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Women refuse to talk in rape case

It was a steak knife with a jagged edge, and the two women say the man used it to mutilate them sexually.

The first woman escaped her attacker by jumping out of his car, then called police. Later, when the suspect was arrested with the second woman still in his car, police recovered the bloody knife.

That was nearly five months ago. Now there's a possibility that the suspect, 54-year-old George Edward Wright, could go free.

Tuesday afternoon, six days before the case was scheduled for trial, Hillsborough County Judge Claudia Isom issued arrest warrants for both women for failing to appear in court.

The women are refusing to talk to defense attorney John Fernandez, a public defender representing the man accused of the rapes.

One of the women met with Fernandez on Jan. 4 but walked out after eight minutes. She told prosecutors she found Fernandez "abrasive," said Cynthia Heir, the assistant state attorney who is prosecuting the case.

The woman also objected to Fernandez's line of questioning during a deposition, saying it was "intrusive," even though the judge told her the defense can ask almost anything in preparing for trial.

Since then, she has refused to return to the courthouse.

"She feels like she's being victimized by the system right now," Heir said. "She's told law enforcement, she's told us what's going on. Some people get to the point where they've had enough."

Police say that in the early morning of Oct. 6, the first woman was walking on Nebraska Avenue when Wright abducted her at knifepoint. He drove her to a parking lot and assaulted her with the knife. She escaped and called police.

Minutes later, police say, Wright picked up the second woman on Nebraska Avenue by offering her $15 for oral sex.

The woman, who has a lengthy criminal record including arrests for prostitution, also was attacked with the knife, police said.

She has not appeared for her deposition.

According to Brionne Shegstad, an investigator with the state attorney's office, both women are worried about "being badgered" by the defense.

That's the way the law works, said Public Defender Julie Holt, Fernandez's boss. She said he is only doing his job.

"John Fernandez is an aggressive advocate for his clients," she said. "I stand by Mr. Fernandez and certainly our client's rights to confront his accusers."

Robyn Blumner, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed with Holt. She said the women are obligated to testify if they have filed a complaint with the police.

"It has to be understood that the process is going to be difficult and humiliating," Blumner said, "but ultimately they are the only link to a successful prosecution. Without them, this man will walk freely to brutalize other women."

Which is precisely why some women are reluctant to step forward, said Mary Poole, coordinator of the victim advocacy program at the University of South Florida.

"There's no guarantee that there isn't going to be retaliation," she said. "Rape victims think like that, and they get scared. There's a lot of fear."

Wright, who faces charges of armed kidnapping, sexual battery and attempted murder, has pleaded not guilty.

No stranger to the criminal justice system, he is scheduled to go on trial Monday. Wright has been arrested 18 times. His record includes convictions for grand theft, drug charges, petty larceny and burglary.

He has been charged twice in Dade County with sexual battery, Heir said, but both times the charges have been dropped. Wright has served 67 days in prison.

When the women are arrested, they will appear before Judge Isom and explain why they failed to respond to the subpoena, according to prosecutor Jack Espinosa Jr.

At that time, prosecutors plan to ask the judge to let the women undergo depositions with the judge present, or with another jurist whom the judge could appoint.

The judge can do that under Florida law if she finds the women in a "frail and emotional state." The last thing the state wants to do, prosecutors say, is drop the charges.

But without the women's testimony, the state might have to. "Our concern," Heir said, "is the potential violence that would be committed on other women if he walks."