NYPD ID's suspect in 1994 rape case columnist once infamously deemed a hoax

A sketch released by the NYPD picturing a suspect in the 1994 rape of a woman in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, left; and the mugshot of serial rapist James Edward Webb, who was identified as the suspect in 2018

NYPD via AP / New York State Department of Corrections via AP

NEW YORK -- Detectives said Tuesday they have cracked a 1994 rape case that a newspaper columnist infamously claimed was a hoax after police sources raised doubts to him.

A woman was walking home with groceries through Brooklyn's Prospect Park when she was dragged into the bushes and raped on April 26, 1994. She gave police a detailed description of her attacker. Police made a sketch, and DNA evidence was recovered, but no arrests were made.

Daily News columnist Mike McAlary wrote at the time that he heard from unnamed police sources that the woman invented her story because she wanted to bolster a speech she was to give at a rally about violence against lesbians.

"The woman, who will probably end up being arrested herself, invented the crime, they said, to promote her rally," McAlary wrote in a column called "Rape hoax the real crime."

He persisted even after DNA was discovered, writing three columns. The last column's headline was: "I'm right, but that's no reason to cheer."

The woman sued McAlary for libel, but a judge dismissed the case in part because McAlary had been relying on information from police. An attorney who represented the Daily News and McAlary said then that McAlary's reporting had been "vindicated" and that it was police who "got some stuff wrong." McAlary died in 1998 at age 41.

The woman's attorney, Martin Garbus, said on Tuesday she's owed an apology.

"The Daily News owes her an apology. I think the police owe her an apology," Garbus said. "This is a woman who had to live for 23 years with a false accusation of lying, with threats to the newspaper that she was about to be arrested. It's horrific."

The Daily News didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

The case was mentioned in "Lucky Guy," a 2013 Broadway play about McAlary by the late writer Nora Ephron. It starred Tom Hanks as McAlary.

Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said the woman wept when detectives recently told her they'd found a DNA match to a suspect in her rape.

"You can imagine how emotional she was," Boyce said. "I think my detectives cried with her."

He said cold-case detectives have been going through unsolved stranger rapes to see what evidence they had on file and what they can test using more up-to-date methods.

Boyce said the DNA recovered in 1994 was mixed with the victim's DNA and there was no way at the time to subtract it. But they asked her for a sample, and they were able to isolate hers using modern methods, leaving them with a hit.

Boyce said detectives matched the DNA to serial rapist James Edward Webb, who's serving 75 years to life in Sing Sing prison.

Webb had been charged with 10 other rapes over the course of several decades. He was arrested in 1995 on a separate rape. He told police he denied raping the woman in the 1994 case. It's unclear whether he was ever considered a suspect.

Boyce said he wasn't involved in the 1994 case and couldn't comment on how it was handled by police, other than to say the woman had been treated badly.

William Bratton, who was police commissioner at the time, apologized to the woman for the leak in the days after the McAlary column was published.

The controversy also involved John Miller, then the police department's main spokesman and now its head of counterterrorism and intelligence, who was rumored to be one of McAlary's sources.

During sworn questioning in the woman's libel lawsuit, Miller said he told McAlary and other reporters that detectives had doubts about her case because of inconsistences in her story and a lack of physical evidence, according to a New York Times article at the time. Miller said McAlary also had other police sources telling him they had doubts.

Miller had no comment Tuesday other than to refer to the deposition.