'I was in hell': After a stranger violently raped a home baker, she's dedicating her life to making sure no other woman feels that pain

A stranger used Justina Rucinski's home baking business to gain access to her house and assault her. Now, she's on a crusade to ensure that never happens again.

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Editor's note: This story includes descriptions of sexual violence that some may find disturbing. It may not be suitable for all ages. Reader discretion is advised. 

BURLINGTON, Ia. — A part of Justina Rucinski knew she was looking at her face in the mirror.

She understood intellectually that it was the same visage she’d studied for 28 years. She checked off the features as her gaze darted around the glass — the wide nose, the big eyes, the straight bangs, even the scars from a bad bout of childhood chickenpox were all there.

Yet, as she stood staring, she would have sworn that the person reflected back was not her. Like a color picture left in the sun to yellow and fade, all the vivaciousness her smile held three hours earlier was zapped. All the vigor she had for life was replaced by this “dirty,” “pathetic,” “worthless” person, she thought. And the pain; whoever this new person was, she was in so much pain. 

The man who had just finished raping her stood in the bathroom door, she said, the gun he held to her head about an hour earlier dangling from his hand. He’d ordered her to shower after he finished, and he followed her to the bathroom.

At that time, Rucinski didn’t know the man’s name. But just a few days later, police arrested and charged Steven Andrew Mauck, alleged to be a serial abuser of women who once hit a partner’s head with a hammer, according to court records. 

“You better scrub,” Rucinski remembers him sneering.

Sitting on a floral couch in a dark room, Rucinski pauses her recollections, squeezing her eyes shut as she tries to stop tears rolling down her face.

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A stranger used Justina Rucinski's home baking business to gain access to her house and assault her. Now, she's on a crusade to ensure that never happens again. Olivia Sun, Des Moines Register

Two weeks removed from the incident, her story of how a man manipulated her trusting nature, lied to gain access to her home through her custom cake business, and violently attacked her for hours was spilling out, but that didn’t mean it came easily. Sometimes Rucinski rushed, pushing words through staccato sobs; other times she lingered, recounting hard moments as her Margaret Keane blue eyes gazed blankly into space.

Forged in the #MeToo era, Rucinski eschews the shame and silence sexual assault survivors once felt in favor of adding her voice to the chorus of men and women demanding to be seen and heard. Through raw, moment-to-moment social media updates detailing the emotional roller coaster of trauma, she hopes to let her fellow survivors know that it is OK to not be OK and that healing takes time.

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But she’s also speaking out to bring awareness to Iowa regulations that say certain home bakers must sell only from their front doorstep or at farmers' markets, which Rucinski believes creates an unsafe environment and provides opportunities for predators. Experts in her industry believe Rucinski is the first person to ever have her home bakery business used so specifically and directly to commit violence, but the crime's rarity won't stop Rucinski from advocating to change laws so home bakers can deliver or meet customers in public places. 

Still in the early days of her recovery, Rucinski is unflinching in her desire to put the man charged with doing this to her in prison. Right now, that feels like the only way to stop the flashbacks that play in her mind like a never-ending trailer to the worst moment of her life.

After a childhood marked by poverty and bullying and an early adulthood of mindless retail jobs and a short period of homelessness, Rucinski finally reached an equilibrium this summer. She was making enough money doing what she loved — decorating custom cakes and cookies — that she was going to open a storefront. She had started submitting videos of her work to TV cooking competitions and was getting some bites.

And she was just starting to love herself, she said.

Now, she has pills for anxiety, for depression, for insomnia and for pain. She can’t be alone. She can’t sleep on her back because she said that’s how he raped her, and she can’t sleep on her stomach because she said that’s how she was lying when he pressed a gun’s barrel to her temple. She can’t drive because he made her take him to an ATM; even thinking about her car in the garage makes her heart pound.

She’s figuring out that her life now has three parts — before the rape, the rape, and after the rape — but what exactly “after the rape” will look like is still forming.  

“In five seconds you're that person,” Rucinski says, her voice catching. “If you want to know what hell is like, if there's a hell or whatever, I was in it. A demon knocked on my door, conned me, made me comfortable, and then I was in hell.”

Noon, Aug. 13

Rucinski’s phone buzzed at about noon with an email inquiry for her Sweetems Cakery & Cookies Co. business. A woman wanted 200 cookies for her daughter’s birthday, each decorated with colorful bunches of petals so they looked like an edible bouquet.     

They emailed back and forth. Rucinski asked for inspiration photos, ensuring she could do what the buyer wanted, and the buyer asked for images of her work.

The design was intricate and would take time, but the buyer needed them for a party within the week. That time crunch meant payment was due upfront, and the buyer said she would be there after work, according to emails the Register reviewed.

Being a single mom in America — Rucinski has a daughter, 6, and a son, 4 — who doesn’t have a familial safety net and doesn’t take state aid means that stressing about money is a reality. An order close to $1,000 was going to go far to help her make ends meet.

“I was just thinking, ‘This is amazing,’” she said. “I'm going to get this money. I'm going to go pay my rent. I'm going to be able to take care of some bills, and I'm going to go to get some groceries. And then I'll just kind of keep hustling as much as I can.”

The 7 p.m. appointment came and went with no woman showing up to drop off the money. 

While Rucinski waited, a friend came over. Rucinski had been having a hard time with her ex and, after she shared the emotional details, her face was marked with tears. As soon as the friend left, at about 9 p.m., Rucinski heard a knock at her door. 

She was in a vulnerable state, she said, perfect for a predator.

A 'rough' childhood

For the second oldest of seven kids, childhood was “rough,” Rucinski says.

The family lived off food stamps in a home with pest problems. Her dad is bipolar, prone to abusive mood swings that were normally directed at her mom when they were together. The cops were at her house constantly, she said.

Her escape then was the local park, where the “tomboyish” Rucinski would climb trees and playground equipment and swing as high as she could with a neighbor boy — doing anything to rise above the situation at home, literally and mentally.

School was a safe zone until the horrors of puberty reared their head in high school. Rucinski was picked on mercilessly for not having the flashy electronics or mall-storefront brands that defined childhoods of the late '90s. Her self-esteem was non-existent.

She got into a relationship with her children’s father, who has always been a great dad, she stresses, but “wasn’t very nice” to her in that never-thinking-before-speaking way, she said.

“It's hard when you're a woman and you've been through the things I've been through with my family and my dad and then my ex,” Rucinski said. “It seemed like men would just use me and throw me away like it was nothing.”

9 p.m., Aug. 13

The man at Rucinski's door said he was the buyer's husband, there to drop off the payment, and he wanted a receipt. Having a relative or friend pick up or drop off isn’t weird in the home baking world, said Rucinski, whose children weren’t home that evening.

The man was sweating a lot, so Rucinski offered him a paper towel and some water.

Her red eyes betrayed her emotional state and the man asked her what was wrong. They got to talking, and he said that he ran a food bank — the first of many lies he’d tell. If she ever needed money or a helping hand, she could call him, Rucinski remembers him saying.

“I straight up told this man like, ‘Oh my God, I feel like I met you for a reason,’” she said. “’I can't express how much this means to me, even that you're ordering from me, like, this is helping my family a lot.’”

He told her that he could see she was tense and that as a masseuse, he could help — another lie she'd discover later. He cracked her neck and it felt just like a chiropractor, Rucinski said.

It all felt so real, she says, so normal.

He asked to give her a deep tissue massage, so she lay on the floor and he cracked her back, turning her arms and torso just so.

It felt so real, she says, so normal.

The massage continued until, suddenly, she couldn’t speak. She could barely breathe. The man had put his hand over her mouth, and something cold and hard was pressed to her temple.

“He said as calm as can be, ‘I have a gun. If you scream or fight me, I will shoot you,’” Rucinski said.

The man tied her up with zip ties, arms behind her back, and told her that her mom, Kristi, and his wife “f-----” him over and “owe him money,” according to a criminal complaint that echoes the memories Rucinski shared with the Register.

He took the paper towel Rucinski gave him to wipe his brow and stuffed it in her mouth. He started touching her, saying that feeling her skin “relaxed him,” Rucinski remembered. 

“I knew, as soon as he was touching my leg, what was going to happen,” she said. “I didn't want to accept it, but I knew.”

Finding her ‘fire’

When climbing trees wasn’t an option, Rucinski found solace in cookie dough — kneading it, rolling it, watching it rise in the oven and delighting in her family’s response. All the happier moments in her life centered on baking with her mom, she said.

For her sister Charity’s 16th birthday, Rucinski got a wild hair to bake and decorate a two-tiered white almond cake like a bag from Victoria’s Secret, Charity’s favorite store.

She was never artistic. "I couldn't even draw a stick figure," she says, shrugging. She had no tools, and it took hours, but something clicked.

“I feel like I found what I was supposed to do,” she said. “It put a fire in me that I've never experienced.”

She’d daydream of designs, drawing images in her mind and sketching on dough. She made cakes for close friends, charging them cost. But friends told others, who told others, and people kept ordering.

After a series of retail jobs — none of which were flexible when she had childcare or family issues — she finally felt “accomplished.”

“Here I am doing these things that people really (respond) to and really, really seem to love,” she said.

She decided to formalize her business with a name and a logo and put herself out on social media. She nurtured that nascent company, taking care of it as if another child. 

And, after years of bullying, Rucinski was also working on herself, going to the gym and building up her self-esteem. There were daily annoyances, sure, but life was going well — finally

Then, on Aug. 13, when summer was taking its last gasp, an email popped into her inbox.

About 45 minutes later, Aug. 13

Rucinski coaxed the man to take the zip ties off, and he did, but he led her to the bedroom.

“’I wasn't going to do this, but you’re just too good-looking,’” she remembers him saying. “’You have a nice a--, how much do you squat? What, like 300?’"

He laid her down on her back on the bed. He took out his penis and touched himself. He forced himself inside her, again and again, each time like a stab. Sweat still poured from his brow.

“I tried to block what was happening,” Rucinski said. “I stared at the ceiling and I thought about my babies when that man was touching me and on top of me, hurting me over and over and over. I just didn’t know what to do. I knew I couldn’t scream. I knew I couldn’t do anything because he could kill me.”

He pulled out and finished on her stomach.

As he watched her shower and dress, he told her he wasn’t “usually like this,” she said, and that “having sex” with her wasn’t part of his plan. But he said he thought he’d “have one last ride” before he killed himself later that night. 

He needed one more thing from her, he said. He then forced her to drive him to an ATM and take out $40. She drove to a bank that had a camera, an image referenced in a criminal complaint.

“I was just preparing to die, and I kept thinking, ‘What a sick world this is,’” she said. “'I'm going to die through my business that I've loved so much. I'm still very young. I have kids that are young.' I have just so many things that are going through my head and, just, it was like a blur.”

He had her drive him to an area that police later said was near the accused's home.

He got out and she locked the car, grabbed the wheel and tore away as fast as she could toward her friend April’s house. She was hysterical, repeating over and over that a man, “Put a gun to my head. Tied me up. Raped me.”

Her friend called police, and then they went to a hospital where evidence was collected from Rucinski's body for a rape kit. She was treated with a Plan B pill to prevent pregnancy and a shot to guard against STDs.

She could see marks on her arms where the zip ties had been, so she hid them in the blanket as she was poked and prodded.  She had to tell the story at least three times to police, she said, including reenacting how he tied her up.

Rucinski turned to her mother and asked if she knew a friend with a husband matching the features of the man who had just raped her. Who could that have been?

Yes, her mom said, his name is Steven Mauck.

Not the first time

Rucinski wasn’t the first person to accuse Mauck. 

Mauck, now 38, lived in Indiana most of his life, save for a short detour to Florida, public records show. He’s lived at an address in Burlington officially since 2018, but his interactions with Iowa law enforcement go further back, documented in police and court records:

In June 2017, Mauck and a woman he was seeing had a scuffle over his phone. When she threw the phone across the laundry room, Mauck grabbed her neck and strangled her until she passed out, court documents show.

When she woke up face down on the floor, Mauck snatched up the drowsy woman and took her to her son’s room where, after their argument got heated again, he choked her until she passed out for a second time.

When she woke up on the bed, he took her wrist and led her to their master bedroom. There, he tied her hands behind her back and sexually assaulted her, documents say.  

“After the sex assault, Steve forced (the woman) to take a bath and watched her and told her he did not want any evidence present if she would go the police,” according to a criminal complaint.

Seething with anger, Mauck found a hammer, followed her around the house and hit her on the back of the head, documents say. She said she “feared for her life” as he paced the house before driving off in her car.

After a few days on the run, a warrant was issued and Mauck was charged with one count of sexual abuse in the third degree, two counts of felony domestic abuse and one of aggravated domestic abuse.

As the case made its way through the court system, the woman allowed Mauck to move back in.

And, after a few meetings with the prosecutors to formulate plea offers, the woman “expressed reservations about a potential prison sentence” in early September 2017.

By late September, with a trial looming, the state tried to subpoena the woman to testify, but she had quit her job and moved out of her home. In a final phone call with prosecutors, she said she wasn’t willing to testify or attend the trial.

“When asked what outcome she wanted out of this case, she answered that she wanted the Defendant home with her so that she could work on their relationship,” a prosecutor wrote in his motion to dismiss the case.

“These were serious crimes, and in the state’s eyes the complaining witness deserves justice,” the prosecutor continued. “But the state’s hands have been tied.”

On Oct. 2, 2017, the charges were dropped, and Mauck was released.

Less than two years later, in March, the same woman filed a restraining order after Mauck shoved her son’s head into a wall and threatened to “burn down the house” if she did not give him the “IRS check,” according to a petition for relief from domestic abuse. Later that month, the woman called police to say Mauck was acting erratically. He was taken to a hospital where he tested positive for an amphetamine.

No charges were filed and the woman canceled the protective order in April, saying Mauck was in “counseling for PTSD.”

But in July, the woman took out another protective order, this one sealed.

The Register reached out to the woman and did not hear back. The Register does not generally name victims of sexual assault without their permission. 

Assistant State Public Defender James H. Carter, who is representing Mauck in the Rucinski case, had no comment. 

Changing where bakers deliver

After leaving the hospital in the wee hours of the morning on Aug. 14, all Rucinski could think about were the orders she had due in September, one of the biggest wedding months of the year.

But Rucinski couldn’t work. She could barely move without pains shooting down her legs. She put a post on her Facebook business page that she had a family emergency, but well-meaning customers kept asking for more details.

Just post what happened, she told her sister, Charity. Post the real story.

“Last night,” her sister typed, “Justina was violently raped.”

The post was shared more than 2,000 times, with people from all over the world reaching out to offer a kind word or donating a few bucks to sustain her while she was out of work. The online custom cookie community responded, too, holding fundraisers and baking in her honor.

As she recovers, Rucinski has been thinking a lot about the women who do the same thing she does. Part of what made her vulnerable, she says, was her lack of sensitivity to having a stranger in her house. She viewed giving out her address as part of the gig, and, if the comments and messages she’s received are any metric, many other bakers do the same.

While requirements to put your home address on labels or to sell from your front door has been a topic of discussion within the home baking world for a while, cottage food industry experts say they haven’t heard of anything negative happening because of interacting with customers at home. And, until now, they’ve certainly never heard of anything like the violence Rucinski experienced. 

In Iowa, unlicensed home bakers, which Rucinski is, can sell only at farmers' markets and out of their homes. Legally speaking, they aren’t allowed to deliver or meet at a public place to exchange goods for cash. (There is a category of licensed bakers who can sell from many other locations after they submit to a health inspection.)

The idea behind the rule is that selling from the home allows the consumer to conduct a “self-inspection” of the kitchen when they pick up, said Mark Speltz, an inspector with the Department of Inspections and Appeals.

The farmers' market, with its own vendor rules and regulations, is seen as an extension of the home, he said.

With the premise of home baking being that your business is out of your home, the address has historically been a relevant piece of information for tracking down possible illnesses or issues, said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.

But Leib said the policy rationale behind blocking bakers from conducting business in public places isn't so clear.

“We've said there's two places you could sell, and one of them is not your home,” she said. “So it seems a strange thing to not be able to (allow) other places you can sell that are not your home.”

The dark room

Rucinski thinks of the state she is in now sort of like sitting in the middle of a very dark room. On one wall there’s a door and just a bit of light peeks through the jamb.

Some days — like when she signed the lease to a house that has room for her kids and her business — the glare shines with enough power she feels like it might burst the door wide open.

But other days — like the ones after dreams of nice people suddenly pulling a gun on her or siccing their dogs after her kept her awake all night — it's dim, the orange hue of a light bulb just about to die.   

“I almost feel like what I was going through (then) was better than what I am now,” she said. “I know that sounds messed up, but I was in the moment then, that was happening then. Now, I have to keep reliving this. I lay down and everything that happened rolls in my head like a tape recorder.”

A few weeks after the event, she got a tattoo of her business logo — the penguin at its center wearing a teal Band-Aid to represent the start of her healing after the rape. The pain of the needle was oddly comforting, she said, because it was a pain she chose, not the pain that was inflicted upon her.  

She recently told her daughter about what happened, describing that a “bad man hurt her” in the way a 6-year-old could understand. “Where did he hurt you?” her daughter asked.

“Everywhere, baby,” she said. Then they held each other and cried.  

About three weeks after the attack, Rucinski decided to take on a cookie order for a “Toy Story”-themed party.

Because Rucinski’s first cookie order ever was “Toy Story,” she thinks using pipettes to get Buzz Lightyear’s reflective suit just perfect or paint brushes to make the Slinky Dog’s spiral stomach pop might be her chance to feel joy again.

When she thinks about sitting at a table and working, she can picture herself getting lost in the dough. For a second in that mental image, she's not dirty or pathetic or worthless, and all her pain is rendered dull.

In that picture, she's just herself and she's smiling with that big vivacious grin she used to flash — one she hopes to see in the mirror again someday.

Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. Reach her at ccrowder@dmreg.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

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Get help

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, help is available by calling the Iowa Victim Service Hotline at 800-770-1650, texting IOWAHELP to 20121 or visiting iowacasa.org/resources

How can I help a survivor?

Every survivor reacts to sexual violence in a different way. Some survivors might talk openly about what happened to them. Others might not want to talk about it at all, keeping their emotions inside. Some survivors want to wait weeks, months, or even years before discussing their sexual assault. Others might want to talk about it with someone right away.

It's important to respect each survivor's personal choices as they cope with sexual violence in their own way. Here are a few ways that you can help support a survivor if they disclose to you:

1.    Start by believing the survivor unconditionally. Nearly all survivors fear no one will believe them after they're assaulted.

2.    Remind the survivor that it wasn't their fault. No matter what decisions they might have made before or after the assault, it is not their fault that this happened to them.

3.    When a survivor shares their story with you, listen to them. Be patient and let them make their own decisions about what steps to take following the assault.

4.    Respect the survivor's personal boundaries. Survivors of sexual violence feel like they've lost control over their bodies. They may not want to be touched or physically consoled. 

5.    Provide information, not advice. Help the survivor get the help they want and need, but let them make their own decisions.

It's also important to remember that as you're supporting a survivor, you might also need support. Rape crisis centers offer support and resources not just for survivors, but also for family members and friends that have been affected by sexual violence. 

— Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault 

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