Rinelle Harper attack brings back memories for sex assault victim

Donna Gabbs says the brutal sexual assault of 16-year-old Rinelle Harper brought back painful memories and has given her the courage to speak out about her own sexual assault 50 years ago.

Donna Gabbs says she's speaking out after 50 years for others who may be suffering in silence

This photo of Donna Gabbs was taken in 1967, the same year she was sexually assaulted by three men outside Winnipeg.

Donna Gabbs says the brutal sexual assault of 16-year-old Rinelle Harper brought back painful memories and has given her the courage to speak out about her own sexual assault 50 years ago. 

Gabbs was sexually assaulted in a car outside the city in 1967. 

She said Rinelle Harper's story of survival after being sexually assaulted, ending up in the Assiniboine River, then being assaulted again, took her back to her own experience. 

It also brought back memories of another infamous case in Manitoba — Helen Betty Osborne.

Gabbs said the Harper attack brought back a flood of mixed emotions.

"I was relieved that she was alive. It just brought back emotions that just came out of me way, way, down, down deep." she said. "I thought about Betty Osborne years ago because that happened shortly after it happened to me."

Gabbs was teaching in Churchill at the time.

Helen Betty Osborne was abducted and murdered in The Pas in 1971. It took 16 years for the justice system to convict one of the suspects in her death. The Manitoba government later apologized for the failure of the justice system. (
"Just through the years, all the women that were raped and killed, who never spoke. And for many years I thought, I have to speak out. I have to say something. I always held back. Until now."

Assault still fresh after five decades

Gabbs said she remembers everything about how she was beaten and sexually assaulted by three men. 

"Everything. Every little thing, from 50 years ago," she said. "I remember."

She said she reported it in an effort to get her attackers off the street. 

"It went to trial. They got convicted. And then I kept it silent all those years. I didn't want to talk about it anymore. I had done my duty," she said. 

She said she buried herself in her work and activities.

"I took part in my sports and choir and I was a valedictorian during that whole year I was going to the Supreme Court," she said. "I never told anybody because still I was ashamed." 

Back then, there was no counselling. 

Rinelle Harper, 16, was attacked, ending up in the Assiniboine River, then attacked again in early November. She has been released from hospital. A man, 20, and a teen, 17, have been charged in the assault. (Handout )
"I was broken inside," she said. The attack and its aftermath affected her profoundly. 

"Very, very badly," she said. "I never got married. I put a wall up. I became a workaholic. I entertained others and made others laugh. I was hurting." 

Victims believe assault is their fault

Eventually Gabbs had a nervous breakdown and finally got some therapy.

That's when she said she learned the assault wasn't her fault, something she said all victims of assault believe. 

"All assault victims will feel that way," she said. "Anyone who hasn't been assaulted ... they wouldn't understand. But that guilt is there. Because they say, 'What could I have done differently? Maybe I could have gotten away.'"

Gabbs said she has now turned a corner and is speaking out for other women who have been assaulted and are suffering in silence.

"I'm a senior. I haven't got anything to hold back anymore. I just know I have to do it," she said. 

She said being able to talk about what happened to her openly is a relief. 

"It's freeing for me right now. It's like a whole load has been lifted off me after all these years," she said. "I hope that there are women out there that can be helped by this." 

She hopes other sexual assault victims will also now have the confidence to come forward.

"Get together, [have a] big rally, everyone saying, 'Yes, I am a victim and I was assaulted.' There's got to be freedom to speak about it. Men have to be taught. There's a lot more men now that are understanding and they need to be educated about how to treat women who've been victims. [There's] got to be unity. There's got to be people that rise up and say, 'OK, let's talk about this. And it is happening right now."