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Timothy Iannone’s conviction is justice for some, more complicated for others

On Tuesday morning, Timothy Iannone, 61, was sentenced to at least 48 years in prison for the rape and kidnapping of a young woman over a quarter-century ago. It’s a story, still ongoing, that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the criminal justice system, and the resilience and persistence of victims — especially those stuck waiting for the gears of justice to turn.

Back in 1996, after being sexually assaulted by Iannone, a young woman named Michelle went to the hospital, and then the police station, where she was eventually able to identify her attacker several months later.

Then the mother of two waited 26 years.

This week, she was clearly and understandably emotional. After the jury returned the guilty verdict on Monday evening, she called family and friends from the courthouse to let them know the jury’s decision while an advocate from the Rape Crisis Center accompanied her on the way outside. She said she was happy that justice had been served — but also that it was a complicated feeling.

The next morning, before Iannone’s formal sentencing, she addressed a victim's impact statement to the court, telling Judge Thomas Wilson, “Timothy Iannone may have left me alive and breathing that day, but he took my life just the same,” and speaking to the lasting damage the assault did, and continues to do, to her. She later told the press that law enforcement and prosecutors had helped give her some peace.

And, she added, they had “hopefully, given peace to other people.”

And that hope — that other people might find peace in this conviction — is part of what makes the story so complex.

Iannone’s conviction was for a single incident, a brutal kidnapping and attack committed on June 8, 1996. But the trial was in many ways about many other alleged crimes, including at least a half-dozen sexual assaults and two murders — the cold-case killings of Allison Jackson Foy and Angela Rothen, crimes for which Iannone has been the prime suspect for over a decade, though never charged.

Family members of the two women have long hoped the Wilmington Police Department would make an arrest, and that District Attorney Ben David would convene a grand jury — even as the cases grew colder each year.

Then, in the midst of the pandemic, WPD came across a long-neglected rape kit. Attached was paperwork, identifying Iannone as a suspect, that had never been digitized and put online.

For years, there had been no funding to test backlogged kits, but a 2019 initiative by North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein provided $6 million across the state, which David said made it possible for WPD to test the kit. WPD assigned a detective, located Michelle, now living in Raleigh, and eventually made an arrest.

For Jackson Foy and Rothen’s families, it was a glimmer of hope.

But the case would be complicated: after 26 years, evidence, everything from recollections to DNA, had deteriorated; in fact, David said it was the first time this particular type of DNA evidence, based on the Y-chromosome, had been used in New Hanover court. And Iannone’s defense, led by public defender Tripp Watson, a former prosecutor and Superior Court judge, was afforded considerable resources; they hired investigators, worked nonstop for two weeks, and, in David’s estimation, “made this a heavyweight fight.”

And, while the criminal case was about an alleged rape, David was eager to try to introduce evidence from the WPD murder investigations that would, if allowed in front of the jury, help paint a damning picture of Iannone — and maybe provide some closure for those families.

Timothy Iannone: Felon, rapist… murderer?

The afternoon before Iannone’s conviction, the jury was instructed by Judge Wilson to deliberate on two charges: rape and kidnapping. They deliberated for ninety minutes, first requesting police reports and then information from the rape kit.

While the court was recessed, waiting for the jury, law enforcement — some retired — and prosecutors gathered in the hallway on the fourth floor of the courthouse. Some had been directly involved in the case, some had followed it, and some were interested in the potential links to the Rothen and Jackson Foy murder cases.

“The guy’s a monster,” one said.

“An absolute fucking monster,” another said.

After Iannone’s conviction, David voiced similar — if more camera-friendly — sentiments.

“This is a life sentence. And, you know, I don't try to give up on too many people — 99% of all people we put in an adult correction that are getting out one day, he's that rare 1% who isn't and he's right where he needs to be,” David told the press.

Law enforcement’s distaste for Iannone isn’t simply because he’s a habitual felon — with 25 convictions prior to this week’s ruling — but because of the violent history of behavior suspected by many in law enforcement.

After Jackson Foy and Rothen’s bodies were discovered in 2008, WPD assigned detective Lee Odham to the case. Odham reportedly believed strongly that Iannone was the killer and, as part of his investigation, tracked down six women who reported similar attacks, violent rapes or attempted rapes at knifepoint. At the time, many were engaged in sex work and likely initially hesitant to speak with law enforcement.

Police noted the location of many of these attacks: the ersatz burial sites of Jackson Foy and Rothen.

David was able to get that testimony introduced in court through what’s known as a 404B hearing, which determines if evidence of other potential crimes might be admissible if they are both similar enough and occurred close enough to the timeframe of the charges being heard in the case.

“The detective, Odham, was able to testify back in October to try and link the two cases that have just been mentioned, with upwards of a half a dozen women who he found on the street who had remarkable similarities to each other many were abducted and terrorized at knifepoint over the very graves of these women. And so that was all made part of this record, the Court of Appeals will have access to that,” David said.

But the jury was not allowed to hear that testimony.

And of the six women Odham had tracked down, only one’s testimony was ultimately allowed; the woman alleged Iannone had kidnapped her and beaten her violently before she escaped. That case went to court in November of 2007 but the victim didn’t show up as a witness; Iannone pleaded guilty to ‘crimes against nature,’ the North Carolina criminal offense that includes having oral sex. He was sentenced to probation (although he later served time for a probation violation).

Identifying the woman as “Sonia,” David said, “She testified to this jury that she was convinced she was going to die. This is a woman who was homeless and on the streets for upwards of 10 years.”

Jurors will likely find out what they didn’t know about Iannone only after reading news coverage of the trial.

One juror, who returned Tuesday morning to watch Iannone’s sentencing hearing after helping cast the verdict the evening before, called the experience of reading about the trial they had just served as jury for as, “surreal. Just, surreal.”

It’s a moot question now whether that information would have influenced the jury unduly; the DNA evidence, based on surviving Y-chromosome evidence from the 1996 rape kit sample, along with the victim’s testimony seems to have made the necessary impact. Further, it was Iannone’s many past felony convictions, not law enforcement's suspicions, that steered Judge Wilson to recommend the maximum sentence range — even the short side of which will almost undoubtedly insure that the 61-year-old Iannone dies in prison.

But the judge and jury weren’t the only interested parties. There are also Jackson Foy and Rothen’s families.

What does Iannone’s conviction mean for them?

Mixed emotions

Following Iannone’s sentencing, Allison Jackson Foy’s daughter Courtney said she was thankful to have had the opportunity to support Michelle during the trial — and couldn’t avoid the interrelationship between the cases.

“[Michelle’s] my hero right now. But listening to the testimony, there are a lot of similarities that I've noticed. And it took Michelle 26 years to get the justice that she has very much deserved. And we've been waiting 16 years for ours. And I just, I really hope that if anybody has any information, that I encourage them to come forward, because we would like our own day in court as well. And this definitely gives me some hope in that,” she said.

David stood by his statutory requirement to avoid talking about pending cases, but was more clear than in the past about his office’s stance on prosecuting the murderer of Foy and Rothen.

“We are not done with Mr. Iannone,” David said.

For years, Foy’s sister, Lisa Valentino, had said David had made a promise to her and Allison’s father that he would convene a grand jury. Their father has since passed, and David has always denied making such a promise when asked by the media.

Valentino initially had a rocky relationship with WPD when she pushed the department to take her sister's disappearance seriously.

In 2018, she said, “we heard, ‘they’re gonna find her, they’re gonna find her with needles in her arm,’ and as we knew that wasn’t the case at all. And we found out. She was taken, she was abducted, and she was murdered."

But that relationship improved dramatically when Odham took the case, and Valentino has spoken highly of WPD's continued role in the investigation since then. She's also suggested WPD believes there is enough of a case to try Iannone as well as frustration with David for his hesitance to do so. WPD has consistently declined to comment on the record about that issue.

Asked what it would take for his office to convene a grand jury, David didn’t provide specifics but pointed to the difference between the “preponderance” of evidence needed to arrest and the need to overcome “reasonable doubt” needed to convict — with emphasis on the fact that his office would have only one shot to convict Iannone on murder charges.

The difference between the two — ‘preponderance of evidence’ and ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ — is sometimes fuzzy. One law enforcement officer familiar with the case described it as “the difference between literally 51% sure, just more than half, and like 99.9% sure — a pretty big gap.”

David said, “we’re never gonna give up on Allison and Angie's cases. And that's why we've asked the community to come forward. I think you know me well enough to know that if we've got it, I'm going to try it. We're going to do our best to put anything in a courtroom that can be supported by the evidence. [But] my job is not just to convict at all costs, it’s to do justice. And sometimes I have to make the hard call that, if we don't have it yet, we have to be patient even though I know it's an excruciating wait.”

For Valentino, who traveled to Wilmington for an earlier part of the trial, the outcome of the case gave her hope.

“Today, it's a very emotional day. I wish that I could have been there myself. Unfortunately, I was only able to be there to support Michelle, that first week, and I had to get back. But I'm hopeful that, you know, people are going to take a look at this case and listen to the testimony of Michelle and some of the other people who testified. And I'm hoping that they're going to see the similar circumstances in all of these cases – and my sister Allison's case, and Angela’s case,” she said.

Still, the trial left her with mixed emotions.

“There's no doubt in my mind that today, a horrible person who committed many, many crimes over his lifetime and tore apart many families went to prison for a long time so that it can't hurt anybody else. That doesn't stop my fight, to have justice in my sister Allison's case, and Angela’s case. And, you know, my family and I will continue to do whatever we need to, to make sure that we also have our day in court and that the person responsible for the death – the murder, I should say, the brutal murder of two women is charged,” she said.

David made a point that his office had more than once sent Iannone to prison and, to some onlookers, this week's verdict — effectively a life sentence for Iannone — might feel like justice has been served for Foy and Rothen. But for Valentino, there’s still work to be done, for her and Rothen’s families, and her late father.

“Because my sister, and Angela, they deserve we deserve to have final resolution in this case. And my family deserves to have our day in court … to have a victim's impact statement much like one that happened today,” she said. “I don't know how to explain it in any better terms than this: if you've been through something like my family has been through for the last 16 years, you need that final piece. And I need to be able to put this to rest to say that justice has been served for my sister. And for Angela. And certainly her two daughters, and myself. and my family deserve to have our day in court. That's how the system works. Everybody deserves justice. And I want everybody to know who took the life of my sister.”

The Wilmington Police Department continues to investigate the death of Allison Jackson Foy and Angela Rothen. Anyone with information related to the cases is asked to call 910-343-3620.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.