When Bondage Becomes Kidnapping

It's May 10, 2000, shortly after 2 p.m., and Eric Molnar's video camera is rolling tape: Time to make a movie.

Opening scene -- the basement of Molnar's house. In the background -- cinder block walls and what looks like a liquor cabinet. In the center of the frame, a young woman, brunette, wearing cutoff jeans. Otherwise, she's naked.

She's tied tightly to a metal folding chair with ropes, wire and telephone cord. The woman is crying and shivering -- either from cold or fear, it's hard to tell.

The woman is gagged with a red bandanna. She tries to speak. On the videotape you can kind of make out what she's saying.

"Ow, it hurts," she says to the man staring down at her. He cracks his knuckles in front of her face and then quickly fakes a jab, a right. His fist moves fast toward her face but stops short of striking her. She flinches.

He walks away, scratching the top of his head. Her eyes follow his every move.

"Why are you doing this to me?" she asks. Without answering, he walks out of the shot and can be heard walking up some stairs. Again, the woman tries to talk.

"Eric? Where are you going?"

"I love you," he responds, still shuffling up the staircase.

"Come back. I wanna be with you. I do. I can't feel my hand. It hurts. Eric? It's numb. Eric? Don't leave me here, please. Come back. Let's work it out."

No response. The woman sits in the chair, sobbing. She briefly eyes the video camera, then somehow loosens the gag. She forces it from her mouth with her tongue. For the next three minutes, silence. The woman sits and waits.

What was going on in the basement of Sheila and Eric Molnar's home was either an intimate expression of the couple's sexual life or a radical departure into a horrifying new territory by Mr. Molnar -- a violent criminal abduction, depending upon who you talk to. Late last year, an eight-member jury was asked to decide which was true: Were these two consenting adults, enjoying a little sadomasochistic play as they'd been doing for years? Or was this a clear-cut case of kidnapping and sexual assault?

The trial lasted a little less than a month, and the jury deliberated for little more than half an hour. In the end, they found that what Eric Molnar had done to his estranged wife was criminal.

Molnar, a nurse's aide and martial arts enthusiast, now sits, a convicted felon, behind bars. He does 1,000 push-ups a day as he awaits his sentencing later this month on several counts of kidnapping, burglary, sexual assault, unlawful restraint, and criminal attempt to commit assault, all of them felony charges carrying stiff penalties.

The Molnar case might have been a more clear-cut criminal case if the activities captured on videotape May 10 had not been very similar to other sexual encounters between the couple that had also been videotaped during their relationship. At the trial, Mr. Molnar's attorney presented videotape evidence of other sexual acts between the couple that included bondage, restraint and force. Those sexual encounters had been consensual. The one on May 10, 2000 -- the prosecution argued -- had not.

Just where the line was drawn, and whether there ever was a line that was mutually determined between the couple as to what was acceptable and what wasn't, was at the heart of the trial.

The Molnar case raises several questions about the law and the role it plays, if any, in the most personal area of our private lives -- the intimacy we share in the bedroom.

Do we need the law to follow us into the bedroom, and if so, just how far down the corridor do we expect it to follow us? And is the law even equipped to look at these kinds of deeply intimate issues with an unbiased eye? Who decides what sexual behaviors are illegal or when the line has been crossed too far?

The range of sexual activities that falls under the acronym BDSM -- bondage, domination and sado-masochism -- is limitlessly broad, and the style and accouterments of BDSM have increasingly entered into mainstream culture in recent years, so that S&M -- once taboo -- is now the object of sitcom jokes and fetish fashion.

"BDSM activities quite often involve things like bondage and pain -- striking with implements, whipping, caning, all of that kind of stuff," says Dr. Gloria Brame, a clinical sexologist, author of the groundbreaking book on BDSM, A Different Kind of Loving, a professor, and an S&M advocate. "And those kinds of behaviors can and sometimes are prosecuted as assaults. The laws are not so finely tuned as to distinguish between pain that somebody enjoys and pain that just looks scary."

The "S" in the S&M, refers to achieving sexual pleasure and gratification by inflicting pain on a sexual partner. The word sadism is derived from the Marquis de Sade, an 18th century French novelist who often wrote about sexual punishment. Sade engaged in sexual sadism himself -- in fact, he was eventually committed to an insane asylum for inflicting cruelty on his sexual partners.

A typical sadistic fantasy might involve having complete control over one's partner, who is terrified by anticipation of the impending act. It is the suffering of the victim, or the assumed, feigned suffering of the victim, that is sexually arousing.

Bondage ranges from physically holding someone down to completely immobilizing the person. The "top" or dominant partner might partially or fully restrain a partner by using leashes, ropes or chains.

Molnar, 31, says he and his wife practiced consensual bondage throughout the marriage, and even a few times before exchanging vows.

"I confronted my ex-wife before our engagement," Molnar told this reporter recently from a prison pay phone. "We were having sex one morning upstairs in her parents' house. The windows were open and she was being really loud," so Molnar took a bandanna and slipped it into her mouth. "It just kind of took off from there," Molnar claims. "She was totally into it."

Even now, Molnar claims he's the real victim in this case, that he was framed by the one woman he thought he'd spend forever with -- a woman who is a paralegal and knows how the legal system works, he says.

Molnar filed for divorce from his wife in April of that year -- about a month before the incidents of May 10. Both Sheila Molnar and her attorney declined to talk to the Advocate about the case.

Molnar and his parents, Frank and Michele Molnar, believe that 28-year-old Sheila Molnar -- who has since exchanged her married name for her maiden one -- might have wanted to punish Eric Molnar because he filed for divorce.

While this case, in its details, is unique, the issues raised aren't all that uncommon in the underground world of S&M, say some advocates and devotees.

There have been cases where what at first appeared to be a consensual sexual encounter turned out badly. Typically, however, such cases do not go to trial.

Sex writer Brame says it's not unusual for two people to engage in consensual S&M sex, but then, looking back, decide that what they'd consented to wasn't exactly what went down.

"You could have two partners; both of them consent, both of them go home, one ties the other one up, keeps him or her tied up overnight, and beats them and whatever, and they've agreed to it," says Brame. "The person who was tied up may go home the next day, and have a change of heart, and say, 'Well, I feel really guilty,' or 'I'm really ashamed, I can't tell anyone. They forced me to do it. I didn't really want to do it. They kidnapped me. They made me experience all that pleasure,' which of course, in retrospect, may not seem like pleasure anymore because they're so ashamed. And they go to the cops, and they bust the guy."

That's what happened to former chess prodigy and Columbia doctoral student Oliver Jovanovic in 1998.

Jovanovic, now 35, was convicted in New York of kidnapping and sexually abusing a 22-year-old Barnard College student he'd met in an America Online chat room. His is perhaps one of the most famous criminal trails involving S&M to date.

Jovanovic and the student went on a date after meeting online in 1996, according to news reports. At his apartment, by her own account, the young woman let herself be stripped and tied up. She claimed that Jovanovic then kept her bound against her will for 20 hours and sexually tortured her.

The defense argued that what happened was consensual -- the same defense offered in the Molnar case. That argument was crippled during Jovanovic's initial trial, however, when e-mails between the accuser and the defendant -- ones that reportedly made references to hard-core S&M -- were excluded as evidence. Under New York's rape shield law, the use of the accuser's sexual past is restricted in a defense.

The New York Supreme Court ultimately dismissed all charges against Jovanovic, granting him a second trial when it found the original trial judge -- Acting Justice William Wetzel -- had repeatedly misapplied the rape shield. The second time around Jovanovic was found not guilty and was released this fall after five years in prison.

"He had a most likely consenting relationship with a woman who represented herself as an experienced BDSMer," says Brame, who followed the Jovanovic case closely. "He was probably a clueless idiot who took her too far or something. Whatever he did, he pissed her off. And then she went to the cops and said, 'None of it was by my consent.' You know, it's a he said-she said."

Could that have happened May 10, 2000? Did Molnar push the sexual envelope, dragging what had been an accepted practice between the couple over that jagged line into the realm of the forbidden? Only two people know for sure.

"It's a blurry line, even for BDSMers," says Brame. "It's very hard to know, because sometimes people do take it too far, especially if he was angry with her and did want to hurt her. It's hard to know."

Advocates claim they're always hearing anecdotal recountings of criminal cases where S&M was a focal point, but that there's little documentation or court records of such proceedings, primarily because they never actually make it to open court.

"Most of these cases don't make it to the appellate level," says A. Spencer Bergstedt, a Seattle-based attorney and former president of the National Leather Association, an international organization for S&M players, fetish and leather enthusiasts and others with alternative sexual lifestyles. "Most cases don't even make it to anybody finding out about it because people are embarrassed and they've ended up pleading out the case to a lesser charge."

In many ways, Brame says our laws are written in such a way that effectively makes these types of alternative sexual activities illegal.

"Our laws have not changed as fast as our social mores have," she says, "and neither have they changed in response to academic and scholarly understandings of sexuality."

There are some states that carry domestic violence statutes on the books, laws designed to protect victims of domestic violence, that can be problematic for S&Mers.

"[These laws] are written in such a way that the victim doesn't have to complain that there's been domestic violence," says Bergstedt. "Nor do they have to support the prosecutor in prosecuting the case. [The laws] come from a good place, which is that victims of domestic violence are often reluctant to confront their abusers. While they come from a good place, they are also being used against people who are engaging in consensual behavior.

"If the cops show up at your door and if they then see somebody who looks like they have bruises," Bergstedt continues, "whether or not those bruises were the result of consensual behavior, they are going to arrest somebody."

The Molnar case was unique in that it was so sexually charged, says defense attorney John R. Williams, a well-known civil rights attorney and Mr. Molnar's lawyer.

Williams introduced about six hours of explicit amateur videotape of the Molnars as evidence in the trial. The tapes featured a variety of sex acts between the couple and included incidents where Mrs. Molnar was tied up or handcuffed. Williams introduced the tapes to show the jury that bondage was a regular part of their marriage.

Why Molnar recorded the May 10 incident on video is unclear. As it turned out, that videotape played a key role in Molnar's prosecution by state's attorney Paul Rotiroti.

In the end, the jury didn't buy Williams' argument that the incident was part of their usual sexual play. Doctors testified that she sustained a number of injuries during the incident, including bruises, subconjunctival hemorrhaging of the eyes (Sheila Molnar claimed her husband choked her into unconsciousness several times that evening) and lacerations to her legs and buttocks she says she suffered when Molnar pushed her into a glass door as she tried to escape.

According to police reports, Eric Molnar began May 10 tending the grounds surrounding his and his wife's Mulberry Street, Plantsville, abode. On the market for a couple of months, the Molnars were selling the house as part of their divorce.

A few hours later, the grass cut, the clippings raked away, Eric Molnar was drunk. Molnar hung around the house, waiting for his wife, at her behest, according to what he told this reporter.

An hour later, the camera was rolling, and Sheila Molnar was tied up in the basement.

The video runs more than two hours. At certain points, husband and wife can be seen kissing and are heard discussing their marital woes. At times an intoxicated Molnar tells his captive wife he'd been "planning this for months," that he would "die for her," and "kill for," her, and asks her, "You think you're going to trust me after this?"

At one point on the video Sheila tells Molnar she's afraid he's going to kill her, to which he replies, "If I wanted to kill you, I'd have killed you already. I'd be a coward if I killed you."

At one point Sheila Molnar is left alone, tied to the chair. During this period of time, it appears Molnar leaves the house to move his wife's car. Prosecutor Rotiroti claimed Molnar moved the car so that no one would know his wife was home.

Molnar eventually returns and appears again before the camera. The couple talks about several things, including their marriage, their separation and their sexual relationship right up until the end of the tape. Before it ends, Molnar appears to be passing out from alcohol.

In court, Sheila Molnar claimed that most of what happened to her that evening occurred after the tape ran out. It was at that point that she asked Molnar to free her so she could use the bathroom.

With only her wrists tied behind her, she hopped off of the toilet and darted toward the bathroom door. Halfway through the living room, she says, Molnar tackled her and pulled her onto the couch. She kicked him and dashed toward the kitchen. As she was trying to open the storm door, Molnar came up behind her and started choking her. She passed out and later awoke in bed, naked.

Eventually she managed to slip her hands -- still tied behind her -- in front of her by pulling them forward and under her legs. She grabbed the phone, dialed 911, called out for help and was abruptly cut off by Eric Molnar, who'd pulled the telephone cord from the wall jack. The phone call was long enough, however, for police to trace, and police were dispatched to the Molnar residence.

Police arrived to find a broken glass door and what appeared to be "fresh blood." They entered the home, followed screams to the bedroom, and kicked open the door to find Molnar on top of his wife on the bed. Guns drawn, the officers ordered Molnar to the ground and handcuffed him. Knowing he was a decorated martial arts enthusiast, they taped his legs together and led him from the home.

Rotiroti's approach to trying the case was simple: Play the 911 tape, play video of the May 10 incident, call officers involved in the case to the stand to describe what they'd seen, show pictures of Sheila Molnar's injuries, try to fend off attacks to her credibility during cross examination, and let the jury decide that this wasn't sex, it was violent criminal behavior.

Williams took a different approach.

He tried to paint a picture of what the norm was in the Molnars' sexual relationship while scrutinizing Sheila Molnar's credibility -- this wasn't victimization; this was two people doing what they'd always done.

During her testimony Sheila Molnar told the court she did not enjoy bondage and that it was her husband who tried to fit bondage into the bedroom equation. She says she usually just rolled with her husband's kinks, she feared not doing so might dismantle the marriage.

She told the police shortly after the May 10 incident that she couldn't remember bondage being a constant in the couple's sexual life, but that there were a few occasions where one of them would tie the other up. In her statements to police and to the court, Sheila Molnar said she remembered finding a video camera concealed beneath dirty clothing after she and her husband had had sex, but that she wasn't aware such interactions had been documented. The tapes that were later shown in court were made without Sheila Molnar's knowledge or consent, she told police.

She also said in court that she has suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder since the May 10 incident and that this has hindered her ability to remember certain things, mostly from her four-year marriage, such as their S&M experiences and the fact that they'd videotaped themselves having sex.

Williams tried to demonstrate that Sheila Molnar did know she was being taped. He played for her several videos in which the Molnars were not only having bondage sex but in which she was making references to, and even posing for, the video camera. She maintained the denial.

As far as Eric Molnar is concerned, what happened on May 10 had gone on before. Perhaps he hadn't realized the rules had changed since he'd filed for divorce, or perhaps there had never been rules.

"I think that there are two clear victims in this case," says Williams, who plans to appeal the verdict. "I think Eric is a victim because he has been punished already, way beyond what the circumstances could possibly have called for. And secondly, I think that the judicial system is a victim, in a way. I think the system has been perverted here -- not for the first time, nor for the last -- because the sexual content of this case has gotten in the way of a rational approach to the real legal questions."

"For every person who claims they went along with it, that everything was just fine, but this time, it wasn't -- in my experience, it's one in a million where that's really the truth, and most times, it's revenge," opines Brame. "I don't know this woman. I can't cast any questions on her credibility. If she was hurt, I feel sorry for her. But all I know is that this is a big issue."

Brame says BDSMers can take precautions to protect themselves from falling afoul of the law, including written contracts that spell out in detail what is and what is not acceptable in their sex play.

"You need safe words, contracts, where you write out just how far somebody can go with you," she says. "All of these questions needed to be asked, but I'm willing to bet you any amount of money that no one involved in this case was aware of these issues. Except maybe, possibly, and maybe not even the actual couple. That's where you start to determine whether she really understood what she was doing and whether he really thought everything was going fine, or if she seemed to be giving distress signals that he ignored."

Williams says he feels both the judge's and jury's own biases prohibited them from having any understanding of what it was they were watching and that this may have influenced the proceedings to some degree.

"The jury is instructed they should not form any opinions until they've heard it all and all the rest of it, and I think that most people on juries sincerely try to do that," he says. "But, something as powerful and gut-wrenching as that ... When you first see it, you see it without the background of understanding of where these people are coming from. And by the time you've got that information, maybe it's too late to get over your initial impression."

Brame agrees. "To someone who has never seen it, it's scary shit," says Brame. "People don't have a context for that. The human heart is a curious thing, and human sexuality is infinite in its variations."

Chris Harris can be reached at charris@hartfordadvocate.com.

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