Few adult rape cases heard in Natrona County courtrooms

2013-09-08T08:30:00Z Few adult rape cases heard in Natrona County courtroomsBy MEGAN CASSIDY Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
September 08, 2013 8:30 am  • 

Sarah has run into the man twice since the day she says he raped her.

Months after she reported the crime, Sarah spotted him in the Big Lots parking lot. She later passed him while they were both driving down Second Street. He waved at her through his sunroof. She felt sick.

Sarah knows the man’s name, criminal history, type of vehicle and where he lives. So do Casper police and Natrona County prosecutors. But in December, three months after her alleged rape, the Natrona County District Attorney's Office told Sarah the man would not be charged.

Her situation is not unique. In Natrona County, fewer than one in 13 reported sexual assaults of an adult victim in the past five years have resulted in an arrest, and far fewer resulted in prosecution. Because of the way court records are maintained in Wyoming, no one is sure how many perpetrators are convicted.

Sarah is now a byproduct of these statistics. Unlike many victims, who police say fold under the weight of the investigation, Sarah wanted her day in court.

Sarah says local attorneys don’t want to prosecute perpetrators who rape adult victims. Prosecutors say juries won’t convict them.

***

Sarah is the single mother of a teenage son, has a master’s degree and a lucrative, rewarding career. (She is not actually named Sarah.) The Star-Tribune does not publish the names of victims of sexual assaults. Sarah contacted the newspaper, demanding to know why a man in Casper could rape a woman without accountability. She wanted the paper, or anyone, to do something.

This wasn’t supposed to happen to her. The mid-sized suburban house she and her son live in is funded solely by the fruits of her labor. Her walls are adorned with black-and-white photos of wild animals, and five cats and dogs roam in and out of the house. The cats’ jungle gym is the most prominent fixture in the living room.

Sarah’s life centers on her son, who became her therapist and guardian after the alleged attack. He tended to her on the nights she woke up screaming. He joined her creeping in the middle of the night, both armed with various household weapons, when she swore she heard someone in the house.

Their cozy home has since become littered with the trappings of paranoia. A loaded gun rests in plain view next to a floppy stuffed dog on Sarah’s dresser. Another is in her lingerie drawer. Crowbars, knives and baseball bats have been strategically placed in her bedroom. She knows someone has tried to break into her home at least five times since the alleged attack.

A doctor prescribed Sarah medications to deal with her depression and distressed sleep.

"Looking back I wonder if death may have been easier than to carry this filth, this pain, the smells, the images, the fear out of that attack and rape that came with me," she wrote to prosecutors.

***

The police investigation lasted two months.

“I think one of the hardest things is a victim will come forward, and feel that they have taken a great leap of faith,” Casper Police Sgt. Deahn Amend said. “It is a slow process. It is waning, physically and mentally, on a victim. I’m not giving you any good news here, but that seems to be where we start to lose people.”

Sarah stuck with the investigation, though, and the Casper Police Department referred her case to the district attorney’s office on Nov. 11. Already impatient, Sarah trained her efforts on prosecutors, calling “about 300 times.”

Her already petite frame withered to less than 100 pounds and she took to writing letters to the DA’s office when she couldn’t sleep. “Never be bullied into silence” and “Last contact with idiots” were among the names of the documents.

The letters were emotionally charged with bolded, caps-locked and underlined passages.

“It is now 2:30 am, now I will spend an hour asking myself ‘Why me?’ ‘Why anybody,’” she wrote in one. “The main feeling, being helpless re-occurs everyday CAUSE NOONE WILL HELP ME.”

***

Sarah’s most pressing concerns before the alleged rape were tiffs with her boyfriend. One year ago, Sarah cleared her head by meeting with her girlfriend and having a few drinks at an Evansville bar.

Sarah and her boyfriend decided earlier in the evening to spend some time apart and the argument was still on her mind — a fact Sarah credits as the catalyst for the bad decisions she made later that night.

She ran into a close friend of her boyfriend. The two men had been roommates and her boyfriend had a key to the man’s apartment. Sarah gave him her number.

The man told Sarah he had information on her boyfriend. If she came to his place, he’d tell her all about it.

Sarah climbed into his SUV after the bars closed and rode to his apartment, where he promised to disclose her boyfriend’s infidelities.

The two entered his tiny apartment and sat on the bed.

“It sounds bad, but there was nowhere else to sit,” she said.

After some conversation about her boyfriend, she said, the man’s eyes turned black.

He said he was sick of talking about her boyfriend. She said the man attacked her, ripping off her clothes and pinning her ankles to the bed, his grip squeezing her bones.

Sarah struggled in vain for a few minutes before devising a plan of escape. She told the man she had to use the bathroom and would pee all over him if he didn’t let her go. The man hesitated but let go, shadowing her short journey to the bathroom.

Sarah slammed the door in his face but was horrified when she looked down at the doorknob. There was no lock.

“What kind of a bathroom doesn’t have a lock on the door?” she said. It became obvious she didn’t have to pee.

Sarah said her failed escape attempt further enraged the man. He drug her back to the bed and asked if she needed to be reminded of what he did to the other women. He almost killed them, he said. He suggested she stop fighting.

She did. She thought about her son being told that his mother’s body had been found, if there even was a body found. Sarah didn’t know how long the rape lasted; she had shut herself off. She described an out-of-body experience, where her mind refused to process what was happening.

She was instead transported back to her son. She saw him as a child, in a stroller, saw his first smile and heard his first word. Then he was gone again and she was left back in the dark room.

“I lost the battle,” she wrote in a letter three months later to the Casper Police Department. “In every way.”

Sarah said the man cried after he finished. He told her he would go to prison for life because of previous convictions if she reported this. He begged her not to. Still scared for her life, Sarah said she assured him that she would keep the incident to herself.

The man dropped her off at her car in the parking lot where they originally met. Sarah called the police after he drove away, went to the hospital to get a rape kit and waited for his arrest.

***

Sarah amassed a small band of supporters in hopes of galvanizing some legal action. Local politicians, police officers, attorneys and crisis center advocates all promised to put in good words for her, she said.

Sarah’s friend secured a meeting with Casper City Manager John Patterson.

“I thought she was very credible,” Patterson said, noting that he made a call to Police Chief Chris Walsh on her behalf.

Patterson said the alleged attacker’s criminal record enhanced Sarah’s credibility.

A Natrona County background check catalogs 16 different criminal and civil cases that Sarah’s alleged attacker has been involved in since 2007, 11 of which he is a defendant. The cases range from accusations of a simple assault, violation of a protection order, unlawful contact and to driving under the influence. Sarah gave the man’s name to the Star-Tribune, but the paper will not to publish it since he has not been charged with a crime in Sarah’s case.

Sarah’s attorney, Tom Sutherland, dug deeper and located one instance of an “other” woman the man was likely referring to during the attack.

He was convicted of attempted murder more than 20 years ago, and his sentence expired in 2011.

“She also wanted to ensure that this would not happen to another woman by this perpetrator,” Patterson said. “I respected her passion … she was just as passionate about this as she was about her own justice. This helped me to advocate for her.”

***

Sarah’s case is typical in many ways, officials say. She was intoxicated. She knew her alleged attacker. The alleged attacker claimed the sex was consensual.

“We always come back to the same thing, (look for) the same evidence for each case,” Amend, of the Casper Police Department, said of sexual assault cases. “ … To be able to corroborate what the victim is telling us, to be able to take facts to the DA’s office so we can push through and get charges accordingly.”

Amend said the biggest hurdle in undertaking adult sexual assault cases lies in the victim: How are they processing the situation? Are they strong enough to come forward? Are they at a point in their lives where they feel like they can even talk about the crime?

The cases can die at any point along the course of the investigation and prosecution, Amend said.

The Casper Police Department received 573 reports of sexual offenses committed by an adult on an adult between 2008 and 2012, an average of about 114 per year, according to a report prepared for the Star-Tribune. This does not include the reports that involved an underage victim, prostitution or incest. Many of these cases were determined to be unfounded after a police investigation.

There were 43 sexual assault arrests made in all of Natrona County in that same period, or about nine per year, according to a report from the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office.

Just two adult sexual assault cases were referred to the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office by any law enforcement department between July 2011 and June 2012, according to District Attorney Michael Blonigen. Twelve were referred between July 2010 and June 2011. It is the prosecutor’s decision in the end whether to file charges.

Because of the various ways cases are filed and tracked in Wyoming, no one at the district attorney’s office or Wyoming courts — Natrona County District and state Supreme — is able to produce the number of cases that resulted in convictions.

Unlike cases involving underage victims, which produce a steady flow of offenders in Natrona County courts, Blonigen said adult sexual assaults are notoriously difficult to prosecute in Wyoming and around the country.

Blonigen said any defense attorney could easily chisel away at Sarah’s story. For instance, why was her boyfriend yelling at her during the original police call? How could she not know the alleged rapist was dangerous when the reason he and her boyfriend knew each other was through prison? And, like many victims of sexual assault, Sarah was intoxicated.

“I can tell you that we don’t get as many (referrals) as we used to,” Blonigen said. “We’re supposed to have these greatly evolved feelings, in the way of victim blaming … It’s almost as if we haven’t progressed at all, but we’ve gone backwards.”

He said juries — especially female jurors — are critical of women who claim they are victims of sexual assault.

Additionally, DNA evidence does not refute a man’s claim that sex was consensual.

“Usually they’re not whodunits; we have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Blonigen said. “You can’t just think things. You’ve got to be able to prove things.”

This is especially difficult in Wyoming, he said. Like many other states, law requires the offender to have used actual, physical force during the rape. It’s not enough to just say, “No.”

Sarah’s alleged attacker told investigators the sex was consensual. They were groping and kissing each other for a while, and he stopped having sex with her when she started crying, he is quoted as telling officers.

Casper police say DNA evidence from Sarah’s rape kit wouldn’t do any good because both she and the man confirm that sex took place. Lt. Michael Thompson said the DNA would only be tested if prosecutors were preparing the case for trial.

Lt. Thompson said the rape kit was tested in Sarah’s case, but just confirmed that they had sex.

Sarah said she was repeatedly told attorneys were ethically bound to not prosecute cases they weren’t sure they could win.

They were sorry, the assistant prosecutor said. But there was nothing else they could do.

***

Gloria Jensen is a crisis advocate at Casper’s Self Help Center. She said a victim's alleged attacker very rarely enters a courtroom, because the victim often puts the brakes on the case.

“Most women don’t want to see their abuser again, whether it’s in court or on the street,” she said. “One of the hardest things for them to do is to have to revisit or rehash the details of the crime.”

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network President and Founder Scott Berkowitz said despite the barriers and trauma victims will inevitably encounter after their attack, RAINN still encourages them to report the crime.

“That’s the only way there’s going to be pressure built to prosecute these types of cases,” he said. “The more victims that aren’t getting justice, the more attention it’s going to get from policymakers and media to force a change.”

Sarah’s only remaining option is to press civil charges against the man, a decision which also seems useless. He has no money and no assets, Sutherland, her attorney, said.

“You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip,” Sutherland said. “… I don’t understand why (the state) isn’t pursuing this type of case.”

Sarah was angry enough on one occasion to return back to her alleged rapist’s apartment and confront him. He didn’t answer the door at that point, but later accused her and her boyfriend of threatening him.

In the past several months, Sarah’s anger has given way to despair. Many of her previous supporters now refuse to return her phone calls. She has told the story more times than she can remember.

“I’m tired and I’m beat up,” she said. “They don’t want to prosecute sex crimes.”

The fight for justice is over. Sarah says she's done writing letters and calling authorities. Most of the time, she gets no response anyway. But despite the mistakes she made, Sarah maintains that there was more than enough evidence to prosecute the case if everyone had been on board from the beginning.

Sarah’s currently studying to get licensed for her job in another state. She plans to leave Wyoming as soon as possible.

Sarah now says she would have simply refrained from reporting the assault in the first place.

“Nothing’s different anyway.”

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