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Dart Award Winner

Rape in a Small Town

December 2001

Laura's parents had rules about boys. She couldn't go to a boy's house unless his parents were home. She couldn't be in a car alone with a boy unless they knew him.

Laura's parents had rules about boys. She couldn't go to a boy's house unless his parents were home. She couldn't be in a car alone with a boy unless they knew him.

They knew Nicholas Plante.

Everybody knows Nick, many in the Burrillville High School community say.

Handsome and charming, he was a popular senior from a well-known family. He was a gifted artist who sculpted and painted — dragons were a big theme — and even created chess sets of glass and ceramic.

Nick and Laura, a sophomore, had become friends the year before, when he was dating a friend of hers. They had many friends in common and shared an interest in art. Nick dated several of Laura's friends.

When Nick offered her a ride home from school on Dec. 5, Laura said sure.

On the way to Laura's, Nick said he wanted to make a quick stop at his house so she could help him carry some of his art projects inside. It never occurred to Laura to ask if his mother was home because they would only be there for a minute.

They took his stuff into the house, and he said he'd drive her home after he used the bathroom. Laura asked about one of his earlier art projects. Nick said he had hung it in his room.

She went to take a look.

Laura had been in the Plantes' house before, but never in Nick's basement bedroom.

When Nick came downstairs, they started talking about Laura's breakup with her boyfriend two days earlier. Nick had told her the boy was cheating on her, so she had ended the relationship. She was upset, and felt comfortable confiding in Nick.

She thought he "was just being a friend" when he hugged her.

Then he pulled her down on his bed. When she tried to get up, he "bear-hugged" her and pulled her back down.

He started to kiss her neck.

She said she didn't want to have sex. She said she didn't want to do anything with him — she didn't like him "like that."

"And he was like, 'Well, I'll have to rape you then,' " she later told a grand jury.

She thought maybe she could talk him out of it. You have a girlfriend, she protested.

"I was saying no and I was like — I was pushing him — I was trying to push him and I kept scratching his arms and stuff," she testified.

When it was over, Laura wrapped herself in the sheets on Nick's bed and cried. He threw her underwear and jeans to her and said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I knew you were vulnerable," she told the grand jury.

"He's like, 'Just forget it, it was — it was just a dream.' "

He said it wasn't rape. She didn't know what to think.

Then he drove her home.

* * * * * *

Arriving home from work that day, Laura's mother stepped into the living room to find Laura on the tan sofa, wrapped in a blanket. Huddled with her knees to her chest and her arms around her shins, she sat listlessly, half dozing, half mindlessly watching TV.

Laura looked really, really tired. Her mother could tell she had been crying.

And then she said, "Hi, mommy."

Oh, something's wrong here, her mother thought.

But like many mothers of 15-year-olds, she didn't want to pry. That might make it worse.

She'll tell me when she's ready, Laura's mother thought. She always does.

Laura was a zombie for the rest of the day, definitely not her typical bubbly self, her mother remembers.

But she did mention that Nick had driven her home from school. Knowing Laura had broken up with her boyfriend because Nick had told her he was cheating, Laura's mother asked if Nick was interested in her.

Laura spat out: "He's a pig, and he doesn't even know what love is. He's disgusting."

That's an odd way to describe the friend who just drove her home, her mother remembers thinking.

* * * * * *

Laura's mother was replaying those words in her mind the next morning after the high school social worker called and said Laura needed her.

Laura had gone to bed early the night before. She had dressed quickly that morning and slipped out of the house before her mother even saw her. Her mother figured she'd learn what was wrong that afternoon.

But the social worker called her at work about 10:30.

"Is she all right?" her mother asked.

The social worker didn't really answer, Laura's mother recalls. She said something vague about an assault and then told her, "I think you need to come in."

Laura's mother connected the pieces as she drove. By the time she got to the high school, she had a pretty good idea what had happened.

Laura had told a few friends that morning. Then she went to see the school social worker, a woman she knew fairly well. The social worker wasn't in.

As Laura stood crying outside her office, a friend saw her in tears. He walked her to the school nurse's office.

After 30 years as a nurse, Marilyn Kelley knows a fresh bruise when she sees one. Right away, she noticed a big one on the back of Laura's upper arm. It looked like someone had grabbed her.

Why don't you lie down for a little while, Kelley suggested. After giving Laura a few minutes alone, she went back to talk with her.

Laura told the nurse Nick Plante had raped her — words she hadn't been able to say until that morning.

"I couldn't separate the rapist from the friend," Laura would say later.

As Laura's mother learned the details, red blotches emerged on her face and she began to shake.

Oh my gosh, she thought. There's no way to fix this.

* * * * * *

At Hasbro Children's Hospital that afternoon, Dr. Amy P. Goldberg paused while examining Laura. Deliberately making eye contact, she asked: Were any objects used?

Would a piercing count as an object? Laura asked.

Goldberg asked what she meant.

Nick wore a piercing in his penis, Laura said.

Goldberg would later testify that a silver-colored metal piercing with sharp arrows on both ends, introduced as evidence at Nick's trial, could have caused the cuts she found on Laura.

Laura's mother remembers the doctor turning to her in the examining room.

"And she says, 'This is just the beginning.' And I remember saying, 'Oh, I know.' "

But she didn't know. "There were no words to tell me."

* * * * * *

Laura and her mother had asked the school nurse to call Laura's father at the state prison, where he works as a correctional officer, and tell him to meet them at the hospital. They had worried about how he would react if he found out at school and then saw Nick.

"When I learned what happened, they weren't very nice, my thoughts," her father says. "They were the same as any father of a little girl would have."

* * * * * *

Burrillville police Detective Wayne M. Richardson also got a call from Marilyn Kelley that afternoon. He went to the school and took her statement. Then he called the hospital and spoke with Laura's parents.

Late that evening, Laura and her parents came to the police station and filed a complaint.

Richardson arrested Nick the next morning, Dec. 7. Nick, who was 17, was arraigned in Family Court in Providence, then taken to the state Training School.

Four days later, in separate interviews, two Burrillville High School students told Richardson that Nick had raped them in November.

Laura and the other two young women, an 18-year-old senior and a 16-year-old sophomore, testified separately before a grand jury during February school break.

Each told the grand jury that Nick had given her a ride home or to work after school, but stopped at his house first. Each said Nick had raped her in his bedroom, despite her protest that she didn't want to have sex with him. Each spoke of Nick's penis piercing.

The grand jury indicted Nick on seven felony counts of sexual assault, four of them involving Laura.

By then, Nick had been waived out of Family Court to face charges as an adult. He spent the rest of his senior year at home on strict bail conditions, unable to attend school and allowed to leave the house only for religious, medical or court-related reasons.

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Kate Bramson

  • Kate Bramson, a 1993 graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, has been on the Providence Journal reporting staff since August, 2002. Prior to joining the Journal, she was the education writer for the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota. From October, 1995 to Feburary, 1997, she was news editor for Budapest Week and The Budapest Sun in Hungary.

Bob Thayer

  • Bob Thayer is an award-winning feature photographer who has been on the Providence Journal staff since 1978. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College and the Columbia School of Journalism.

Mimi Burkhardt

  • Mimi Burkhardt has served in several roles since joining the Providence Journal's copy desk in 1980. She has been night metro editor, an assistant city editor, and a projects editor. For the past three years she has been a training editor, working closely with the newspaper's two-year interns and other reporters on the state staff. It was in her role as a consultive editor she worked with Kate Bramson on the award-winning story.

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