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One Howard County woman needed an excuse for being late to work. Another feared she had become pregnant the first time she had sex. A third cut scratches on her thighs with a razor blade and bottle cap.

In the past two years, those and 31 other women told police in the suburban Maryland county they had been raped, but as authorities looked into each complaint, they found no evidence to support it. In some cases, women told police they had concocted their stories; other times, police found no evidence of rape, and ruled the complaints unfounded.

Although relatively rare -- Howard police said there were nearly three times as many actual rapes as unfounded claims in 1990-91 -- false and unfounded claims are baffling to police, rape counselors and other experts. Many believe such claims represent deep-seated pleas for help.

"Sometimes there's loneliness, a need for attention, a need to feel important," said David Silber, a George Washington University psychologist.

Thomas Martin, a veteran detective with the Howard County police, said many of those who file false claims "just think the police will take a report and that'll be the end of it. They don't seem to realize that we're going to investigate, and, heaven forbid, some innocent person might end up in jail because they lied."

According to the FBI, one of every 12 claims of rape filed in the United States is later deemed "unfounded," meaning the case was closed because the alleged victim recanted or because investigators found no evidence of a crime. The percentage of unfounded rape claims in the Washington area and in other major metropolitan areas varies widely from the FBI's national rate of 8 percent.

Some specialists believe many police departments, including Howard County's, dismiss too many claims as false or unfounded. "It doesn't compute to me," said Sheila Begg, a counselor at Howard County's sexual assault center. "Why would a woman go through interviews with police and the horrendous experience of taking a {physical} exam? Reporting a rape is not an easy thing to do."

In Howard County, one of the few Washington area jurisdictions to make its investgative files readily accessible to the public, police records suggest a variety of possible reasons for unfounded claims. Some women said they wanted to exact revenge on former boyfriends, while others told police they were trying to hide sexual relationships from their parents or husbands, according to records.

In one case, a mildly autistic 19-year-old told police she was attacked on an outdoor basketball court, saying a man with a six-inch steak knife grabbed her from behind, threw her down and raped her, according to a police report.

She provided a detailed description of the man, including his "lavender or pink shirt," curly hair and blue jeans.

But gradually her account unraveled. Investigators found no physical evidence of a sexual assault. And inconsistencies emerged in the teenager's story. Sixteen days after reporting the attack, the woman told police she had made up the story. According to the police report, she said she had feared she was pregnant as a result of her first sexual encounter. Police declined to charge the woman because of her mental impairment.

Investigators said the case was like many others, involving a young woman who apparently did not fully understand the ramifications of her allegation. Most of Howard's unfounded cases in 1990 involved women and girls under age 24.

Several other cases involved interracial accusations, often against fictitious men.

In May 1990, for example, a 23-year-old black woman said a white man had abducted her from a supermarket parking lot in Silver Spring, raped her at gunpoint and told her, "You black girls think you're pretty. . . . Tell all of your black girlfriends that they're not pretty."

Yet she later told police she had come home during the wee hours and needed an excuse for her angry parents. She said she slashed her thigh with a razor blade and a bottle cap "to make the rape more believable," the police report said.

In another case, a white teenager described in some detail how she exchanged racial epithets with nonexistent black attackers.

Social scientists and police say women who make such accusations expect society's racism to work in their favor.

"A lot of people still think that if you have sex with someone of another race, that's degrading," said Bob Jaschik, head of the Anne Arundel sex crimes unit. "That's why some of the alleged victims think it's more of an attention-getter. People will be more sorry for you."

Almost half of Howard County's 23 unfounded cases in 1990 involved allegations of date rape or acquaintance rape.

In one of them, a 19-year-old Laurel woman accused her ex-boyfriend of climbing through her bedroom window and raping her. After mutual friends told police that she still regularly saw the young man behind her parents' backs and after she missed three appointments for a polygraph examination, police labeled the case unfounded.

The woman, now 21, said in an interview that investigators "handled it pretty good" but maintains she was raped. She said she didn't pursue the charges because the suspect, who was arrested and held overnight, was the father of her infant.

"I didn't want him to go to jail," she said. "I wanted him to be able to see his son."

Lt. Dan Davis responded that the investigation "failed to produce any credible evidence that a crime was committed."

In 1985, Kathryn Hargis Tucci, a Laurel woman who was 19 at the time, filed a sexual assault complaint against a former boyfriend, who served 13 months in jail for the offense. Later, Tucci recanted, and was tried for filing a false report. An Anne Arundel County judge sentenced her to community service in a rape crisis center.

Tucci said in an interview with a Washington Post reporter that several traumatic incidents preceded her false report. "I've buried those bones a long time ago," she said. "I had several deaths in my family that year." She declined to elaborate further.

In 1990, six Howard women were arrested on charges of filing false rape reports, and one was prosecuted, a 29-year-old who said a newspaper delivery man had raped her at gunpoint. Later the woman said she had lied because she needed an excuse for having been late to work, according to police.

A year earlier, the same woman had been charged with filing a false rape report in Anne Arundel County; in the Howard case, a judge ordered her to get psychiatric help.

"Our philosophy is that a woman who would file a false rape report needs counseling, not jail time," Davis said. "And some women simply refuse to get that help on their own."

Police departments in seven Washington area jurisdictions use a standard identical to the FBI when dismissing rape claims as unfounded. In the last two years, women in those jurisdictions filed 1,842 rape reports, and police concluded that 439 were unfounded. Fairfax County uses a slightly different standard and neither the District nor Arlington County keeps data on unfounded rape claims.

In the Maryland counties of Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's, as well as the Virginia counties of Loudoun and Prince William, police said the percentage of unfounded rape reports was comparable to unfounded claims about crimes such as burglary, auto theft and robbery.

However, in two relatively small jurisdictions, Howard County and the City of Alexandria, police said the percentage of unfounded rape claims was significantly higher than other types of unfounded reports.

In Howard, police said 11 of 35 rape reports in 1991 were unfounded, compared with 25 false claims in a total 2,053 reported burglaries, robberies and auto thefts. Alexandria police said 10 of 53 reported rapes in 1991 were unfounded, compared with 147 false claims in a total 2,948 reported burglaries, robberies and auto thefts.

Officials from departments whose rates of unfounded reports are significantly higher than the national average say they can only speculate on why they see so many false claims.

In Prince George's, for example, police said 248 of 826 allegations of rape in 1990-91 were unfounded. Maj. James Ross, the former head of the department's criminal investigations division, said he thinks Prince George's percentage of false reports is due at least in part to frequent cases of sex-for-drugs transactions gone sour.

"Sometimes a woman will have sex with the guy, and then he doesn't give her the drugs," Ross said. "Then she'll call us and say she's been raped."