and politics, and feel your deep sorrow as we honor all those touched by violence - women, men and children, you and me."
Emily Reeve read a Marge Piercy poem called "A Just Anger." It says, in part:
A good anger acted upon
is beautiful as lightning
and swift with power.
A good anger swallowed . . .
clots the blood
Each person was given a smooth beach stone.
"Let it represent your heart's burden," said Littlefield, "or perhaps the sorrow you feel" for those wounded by abuse or violence.
As a piece of driftwood was passed around the circle, each person told of a sadness, or else remained silent, and then dropped his or her stone into one basket.
"One by one, as our stones gather, our individual grief is touched by all," said Littlefield, "and becomes each other's grief. Imagine any feeling of isolation lift as your personal burdens become shared sadness."
The people shared themselves so openly and intimately, Littlefield said, that it would be wrong to repeat their words in the newspaper.
One woman, an off-islander, said she'd just stepped off the ferry, having been "led here by God," and that she'd had no other place to share her pain.
Later, Edith Blane remarked, "I never in the world would've believed that I could've heard the stories that I heard that day. Not just from the women, but the young men - that these things had happened, the severity, the pain of people]
"It was so hard for me to watch how painful that was. I think a lot of people felt that none of this could happen on Block Island, because it is so small and close and nobody ever talked about anything happening.
"But it has," she said, as if struggling to believe it herself, "and we just haven't known."
As, stone by stone, the basket filled, some people wept.
Then the vigil took a new turn: Each person was told to take a stone out of the basket to keep, a stone representing someone's pain. They were simply to hold it, and say something hopeful.
Pamela Pearce said she hoped that all the victims in the world would have someone who believes in them. Littefield hoped that children would "have a voice," and that young women would know they have a right to say no.
More than one participant expressed hope for Block Island - that it would not be "broken by this."
They said they wondered what the "outside world" must make of it all, whether people are disappointed to discover that the island is not so safe, after all, in which case, is there any safe place on earth?
When everything had been said, a lantern was lit, and the gathering moved outside into the dusky afternoon.
Two by two, they walked to Surf Beach, where they lit candles in the sand - "they were very brave-looking" in the wind, said Emily Reeve - then collapsed into hugs.
"I felt a thousand pounds lighter," said Reeve. "Past struggles, past traumas - everyone kind of gave it up."
"This wasn't a diatribe," said Father Kehew, who was there. "It was a sharing of this as a burden, and the sharing also of the fact that hope can come out of it. I saw it as reflecting that Biblical concept of how a stumbling stone can soon become a building stone."
Three days later, Reeve still had the beach stone in her pocket. "I wonder whose rock I have, whose pain I have," she said, "and who holds mine."
"And whose hope, too," said Littlefield.
Pearce, for her part, was moved by the contemplative moment on the beach, a place so integral to Block Island's beauty.
But she was also troubled.
On her walk there, she'd passed a man on the street, someone who'd always waved to her but who now looked at her "with this dead look in his eyes."
She thinks she knows what he was thinking - that she was condemning Ed McGovern - and she grumbled to herself, "This is our community."
"This abuse happens because people separate themselves from the person they're doing it to," she says. "They can't see the humanity in one another. The look in his eyes - I became less human to him on some level. People are losing sight of the fact that we were friends before.
"We're starting to judge one another."
3 men charged
Meanwhile, the police investigation continued.
On Friday, Oct. 25, the state Crime Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island reported finding semen stains on the waitress's underwear, pants and pajamas. He also found human hairs that were not hers.
The next Tuesday, McGovern, Capizzano and O'Donnell turned themselves in at the state-police barracks in Wickford, where they were charged with first-degree sexual assault.
The police, having received court permission to do so, seized samples of their blood and hair, including pubic hair. Immediately after the alleged rape, police had obtained a warrant to search the Yellow Kittens for condoms, condom wrappers, bodily fluids and an emerald earring.
All three men were arraigned and released on $50,000 surety bail. They are not required to enter pleas until a grand jury decides whether to indict them.
McGovern, who had been running unopposed for reelection to his first-warden seat, now faces opposition from Second Warden Kim Gaffett, who has launched a write-in campaign.
Immediately after the arrests, the islanders struggled to sort out their feelings.
Littlefield says she hears people express conflicting feelings about McGovern.
Others are more resolute. They say they don't care what the function is, they won't go into McGovern's Yellow Kittens again.
One man, Tim McCabe, galloped up on his horse to the Kittens sign and tore off the section that said "McGovern's." He was charged with malicious damage and fined $50 and costs.
And yet, last week, the bar was lined with regular customers. A Channel 12 reporter was doing a live shot outside the tavern on Tuesday night when a man in a truck pulled up threateningly close and loudly revved the truck's engine through the report.
Some people are saying callous things about the waitress. Reeve says she heard one woman say, "So three men did her. She should get on with her life."
Pearce, for one, says part of her wants to write a letter to Jack Capizzano - who, according to the police affidavit, apologized to the victim - saying, "I support your level of honesty to date and I hope you can carry forward with that."
At the same time, she says: "This woman - I do not want to lose sight of the trauma she's gone through. The crime, in my heart, is very real."
Pearce is among those who, to their children's dismay, have boycotted Capizzano's Pizza.
Others protested by affixing to stop signs a sticker with the word RAPE under the word STOP. But then those stickers were quickly removed by someone else.
All of this, says Davidowicz, the therapist, is normal behavior for people who have suffered "a significant trauma."
By clinging to a strong emotion, or acting on their "disheveled" feelings, traumatized people regain a sense of control, he says. Block Islanders did it last year, he says, when they got angry at the press after a plane crash killed five people.
"It's something to feel they have some feet on the ground again."
Once that happens, he said, they will tap into their "understanding and compassion," which he believes come more naturally to Block Islanders than to other people.
"They're not so caught up in isolation and alienation," he said. "There's a natural sense of innocence. . . . People have a way of relating this trauma to questions of larger meaning."
Already, some people have moved beyond their anger.
Littlefield says she feels the cloud of anxiety that hovered over the island is starting to lift.
"We want to do more," says Littlefield. "We're not done."
Said Reeve: "The wonderful thing about the island is that it does come together in crisis. It will come together. It's like an organism. In pain, in crisis, in joy. Some parts have their own life. Like a body. Diseased in one part. And the other parts are going to try to heal it."