The woman who reported being sexually assaulted in broad daylight on Portland’s Back Cove walking trail recanted her story Friday, police said, and now is being investigated for filing a false report.

Police and advocates for sexual assault victims worry that the high-profile fabrication will make it more difficult for people who are victims to come forward and could reinforce the misconception that many sexual assault reports are false.

Police had stepped up patrols Thursday on Portland’s popular Back Cove Trail, one day after the 34-year-old woman reported that she was sexually assaulted in a brazen daylight attack.

The woman told police she was walking on the trail shortly after noon Wednesday when a man grabbed her near the Back Cove Trail’s half-mile marker, behind the soccer field adjacent to Interstate 295. She said he then forced her into an area of tall grass and raped her before fleeing.

The reported attack triggered anxiety in the community and police launched an aggressive investigation, interviewing numerous hikers and using police dogs to search for evidence. Police stopped short of releasing a sketch based on the woman’s description of her alleged attacker.

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said at a news conference Friday that many members of the community came forward to report being in the area at that time and had not seen the attack. When detectives asked the woman Friday morning to reconcile those reports with her initial story, she admitted making it up.

“She acknowledged no sexual assault and in fact no crime occurred in the Back Cove Trail area of the city of Portland,” Sauschuck said. “Her motivation behind the initial report is unknown at this time, and quite frankly may never be known.”

Police would not release the woman’s name, saying that while she is no longer considered a crime victim, she is now a suspect in the crime of filing a false report.

“That portion of our investigation is ongoing. We’ll have to do some additional research on that,” Sauschuck said. Her name would be made public if she is charged.

IMPACT ON COMMUNITY

The woman said her attacker ran away when some hikers on the trail asked if she was OK. She then said she drove herself to the hospital.

Police say the woman was treated at a local hospital and filed a report, which is voluntary. Police would not say who called police or what evidence was collected by medical workers. Hospitals sometimes complete sex-crime kits and submit them to police while keeping the victim’s identity anonymous.

Sauschuck said false reports have serious consequences for the community and for people who are victims.

“While (stranger rapes) are certainly traumatic to the victims, they are traumatic to the community as well,” Sauschuck said. “They’ve gone about 48 hours with this in the forefront of their mind: ‘Is this the kind of community we live in?’ And it’s not. And I think we know that day to day, but when incidents like that occur … people are concerned. People are scared.”

Sauschuck worries that the incident might lead some people to be more skeptical about reports of sexual assault and could dissuade victims from reporting such crimes, which already are widely underreported, according to state statistics and victims’ advocates.

“We want victims to come forward. We don’t want this to affect that process,” Sauschuck said.

HIGH-PROFILE CASES

The case is similar to a 2010 incident in Portland in which a 22-year-old woman lied about being attacked on the trail by five men about 9:30 p.m. In that case, police issued the accuser a court summons to face a charge of filing a false report, a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

The woman in the 2010 case said that the false report was related to a fight she had with her partner.

One of the most recent – and high-profile – cases of an alleged rape that was later discredited was the alleged gang-rape of a woman at a University of Virginia fraternity house, which was recounted in a December article in Rolling Stone. The case was used as an example of school administrators not treating sexual assault seriously.

After multiple questions were raised about the story’s veracity, police said they had no evidence that the incident ever happened. Rolling Stone retracted the article and the managing editor left the magazine, which is facing civil suits filed by the fraternity and university officials.

Destie Hohman Sprague, associate director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says such cases can reinforce myths – which advocates have struggled for years to overcome – that sexual assault reports are often false.

“We continue to have an environment where folks are disbelieved at every turn. When the only sexual assault to make the news this month is one that potentially isn’t true, your insides shrivel a little,” she said. That can make it harder for victims, who may already blame themselves for the attack or not realize they are victims of a crime, to come forward.

Sexual assault actually is one of the most underreported crimes, she said.

The 2013 Maine Criminal Victimization Survey found that one in five Mainers were victims of rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives.

In 2013, there were just over 350 rapes reported to police statewide.

DETAILS UNCLEAR

Sprague had no direct knowledge about the Back Cove case, but said the whole story may not yet be out.

“We still don’t know all the details of what occurred,” she said. “Law enforcement can choose not to charge a crime but they can never say definitively what occurred in that person’s experience.”

David Markel, a former Colorado lawman who trains officers in investigating sexual assault, said during an interview last month that the rate of false rape reports is low.

“False reports in rape cases are no higher or lower than in any other type of crime – 2 (percent) to 8 percent are deemed to be totally false,” he said. However, when a victim does withdraw an allegation, that can lead to increasing cynicism among officers and the public about whether to take future reports seriously.

Sauschuck said the timing of the attack – in the middle of the day in a busy section of the popular trail – raised officers’ concerns about the possibility that it wasn’t true, but they investigated it thoroughly and treated it as true.

The case also prompted support from throughout southern Maine, with one person not involved in the case offering to post a $5,000 reward to help police catch the person responsible.

Sauschuck could not quantify how many officers and other resources were dedicated to the investigation or the associated cost.