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Athens sexual assault survivor tells her story

Ashlee Garland Pope with her husband, Ryan, and children, Britt, Asher and Riles

By Joe Johnson

Ahslee Garland Pope was unfortunate to suffer the nightmare of being sexually assaulted, but lucky to have the support needed to survive and thrive in the ensuing years.

She was attacked over a dozen years ago, while jogging on the North Oconee River Greenway. Her assailant was 37-year-old escaped convict Gary Gaylord Ford, who went on a multi-county crime spree that ended with a sexual assault in Athens.

Ford’s crime spree began Feb. 6, 2008, when he walked away from the Augusta Transitional Center. At the time, he was just months away from parole on a robbery conviction in Athens-Clarke County.

That same day, Ford hitched a ride with a woman in Wilkes County. When the woman told Ford she had to let him out because she wasn’t going to Athens, Ford slammed the woman’s head into the steering wheel, causing her to lose control and crash, Athens-Clarke police said.

Ford assaulted a man who stopped to help and stole the man’s pickup to drive to Athens, where police said he robbed the Corner Market on Hull Road.

Two days later, Ford assaulted Pope, then a 21-year-old UGA student, who was out for run with her roommate on the Greenway.

Two women who were bicycling in the area saw Ford attacking Pope in the woods and intervened, authorities said. Ford charged the witnesses, knocked one from her bicycle and began to choke her. Authorities said that the woman managed to escape from Ford, who then stole her bicycle and rode away.

Police arrested Ford soon after the attack, finding him still riding the stolen bicycle.

After a trial in March 2013, a Clarke County jury convicted Ford on all charges in an eight-count indictment, including multiple aggravated assaults, aggravated sexual battry, kidnapping and robbery. He was sentenced to prison without the possibility of parole.

Pope, now married with three children, is slated to be guest speaker for the Athens-Clarke County Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Program's "Survive to Thrive" and 25th anniversary event, scheduled to be held virtually on Oct. 29.

As a sexual assault survivor who benefitted from SANE's services, Pope plans to share her story, as follows:

In February 2008, I was your typical 21-year-old UGA college student.

My biggest decisions were whether to stay in town for the weekend or travel home the 3.5 hours to see my family. On this particular weekend, I decided to stay in Athens.

My roommate at the time had learned of some new places to go for a run and wanted to try them out and also take her boyfriend's dog with us. We started to jog and quickly realized that she would have to run ahead of me because I was not a runner at all; and the dog that was used to running beside a bike was pulling her way ahead of me.

We decided we would meet back up soon and head home. While jogging, we passed a man sitting on a bench and instantly had a bad feeling. My roommate stopped to let me catch up and we decided that we would go on to the car and head home. Once again, the dog pulled her ahead. A little ways ahead, I passed the man walking on the trail that I had seen earlier. I started to pick up my pace to try to catch up to my roommate.

It didn’t happen though. I soon felt a hand over my mouth and nose and knew instantly what was happening. I screamed for help and fought with everything that I had. It was not enough though because this was a large man. He proceeded to beat and strangle me. I at some point passed out. When I came to, he had dragged me into the wooded area and was on top of me and sexually assaulting me. I again fought with everything I had but was still unable to get away. Little did I know that when I screamed my roommate had run for help. Two freshman girls that didn’t know me from Adam had ridden their bikes to my aid. They were yelling for him to get off of me and his response was, “What are you going to do about it?” He left me to go to them, giving me a chance to run. I ran as fast as I could, still in shock from what had just happened. I then hear behind me someone yelling, “You might as well stop. You know I’m going to catch you.” I then turned to see the man that had just assaulted me on a bike that he had taken from one of the girls that came to my rescue. I then had to make the decision to chance him catching me or pushing on a door to a business and hoping it was open. The door flew open as I fell inside. The men inside were certainly surprised to see a beat and bloodied up girl fall through their door screaming that someone was trying to kill her. They ran to me and locked the door and proceeded to call the police. I was safe. The police came and I rode with one of them to, what I figured from watching all of my detective TV shows, to be questioned. While on our way, we passed my attacker on the stolen bike with my blood on his shirt. I remember noticing the red solo cup in his hand and thinking that this man had attacked me and went for a drink like nothing had happened. The police pulled over and arrested him right in front of me.

When I arrived at my destination that I now know is SANE, I was so glad to be met by my roommates. My parents, after getting probably one of the worst phone calls ever, had a 3.5 hour drive to be with me. I was so glad that I was met with familiar faces and loved ones to be with me. I was then examined by nurse Linda Pinholster. She made me feel at ease and answered all of my questions. Questions that you never think you will have to think about. She was so gentle and explained step by step what was happening. She knew I had just experienced a horrific event and knew how to handle the situation with so much kindness. I was also able to be interviewed by detectives there as well. I remember sitting at a table in the room waiting on them to come ask me questions and noticing the toys and stuffed animals. I was then hit with the harsh reality that small children have to go through this same thing. I’m so glad that I didn’t have to go to an ER or police station where I would be surrounded by strangers and people staring. Also, not knowing if my attacker would walk in at any moment or even someone that resembles him. Until family gets there, these strangers (Linda and the detectives) quickly become your comfort and solace.

I wish there was no need in the world for a place like SANE. But since that is not the reality, I hope that the Athens-northeast Georgia area knows how lucky they are to have them here. I hope that the amazing people that work there know how important what they do here is and how they impact so many lives like mine. There will, unfortunately, be many more like me that come through SANE’s doors with the same shock, fear, and unknowingness of what to expect after an event like this takes place. And as long as SANE, with it’s amazing staff is here, I know they will be met with the same soft, tender, and protective hearts as I was met with on that day in 2008.

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