On June 22, 1993, most Americans thought of Manassas as a day trip to the Civil War battlefields. But on June 23, it attracted a level of attention not seen since Lincoln was in the White House: Early that morning, a 24-year-old manicurist named Lorena Bobbitt pulled back the covers on her sleeping husband, sliced his penis clean off with a kitchen knife, and launched a full-tilt tabloid spectacle unlike anything Washington (or the world) had ever witnessed.
Before that fateful event, the couple had lived in a shabby apartment near a part of town called Manassas Park. John Wayne Bobbitt was a 26-year-old Marine turned warehouse worker. Lorena was an Ecuadorian immigrant whose English wasn’t great. Nearly overnight, they became global celebrities. And Manassas was their blindingly spotlit stage.
Lorena’s criminal trial was broadcast into America’s living rooms on Court TV, hooking the nation on courtroom dramas six months before O.J. Simpson climbed into his white Bronco. More significant, her ghastly act—committed, she testified, because her husband had beat and sexually assaulted her throughout their marriage—kick-started a national conversation about gender and power that presaged controversies that continue to swirl today.
Twenty-five years later, the cast of Bobbitt v. Bobbitt reflects on one of the strangest sagas in pop-culture history.
John Wayne Bobbitt: “I met her in Quantico. We dated for, like, nine months.”
Lorena Gallo (formerly Lorena Bobbitt): “I went straight from high school to marriage, and I never dated in between. I was naive about many things.”
John: “We fought, me and Lorena, yeah. But it was not to where it was battery.”
Lorena: “He was very strong, and I was between 93 and 95 pounds then. I basically surrendered myself. Like, okay, as a survival instinct, I wanted just to surrender my body, my mind, to get it over with. As a Catholic, I didn’t believe in divorce. I really believed that when he said sorry, he meant it.”
Around 3 am on June 23, 1993, Lorena woke up when John returned from clubbing with a friend.
John: “We went out all night long. Then we went to Denny’s and had breakfast.”
Lorena: “He came back smelling like alcohol, woke me up, jumped on top of me.”
She testified in court: “I said, ‘I don’t want to have sex,’ and he wouldn’t listen to me. He wouldn’t let me go.”
Blair Howard, Lorena’s defense attorney: “What she told me was he kind of slides into bed to help himself to what he wanted. When he gets through, he just falls over and starts snoring. She says she got up and went into the kitchen. She says, ‘I saw a knife on the counter,’ and she says, ‘The thought came in my mind I’m going to make sure he never does this to me or any other woman ever again.’ She picks up the knife, goes back into the bedroom, and the rest is history.”
John: “Obviously, you’re in pain right away. You wake up instantaneously. I was confused. I didn’t know where I was. I’m trying to gather myself, put my pants on, apply pressure.”
Lorena: “I remember going to the car, and I see that in one hand was the knife and in the other hand was his organ. His penis. I tossed it, and it went somewhere while I was driving. In my mind, I was going to work, I was going to go and do nails. That’s how crazy, or insane, the whole situation was.”
After finding the nail salon closed, Lorena drove to the home of her boss, Janna Bisutti. Bisutti called the police. Meanwhile, the friend John had been out with gave him a ride to Prince William Hospital.
Debra Parrish, then a nurse at Prince William Hospital: “He came in through the emergency room. He had kind of a towel wrapped around his fist and held down on the crotch. At first, they thought he had done something to his hand.”
John: “I said, ‘That’s not where I’m cut.’ I showed the ER doctor. It was the biggest, most shocked look on a doctor’s face you can imagine. They said they may not be able to put it back on. I was thinking suicide, really. The only other alternative is self-terminate, you know?”
David Berman, plastic surgeon: “I got a call around 3:30 or 4 in the morning. I wasn’t actually on call that night, but the hospital in Manassas is smaller, and at the time I don’t think they had anybody particularly skilled in microsurgery. I said, ‘Do you have the part?’ They said no, so I said, ‘Is there any point in me coming down?’ They said, ‘Don’t worry, she told them where she threw it.’ ”
Jim Sehn, a urologist who operated with Berman: “Lorena had taken the male member in her car down a side street, just down Route 28 in Manassas. She tossed it out the window, and the organ landed in a grass field out in front of the 7-Eleven. The police brought it into the 7-Eleven. Believe it or not, they put it in a hot-dog bag on ice.”
Paul Ebert, Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney: “I hear about every crime committed in this county the day after it happens. This case came in, and the jokes started flying around—‘They belong in a penal institution,’ things like that. It’s not like people thought it was heinous. They thought it was kind of funny.”
Lorena: “I had to make a statement that eventually got used in court.”
Gregory Murphy, John’s defense attorney: “The statement was: ‘He have orgasm and not wait for me.’ If ever there was a lesson for men, that’s probably a good one.”
Lorena: “You know, I might’ve said things I didn’t mean to say. Again, I was still learning English, and I tried to connect the words together, and you know, it was just a mess. I was trying to explain myself that there is no good when a man and woman have nonconsensual sex. There was no translator at all, and that’s a very important point. Now that I look back at these things, I’m like, Oh, my God, a translator would’ve been nice.”
Carlos Sanchez, then a reporter for the Washington Post: “I am the first person who interviewed Lorena Bobbitt. It happened the morning of the incident. She’d been through hell, you could tell. She almost appeared to be in a state of shock. Her response to my question was: ‘He raped me. He raped me.’ I always felt that it was a very sincere response. She said it from the get-go, very convincingly. Others believed she had kind of staged it and made that up.”
While Lorena was dealing with law enforcement, John was being prepped for replantation surgery.
Parrish: “When it came in, I washed it. We put it in a Ziploc bag of ice and put it on a sterile table until it was time to put things back together again.”
Sehn: “I had John’s penile stump tourniqueted. He’d lost about a third of his blood volume.”
Berman: “The surgery took 9½ hours. What you’re doing is reconnecting the major artery and veins and nerves under the microscope. If I were doing it again, I’m sure it’d be a lot quicker. But we wanted to be extra careful. Microsurgeries are either all or none. I may have taken one quick bathroom break, but that was it.”
Parrish: “The surgeons who were doing other cases were very curious. The mere fact that it was totally severed from the body was the biggest thing. They were like, ‘Come on, it’s hanging off him, right?’ I was like, ‘No, here, look—it’s on this table.’
“You got different reactions. The males had lots of sympathy pains for him. The women were all like, ‘He must’ve done something really bad to have had that happen.’ ”
Berman: “There’s that moment where you take the tourniquet off. Either you did things well and it’ll pink right up or you didn’t and it’ll get darker and darker.”
Sehn: “The organ pinked up.”
John: “We were skeptical about whether or not it was going to take. You know, it was 50-50.”
Berman: “I put him in the ICU afterward so we could track it. The first several days are critical. The problem you worry about is getting a blood clot in the vessel that supplies the penis with blood. If that were to happen, it would turn black and die. Every day it stayed pink was a wonderful day.”
John: “Three days after surgery, I was still sewn together. I woke up and was like, ‘Wow, it’s working, kind of!’ I called the hotel where my mom and dad were. My mom answered, and I was like, ‘Mom, I got an erection!’ She didn’t want to hear that.”
Berman: “It surprised both of us.”
Parrish: “One of the nurses said he was already trying to pick up a candy striper.”
Berman: “I thought the word would get around the hospital and it’d be forgotten in a day or two. But it got picked up by the media almost immediately, and within 12 hours it kind of exploded on the world scene.”
Sanchez of the Post: “The doctors immediately made themselves available to us, which I found shocking. But that was the way things went in that particular case. Everybody seemed available, and they spoke pretty freely. It was new ground in terms of crime and the ability to say ‘penis’ in the press.”
Kim Gandy, then executive vice president of the National Organization for Women: “Very, very quickly, the story focused on him and his loss, so to speak—not on what he had done or why Lorena had acted. We were understandably upset that the focus of the news stories was misplaced.”
Lorena was charged with “malicious wounding.” John was charged with “marital sexual assault”—but not with rape. At that time in Virginia, a spouse could be charged with rape only if the couple was living apart or the victim was seriously injured. John’s trial was scheduled first.
Murphy, John’s attorney: “We were given a November trial date. It was probably the most intense three months I’ve ever had. I was hearing from people from Bangkok to Berlin. They asked if I was going to move it out of Manassas because of the jury pool. I said, ‘Where am I going to move it? They’ve heard of this in the Amazon.’ ”
Roger Snyder, then community-development director for Manassas: “My job was to embellish the image of Manassas, and I took great umbrage that my job was made more difficult by the laughter echoing around the world.”
Tricia Davis, then director of Historic Manassas: “Of all the things Manassas was known for, now it’s Mrs. Bobbitt.”
Snyder: “We proudly did the reattachment in our hospital, but the dismemberment didn’t occur in Manassas. It occurred in Prince William County near Manassas. To make that proof positive, I hand-drew a map that was published in Time magazine showing where the dirty deed occurred and the location of the hospital where Humpty Dumpty was put back together again.”
I thought the word would get around the hospital and it’d be forgotten in a day or two.
Both Lorena and John had agents, and Lorena’s boss acted as her de facto handler.
Sanchez: “When there’s an allegation of a sex crime, it’s the practice of most papers that you don’t name the victim. We learned almost immediately that both John and Lorena had hired publicists. When the editors heard that, they said, ‘Okay, we’re free to use her name.’ I know that we really angered her [first] attorney. His vow at that moment was that the Post would never again get an interview. That’s how Kim Masters ended up scooping her own paper.”
Kim Masters, journalist: “I was at the Washington Post, but I had just made a deal with Vanity Fair to do three stories a year. The theory was there wouldn’t be a lot of conflict. But I did not anticipate that the first thing Vanity Fair would ask me to do was Lorena Bobbitt.
“I think the Post was very squeamish about the subject matter, the nature of the crime. I went to my editor at the time. I said, ‘Vanity Fair wants me to go for this Lorena Bobbitt story,’ and he said, ‘Okay.’ ”
Lorena: “I did not want to do Vanity Fair, but it was a suggestion from [my first attorney] and [my publicist] and Janna.”
Masters: “The real big competition from the start was Gay Talese from the New Yorker. Gay Talese, as I understood it, had been driving around in Manassas and taking people out to very expensive dinners. I was told he had his book in the trunk of his car. He would introduce himself and say, ‘Do you know who I am? This is my book.’ ”
Murphy: “We gave Gay access prior to the trial. He knew most of what was going on.”
Masters: “He had a major head start, but he didn’t have Lorena. Vanity Fair had this trump card, which was the photos. Lorena and her boss, Janna—they didn’t say that, but I think the idea of a spread with the photos was very attractive. I went out to dinner with Janna and Lorena at Clyde’s in Tysons Corner before the interview.
“At dinner, Lorena asked for a sharper knife. People didn’t know what she looked like. This is an era without the internet. I remember thinking, If the waiter knew who she was . . . .”
Lorena: “I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing somebody talking about me. It was like being a fly on the wall, like being invisible.”
Masters: “The next step was an interview at the lawyer’s house. Vanity Fair sent Mary Ellen Mark, a very well-known photographer, to shoot Lorena. When we got there, Janna said, ‘She’s not going to get in the pool. She’s not going to pose in her bathing suit.’ About ten minutes later, she’s in the pool. Mary Ellen Mark has waded into the pool up to her hips, with her clothes on, and she’s snapping away.”
Murphy: “I just thought, This is a woman who’s suffering from abuse? I was stunned that they did that.”
Masters: “I do remember my Vanity Fair editor saying, ‘If these people were not attractive, nobody would be this amped up about the case.’ But because they were pretty attractive, it had this allure. I was surprised when he said that, but looking back, I think it’s true.”
John’s trial began on November 8, 1993. By then, late-night comedians had feasted on the material for months. Still, the amount of media that parachuted into Manassas took people aback.
LeRoy Millette Jr., the Prince William County Circuit Court judge who presided over John’s trial: “My goal was to keep the courtroom as calm as possible. To minimize the commotion, I established a rule that once you sat down in the courtroom, you couldn’t leave, then come back in.”
Murphy: “The circus—whoa. I don’t know that I was prepared for that. We’d been warned about it, that there were going to be all the TV cameras and satellite buses and stuff. There were signs and people yelling to John. I just told John to keep his head down.”
David Mabie, then the court’s clerk: “There were a couple ladies who had a wagon loaded with T-shirts, which said: MANASSAS, VIRGINIA: A CUT ABOVE THE REST. The T-shirts had a knife and drops of blood coming off the knife.”
Windy Shepley-Collat, T-shirt vendor: “We lived like a mile from where the event happened. I said, ‘Well, there’s nothing here for a souvenir except those ornaments they sell down at the train station. What if we sold T-shirts?’ One day, I was in the shower and thought: Manassas: A cut above the rest. I thought, ‘That’s awesome,’ and I went with it.”
Lorena: “Testifying against him was very odd because he was still my husband—we were not divorced yet. At the same time, looking at him, I was very intimidated by him because I thought, ‘Oh, my God—he’s gonna come and just grab me or choke me.’ ”
Murphy: “She was quick to put on the crying act.”
John: “I was sad that she had to go through all that. She was my wife.”
Sanchez: “Lorena, I think, wanted to convey the sense of being a real victim, and sometimes it seemed as though there were crocodile tears coming out of her while she was on the stand.
“When John took the stand, my impression was, one, that he was very arrogant and, two, that he wasn’t the smartest person I’d ever seen testify.”
Ebert, the Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney: “[Earlier,] John said, ‘She did this to me, Mr. Ebert, because she loved me so much.’ Then in the middle of the trial, he says, ‘Mr. Ebert?’ I say, ‘What?’ He says, ‘I don’t think she loves me.’ He wasn’t the brightest bulb.”
The unusual charge—marital sexual assault—was difficult to prove.
Millette: “It was sort of a he-said/she-said, and even if you believed her, there were going to be some things you had doubts about.”
The jury deliberated four hours before returning a verdict of not guilty.
Ebert: “I was disappointed but wasn’t surprised.”
Murphy: “Gay Talese and the New Yorker threw a dinner for us at a shopping-center restaurant, an Italian restaurant.”
Lorena: “I was staying at Janna’s house, and she just called me and said, ‘Not guilty,’ and hung up. I was like, What? What is going to happen to me now?”
Lorena’s trial was scheduled for January 10, 1994. In the months before, John went into hiding.
John: “A friend of mine has a cattle ranch. I went there and did some cowboy stuff.”
Murphy: “I got this call from John’s publicists. They said he’s doing great, wrangling cattle, blah, blah, blah. But they got wind that John was thinking of going into Colorado Springs. So I called John.
“I said, ‘I hear you may be thinking of going off the ranch, and if you do, People magazine or somebody’s going to find you.’ I said, ‘What were you thinking of doing?’ He said, ‘Well, I was thinking of going into Hooters’—I swear to God, he says—‘because they’re having a John Wayne Bobbitt look-alike contest and I think I can win it.’”
Lorena, meanwhile, was shopping for a new defense attorney.
Howard, Lorena’s lawyer: “My secretary said, ‘We’ve had some calls over the last couple of days from a lady who speaks with a little bit of an accent, and she insists that she wants to speak to you, but she won’t identify herself.’ Finally, the voice on the other end identifies herself to me: ‘I’m Lorena. Perhaps you have heard about my case.’ ”
Lorena: “I didn’t see [my first attorney] Jim Lowe as a tiger who’s going to fight for my life. Mr. Howard explain everything to me, treated me like a human being, a person who needed to have some knowledge of what’s going on.” [Lowe died in 2003.]
Howard: “I said, ‘I’ll give it my best.’ And we went to trial.”
Sanchez of the Post: “John’s trial was really kind of a dress rehearsal. Lorena’s was by far the much larger trial. I remember, too, it was bitterly cold and that didn’t matter. There were just crowds of people.”
Ebert: “You had people demonstrating—the women’s rights, men’s rights, the Latino bunch.”
Sanchez: “Hispanic taxi drivers volunteered to take people out there who didn’t have rides, to support their fellow Latina.”
Ebert: “We had snipers on top of the courthouse.”
Gandy of NOW: “This was a huge opportunity. Huge. Because nobody was talking about domestic violence then. It was the silent killer of women. It was a chance to refocus people on what was really at stake here and why she acted and whether she was or wasn’t being protected by the laws of Virginia.”
Mabie, the court clerk: “My staff was in charge of leasing a large room in a building across the street for journalists and television feeds from all over the world. That was sort of the nerve center to get the word out.”
Shepley-Collat, the T-shirt vendor: “[My friend] and I were the only two out there for the first trial because it’s $500 for a peddler’s license. For Lorena’s trial, there were at least 20 other people out there. Some were selling T-shirts, some were selling chocolate candy penises. Some of it was just gross.
“I thought we should do boxer shorts, too, and they should say: DON’T CUT ME SHORT. MANASSAS, VIRGINIA. We earned $20,000.”
Snyder, the Manassas community-development director: “Believe it or not, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile showed up. They were giving out cocktail hot dogs outside the courthouse.”
Mabie: “Another time, there was a folk group. They were playing ‘50 Ways to Cleave Your Lover.’ It was like, ‘Cut off the hill, Jill. Cut off the stack, Jack . . . .’ Stuff like that.”
Lorena: “These people making fun of things, they seemed to miss everything.”
Ebert: “Another joke was they had to get a special dog from Manassas Park to locate it. A German shepherd couldn’t find it, so they got a cocker spaniel.”
Lorena: “We were living—and we still are somehow—in a patriarchal society. Of course, men wanted to do jokes about it, to neutralize this whole situation.”
Adding to the circus was the fact that Lorena’s trial was televised daily.
Steven Brill, Court TV’s founder and then–editor in chief: “Maybe I would have a different thought about this in the wake of the Me Too movement, but I remember I hated the idea of us doing that trial. I just thought the Bobbitt thing was the ultimate in tabloid sleaze.”
Lorena: “It made me uncomfortable. It was not a soap opera that they were watching. It was my life.”
Brill: “A lot of what shaped it was the serendipity of where the crime was committed. In Florida or, in this case, Virginia, those state court systems allowed cameras in. If it had been committed in New York state, where at the time you couldn’t get a camera into a criminal trial, it would have been different.”
Where just two months before, Paul Ebert had prosecuted John Bobbitt, now the world watched as he tried to convict Lorena.
John: “The case was doomed from the start. He was out to defend her.”
Murphy, John’s lawyer: “It was absolutely clear his heart was not in convicting her. He was upset about not winning a guilty verdict in John’s case.”
Ebert: “If I wanted to lose a case, I wouldn’t try it. It’s like I told the jury—two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Lorena’s legal team presented a type of temporary-insanity defense called “irresistible impulse.”
Howard, Lorena’s attorney: “In order to prevail, you have to have a major medical disorder. The psychiatrist evaluated Lorena as suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. In other words, because she had just been forcibly assaulted and was reliving all the other trauma and assaults that had occurred, she went in and saw that knife and all she could think was: ‘I’ve got to eliminate the problem.’ ”
Ebert: “I never thought she was crazy, or legally crazy. Certainly emotional. Certainly had some mental difficulty, as most defendants do.”
Mabie, the court clerk: “After Lorena testified, the mail came from everywhere. The mailman said, ‘What am I supposed to do with all this mail?’ I said, ‘You put it right on my desk, and I’ll take it to Lorena or John.’
“Of course, Icouldn’t read the letters, but I could read the postcards. The ones I read heavily favored Lorena. Words of encouragement. Prayers. That sort of thing. I’ll never forget there was one addressed to John Wayne Bobbitt that said, ‘You sorry blankety-blank, it’s too bad that a dog didn’t find your penis and carry it off before they found it and reattached it.’ ”
After more than six hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict.
Lorena: “This woman came with a card, and she look at me and she smiled. At that moment, I thought she was just kind of like telling me it was going to be all right. Then when she read ‘not guilty,’ that’s all I understood. Not guilty.”
John: “I couldn’t believe that the system failed, that everything got so screwed up, so misinterpreted. That all the facts and details weren’t brought out.”
Howard: “I was very happy for her. It was the first time I could remember seeing that girl smile.”
Lorena: “But then they were taking me to a side door, these officers, and I’m like, ‘If it’s okay, why don’t I just go out the front door? What does this mean?’ I was exhausted. I wanted just to go home and fall asleep. They took me directly to the hospital.”
Under state law, anyone acquitted by reason of insanity must be placed under psychiatric evaluation, so Lorena spent the next 45 days at a hospital in Petersburg, Virginia.
Lorena: “It wasn’t like the Holiday Inn, but at least I was away from the media. I had boxes full of letters. Because we didn’t have the World Wide Web. Can you imagine? I can’t imagine handling it with social media.”
Gandy of NOW: “I remember being asked multiple times, ‘Is she a hero?’ She’s a survivor. She’s someone who was being abused and did what she felt she needed to do to save herself.”
John and Lorena finalized their divorce in 1995.
Berman, the plastic surgeon: “John ended up going out to Vegas and did a bunch of porn films.”
Sehn, the urologist: “The first film was called John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut. You may have heard of it. I think it was the most successful porn film ever made.”
John: “I said, ‘Why not tell the whole story in an adult-rated version?’ It was a lot of fun.”
Berman: “I couldn’t not see it since it’s my handiwork. Unfortunately, it was terrible. It showed that everything worked well, but it was pretty classless.”
John: “Another reason why I did it is I knew Lorena would be pissed off.”
Berman: “Then somewhere along there, he had a penile augmentation.”
John: “It was kind of successful. Over time, it was too big. I’d go on a date. Girls were saying, ‘No way.’”
Berman: “He didn’t ask my advice before doing the porn movie. He certainly didn’t ask me before doing the penile augmentation. Had he asked me, I would have told him it was insane.”
These people making fun of things, they seemed to miss everything.
John: “I had to go see Dr. Berman again last year, and he had to do a reduction. It’s fine now. Back to normal.”
John Bobbitt says he’s currently living with a girlfriend in Las Vegas, where he works in construction. In 1994, he was convicted in two separate cases of battering his then fiancée, Kristina Elliott. In 2003, he was convicted of abusing his third wife, Joanna Ferrell.
While John chased the spotlight, Lorena sought quiet.
Lorena: “I stayed in the community. Everywhere I go, I will be recognized, so might as well stay. I knew the area, and I knew my friends are in the area.
“I went back to school for general studies. That’s how I met David. We’re not married, but that’s my longtime partner. It’s been 18 or 20 years since we’ve been together. We have a daughter together. He’s a great guy.”
Lorena now goes by her maiden name, Gallo. After her trial, she worked as a legal secretary, then became a real-estate agent. In 2007, she started an organization focused on domestic-violence prevention. She speaks on the topic, such as at a recent law-school symposium in Tennessee, and volunteers with women’s shelters.
Lorena: “David was the one who said, ‘Let’s do this if you really want to.’ The Lorena Gallo Foundation—it’s advocacy, education, community outreach, and support.”
Gandy, now president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence: “With three women a day being murdered in domestic violence, the horrible stories are quite endless. Most of them don’t ever make anything beyond their local media, even the really horrifying ones.”
Lorena: “We’re not going to change the world in one week. Look what happened to me. It’s been 25 years, and it’s still not perfect. We haven’t reached equality, women’s equality. There’s a lot more work for me to do, for all of the advocates to do.”
This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Washingtonian.