For three weeks, discussion in this bucolic college town swirled around a report that a woman was wrestled from her bike by a wilding gang of skateboarding teens and raped on one of the city's parklike greenbelts.
Townsfolk demanded arrests. Threatening anti-male graffiti, including the slogan "Dead Boys Don't Rape," was scrawled on an overpass favored by skateboarders. Police questioned 75 boys. But this weekend the story took another shocking turn when the woman recanted.
In a news conference Monday, Davis Police Chief Phil Coleman, flanked by politicians, two detectives and two rape counselors, said the rape the woman claimed took place July 29 never occurred.
"It's a tragedy for this community," Councilwoman Lois Wolk said. "We were very ready to point fingers and make accusations and stereotype groups--men (and) skateboarders."
The story that emerged was of a woman troubled by her past, including an allegation of child molestation at a day-care center she ran, and of a town embarrassed by its readiness to single out a particular group--teens who ride skateboards.
Taking steps to repair the damage, Mayor Maynard Skinner called skateboarders "an important group in our community" and said the city plans to open a skateboard park. He also called on the woman, Jan Berger, 44, to publicly apologize.
Davis police officials have not decided whether to seek prosecution of Berger for making a false police report. Sgt. Don Brooks and Detective Kay Lipelt said Berger offered no explanation for the fabrication, and that they are continuing to seek a motive.
Berger resigned Monday from her job as circulation manager at the Davis Enterprise, and could not be reached for comment.
Even as word spread that the crime never took place, some local feminists questioned the claim that there had been no rape. They said the case could be used as an excuse by the public and police to view rape with more skepticism, and that victims may become more hesitant to come forward.
"I don't think any one of us (is) convinced that it didn't happen," said Sherilyn Adams, of a small group of feminists who organized in an effort to ensure that rape continues to be taken seriously. "It's not uncommon for women to recant out of fear of retaliation . . . or denial--make this thing go away."
The story began with Berger's claim that she brushed against a skateboarder on the evening of July 29, while she peddled her bike along a greenbelt that meanders through the north end of Davis. On her return trip, she claimed, one of the youths knocked her to the ground, and the gang sexually attacked her.
She went to the Yolo Sexual Assault Center with her story the next day, and reported it to police Aug. 2. By the following week, the story was big news in the small, liberal town.
The Davis Enterprise newspaper reported that week that a rally had been planned in "support of the rape victim and other rape victims," though the rally was canceled at the woman's request. A local chapter of the National Organization for Women held a news conference to denounce the crime.
Angry graffiti appeared: "Dead Boys Don't Rape" was one, "Curfew for All Men," read another. A third slogan demanded: "Get the Skateboard Rapists."
As calls for an arrest mounted, police released a description of a teen wanted for questioning based on details provided by a person who had been walking along the greenbelt July 29 and saw a large group of teen-agers.
Lipelt and Brooks said they never came up with a suspect.
Skateboarders kept a low profile once the woman's story became public. "After it happened, there wasn't a skateboarder in town," said Bill Gray, a Yolo County youth counselor at Davis High School.
Gray said he tried to come up with names of teens who were capable of such an act. None came to mind. He described the town, home to a University of California campus, as "upper middle-class," well-educated and particularly "conscious" of social ills such as violent crime.
"If it had proved true, it would have been catastrophic" to the town's self image, he said.
Lipelt and Brooks said that after two weeks of investigation, they confronted Berger with inconsistencies in her story on Friday night. After the officers and a rape counselor spoke to her during a 3 1/2-hour period, she acknowledged the fabrication.
One key failing in her story was her refusal to reveal the name of a doctor she claimed examined her. While she evidently was involved in a bike accident, she bandaged herself. Brooks said Berger relented by saying, "The reason I can't give you a doctor is because there is none."
As officials described the fabrication, Wolk continued to refer to Berger as a "victim," and said she hoped Berger would receive therapy.
Police confirmed a report in the Davis Enterprise that Berger ran a small day-care center that was shuttered after children were molested there in 1986. She was never prosecuted for the crimes, but Lipelt said she continued to feel responsible.
Lipelt said Berger told the detective, when she was maintaining that a rape had taken place, that "what happened now was punishment for what had happened" at the day-care center.
A rape counselor at the news conference insisted that the woman did not "act out of malice" when she went to police with the story.
"She has experienced traumas in her life. She does deserve a great deal of compassion," said the counselor, who uses only her first name, Cheryl. The counselor would not describe the traumas.