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Column By John Murray
Journalists never know where their next big story will come from; it could be a fire at a gasoline station, a tornado flattening the heart of a community, or a political scandal so repulsive that it draws international attention.
I have covered all of those during my 35-year career as a reporter, photographer, editor and newspaper publisher - all in Connecticut, but only one of my stories, so far, have been transformed into a two-hour special on national television. The show, “Evil Paid a Visit”, will air on NBC Dateline tonight, January 21, at 9 pm.
That story is about Donna Palomba, pictured above, and her extraordinary response to being sexual assaulted in 1993. Her response included suing a negligent police department, and launching a national non-profit, Jane Doe No More, to assist survivors of sex crimes.
My reporting about Donna Palomba initially triggered a Dateline show in 2007, and producers and film crews returned to Waterbury in 2020, and 2021, to update the story and create the entirely new episode airing tonight.
It’s not often that a local story is developed into a segment on national TV, but Donna’s story has more twists than a licorice store and it has inspired four-hours of prime-time coverage. That is rarified air.
Being sexually assaulted by an armed and masked intruder is shocking enough, but the Waterbury police botched the crime scene and ended up threatening to arrest her. Donna Palomba is a strong woman and she fought back and sued the Waterbury PD and won a lawsuit in January 2001. Several years later a DNA match revealed that the attacker was one of her husband’s childhood friends, John Regan, and he was arrested.
But the arrest didn’t end Donna’s ordeal, which continues to this day, and is the reason that Dateline returned to Waterbury to retell and update her amazing story.
A year after it was revealed that John Regan was her assailant, he was arrested in Saratoga Springs, NY, for attempting to kidnap a 17-year-old cross country star. In his van was a tarp, rope, tape, photography equipment and a shovel. Overnight he became a possible suspect in unsolved murders across New England, including the slaying of four sex workers from Waterbury.
When Regan was arrested in New York the phone at The Waterbury Observer exploded. I had written an in-depth story about Regan’s arrest the year before, but at that point, Donna was still known as Jane Doe (although I called her Rachel in the Observer story).
Nancy Grace wanted to talk to Jane Doe, radio shows across New England wanted insights into John Regan, who was also from Waterbury. Then Sue Simpson from Dateline called. She is a producer for the show and her job is to arrange interviews and develop the questions and storyline for the on-air talent. Sue was low key, charming, and wanted to talk to Jane Doe. It took a dozen calls and several months to set up a meeting between Sue and Jane Doe, and they met in the backroom on the Observer office on Bank Street in downtown Waterbury (which was an old shoe store).
It took another full year before Donna agreed to tell her story on national television, and Sue Simpson gave Jane Doe the space needed to work through several issues before moving forward. The #1 issue was that Donna’s husband, John Palomba, was opposed to having their family’s experience shared with millions of people across the country. Eventually Donna decided that launching a non-profit, Jane Doe No More, and telling her story on national television was an important part of her healing.
So, she decided to step into the bright spotlight, and filming began. Waterbury Police Chief Neil O’Leary was interviewed for hours, and I was interviewed inside the Observer and at my home in Morris. The real surprise came when right before Donna sat down for her interview, John Palomba decided to talk. John delivered a passionate interview as he expressed anger at the hideous actions of his childhood friend.
Watching yourself on national TV is an odd and unsettling experience. My older brothers congratulated me on my brief appearance, and promptly told me I looked fat on the show. Brotherly love at its best.
The feedback from the first show was electric for Donna Palomba. Her courageous story of standing up to abuse and power had inspired people across the country. Neil O’Leary received hundreds of letters and cards for testifying against his own police officers in a civil trial, and for solving the crime four years later.
My response was a few women inquiring if I was single, and a few hundred people begging me to come to Seattle and Dallas and Atlanta and to small towns across the country so I could write their story like I had Donna’s. They had been raped and local police hadn’t believed them. They needed me to tell their story.
It would have taken an army of investigative journalists funded by a compassionate billionaire to write about the horrifying sexual assaults happening in every corner of America.
As a one-man newspaper in Waterbury, I was unable to respond to the cries for help across America.
But being the journalist that listened to Donna Palomba’s story and reported the facts to the Waterbury community eight years after she was raped, has been an extraordinary experience for me. I learned that I can’t help everyone, but I can make a difference in one person’s life, and that story will be shared tonight on national television. •