On May 14, 2001, a 26-year-old Sara Ylen reported to police that she had been attacked and beaten two days earlier—May 12—as she got out of her van in the parking lot of a Meijer store in Fort Gratiot, Michigan.
Police believed the assault was an attempted car-jacking because Ylen said she fought back and the attacker fled. Ylen described the attacker as a white man with long hair and a scraggly beard.
The following day, May 15, Ylen told a friend that in fact her attacker had raped her. At her friend’s urging, Ylen then told her husband, but said only that she had been digitally penetrated, not that she had been raped. Ylen went to a doctor who noted that she had a bruise on her arm. Ylen did not tell the doctor that she had been raped.
On May 16, Ylen called her gynecologist and reported that she had been raped—saying she was concerned because the attacker had not used a condom. Her doctor sent her to a hospital emergency room, accompanied by her husband.
There, Ylen told the physician only that she had been digitally penetrated. The physician noted abrasions that were consistent with digital penetration, but could have had another cause.
In June 2002—13 months after the attack—Ylen told police that she was driving near the same Meijer store when she saw a man she believed was her attacker in a black Cherokee Jeep that pulled up behind her at a stoplight. At that point, she told police for the first time that she had been raped.
Ylen told police that the attacker had forced her back into her van, punched and slapped her and then digitally penetrated and raped her. She said she noticed a distinctive ring mounted with several stones on the man’s finger.
Beginning in October 2002, Ylen went through 7,500 mug shots and selected a photograph of 44-year-old James Grissom, who was on probation after being convicted of molesting a six-year-old girl. Ylen later told a newspaper reporter that she also had been looking at the online sex offender registry.
Police interviewed Grissom, who had long hair and a scraggly beard, and he denied committing the crime. After first denying he had a ring like the one described by Ylen, he later admitted having had one, but said he had pawned a ring meeting the general description.
On November 7, police arranged for a live lineup and told Grissom to be there. When Grissom arrived for the lineup, he had shaved his beard and his head. Although Ylen identified someone other than Grissom, police charged him with sexual assault.
Several months prior to trial, Ylen told police she remembered that her assailant had a skull tattoo on his upper arm. She was unable to offer a specific description of the tattoo, however.
Grissom went on trial before a jury in St. Clair County. Ylen’s testimony was the only evidence that linked Grissom to the crime.
Ylen testified to the attack and identified Grissom as her attacker. She said she lost consciousness after the rape and when she came to, she drove home (although she could remember the route) and went immediately to her bedroom because she didn’t want her children to know what happened.
She said she didn’t tell her husband she had been raped because she believed it would “break his heart.” She said she hadn’t told medical officials about the rape because she didn’t feel comfortable talking about it with other patients nearby and because she had showered prior to going to the doctor.
The jury learned that Grissom had a skull tattooed on his upper arm and that on the day of the assault, he was working at the supermarket where the attack occurred.
Because Ylen didn’t report the rape at the hospital, no rape kit was ever taken, so there was no physical evidence that she had been raped. She said that soon after being attacked, she had discarded the clothing she was wearing.
Police testified they were not able to connect Grissom to a black Cherokee Jeep and that they learned that Grissom had pawned his ring in May 2001—more than a year before Ylen told police about the ring.
Grissom was convicted of criminal sexual assault on August 27, 2003 and was sentenced to 15 to 35 years in prison.
His conviction was upheld on appeal and the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal.
Two years after the conviction, Ylen called one of the detectives in the case and said she wanted to pursue sexual assault charges against her father and brother when from she was a child. She was told she needed to go to the county where she had lived at the time of the alleged assaults, which she did. Those investigators discovered that she had made additional rape allegations while on a trip to California in 2001—several months before she reported to police in Michigan that the attack in the Meijer parking lot involved a rape.
The California reports showed that Ylen had a history of making accusations of rape and kidnapping. She claimed to have been abducted and raped in 2001 in Bakersfield, but her father told police it was not true. He said that his daughter had been sexually assaulted by a female member of their church between the ages of 10 and 12 and that the assault had never been reported nor had his daughter received any counseling. The father told police that his daughter “likes to have a lot of attention.”
Police determined that the Bakersfield abduction was a fabrication—as were accounts by Ylen that she had once been raped in the parking lot of a restaurant minutes before she went to dinner with her family.
One police report said officers suspected she was mentally unstable after she reported various stories of rape, including that she had been gang-raped by her brother and his friends in Michigan and that her brother had been convicted and sent to prison, but was released and found her in California, where he raped her again. None of the accounts could be verified.
The St. Clair County Prosecutor’s Office sent the California reports to Grissom’s appointed attorney, who sent them to him and told him that he should file a motion for a new trial. Grissom then filed such a motion in March 2006. The motion was denied without any testimony being heard after the trial court ruled that newly discovered impeachment evidence could not be the basis for a new trial.
After the Michigan Court of Appeals denied Grissom leave to appeal, the Michigan Supreme Court remanded the case for consideration of the appeal. In October 2009, a divided appeals court upheld the trial court’s denial of the motion for a new trial. Grissom filed an application for leave to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court which granted the application and appointed the State Appellate Defender Office to represent Grissom.
In July 2012, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that impeachment evidence could in fact be the basis for a new trial, saying that if the evidence “has an exculpatory connection to testimony concerning a material matter and a different result is probable, a new trial is warranted.” The court remanded the case back to the trial court to review the evidence again in light of the ruling. In September 2012, the trial court issued an opinion indicating it would grant a new trial. In November 2012, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s decision.
On November 19, 2012, the trial judge granted a motion of the St. Clair County District Attorney’s office to vacate the conviction and dismiss the charges. Grissom was then released from prison.
– Maurice Possley