She shared details with detectives that she didn’t have the heart to tell her husband.
How, in her recollection, she arrived at the homeless man’s shanty on a lightless road in rural San Martin, near a South Valley waste sorting facility.
How she ducked into the shelter fashioned from tarps and shopping carts to deliver several bags of groceries and Chinese takeout, just as she said she would in a text to her newlywed spouse earlier that evening. How, before she could leave the cramped quarters, she says the man—with “a crazy look in his eyes”—somehow boxed her inside, told her she was “pretty” and “sexy” and that he wanted to “f---k” her.
How he allegedly made good on his threat, yanking down her leggings as he unfastened his own pants and pushed her back onto an upholstered chair. How he spread her legs, raised them up toward her head and kissed her lips. How she jerked her face away, squeezed her eyes shut and prayed silently for divine help.
She never told him to stop. She admits saying nothing before, during or after the two-to-three-minute assault out of fear for her life and because she didn’t know what else to do. She just wanted him to “get it over with.”
The sun had long set on Jan. 2 when the woman—we’ll call her René—says she crawled out of the makeshift hovel and drove the half-mile home in a stupor before dissolving in tears, guttural cries and pounding fists on the front door. The man’s semen viscid on her thighs, she remembers feeling, but shock blunted the reality of what happened.
He raped her, she recalls telling her husband as he pulled her into the foyer of their single-story ranch home. Sharwian Bobian, the 43-year-old transient they fed and clothed for the past few months, restrained and assaulted her, she sobbed. Horrified, René’s spouse rang 9-1-1 despite her insisting on being left to shower and rest, that at least she survived, that she’d be fine.
Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputies interviewed René before taking her to the South County Substation, where they brought Bobian out on the steps and shone a spotlight on him so she could affirm his identity. Officers assured that the alleged attacker wouldn’t see, let alone recognize her, through the bright white glare.
René spent the next several hours at San Jose’s Valley Medical Center, a 30-minute drive north, where a detective stood by and a nurse inspected her body like a crime scene. She recounted in painstaking detail what felt like the worst moment of her life as a stranger in scrubs collected sperm, pubic hairs and other biological evidence.
At the sheriff’s substation, Bobian submitted to an exam of his own as detectives took photographs of his shelter and logged the seat cushion, a towel and his jacket as evidence. Officers tried to explain why they detained him, but had trouble getting through. They couldn’t even obtain a statement from Bobian, who kept repeating the same phrase, something to the effect of: “You don’t understand, they’re bending the skeleton bone back in my neck and taking my plasma and blood.”
The clock struck 3am before René and her husband arrived home. She showered and settled in for a fitful sleep. At about 10am, she says, Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Clarissa Hamilton called to inform René that her office wouldn’t press charges.
“She said the system is broken, and it’s not fair and that my case is so heartbreaking, but they didn’t have a case,” René recalls of the conversation. “She said he’s mentally ill, that no jury would convict him and that they’re not going to prosecute.”
The office of District Attorney Jeff Rosen explained its rationale in a memo to investigators, citing a legal doctrine called the “Mayberry defense.” That is, Bobian could claim he had interpreted the woman’s lack of verbal protest as consent, oblivious to the potential criminality of the act.
Without charges, sheriff’s officials had no choice but to release him.
Records show Bobian left Valley Medical Center on Jan. 4, just a day into an 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold and two days after the alleged rape. Morgan Hill Times editor Michael Moore interviewed Bobian that afternoon at his Llagas Avenue hut, where—again rambling incoherently about blood draws and microchips—the man shared a medical form in which a nurse described him as “psychotic” and a danger to others.
Prosecutors eventually changed course. A month to the day since releasing the suspect in a case deemed too difficult to prosecute, the DA filed a felony rape charge as police began a days-long manhunt. By then, and as of this evening, nobody knew where to find him.
The San Martin rape case rocked the tight-knit farming community, where many people shared René’s sense of violation and questioned why the DA allowed the suspect to walk free less than a day after officers booked him in jail on suspicion of false imprisonment and rape. Sheriff’s officials—convinced they had gathered enough proof for a relatively smooth prosecution—balked at the DA’s initial failure to file.
As did René. The 47-year-old South County native says she felt left adrift after her whole life was upended. She celebrated her first wedding anniversary in November, the same month her husband began helping Bobian. And now, on doctor’s orders, the couple must refrain from all physical intimacy—even kissing—for the next several months as they determine whether René contracted HIV from the assault. They would have known right away had the Valley Med phlebotomist assigned to the task drew enough blood from Bobian while he was detained.
Once outgoing and fearless, René says she’s been wracked by insomnia, depression and fear of the dark and the outdoors. Her trust has been shaken, too, not least because René says she feels misled by prosecutors who repeatedly told her that Bobian had no prior offenses. Yet they must have known about his rap sheet spanning state lines and Santa Clara, Santa Barbara and San Mateo counties in California, which includes aggravated assault and evading police convictions in Savannah, Georgia, in addition to other mostly petty crimes symptomatic of homelessness and mental illness.
Once Rene’s story made headlines early last month, and especially after she granted a shadowed on-camera interview to a local TV station, concerned citizens lit up social media and county phone lines wondering why authorities dropped the ball.
Though René maintains she was told the morning of Jan. 3 not to expect prosecution, DA spokesman Sean Webby says the case never closed; it was just under scrupulous, time-intensive review. “We've been investigating it the entire time,” he said in a Feb. 1 phone call with Times editor Moore.
What happened to René happens to the vast majority of people who report rape. They’re offered condolences, told to seek counseling and advised to suspend hope of finding justice in a court of law.
Nationwide on average, just 13 of every 1,000 reported rapes get referred to prosecutors, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, and about seven of those result in felony convictions. Last year, law enforcement agencies in Santa Clara County submitted a combined 994 sexual assault cases to the DA, which filed charges in about half of them. Of those, just 34 went to jury trial and 25 resulted in convictions.
Police throughout the U.S. have long faced scrutiny for botching rape cases, for casting blame on victims, leaving untested rape kits to languish and dismissing claims as a matter of one person’s word against another. In all too many jurisdictions, investigative failures undermine sexual assault cases long before they’re passed off to prosecutors.
One glaring mistake by medical staff in René’s case was failing to adequately collect Bobian’s blood sample, which would have put to rest the question of whether he transferred an incurable immunodeficiency virus. Making matters worse still is what she sees as a delayed, indecisive and defendant-centered response from the DA.
“I can’t understand how this could happen in an age of women’s rights and equality,” she says. “I’m still trying to process the rape, and all those feelings that go with it, and now I feel like I have to go into fight mode.”
René says she’ll occasionally wonder how she could have responded to Bobian in a way that would convince people that what he did was a crime. She tries not to dwell on it.
California law deems rape an act accomplished against a victim’s will “by means of force, violence, duress, menace or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury.” Lack of consent being the defining element. Though the expectation of victim resistance has been largely eliminated through legislative reforms, it’s still effectively enforced through case law. Courts routinely expect prosecutors to prove not simply the absence of consent from a victim, but some kind of noticeable refusal. Even though laws in most U.S. states, including California, consider sexual submission out of fear as a form of assault, courts generally continue to hew to a statutorily archaic resistance standard.
René, who says she froze during the assault because she feared for her life, promptly shared her account with detectives, ID’d the suspect, went through a grueling physical exam and steeled herself for the possibility of reliving the trauma before a judge and jury.
When prosecutors told René that might not be enough, her husband—who asked to go by Jaye to protect his anonymity, too—says he was aghast and demanded a meeting so they could explain their logic in person.
“I wanted them to see her, not just read about her on paper,” he says. “I wanted them to look her in the eyes and tell her why they refused to help.”
Several days after the alleged assault, René, accompanied by Jaye and an advocate from Community Solutions, gathered around a conference table at the West Wing of the County Government Center in San Jose. Hamilton, who leads the DA’s sexual assaults team, and Assistant District Attorney Terry Harman sat across from them alongside a few other female colleagues. According to René, the prosecutors acknowledged that a crime likely occurred. Some of the women in the room even teared up, René says.
Ultimately, the attorneys echoed their prior justifications for Bobian’s release. Basically, that one could believe both accuser and accused in this case—that René probably was scared silent and Bobian probably did take that as affirmation—and that it would be tough to get 12 jurors to unanimously accept such ambiguity as felony assault.
Prosecutors sign up for the unenviable task of deciding whether a claim meets the American Bar Association’s ethical standards for criminal charges: that there’s probable cause of an offense and enough evidence to support a conviction.
While that doesn’t necessarily mean charges should only be filed when victory in court is all but certain, it’s still a high bar. To Jaye and René, the DA’s reluctance to charge Bobian because an attorney might claim a mistake-of-fact defense suggests more concern for conviction rates than public safety.
The couple says they left the West Wing meeting feeling disempowered. Bobian left Valley Med that same day for his tent just down the road from the couple’s San Martin house, before going MIA.
Another week passed. The DA’s office circled back with René. Prosecutors summoned her once more to the substation for close to four hours of questioning. René says they asked why she went to Bobian’s tent alone, why she didn’t resist, verbally object or leave when he expressed sexual thoughts and how he could “lock” her inside a shelter with no door.
“They also seemed suspicious about how calm I was,” she says. “But I was in shock, and my coping mechanism is, like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I got this.’ Literally, I ride horses and even when I get thrown off and break my bones, I suck it up. That’s how I am.”
A Hard Lesson
In San Martin, René and her husband have a reputation as do-gooders. He helps the homeless and she rescues animals. A marketing director-turned-aspiring real estate agent, René spent most of her life in the bucolic country town.
For the past eight years, she’s lived with Jaye in a modest home flanked by a standalone garage and a nearby stable, where she keeps two horses, as many roosters and a brood of hens. A shih-tzu called Coco follows René like a shadow but keeps a respectful distance from the wounded animals she fosters for a wildlife rehabilitation non-profit. Lately, she’s been caring for a pair of fawns, Tola and Meena, trying to get the skittish siblings accustomed to a covered trailer she’ll use to transport them when they’re ready to return to nature in the next week or so.
“They’re still a little shy,” she says on a recent afternoon, smiling as the young deer bounded out of view behind a wooden enclosure. “But they’ll be back in the wild soon.”
On networking app NextDoor, Jaye was known as something of a liaison between neighbors and the town’s small population of unsheltered residents. People would message him online with updates about their efforts to help Bobian, about how they brought him breakfast or stopped by for a conversation. René would chip in when she could. Other women visited Bobian, too, dropping off toiletries, clothing or plates of home-cooked food.
“We’re not inexperienced when it comes to this kind of thing,” says Jaye, an electrician by trade and lifelong South County resident. “It’s a cause that’s near and dear to me, which is why this was such a huge violation of trust.”
In the quiet South County burg of 7,000, it seems everyone knows what happens and who it happens to. Almost to the hour she returned from the Valley Med rape exam, René was met by an outpouring of charity. When Bobian walked free two days later, it sent shockwaves through the town and heightened René’s already fraught anxiety. Her physical violation stings anew, she says, with each indignity that comes in its wake.
“It just feels so disgusting and disheartening,” she laments from her kitchen table, where a stack of investigative and clinical records sit atop a white cardboard box containing her rape kit. “The criminal system let us down so horrifically.”
René says the past month taught her a terrible truth about sexual violence: that more often than not, it goes unpunished.