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This Real Life Detective Inspired Merritt Wever's 'Unbelievable' Character

Gabrielle Bruney
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Esquire

Netflix’s Unbelievable adapts a Pulitzer Prize-winning article from journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong to tell the true story of Marie, an 18-year-old who survived being brutally raped in her home only to be charged for making a false crime report after informing police of her attack.

It’s infuriating to watch officers in Marie’s Lynnwood, Washington community bungle her case, re-victimizing her and allowing her attacker to go free. But two other officers, Colorado Detectives Karen Duvall (Meritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) are also, unbeknownst to everyone, on the hunt for the very same serial rapist. Their investigation illustrates just what a dedicated, trauma-informed approach to investigating sexual assault cases can accomplish. And the detective characters are both based on real people—in Duvall’s case, Stacy Galbraith.

In 2011, Galbraith was a detective in the Golden, Colorado police department. Before joining the force, the Texas native worked as a prison guard, but found that standing watch over sleeping prisoners bored her. “I need to do something useful,” she told Miller and Armstrong in their 2018 book A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America. She left the prison guard job, and joined the Golden police department as a patrolwoman. David Galbraith was also a cop with the department at the time, and the two would later marry. She applied for detective in 2007, and landed the job.

Photo credit: Netflix

In 2011, Galbraith took on the case of a young engineering student who was raped in her home. In a scene from real-life that made it into the Netflix series, she told her husband about her new investigation. By this time, David worked for the Westminster, Colorado police, and the details of the rapist’s modus operandi—wearing a mask, tying up his victims, and assaulting them for hours—sounded similar to a case his department was working. Stacy Galbraith emailed the detective assigned to the Westminster case, Edna Hendershot, and the two quickly determined that they were on the hunt for a serial rapist, and decided to join forces to hunt him down.

Other details of the Karen Duvall character directly stem from Galbraith’s real life. Like her fictionalized counterpart, Galbraith is a faithful Christian, and she told Miller and Armstrong that she saw her work as “answering a call.”

In the series, Duvall’s character describes admiring the more experienced Detective Rasmussen from afar, which is also something that Galbraith really did. In her early years as a police officer, she spotted a female narcotics detective who was taking part in an elite, inter-departmental task force—Hendershot. “She’s a chick,” she thought at the time. “If she can do it, I can do it.”

According to Miller and Armstrong, the two detectives “bonded naturally” once they began working together. Galbraith was energetic, and a colleague described her as moving, "a hundred miles an hour in one direction.” Together, they worked the case until a white Mazda spotted near one crime scene led them to their final suspect—a 32-year-old Army veteran named Marc O’Leary. Just as in the series, Galbraith made the arrest. O’Leary plead guilty, and was sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.

Galbraith moved on from the Golden police department sometime after the case; CBS News reported in 2017 that she was an agent for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

But even in its final scenes, Unbelievable included a moment lifted from the real case—that moving phone call between Marie and Detective Duvall. "I’ve talked to Marie one time on the phone since this happened,” Galbraith told CNN last year. “She’s very appreciative.”

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