If there was a blue ribbon award for safe solo traveling, ESPN executive Keri Potts believed she would’ve won it. She’d taken a self-defense course in college and had traveled solo numerous times, consistently taking precautions: Limit alcohol to one glass of wine in the afternoon. Don’t stay out late or with strangers. But one night while vacationing in Italy, a date with a handsome artist changed everything.
Unlike many victims of sexual violence, Keri recalls the entire experience in detail. She’s also courageous and compassionate enough to recognize how powerful sharing her story can be. She is one of the most inspiring women I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with. Today, I’m honored to share highlights from our conversation with you. Please read it with your eyes and heart, and pass it on to those you love. Stories like Keri’s can undoubtedly save lives.
AM: I was struck by the photo featured in Marie Claire. Even with his face blocked, Marco appears normal—like a guy many women would gladly pose with. What was your impression when you met him?
KP: He seemed really shy, which was very different from most of the people we’d encountered in Italy. My friend, as you see in the photo, is blonde, and we’d get a lot of “Bella, Bella!”—very traditional American look to her. I don’t tend to attract that so much. He was just shy and quiet, brought over to us by the cafe owner. He started talking about the art he does at a nearby studio. When people just sort of walk up and sit down next to you, it can set off all kinds of alarm bells off in your head. This didn’t do that because of the way we encountered him.
AM: When did your instincts kick in? Do you remember a specific moment?
KP: There were many incidents throughout the night when I was slightly uncomfortable with things, but the opportunities were presented in such a way that played on my self-doubt. I didn’t really have a long history of dating… I’d really only had one boyfriend before I went on that trip. I may be a confident, successful person in most aspects of my life, but that was just an aspect that I was totally green in. So the natural inclination is to look at yourself like you’re doing something wrong, or that you’re being a little too cautious, or making a mountain of a molehill.
I didn’t like that he kissed me right off the bat, once we did meet up on our date. I didn’t like that he leaned in when he was mid-talking… My assumption was that kissing is usually a pretty agreeable action toward each other, you know what I mean? [LAUGHS] It’s usually not such a surprise to the other person! On the surface, it’s just a kiss from a guy, sort of like ‘this is okay’. But if you think about it very clinically, the decision was not mine. It was taken out of my hands.
He wanted me to ride in a cab back with him to my apartment because he knew where I was staying—across the street from a friend of his who runs a bar. My instinct was, No, I don’t need to get in the car with you. But he looked at me like, really? Are you kidding me right now? It’s just a cab ride. When he suggested that I go up to see his balcony, I didn’t even think twice about it because I’d been up there earlier. The first time he said, “It’s not too far from here.” I said, “Oh, no no… No thanks.” He gave me his ID. He said, “Here is my document. Does that make you feel better?” And I said, “Yeah.” He gave his license and I put it in my pocket. So now I knew his date of birth of birth, his address and his name. Even when he presented that to me, he did it in such a way that it would almost be like, You’re being ridiculous, but I’ll play along with it if it makes you feel better. Because I’m just a great guy, I’m gonna do whatever makes you feel better, and I’m harmless.
Your brains are going two different directions, because I’m not evil and crazy like he is. A person on the outside might say, “Why would you go up there alone?” But think about your day to day—how many times we leave ourselves isolated, alone with a man. Just for whatever—for work, a maintenance guy, someone working in a hotel… You realize it could happen anytime.
AM: It makes me think how lucky we are every time it doesn’t happen.
KP: Yes! And how rare, how unusual it was. I’d lived my life 31 years to that point. I’ve been in New York. I’d traveled alone to Spain, to London by myself, Ireland by myself…traveled alone, not as part of any tour or anything. Those things made me feel more confident.
One reason I told my story is because I hear from a lot of people who say, “That could have been me.” People read about rape and sexual assault and they look for for this one thing they can point to and say, “I never would’ve done that, so that would never be me.” They tell themselves these little lies.
AM: And with your story, they can’t do that.
KP: They can try. But I was sober. I knew where I was. I had a friend who knew where I was. I knew where he lived. I’d already been up there and seen it, and he’d never laid a finger on me. There was no talk of sex, because A, rape isn’t about sex, at all. And B, you just don’t expect that someone is hunting you.
AM: So once he attacked you, you ran at him. You fought back. Did you surprise yourself? Had you done anything remotely like that before?
KP: I was a tom boy growing up. I was bigger than all the boys, and they can sniff you out in two seconds. [LAUGHS] You know? You attack the thing that terrified you, so I was no stranger to being physical. But as a woman I’d never had a grown man put a hand on me in violence. And I don’t think you ever think that’s going to happen until it happens to you. It is very jarring, a reversal of natural order. It’s like seeing something your eyes never thought they would see. But I knew that I was not going to get out of the apartment through the door that I came in. And I accepted it very quickly, after an attempt to argue with him. I didn’t keep on that path very long.
I focused on getting out to the balcony because there was space and no room for privacy. I was working my way toward it, but he blocked the door. He could see my brain evaluating, that I knew where I had to go. So he put himself in front of it. It’s as though you’re trying to keep your shit together, and the person who’s doing this to you knows exactly what’s happening to you. Because you can’t control your body.
I’m shaking. My lips are dry and I’m licking my lips. My eyes are saucers. I’m pail, unstable in my stepping. I remember, my legs were so wobbly. My stomach, you could hear it. I was fighting to keep my bowels in. That’s where that term comes from, by the way. They say it happens in war. Your body is literally trying to prepare you, and it’s not the prettiest thing. He could see it and hear it, and I’m trying to act nonchalant.
AM: I’ve never heard anyone describe that, but it makes so much sense. So he felt he was in control.
KP: Yes. I did catch him by surprise. It was just that moment that he leaned back out, slightly out the patio. He put his right foot out, leaned back and grabbed the wood shudders to pull them closed over the glass. And I knew from the way he was smirking at me. He thought he was about to close the deal. Like you’re locked in and no one’s going to see what I’m going to do to you in here. I knew that’s what he was saying to me; it was very clear. And I rejected it. I could not accept it, I just could not.
I pushed through him to get out the door, and he caught me, and he kept trying to drag me back into the apartment, and I knew that as long as I was on the patio, that that was good for me. So we had a very long hand-to-hand fight. I knocked him over. I knocked his potted plants over. I knocked him on his back… I knew there was a ledge over the patio, because I’d been up there twice, and a place to land. I thought I was going to jump and just stand there and scream until someone gets me, but I didn’t have a plan to move until I got down there and realized I had a lot of distance to work with.
I tried to make an attempt to get him off me and he was on me again really quick. The second time I knocked him over really good. He was drunk, so his balance was terrible. His jeans were longer than they should’ve been, so when he stepped back he stepped on the inseam and he’d fall back.
When he stumbled backward, I had enough time to plant my hands and almost to do gymnastics, like a vault. Boom! Hands up. Boom. Leg over, then turn and try to slide down, but my sweater got caught on one of the metal lattice concrete pillars. He was on me again. He’s got my neck, and I’m trying to pull down to break the sweater. So I’m pulling with all of my weight down, and he’s pulling me up by my head and I’m thinking I’m gonna break my neck. I was saying to him, “Let go! Just let go of me. If you don’t do that, you’re gonna kill me. Just let go!” I’m saying to him, it’s over. If you don’t do that, you’re going to kill me. I’m gonna fall. I remember looking at him like, Accept it. Accept…it.
AM: You made a firm decision. That must have helped you, as far as doing whatever you could to get away… Unbelievable. How badly were you hurt physically?
KP: I didn’t feel a thing through any of that. I remember when he hit me on the balcony, he hit my face, my nose, I remember hearing things, but not feeling anything. You hear popping, things crunching, but you dont’ feel a think. The only time I felt anything was when I’d made the last leap to the balcony I landed on, of the American couple that wound up helping me. They would tell you, and they have in interviews, they would sit on that balcony many months after and try to figure out how I actually had done that.
I did what I had to do, and I remember landing very flat-footed. I was in knee-high riding boots, and they were flat, but there’s no padding in those things. I remember landing and feeling like a burning shock wave go up the front of my shins. The next day when the adrenaline wore off, I was in agony. My feet were swollen, and my fingers and my rib and my nose, and I felt every part of me was broken. I felt like everything was broken.
AM: So you’re alone in a foreign country, just fled from your attacker… How did you know what to do next?
KP: It was very difficult, just trying to decide what to do. I was concerned that Marco was going to come get me. He knew where I was, where I was going. I’m thinking, he’s gonna come after me. He’s in the mafia…
My brother-in-law was fabulous. He called the American embassy officer to get me some help. I wanted to get on the phone with the embassy because I wanted it on record with the government, if anything more did happen to me.
AM: When did you finally feel some sense of peace?
KP: There were two moments that stand out for me. One was when the officers had brought me back to the street of the crime. That, of itself, was not relaxing. I don’t know how we fit in the car; it was like a clown car. It was nighttime, drizzling. As a victim we assume police officers are on our side. But then I realized it’s not their job to believe me, they don’t have any opinion on it. You are just a person and they are trying to evaluate.
We arrived to Marco’s street and they said, “Which one?” I said, “Number 21, like I said. I gave you his business card, I gave you his address.” “Point it out,” they said. I walked over to the door and put my hand on it. They said, “Where did you escape from?” I didn’t remember what the outside looked like, but I knew it had green doors on the inside. They’re pointing to one door, and another door and another, and got buzzed in. None of them had green doors inside. “Which one, yeah?” They’re saying. “Which one?” “Neither,” I said. “I told you, green doors!” They’re saying, “No, it’s one of these.” We’re kind of at a standstill. And I’m thinking Wow, I’m sunk here.
At that moment, a woman approached me out of nowhere. She said, “Are you an American?” I said, “Look lady, I’m really busy right now.” Thinking she’s going to ask me for restaurant recommendation. The cops were plain clothes, so she couldn’t have known what was happening. She said, “I think you’re the woman my husband let in this morning.” I looked at her and the back of my knees went. I fell into her arms. She hugged me and said, “Angels are watching you.” An older gentleman beside her handed me tissues. He opened his arms and said, “I so worried about you.” And I’m just emotionally kind of done. The officers said, “This is good. This is very good.” The look on their faces was so satisfying to me. We walked seven buildings away and I can’t believe this is really where I went. Going to her apartment, you could not believe how far it was.
The first moment I felt really safe was when I got to my new hotel. At the front desk there were all these messages from my sister and my brother-in-law… Then this man approaches: “Are you Keri Potts?” And I’m nervous, because in my head, Marco’s following me. And he says, “Your boss sent me. He said he wants to talk to you very badly.” They dialed me in to my vice president and the head of the department. “Pottsi? Pottsi?” they’re saying. “We’re gonna get you home, baby. We love you. You kicked his ass. You did it.” They worked through the night to get me home. I was on a flight at 6am the next morning.
AM: I was happy to learn that you’re still traveling. How has the experience changed the way you travel?
KP: It’s been a lot of just healing on kind of the mental side. I had to work in London, maybe nine or 10 months after what happened, we launched a channel in the U.K. My first solo trip was a weekend in Paris. I was a nervous nelly because I knew how hard it was to be a crime victim in another country. After being victimized, I told my dad, “I can’t believe that I ever traveled alone, that I ever thought that was a good idea.” The Paris thing was like putting my toe in the water. I just stayed in my hotel room, which is very unlike me.
This last trip I just took was the first time I traveled out of the country by myself, like I used to. It was important because I’m in a very good place mentally. My dad said, “That’s my girl. Don’t ever let somebody change you. Because that’s what you love to do.” When I was over there, I was definitely my old self.
AM: What advice would you give readers—anything you wish you would have known back then?
KP: My area of expertise is being victimized overseas. Many people who have read my story say, “I’d never even thought to look up the embassy and keep the phone number in my cell…or registered with their Smart Traveler program so they have my passport number and my emergency contact information so that if something happens, something’s done very quickly.” Before I went to Paris, I gave my friends copies of my passport and my credit cards. I gave them my smart traveler program information. Those are really basic things people miss.
Anything can happen to anyone, it can happen to you or to someone you love. Take precautions, but don’t try to be perfect. I always thought I was perfect, that I was doing everything textbook. But there are people that want to kill you, people out there that want to harm you. Sometimes it’s just the perfect storm. It’s not anybody’s fault.
After a year-long investigation, Marco’s charge was increased from attempted sexual assault to sexual assault and an additional assault charge. He plea-bargained and in April, 2010 received a suspended sentence of 11 months, 10 days. He never went to jail, but was put on a five-year probation. If commits further crimes in that time, he’ll land in prison. He was also ordered to pay Keri’s legal fees, which totaled about $10,000.
“At first I felt disappointed that Marco wouldn’t be jailed, but now I feel proud of my efforts;” Keri told Marie Claire. ” I never gave up. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of that night. I have a small scar on my stomach where Marco gouged his fingernails into me, and I look at it often. I alternately love and hate that scar. I hate it because it reminds me of what happened, and I love it for the same reason.”
To learn more about Keri Potts and to support her efforts, please pass her story along and follow her blog, A Fight Back Woman. Keri will also be appearing in a TV program about sexual violence on the Discovery ID network soon.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What struck you most about Keri’s story? Do you see yourself in her experience? When have your own instincts, awareness and perseverance helped save or change your life?