In this podcast, journalist Carol Costello revisits the first big assignment she covered as a 22-year-old, novice reporter: Phyllis Cottles’ brutal attack. Psychologists call them “Triumphant Survivors,” but Phyllis Cottle was more than a survivor, she used this crime to better herself and the world around her.
The trial is over, but the hard work continues. Phyllis feels a newfound purpose in life, and manifests unexpected forgiveness. Her family continues her fight for justice, vowing to keep her convicted attacker behind bars.
This just looks like a nice middle-class neighborhood, right?
I’m driving through the neighborhood looking for the infamous blue house with the black eagle. You know – the house Phyllis saw two streets away from the house where she was raped.
I’m curious to see what the house looks like today – more than 30 years after Phyllis filed it away in that photographic memory of her’s.
Oh my God, is that it?
It’s been what? 39 years since Phyllis put Samuel Herring behind bars.
And yet – driving through this neighborhood, it all seems like it went down yesterday. That evil still lingers here. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it feels that way.
It’s partly why Phyllis’ daughter Dianne makes it a point to protect herself and her family and to stay away from this part of Akron.
I had to go over there for my concealed carry. And going over there, David had to drive me because I wouldn't go over there. Just the street sign sends shivers up my spine. It really does. I'm just like, "Let's get into the building. Let's do our business and get out." Yeah, it's just creepy.
I asked Phyllis about that house. Of course, I did. And she talked about it in a way I did not expect.
She told me a woman approached her right after Herring was convicted on all counts. She was surrounded by reporters, photographers, court-watchers – everyone.
When suddenly, a woman approached, and pointed to someone who wanted to talk with her.
Somebody come up to me and said, "Phyllis, there's a young woman here that would like to talk to you for a minute." I think she was the one that told me that her grandmother and grandfather used to own that blue house and her grandmother was raped and murdered. But they thought Herring had done it, but there was no evidence. She said, "We all felt he had done it, but there was no evidence pointing to him."
If you didn’t catch that, a young woman told Phyllis her grandmother was raped and murdered in that blue house with the black eagle, and she suspected Herring was the man who had done it. There is no proof of that but…wow.
Oh God, I have goosebumps.
I’m pulling up to the house now. The house that Phyllis saw while she sat – tied up and terrified – on the Herring family’s back porch.
As God as my witness – the house looks exactly the same. Blue, with white trim, and a black eagle.
That's just creepy.
I’m Carol Costello. This is Blind Rage: Episode 12, The Fight Continues.
After the trial Phyllis learned to live again. She was blind, but determined.
She became an awesome cook, gardened again, and learned just enough Braille to get by.
There were challenges too. As she told the Akron Beacon Journal – she couldn’t drive a car or even walk across the street because, she said, quote: “you know how people drive.”
A door left half-open or a footstool not returned to its proper place led to bumps and bruises – but, she would not be defeated.
Here’s Drew, Phyllis’ granddaughter:
She had a cane. Yeah, but she didn't use it. She relied on memory. You could be driving and she'd be like, "Well, you just missed the turn." And you're like, "Excuse me?
Ah – that photographic memory…
She was so independent. And she was just like, "I'm going to do this myself. I'm not going to rely on anybody." I mean, obviously, you have to rely on somebody to drive, whatever, but everything that she could do, she was like, "I'm going to do myself," I think.
Delores, the former sheriff’s deputy who sat with Phyllis in her hospital room all those years ago and watched Dallas with Phyllis, became her best friend.
The remarkable thing, I would go and I didn't think of her as being blind. I forget that she was blind. We'd be walking somewhere, and I would get ahead of her, and forget. She would have my arm. That's how she was. You would forget she was blind!
Phyllis learned to swim and play the guitar. She traveled to Hawaii, and learned – as she put it – to appreciate her other senses.
“I’ve been to Hell, and now I’m back,” she said.
What gives you that strength, though? Because many other people would.
I'll tell you, Carol, there are an awful lot of people out there that have gone through things that I don't know if I would have had the strength to do what they did. I have always admired people that have overcome obstacles.
There were still so many obstacles for Phyllis to overcome. She worked with counselors to cope with her kidnapping and rape, and the fact her convicted rapist would not leave her alone.
Samuel Herring – now behind bars – sent Phyllis letters. Ugly letters.
He was writing letters to my mom saying that he had the wrong guy and she's all wrong. Then the letters kind of turned to a more nasty nature. Saying that she was going to burn in hell because she got him in prison and he's innocent and blah blah blah. And I finally told her, I said, "You know what, don't even open them. Just throw them in the trash."
Through it all, Phyllis found a new purpose in life: she became a political activist.
Number 1 on her agenda: reform the parole board.
She filed a pioneering 10 million dollar lawsuit against the individual members of the Ohio Parole Board for granting Herring an early release, against the advice of prosecutors.
Number 2 on Phyllis’ agenda: fighting for legislation to aid the blind and to press for laws to keep violent offenders behind bars. She testified before state legislators and before Congress.
And Number 3: Phyllis became a public speaker, who told her story in every kind of forum.
And those talks were inspirational in important ways.
Did she tell you, at any point, that a woman, any women came up to her and said, "Thank you. I was raped?" Can you describe that for us?
It was a black girl, and she said she was a victim of Herring, and she's never talked to anybody before about it. She talked to Phyllis, and she gave her a big hug and cried. I kind of stayed back away from it. That was their moment.
Can you just redescribe that for us? What did Phyllis say the girl told her?
Sam Herring had raped her, and she never told an anybody before. Phyllis was the first person she talked to.
How did Phyllis react to that?
It was typical Phyllis. She gave her a hug. She talked to her, and tried to give her encouragement and stuff. That was it. She went on.
I’ve always wondered if that young woman had been Herring’s girlfriend – the one who tried to escape him by attempting suicide...
She was being recognized as a leader, people saw that name Phyllis Cottle, whether it was in the Blind Center or Victim's Assistance, or whatever she was doing, or just her recovery in and of itself was inspiring to people.
Larry Vuilleiman was one of the lawyers who represented Phyllis in her case against the Parole Board. A case they would eventually settle.
Larry told me something astonishing about Phyllis though,n something that left me speechless.
One time we were talking and I said, "Phyll, if you could go back to March 1984, your sight is restored, you're well physically, you got it all back together, as it was back then. Would you go back there if that kind of miracle could happen?" And she says, "No, Larry." She says, "No." And as we were talking, essentially what she was telling me was, "Larry, I have a sense of meaning and purpose about my life right now that I never had back then." She said, in her own way, she was alive and she was well, and she was heroic and she was a leader.
I still can’t wrap my head around that one. There was no bitterness in Phyllis. Anger, yes -- at Samuel Herring. But she was not bitter.
Remember Terry, the ex-con who heard Phyllis scream and cry for help? Who witnessed Herring hit Phyllis, and then carjack her?
The man who infuriated Phyllis’ granddaughter Samantha - because he did nothing…
Samantha: If I see a woman yelling for help, being pushed and abused by a man, I'm going to step in and be like, “back off.” Try to get her out of the situation.
Terry had not intervened because he “thought it was just somebody beatin’ on his old lady…”
Weeks later, Terry had a change of heart.
His wife convinced him to go to the police after she saw the crime reported on the news.
Terry later testified for the prosecution. He was the only witness who saw a man, who resembled Herring, push a woman into a Buick on West Exchange Street, where the crime originated.
If I were Phyllis, I would HATE Terry. I would carry a “what if” with me for the rest of my life. What if Terry had intervened? What if he could have saved me?
I have to ask you about that. Terry Fuchs heard her scream for help. And didn't call the police. He testified, right, and helped identify Samuel Herring.
But in that moment, he thought it was a domestic and he walked by and didn't think about it.
Yeah, because no one really wants to get in the middle of a domestic quarrel. And that's what-
But I will say, and she said this too, she also defended them and was like, "You don't know-”
So, there's no bitterness toward-
No, none towards the people that didn't call, none. I mean, she doesn't even have bitterness towards him. She wanted him to stay in prison. But it wasn't because she was bitter, it was because she never got to see again. And she feared for the rest of her family. I mean, there was no bitterness towards those people at all.
She just made peace with it.
If you’re wondering if Phyllis found the ultimate happy ending…she did. His name was Tom.
She literally fell in love in an instant over him.
You asked earlier, would she take back to having her sight. And that was one of the reasons she gave as to why she said she wouldn't take back.
This is cute.
Because she never would have met him! They met at, from the blind center. So she never would have met him. Talk about a strong woman that said what she needed to say. He was the one that sat down and was like, "Yes dear."
They were too. They were soulmates.
Phyllis Cottle died in 2013, but she and her fight for justice live on.
Every ten years Samuel Herring comes up for parole. And every time, Phyllis’ family has fought to keep him in prison for the rest of his life.
They’ve collected thousands of signatures that urged the Parole Board to deny Herring another early release.
I talked with Sherri Walsh – the Summit County Prosecutor, about their efforts, and the push today to release violent offenders under certain circumstances:
Just touching on Samuel Herring and his release, because there's a trend right now happening nationally that people convicted even a violent crime, if they've been in prison for more than 30 years, they're in their sixties, there's a very small chance that they'll commit a crime again, and we're just wasting money, keeping them in jail and incarcerated.
Well, we have prosecuted individuals on sexual assault cases in their seventies and into their eighties. So unfortunately, when it comes to someone like Samuel Herring, as violent of a sex offender as that man is, I would never have any belief at all, that he wouldn't do it again, if he got out. And I'm hopeful that the parole board will always see it that way, and that he'll die in prison because he is way high on the list of what I would deem a dangerous offender.
It is a sentiment Phyllis’ granddaughter Samantha shares. Passionately.
You said you promised your grandmother that you would do this. Can you tell me about that?
I just, I told her, I said I know it's your wish, and when your time comes, I will be there to fight your fight. I'm going to make sure your wish stays alive.
No matter what, I'm going to be this guy's worst nightmare. I'm going to be there and I'm going to fight. No matter what I got to do, I'm going to keep her wish alive, and I'm going to honor that wish.
Samuel J. Herring has never admitted guilt. He is still fighting to get out of prison. And there is a chance he might. I cannot tell you about that right now, not quite yet. But when I can, I will.
I’m going to take some time to figure things out. So, as they say, stay tuned. If there is a new development, we’ll drop a new episode.
In the meantime, I’ll work on bonus episodes for you - there is so much more to tell.
A personal note: At times this podcast was painful for me to write – Phyllis’ story is intense. And deeply personal. It brings back memories from my own past I’d rather forget.
Still, I think the 22-year-old me would be grateful. That hurt, confused, yet ambitious young woman who steamrolled her way over trauma instead of dealing with it would say…”It’s about time.” Yeah, it’s about time. As Phyllis told me, it’s about time to be happy because you can’t sit in a corner and cry for the rest of your life. You can survive. You can be happy.