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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The unfolding legal saga in New York has all the hallmarks of a sensational "Law and Order" episode. A top international financier, considered the front runner to become the next president of France, is arrested by New York police at JFK Airport as he's about to depart. He's charged with sexually assaulting a maid at the hotel where he was staying. A judge in New York has denied bail to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, on grounds that he is a flight risk. As of today, Strauss-Kahn is locked in a solitary cell at Rikers Island. His presidential ambitions in ruins. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has been looking into the case.

Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG: Good morning, Renee.

It is quite an amazing story. A tale that defies cyclical expectations about the power of the privileged.

MONTAGNE: So let's start from the top. What is alleged to have happened exactly?

TOTENBERG: Well, as spelled out in court by police sources and in news reports, the maid entered the suite thinking that it was empty. She walked into the suite, called out to make sure that nobody was there. And when she didn't get an answer, she went to the bedroom area to begin cleaning.

At that point Strauss-Kahn walked out of the bathroom naked. The maid apologized, turned to leave, but she made it only as far as the foyer. Strauss-Kahn allegedly ran up behind her, closed the door, locked it and dragged her into the bedroom, where he forced her to engage in sexual acts.

The maid told the police that she broke free, ran out of the bedroom, but was caught again and dragged this time into the bathroom, where Strauss-Kahn once again forced to engage in sexual acts. The maid eventually managed to escape, reported the attack to her supervisor and the hotel quickly called the police.

MONTAGNE: Although, Nina, given the very high profile of this guest, you could imagine another scenario where a hotel management would hesitate, wringing its hands a bit about what this would mean.

TOTENBERG: Well, according to police sources that I spoke to, there just was never any doubt. When the police got there, the whole staff knew. This woman had a good employment record. She's a 32-year-old West African immigrant, a Muslim who wears a headscarf, a single mother. My sources said that just heard demeanor the people at the hotel could tell that she had, quote, "been victimized and badly victimized."

MONTAGNE: Okay, so when the police get there, they too believe her.

TOTENBERG: Detectives from Midtown South, probably along with uniformed cops, showed up and interviewed this woman. Deputy New York police Commissioner Paul Browne told me that police often get flack for interviewing rape victims too aggressively. But they do it, Renee, for a reason - to make sure the story hangs together, that there are no inconsistencies. And they were convinced, too.

Then amazingly, while the cops were there, Strauss-Kahn calls the hotel mistakenly believing that he had left his cell phone behind. The police coached the hotel personnel to tell him that they had the cell phone. Where was he, they'd get to him they said. Well, he told them he was at JFK about to leave on a plane, whereupon the cops called the Port Authority police, told them they were on their way and to hold the plane if necessary.

They, in fact, got there 10 minutes before the plane was due to leave. According to police sources, the Port Authority cops boarded, Strauss-Kahn to come with them, that they had his cell phone. And when he did, when he went got off the plane, they clapped the handcuffs on and took him away to the Special Victims Unit.

MONTAGNE: So, Nina, this is the famous SVU we know about from the TV show "Law and Order." And when did they exactly get into the act here?

TOTENBERG: Well, according to police sources, the detectives from Manhattan South called them in. And while the first group of detectives were pursuing the alleged attackers, SVU detectives were dealing with the victim; taking her to one of the designated New York hospitals where there are special rape teams that do DNA, to take photos. And there are counselors to help the victims, materials to make sure that the evidence chain of custody is not broken.

Well, you get the idea. They're specially trained.

MONTAGNE: So what about the New York Police Department chain of command? What kind of authorization did the police have to get up the line?

TOTENBERG: Well, based on my conversations, I think the cops on the ground in that short space of a few hours didn't know just how important Strauss-Kahn was. And he was just sort of viewed as a very rich, fleeing suspect.

Oh, Renee, and one lovely nugget I got from just one source - let me be clear. I was told that French officials get to stay in this $3,000 night suite for a discounted $800.

MONTAGNE: Strauss-Kahn, he's pleaded not guilty.

TOTENBERG: Yes. And at his arraigned hearing, his lawyers made clear they will contend the sex here was consensual. Indeed, just as few weeks ago, Strauss-Kahn, known in France as something of a womanizer, predicted in an interview with a French newspaper that he might fall victim to an invented scandal. And I'm quoting here, "a woman raped in a carpark and who's been promised 500 or million euros to invent such a story." That's what he said then.

MONTAGNE: Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

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