Surviving sexual assault: Daniella’s story

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Springs resident Daniella Cuje will never forget the date of Oct. 16, 1998.

On that night, she met a girlfriend for drinks at a bar-restaurant in New Jersey. The friends enjoyed one drink, paid their tab and were leaving when Daniella’s friend ran into someone she knew. They decided to stay a little longer, and the owner of the restaurant sent them another round of drinks.

Within 15 minutes, Daniella said she started to feel “off” and told her friend she was going to go to the bathroom, and that’s her last memory of the night.

“The next thing I remember, it was 5:43 in the morning, and I woke up in this guy’s bed,” Daniella said. “I couldn’t see his face, but I saw this long, scraggly, nasty hair. I had sheets wrapped around my neck, and I began screaming — ‘Who are you? What happened?’”

Daniella said she had no memories from the night before, and all she could focus on was getting out of the man’s house.

“Everything was so foggy,” said Daniella, who was 27 at the time of the attack. “I didn’t have my purse; I was missing a shoe. I just knew I had to get out of there.”

She asked him to give her a ride to her girlfriend’s house. She remembers getting into his car — a black Audi — and she remembers looking at his license place and noting it had the letters ZEN in it. She also tried to get an idea of where he lived and quickly realized it was in the same neighborhood as the bar she’d been to the night before.

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“I knew in my heart I’d been sexually assaulted,” Daniella said. “It was that sick feeling of doom. I was crying, trying to piece things together, and what was so scary for me was I couldn’t remember anything.”

The man took Daniella to her girlfriend’s house, and eventually, Daniella went home to shower. It was then she noticed bruises all over her body, a hand mark on her rear end and a bump on her head. She went into work and told her boss, “I’m pretty sure I was raped, but I can’t remember anything that happened.”

He encouraged her to go to the hospital, where she met with a sexual assault nurse examiner and an advocate. Daniella said the six-hour process was made easier by the support of the advocate and gentle professionalism of the nurse.

Then two days later, after telling her parents about the assault, Daniella, a grad school student at the time, reported the rape to police. 

“When I walked into the station, I felt like I had loser or slut printed on my forehead,” Daniella said. “I still felt like I’d done something wrong. But as much as I doubted myself, inside I knew I didn’t do anything wrong, and I had to do something.”

Five months after the initial report, Daniella testified before a grand jury and her attacker was indicted on kidnapping and first-degree aggravated assault.

During the investigation, Daniella learned that the man, who was sitting behind her at the bar, had drugged her drink and raped her, first, in the bar’s bathroom and then had taken her unconscious to his home and raped her again.

Taking the case to trial was an excruciating process, and three years after Daniella first filed the complaint, a jury acquitted the man on the charge of kidnapping, but the jury was hung on the sexual assault charge. Two weeks later, Daniella agreed to a plea bargain, and her attacker pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual criminal contact in exchange for no jail time.

“I still felt like I’d won — he’s a convicted felon,” Daniella said. “I also got to give a victim impact statement. Finally, everyone got to hear my voice … I had the last word.”

During her statement, Daniella said she took her case to trial to “impact the future recovery of survivors.”

“People stood up and applauded,” Daniella said. “It was very powerful.”

Two months later, Daniella graduated from grad school with a master’s degree in social work and began working with survivors and talking to groups about what had happened to her. Daniella eventually got a job working at the Rape Crisis Agency, where she had gone for help after her assault.

“Everything had come full circle,” she said.

In Steamboat Springs, Daniella serves as the office manager for Advocates of Routt County and volunteers as an advocate.

“I just think it’s so important that people realize what victims go through,” Daniella said. “It’s so difficult — the self-doubt — but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

“Being a survivor doesn’t define me, but it’s a part of who I am, and I’m not embarrassed,” Daniella added. “I’ll keep telling my story and speaking up for survivors until the day I can’t breathe.”

To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email or follow her on Twitter @lschlichtman.

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