VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — 600 miles from Hampton Roads, an Atlanta park is the only place Mae Sanderford can forget about the past.
“It’s relaxing,” Sanderford said. “It’s calming. It’s my way with nature. There’s like, there’s a shadow over me at all times.”
The shadow has been hanging for 28 years.
“Parts of it were in slow motion, but it is something that you never forget, even as a 10-year-old,” she added.
Sanderford remembers riding her bike through the park in the Timberlake area of Virginia Beach. It was the middle of the day, just after an August thunderstorm in 1990.
“That’s when I was grabbed from behind,” Sanderford said.
The stranger knocked Sanderford off her bike. It would be the moment that changed her life.
“I remember being punched,” she added. “I was almost having an out of body experience knocking in and out of unconsciousness.”
Blows to face, again and again. She was dragged to the bank of a nearby lake.
“From there I was brutally beaten, raped, forced to commit sodomy, beaten more and then being punched so repeatedly,” Sanderford said.
The attack seemed to go on forever. Eventually she was thrown into the water, discarded like trash.
“I was crying and screaming and I heard some girls around,” Sanderford added. “I think they heard me too and I had blood everywhere and they came and helped me.”
Sanderford was rushed to the hospital. She says she was in her room with an ice pack over her eye when Virginia Beach detectives walked in with photos of potential suspects.
“I remember the police coming with Polaroids,” she said.
Sanderford wasn’t able to pick anyone out. One of those Polaroids was of a 17-year-old, found by officers walking the streets just after the attack.
Police say with help from Sanderford they came up with a composite sketch. Detectives had fanned out in the Green Area area to search. Homicide detective Shawn Hoffman first saw the suspect.
“I looked over and it was him,” Hoffman told 10 On Your Side in a 2017 interview. “There was no doubt.”
Detectives took the teen in for questioning. His name, Darnell Phillips.
Phillips was questioned by two detectives for almost five hours. His story didn’t change. Hoffman then asked if he could give it a shot.
Hoffman said he had a confession within 10 minutes, according to court records.
“I told him he made a mistake at that particular timeframe and it wasn’t what he intended to do what he did,” Hoffman added. “It was a terrible mistake and he was shaking his head up and down and ‘I said do you agree with me?’ It was.”
There was no audio, video, notes or a signed confession from Phillips. Only Hoffman’s word. Phillips disputes Hoffman’s account. Hoffman says he stands by the confession.
“Absolutely,” Hoffman said when asked if he believes the right guy was arrested.
“I remember being scared,” Sanderford said.
Sanderford also would become familiar with Hoffman. She says he was one of the detectives who came to her home with a book of potential suspects.
“I was looking at a book I guess it was a high school book,” she added. “I kept skimming through it and no this isn’t anybody and the pages were flipped back,” she added.
Sanderford says detectives kept going back to a certain page and asking her if she recognizes anyone.
“I was being persuaded in a direction,” Sanderford said.
Sanderford tells 10 On Your Side she kept seeing Phillips’ photo. She says detectives even told her he had assaulted other girls. Because of the mounting pressure, Sanderford says she fingered Phillips for the crime.
“They’re the police,” she said. “What was I supposed to believe?”
A year later the case went to a jury trial. Based on Hoffman testifying that Phillips confessed and Sanderford’s identification, Phillips was convicted to 100 years in prison.
“I want my name cleared, because i had nothing to do with the crime,” Phillips said.
“My drugs and my drinking all stem from depression from this incident,” Sanderford added.
Sanderford spent the three decades in and out of rehab. She’s now on the path to recovery and says she needs to make a wrong, right. She believes Phillips isn’t the right guy.
“Someone else is still running the streets,” she said. “I want the man who did this to be found and convicted.”
10 On Your Side showed the sketch to Sanderford during our interview. It was the first time she’d ever seen it.
“This isn’t him,” she added. “This is like a kid.”
In late September, Phillips was granted parole. 10 On Your Side was there when he was released.
“I’m basking in this moment, because it is something that I dreamed about and now it is finally here,” Phillips said. “Today is a new day. It’s a new day today.”
Phillips added this is only the first step.
“All I want is my freedom,” Phillips added. “I want to be a man to walk the streets free going where I want. The one way to do that is for me to be pardoned.”
10 On Your Side requested several times to talk with Detective Hoffman and the Virginia Beach Police Department. We were told no one would comment, because the Innocence Project asked the Attorney General to review this case.
The Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney also wouldn’t comment for the same reason.
The case is still pending in the Virginia Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.