NORMAN, Okla. — The conviction of a rapist earlier this month has brought some closure for a Norman woman after nearly 28 years.
Linda Terrell sat in the courtroom May 1 to watch the perpetrator, 51-year-old Robert Howard Bruce, get sentenced to 177 years.
“I never thought after almost 28 years that I would have closure, I never did. And until last year when I got the call that they knew who he was, I really just thought I would be forever looking over my shoulder,” Terrell said.
Terrell’s story begins in the summer of 1985. It was the summer after she graduated with her master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma and six days after she turned 23. Terrell was a very involved student, serving as president of the Women’s Studies Student Association and serving as a rape crisis counselor for the Women’s Resource Center.
She also started the “Take Back the Night” marches in 1982 that still go on to this day.
The night she became a victim of rape, Terrell said she had a paper about defensible space, written with two other people, sitting in her living room getting ready to go to the typist the next day.
“I became a victim of the exact same demographics that were in my research paper,” she said. “I was a part of this world of helping women around the campus and then I became a victim.”
Looking back on it, it’s ironic, Terrell said. She knew all of the stages of grief she would go through from helping other women, but the incident truly changed her life.
“I call my life the ‘before’ and ‘after’ life. I have the life before, and then I was raped, and then the rest of my life is after because everything is different. There’s nothing that’s the same ever again,” she said.
She used to wake up screaming, used to have nightmares and still does sometimes, and she is always using a filter now.
“My children will tell you that I’m neurotic, adamant, demanding about closing the blinds at night,” Terrell said. “Because he (Bruce) stalked people. He did that, he watched them for hours through the window.”
After a while, Terrell said, you kind of deal with it and while your life is never the same, at some point you have to kind of move on. However, after she received a phone call last year from police telling her they finally caught the guy, it all came flooding back.
“Last year when I got the call, I was just freaked out, I mean I was just bawling my eyes out. I was like, ‘Oh my god’ ... and then to find out that he was on such a reign of terror across our United States, considered one of the most prolific rapists in the history of the United States. And that he would continue to travel back to Norman to continue to perpetrate.”
Then nearly a year later, when she found out he was going to be tried in Norman, it was all in front of her again.
“It was really weird when I found out he was back in Norman. I felt like he was in my home, he was in my town. Ugh,” she said with a shake of disgust. “It was powerful for me to actually see my name on the screen and that he was going to be tried for my rape. I couldn’t believe it was really happening after all this time.”
Terrell was asked to write a victim impact statement, which is used during prosecution to help make a decision, but after learning that Bruce could read the court records and have access to what she wrote, she decided against it.
“My words are not for him. My words are for victims and advocates and law enforcement and prosecutors and the general public to educate. That’s who my words are for,” she said.
Terrell also said that Bruce’s first reported rape was in 1983, while Oklahoma Supreme Court Network (OSCN) records only showed rapes from 1985 to 2006.
“Then you have to question that, I’m sorry, I don’t think he went from ’83 to ’85 and then from ’85 to ’87. He raped in between there,” she said.
She believes that not all of the rapes he committed have been solved in Norman or in all of the states he was in. She said she wants to encourage anyone who didn’t report to step forward so they can get closure in their case like she has had the opportunity to do.
She said she was grateful for the government choosing to bring him to Oklahoma to prosecute him and provide that closure for all of his victims.
“It’s just all kind of surreal to me that it’s come full circle but you know, I’ve had 28 years to deal with it too. The last rape that happened in 2006, that young woman hasn’t had time, we’re talking seven years ago, it’s not that long,” she said.
She appreciates all of the law enforcement involved in catching Bruce.
“I think that this case shows an incredible amount of coordination between law enforcement across the states and it really was good old fashioned law enforcement work that caught him. I’m really proud of our police officers and our detectives for that hard work,” Terrell said.
She also said she’s had a lot of angels throughout the whole process, including the dispatcher who answered her phone call.
“The person that took my call and told me, ‘You’re going to be OK, we’re sending someone your way and it’s going to be all right,’” Terrell said.
Today, she said she feels sorry for Bruce’s family. As she sat reading an article a few days ago written by his second wife, the wife said that he had three children by his first wife and that he was really involved in their lives, Terrell said.
“She tells the story about how he was like the Prince Charming to her. In the article, she says he got down on his knees with tears in his eyes and asked her to marry him. They must be just really good at compartmentalizing their brains,” she said. “When you’re a psychopath, that’s what your brain is able to do.”
As a victim of rape, Terrell has done a lot of research relating to the violence. Some important things she pointed out included that a rape happens in the United States every two minutes and it is not just a women’s issue. It is an act of violence in our communities.
Rape is also one of the few crimes where people hesitate to believe the victim. While researching, Terrell said she read a book talking about taking the stand in a rape trial. The book talked about the trial, which took place in 2010, and said they were trying to discredit the victim in court like she had consensually asked for this stranger to come into her home and rape her.
“It is just amazing to me that in 2013, we’re still asking those questions. We’re assuming that there is doubt there,” she said.
“I don’t want anyone I love to ever have to go through that. But I want our systems to take care of the people that do. It’s time for our system to take care of the victims,” she said.
While Terrell has since retired her label as a victim, she has moved on to calling herself a survivor.
“I was a victim, I didn’t ask for that. But then you become a survivor. I survived.”
Bruha writes for the Norman Transcript, a CNHI News Service publication.