Warning: This article details the violent and graphic events of Big Dan's Bar as described in Netflix's Trial by Media and may be triggering to some readers.
Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries, Trial by Media, explores the important and sometimes insidious role of the media when it comes to criminal trials. Each episode examines cases like the 1980's “Subway Vigilante” Bernhard Goetz trial, and shows how the media can shape the narratives around trials and the criminals being tried.
One of the most chilling episodes of the series is Episode 5, “Big Dan’s,” about the infamous 1980's gang rape of a young woman in New Bedford, Mass. The Big Dan’s trial was the first televised rape trial in the U.S. and it captured the nation’s attention due to its brutal nature that sent shockwaves through the community when it happened.
The case went on to become such a national sensation that it was used as the plot for the movie The Accused starring Jodie Foster in an Oscar-winning performance. But in case movies about horrifying rape cases don’t pique your interest, here’s a rundown of everything that happened at Big Dan’s on that infamous night.
What happened at Big Dan’s bar, the case featured on 'Trial by Media'?
On what was just another March night in the small city of New Bedford, Mass., an unaccompanied woman named Cheryl Ann Araujo stopped off at a bar called Big Dan’s to buy some cigarettes. The accounts of how she spent her time at the bar vary, but Araujo reportedly had a few drinks, talked to a waitress she knew, and watched the men at the bar play pool.
At some point during the evening, Araujo was attacked and gang-raped by four men in the bar, while other patrons watched and allegedly cheered the men on, but did not intervene.
Thankfully, she was able to break free from her attackers and ran out of the bar half-naked. A second miracle occurred when three college students, who happened to be passing by, spotted her and came to help.
What happened at the trial?
When the Big Dan rape case went to trial, the 24-hour news cycle was still in its infancy and the presiding judge decided to allow one camera into the courtroom in the interest of transparency.
However, he later expressed deep regret for this decision, because having the media present did nothing positive for this case.
Right off the bat, the victim’s name was reported in the news, a controversial move that the judge and women’s groups alike denounced. The trial also gave rise to questions about the rights of victims and defendants, as well as brought the issue of immigration to the forefront since the perpetrators all happened to be of Portuguese descent.
The trial also became the template for victim-blaming in cases of rape, since defense attorneys questioned Araujo's personal life repeatedly, as well as her choice to go into the bar alone, suggesting that she somehow invited the attack upon herself.
They also honed in on the fact that Araujo's recollection of the events was different from how the accused remembered things, calling into question her account of the evening and again feeding into the idea that she was to blame.
What happened after the trial?
Of the six men who were charged and tried in connection to the rape, four were charged with aggravated rape and two were charged with joint enterprise, which is to encourage an illegal act and do nothing to stop it. The first four were found guilty of aggravated rape, but the remaining two men were acquitted of the joint enterprise charges.
Following the trial, Araujo was ostracized by her community in New Bedford and ended up moving to Florida in an attempt to find anonymity and start a new life. Tragically, she died in a car crash in 1986. Investigators later revealed that Araujo had been intoxicated while driving and it came to light that she had been struggling with alcohol issues since the end of the Big Dan’s trial.
Just two years after her death, Araujo's story was forever immortalized in the Hollywood film, The Accused, which was loosely based on the Big Dan’s case.
Trial By Media is out now streaming on Netflix.
If you need support, The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673. You will be connected with a trained staff member in your area. Or visit RAINN.org to chat online with a support specialist at any time.