Survivor: A message of healing, hope for sexual assault victims

Warning: The following story may contain material some find to be graphic or triggering.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Every 98 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. Chances are, it has happened to someone in your life and you may not even know it.

It happened to one of our friends, an employee at WHNT News 19. Loni Cleve said she needs to tell her story. She wants sexual assault victims to know they are not alone. She also wants to help others be better equipped to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Loni is like so many women in the Tennessee Valley. She spends her time as a wife, mother, daughter, friend and the Digital Sales Manager for WHNT News 19.

Now, she also spends her time as an advocate.

The Attack

Loni's newest mission is driven by a simple ten-minute errand on July 28, 2017, that morphed into a defining moment.

“It was 11:00 a.m. on a Friday,” she said. “We had clients that were in town that had flown in. So whenever we have clients that are coming in, I like to go get them something proper and southern.”

Loni parked in the Clinton Avenue Garage in downtown Huntsville, rushed across the street to make a few purchases and hustled back to her car before her meeting with those clients.

“I had a humongous purse, I had a humongous bag, I had a very big umbrella and I had very big heels,” she said. “I walked across the street and decided to take the stairs and as I was going up the stairwell, I saw someone. And my gut said ‘notice.'”

Loni continued to climb the stairs to the third floor and walked the 25 yards to her car.

"I leaned in and I placed my bags and as I began to turn, I was pinned against the car," she said. "In my mind, I've turned this into a two-minute scenario, just for the sake of knowing it having some time and space. When I turned, immediately remember saying 'please don't.' I remember thinking there's a gun, not because I ever saw a gun, just because I thought there was one. I remember thinking 'hook your left shoulder on the car door, don't get pushed into the car.' And then, I blacked out. In my two-minute time frame, of I'm guessing a good thirty seconds, I don't know what happened."

Loni said the man she saw in the stairwell masturbated on her and verbally harassed her. The same man was captured on parking garage surveillance video moments before the attack.

"In that time, he finished. He had to step back, and I was able to make it out into where the cars would be driving by," she said. "And he walks by me, looks me in the eye, winks and then strolls, and the word 'stroll' matters, he strolled, he took five steps and, then, he was gone."

More than 60 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to law enforcement. But at first, Loni said she was not convinced that she was sexually assaulted.

"In my mind sexual assault was being raped. If I was not thrown into the back of that car and raped, I was not sexually assaulted," she said. "You start listing off what is okay and what is not okay. Mine was a sexual assault. I was held. I was masturbated on. I was spoken to and told what was going to happen to me. I was sexually assaulted."

"It's so important to me for all people to know that, but specifically, I have a 12-year-old daughter. She’s in the seventh grade," added Loni. "If today, with my life experience, I cannot define what is and is not okay to do to me sexually, I'm not certain how our children are supposed to be able to clearly define what is and is not sexual assault."

Loni said some kind strangers quickly found her in the garage and helped her contact police. She later learned the surveillance video showed that man had been in the parking garage for hours following women, some with young children.

"He clearly knew where he was, he clearly had established a sense of timing from this stairwell, also to this stairwell," Loni said. "He never lost eye contact, he was very calm. He had something that he needed to accomplish and he did. The footage also shows him strolling down the stairs. He was confident. We know now from the footage in the stairwell, it was not his first time. We're not certain what he did, we can't guess what he did to anyone else. I don't know how far he's taken his actions before, but his confidence would indicate that it was not his first time."

In the months to come, police said different men attacked more women. But Loni said those that know her best, would never believe that she would be one of those victims.

"There are few things about me and my personality that, before, I wouldn't think I couldn't handle myself in this situation," she said. "I know specifically for me, I was chosen, I was put there, God was with me through it. And I needed that moment or else I would have thought I can handle this on my own, every time. I believe I was there because I was supposed to be able to handle it and I didn't. It didn't make me wrong."

The Healing

Ecclesiastes 3:7 says, "there is a time to be silent and a time to speak." For Loni Cleve, this was her moment to speak.

"It did happen and I would either own it, talk about it, do what I can to help me and help others or I would never talk about it again," she said. "And once you do say something, it's amazing the amount of support, and the resources, and the goodness that can come out of something so terrible, where you're grateful. I feel chosen.”

Loni shared her experience with her family, friends, coworkers and therapist. She participated in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. She also signed up for self-defense classes and she encourages others to do the same.

"My definition of self-defense is completely different than it was beforehand," she said. "Before, self-defense was a physical act that I can handle myself with someone. Now, self-defense to me starts well before an attack ever happens. It's an awareness piece that you, your family, the people you're with, it's about never getting to the physical part. To me, self-defense now is much more about awareness and thinking things through, instead of just being physically prepared for the worst."

The Clinton Avenue Garage is now equipped with more, high-quality surveillance cameras.

Nine months later, Loni returned to the parking garage for the first time since the attack.

"I feel like I'm on holy ground," she said as she walked across the third floor. "This actually does feel this way because had it not happened, I wouldn't have met all the people and heard all the stories and had the connections that I have now and I've never felt more loved or more taken care of or that I have more of a purpose ever."

Part of that purpose is making sure other victims don't feel alone or responsible.

"It doesn't matter what you did before, what you did at that moment, it's not your fault," she said. "And once you do say something, it's amazing the amount of support, and the resources, and the goodness that can come out of something so terrible, where you’re grateful."

Loni Cleve shares her story of sexual assault in an effort to help others.

"I'm so grateful that I was the person that had the resources, I had the friend circle, I had the insurance, I had the therapy resources, I had the spouse, I had the work that's so supportive. If I can't come through this with all the resources that I have, I can't imagine the people that don't have the resources, who feel so alone. If it's something you don't want to happen to you, it shouldn't have happened. And that's what I want people to know. I want our daughters to be able to clearly define what is and is not sexual assault. I want our children going to college to understand what is and is not okay."

The Hope

Loni no longer wears high heels when running errands. She uses a cross-body purse, utilizes store escort services and unlocks only one car door at a time. She is more aware of her surroundings. She has helped organize self-defense classes for local churches, schools, and businesses, including at WHNT News 19. Most importantly, she empowers everyone to follow their instincts.

"What I'm driven by is literally every person I see, I just want to grab them and say 'trust your gut, trust your gut, trust your gut,'" she said. "The biggest thing that I've learned from self-defense since I've been in it now is the gut is the best thing that you've got. Most people that report say 'I had a feeling.' You've got two seconds from the time you had that feeling until you are in a situation and you've got three seconds, normally, to get out of that safely."

Grace Martial Arts offers self-defense classes for children, teenagers, women, men, families, senior citizens, churches and more. To sign up, click here.

More than nine months later, Huntsville Police have not been able to catch the man Loni said assaulted her. Investigators are working with NASA to try to decipher the identity of the man seen in the surveillance video.

If you have information about the man in the surveillance video, HPD investigators ask you to call (256)722-7100.

Huntsville Police said two other men are facing charges for similar crimes. Investigators said they have not received any other reports of these types of crimes happening in downtown parking garages since our coverage first aired last October.

As for Loni, she said she continues to heal through helping others.

"I feel like God's got a plan regardless," she said. It feels like I could take it and it could just be what it was and I'm to be grateful that I survived that or I could take it and He can do anything with or without me, but to be given the opportunity to do something more, it feels like a blessing."

If you have been the victim of sexual violence, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 24-7, at 1-800-656-4673, or click here. You can also contact Crisis Services of North Alabama, 24-7, at 1-800-691-8426, or click here. Both are free and confidential. There are plenty of resources for loved ones of victims, too. To learn more, click here.