Three of the women Toby Eugene Griego raped and assaulted last year were assessed by nurses at Billings Clinic who are specially trained in examining sexual assault victims and collecting evidence, including some of the graphic, telltale photographs used at trial.
The nurses’ exams and evidence collection are credited in part for Griego’s recent conviction.
Griego, 42, was convicted Monday of all 27 charges against him, including 10 counts of rape, stemming from home-invasion attacks on four women last year.
The three nurses who evaluated Griego’s victims and testified at his trial are among eight on Billings Clinic’s specially trained sexual assault nurse examiners. They can be called any time of the day or night to examine and collect evidence from a sexual assault victim, all while providing compassionate care.
“What if we hadn’t had the SANE examinations done?” said Carrie Wright, a registered nurse and coordinator of the SANE program. “This is the first step for these women to heal, to feel better and to know they are going to be OK. They would be lost. I couldn’t imagine.”
It is the only program of its kind in Billings and one of only three in the state; the other two are in Kalispell and Missoula.
Billings Police Lt. Kevin Iffland said the program was priceless to the investigation into Griego’s serial rapes.
“I cannot expound enough on how valuable that program is to us to have medical staff involved in the collection and preservation of evidence,” Iffland said.
Better care, evidence
He said the examiners lend a layer of professionalism to traumatized victims.
Rich Mickelson, manager of the Billings Clinic Emergency and Trauma Center, said it is important to have one trained nurse who is dedicated to the patient.
“Many times, a victim feels they don’t want to pursue it; they think it’s the first time that their assailant has done this,” Mickelson said. “Statistics show that is not true. It’s rarely the first time for their assailant. One victim can help prevent someone else from becoming a victim in the future.”
With the SANE program, sexual assault victims are receiving better care, law enforcement is getting better evidence, and there is an improved conviction rate for sexual assault, Mickelson said.
Though the program’s nurse examiners were in the spotlight for the Griego trial, such a high-profile case is not typical of the patients they see. A typical patient is a female who was sexually assaulted by someone they know.
The program, which began in 2001, is in greater demand than ever. Between, 2008 and 2011, nurses performed on average of 85 exams each year. Last year, they assessed 120 victims, an increase of 46 percent.
“Even though I do this, I can’t believe it’s happening,” Wright said.
Each exam takes between two and four hours and is performed at no charge to the patient.
Efforts are underway to recruit more nurses to the program. Wright said the ideal would be a complement of 15 nurse examiners.
The spike in volume is due in part to a greater awareness of the program and understanding that there is help available, Wright said. The increase is also due to the community’s population growth and increased violence in the community.
Yellowstone County experienced a 34 percent increase in the number of felony criminal cases filed in District Court in 2013 over the two previous years. The number of charges for violent crimes increased across several categories, including sexual offenses, crimes against children and assaults involving a weapon, homicides and kidnappings.
Last year, 34 percent of the patients were children under age 18; 6 percent were males; 6 percent were alleged perpetrators; and the balance was females.
“I’m glad we’re seeing men report and come in,” Wright said. “It’s huge. Society has this stigma that it doesn’t happen unless you’re a certain age, gender, profile and race, and that’s so not true.”
Each assault victim is accompanied by a volunteer from the YWCA’s sexual assault services program. The volunteer is dispatched at the same time as the nurse examiner.
“We are present as the chief hand-holder,” said Erin Lambert, manager of the YWCA’s program. “We are there for emotional support. We do what the survivor needs us to do. It’s intense but it’s a labor of love.”
The victims are escorted into a SANE room in the Billings Clinic Emergency and Trauma Center. It provides a safe place for people to come that is private and appealing with subdued lighting, a private bathroom and shower.
In the absence of a SANE room, sexual assault victims would be among the emergency department’s general population.
Each of the nurses receives three to six months of specialized training, valued at $10,000 per nurse. They are trained in both pediatric and adult sexual assaults.
The annual cost for the program, which operates 24/7 year-round, is $142,705. It is a significant financial commitment, Wright said.
Since the inception of the SANE program at Billings Clinic, the Billings Clinic Foundation has raised $400,000 to help it thrive.
The Billings Clinic Volunteers gave $10,000 to help the program initially, and the Charles M. Bair Family Trust made an early investment of $45,000 that helped the program launch. The largest financial support came from former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who was instrumental in helping secure a $250,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Rehberg’s commitment to sustaining this critical community service made it possible for us to continue supporting victims of sexual assault with a goal of increasing conviction rates,” said Jim Duncan, president of Billings Clinic Foundation.
“Because this program relies on philanthropic donations, our Foundation is also working to grow an endowment that provides annual financial support to sustain SANE into the future.”