In the early hours of Feb. 5, 2012, a group of young women found Jessica Ripley curled up on the ground in the parking garage of the Shilo Inn in downtown Salt Lake City. Ripley’s face “was very bloody, and she was naked from the waist down—with her panties around her feet and a used condom nearby,” according to a police report.
The women called numbers on Ripley’s cell phone until they found her sister, Nicole Wilcox, who took her semi- incoherent sister to LDS Hospital, where “she was crying over and over again, ‘I’ve been raped,’ ” Wilcox says.
Ripley had gone to a downtown club to celebrate her sister’s birthday. She had danced and “made out,” she recalls, with an attractive young man with diamond stud earrings and a white-striped red leather jacket. “I wouldn’t have considered him even interested in me,” she says.
But what happened between when she went to settle her tab at the bar and when she found herself in a hospital bed—the right side of her face badly bruised, her genitals severely injured—were little more than fragments or flashes of memory: being dragged from the club by her dance partner; the man pulling out his penis in the shadows of the parking garage.
The hospital called the Salt Lake City Police Department, as it’s required by law to do when there are allegations or evidence of sexual assault. An SLCPD officer arrived to take an initial report. A SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) nurse also came to provide care and counseling, and to perform, with Ripley’s consent, a rape kit, also known as a Code R, to gather evidence of the crime for possible prosecution.
Code Rs, which last from two to four hours, involve not only the collection of the victim’s clothing and undergarments, but also medical and gynecological histories being taken by the nurse; a detailed account of the assault; a head-to-toe physical examination, with particular focus on the genital and anal areas; vaginal, cervical, rectal and anal swabs; and extensive photographing of the victim’s body.
The SLCPD officer spoke first to Ripley, whom he described in his report as being “extremely intoxicated.”
Several weeks later, Ripley wrote in a journal provided by the Rape Recovery Center, “I vaguely remember him asking if it was consensual, and not really knowing or understanding my situation, or that I had been beat and blacked out, I said yes.”
As the nurse then worked on Ripley, the officer asked Ripley’s sister where they had been. When she told him, Wilcox recalls, the officer said he “would never allow his daughter to go to that place, that rapes happen there all the time. He was very judgmental to us.”
The officer told the SANE nurse that what had taken place in the parking garage had been consensual and told her to leave. An hour after he arrived at the hospital, he closed the case as unfounded, having made no effort to interview anyone at the club or the neighboring parking garage, to trace the women who had found Ripley, or collect data from Ripley’s cell phone.
Ripley later wrote in her journal that as she lay in her hospital bed and “started to really think of what had happened, I realized it was not consensual—I wasn’t even in the right state of mind to give consent.”
The SANE nurse, concerned that the initial officer’s take had been inaccurate, called a second officer to the hospital to interview Ripley and pick up the completed Code R.
But the detective who handled Ripley’s case told her there was little he could do, that the processing of the rape kit by the Utah crime lab could take three months to three years. Her case drifted into limbo. She learned that it had been screened with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office—and subsequently declined for prosecution because the suspect was unknown—only when she asked for a copy of the police reports relating to her case after being contacted by City Weekly for an interview.
That’s the fate of many rape cases, says Holly Mullen, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center and a former City Weekly editor. “I know we have many clients who put themselves out on a limb, who go through the system, and walk away with nothing,” Mullen says.
And a new survey conducted by nine-year veteran SANE nurse Julie Valentine shows that Ripley is far from being the only Utah rape victim who hasn’t received justice. In the 270 rape cases Valentine looked at, just 6 percent resulted in a conviction.
Despite the dismal nature of her survey’s results, Valentine says, “The good news is we know. Now we have a baseline from which to improve.”
But some see these starkly low figures—and the ensuing reaction in the criminal-justice system, which ranges from hand-wringing without action, to finger-pointing, to skepticism of Valentine’s survey and its results—as evidence of an ongoing war against women.
In Utah, according to earlier studies, 1 in 8 women reports having been raped at least once in her lifetime. And rape is the only crime, some argue, where victims are often viewed not as victims, but as being responsible for being raped, whether because of what they were wearing, where they went or the alcohol they drank.
The majority of sexual assaults are never reported and, according to the Utah Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice, many victims are “concerned about their family or friends finding out about the attack.”
And while many victim advocates and members of law enforcement urge victims to report their attack, both to bring the perpetrator to justice and for the victim to regain a sense of control, those who come forward often find themselves being victimized a second time by a system that does not understand what has happened to them.
In her journal, Ripley wrote about resenting police officers and the media for their disinterest in her rape. “My case wasn’t important enough to check evidence immediately or be reported on the news, ’cause I’m some dumb, fucking drunk girl who they think consented and somehow beat herself up and bruised and cut herself and is making it all up; because I was drinking, my case doesn’t matter.”
Victims submit “their bodies for collecting evidence, and law enforcement and the court system often fail to do anything with it,” says Alana Kindness, executive director of Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault (UCASA).
SLCPD did submit Ripley’s rape kit for screening with the Utah crime lab. Seminal fluid was found, and a DNA profile was loaded into a nationwide FBI database. But Valentine’s survey revealed that half of rape kits involving unknown suspects languished on police-department shelves.
Valentine says the survey is a chance for the state to improve how it looks at sexual assault, both by law enforcement and by the general population.
Former sex-crimes prosecutor Michaela Andruzzi, who now works as a defense attorney, says the survey should be a matter of community debate. “Women are the majority of survivors of sexual violence,” she says. “When a woman is sexually violated, it affects her, her children, it has a ripple effect ... it does touch everything. It’s a community issue, not just a woman’s issue.”
Valentine, an assistant professor in Brigham Young University’s College of Nursing, says that after a few years working with SANE, nurses “either get depressed and get out or decide, ‘I can make a difference.’ ” The survey, she says, is her way of calling for change.
The status quo, she says, “has been pretty awful. Rape is something people don’t want to talk about, but if we don’t talk about it, nothing will change.”
In early November 2013, Valentine presented the results of her survey to members of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), a 10-year-old collaboration between UCASA and sexual-assault responders to encourage dialogue between law enforcement, prosecutors, forensic-evidence gatherers and rape-victim advocates.
Sexual-assault responders say that prior to that meeting, prosecutors and sex-crimes detectives—with the exception of Salt Lake County’s special-victims unit chief, Blake Hills; West Valley’s Detective Justin Boardman; and Sandy’s Detective Andrea Hanson—were typically absent. But at the November 2013 SART meeting, detectives from several agencies new to SART were in attendance to hear the findings of Valentine’s survey, which studied a sample of the cases between 2003 and 2011 where a SANE nurse took a Code R kit from a rape victim who also willingly spoke to law enforcement.
Out of 1,657 SANE-involved cases, Valentine looked at 30 randomly sampled adult cases for each year—270 cases total. She then followed the fate of those cases as Salt Lake County’s 11 law-enforcement agencies either ended the investigations or screened them with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
The results were “shocking,” law enforcement and prosecutors say.
The key information the survey sought was the most disturbing: 94 percent of the 270 cases in the survey did not result in prosecutions. Of the 6 percent of cases that were prosecuted, 1 in 6 resulted in a conviction at trial; the rest saw the defendant plead guilty or plea-bargain out.
Collateral information from the survey also raised red flags: initial responding officers or detectives closed two-thirds of the 270 rape cases without first screening with a prosecutor to see if charges could be filed. In the 130 cases where detectives cited reasons for closing cases, the victim either didn’t want to pursue the case, “didn’t want to cooperate” or couldn’t be located, or the suspect was unknown.
Of the third that actually made it to the DA, prosecutors declined to file charges on 75.5 percent.
“Nothing gets done,” Ripley says. “I don’t get it. Why don’t they talk about this more in public? I don’t think people have any idea of how many people are raped.”
But the survey results came as no surprise to rape-victim advocates and volunteers who do rape-crisis work at domestic- violence shelters, the nonprofit Rape Recovery Center or UCASA, or work for law enforcement or the DA’s Office.
The Rape Recovery Center’s Mullen says the survey puts “actual numbers behind anecdotal evidence of frequent victim-blaming and disregard that we see and hear every day at the center.”
In a letter to sexual-assault responders, Mullen wrote about one victim who had been questioned by a Unified Police Department detective. His questions included, “How many times have you had sex in the last month? When you were with this [suspect], was the sex pleasurable?”
Those at the November 2013 SART meeting heard victim advocates employed by law-enforcement agencies complain that officers all too often took the view that all rape cases were “B.S.,” that “very few of ours are real cases.”
Advocates at the meeting said that while they tell clients that the Code R and going through the justice system will aid recovery, they are also careful to tell victims that they shouldn’t “hang their healing” on the outcome of their case.
“It’s really difficult to encourage clients to go through such an invasive experience” as the four-hour evidence-gathering rape kit, Amanda Thorderson of the Rape Recovery Center said at the meeting, “knowing there is such a small chance anything is going to happen.”
Of the 178 cases in Valentine’s survey that were closed by law enforcement, officers supplied reasons in 130. The most common reason was “victim did not want to pursue,” in 25 cases. Without a victim, officers say, you rarely have a case. “Unable to contact victim” (24 cases), “unknown suspect” (21 cases) and “uncooperative victim” (15 cases) were also key factors in cases not moving forward.
Officers say that the reasons blur into one another. A witness is uncooperative because she does not want to pursue, so therefore she does not respond to phone calls or e-mail.
But, some ask, why would a victim consent to an invasive exam and talk to law enforcement, and then decide not to pursue her case?
Chief Chris Burbank of the Salt Lake City Police Department, the agency that investigated Ripley’s rape, says that the big question that comes out of the survey is, “How are we treating victims? When we look at reluctant victims, is the process part of what is driving these numbers?”
The process of examinations and interviews, he says, “is hard on victims, it really is.”
SLCPD has the largest number of rape cases in the county, close to 100 annually. Given the volume of cases his officers deals with, Burbank says, officers are going to focus on cases where they think they have a chance of success.
“That’s a sad statement to make; that’s reality for all of us,” he says.
One veteran officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission from his supervisor to talk to the media, says, “I handled a lot of rapes as the initial responding officer years ago, and I never had one ‘legit’ rape where it would ever be prosecuted.”
He contrasts those cases with a recent rape of a student in a fast-food restaurant. When officers heard about the case, he says, the reaction was universal: “Wow! A real legit rape,” and a suspect was quickly apprehended.
One longtime victim advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, doesn’t hold back her anger or her tears. The survey results tell her, she says, that “if you’re a victim, you’re screwed, and you’re going to get fucked twice: once by the perpetrator, and a second time by the system.”
If she or one of her loved ones were ever raped, she continues, she wouldn’t report it—she would take matters into her own hands, and find a good defense attorney.
THE THING ABOUT THE TRUTH
At City Weekly’s request, UCASA’s Kindness reviewed Ripley’s case, including the responses of SLCPD to questions that identified four different versions of events she gave over a span of nine days following the rape, including her interview with a SANE nurse.
“The investigation is focusing on the behavior of the victim, not on the behavior of the suspect before and after the incident,” Kindness says. “Perpetrators of rape and sexual assault count on that, and this is why they target victims who are intoxicated or are otherwise in a vulnerable situation that will create obstacles for investigation and prosecution.”
One of those obstacles, says Valentine, is that a victim’s “memory gets so scattered by trauma, the perception by law enforcement is they’re just making it up.”
Defense attorney Andruzzi says that officers start “from the premise that the victim is lying and has to prove they’re telling the truth.”
That’s an expectation that former Utah County prosecutor Donna Kelly says is based on an erroneous view of how a victim should behave after a traumatic incident. Kelly has been training law enforcement, prosecutors and judges in victim-centered responses as part of a new, grant-funded position at the Attorney General’s Office.
“Professionals in the criminal-justice system—not just law enforcement—are trained to detect ‘lying,’ ” she says. “The problem is with sexual assault and domestic violence, they are interviewing people who have been traumatized. New research in the field of neurobiology shows that many of the signs law enforcement traditionally considered signs of lying are actually signs of trauma, but law enforcement doesn’t know that.”
Of course, there’s “the elephant in the room,” as Valentine calls it in her presentation, of false reporting. The survey, in line with FBI crime statistics, shows that only 8 percent of the 130 cases were false reports.
But that doesn’t match some officers’ perspectives.
Sandy Police Department’s sex-crimes detective Andrea Hanson says the ratio of false reports of rape is higher than 1 in 10 as indicated by the survey.
She laughs darkly about a recent rash of “insane false reports. It’s very frustrating to put in months of work, you’ve done all this investigation, only to find the victim was lying,” she says.
Cara Tangaro was a sex-crimes prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney. She says she saw and sees many “buyer’s remorse” cases. She outlines a scenario where a woman would be dating, engage in sexual activity, ultimately have sex, see her LDS bishop, and then, a week later, report she’d been raped. “I had cases where people who had sex three or four times then reported it as rape.”
But sexual-assault responders argue that the perception of epidemics of false reporting stems from cultural myths.
“There’s a strong cultural holding in Utah that LDS women … engage in sex, then feel guilty, then wake up the next day and cry rape,” Mullen says. “That is a myth that continues to flourish and grow in Utah. [But] it’s an arduous, difficult, painful process to come forward to tell someone they’ve been raped. People don’t report rape just for the fun or it or just for attention.”
LEFT IN LIMBO
When Valentine presented her findings to the District Attorney’s Office, one of the shocked prosecutors turned to the DA’s victim advocate and asked her if it seemed accurate. She said yes.
“What none of us anticipated was that there were so many cases that were never actually brought and screened, that never even got to the point of declination,” says Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill.
But while he says the survey has value in the light it sheds on law enforcement, Gill rejects the picture it paints of his office’s low declination rate. “Those numbers don’t match up to the factual reality of what’s going on in the office,” he says.
Gill’s special-victims unit chief, Blake Hills, says the small sample size and the narrow focus of the survey—to assess the impact of SANE on rape prosecutions—have been misunderstood “by certain groups [who] are using them to make conclusions about declination rates for all cases.”
Valentine acknowledges that the annual declination rate on a year-by-year basis was debatable, but she notes that “the overall percentage of 75 percent declination is a more reliable finding, as it has a larger sample size,” namely all 90 referred cases.
One former sex-crimes investigator says part of the reason behind the low number of cases brought to the DA’s Office for screening is that cops get sick of filing cases that get turned down by the DA. The ex-investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recalls detectives who would work for three years before they had “their first true adult rape. So many of them, you work your butt off, and the charges never come. It comes down to how you prove coerced against consensual sex. There’s a huge number of cases where alcohol is on board, and the physical findings get thrown out.”
Detectives, he continues, “don’t screen cases because so many get declined [that] they get sick of working their butt off to go in to hear ‘no’ in the end.”
SLCPD Chief Burbank questions the accuracy of the percentage of cases that the survey shows as not being screened—66 percent—as well as the DA’s assertion that law enforcement isn’t screening adult rape cases.
“I don’t think Sim’s office should be pointing fingers back at law enforcement, necessarily,” Burbank says. Detectives send cases to prosecutors for screening, he says, but are then told “it doesn’t sound like something we’re interested in going forward with,” so “there’s no official declination.”
He says one question that comes out of the survey is, “Are we doing all we can to move prosecution forward, are we applying enough pressure to the DA’s office to bring the case?”
The SANE survey shows that in two of the nine years, there were seemingly no—or very few—rape cases prosecuted. The survey also shows that for two years during former DA Lohra Miller’s administration—2009 and 2010—there was an uptick in the number of cases being filed and prosecuted.
After his 2010 election win, Gill disbanded Miller’s “boutique” prosecution units in favor of generalist prosecutors. This included, much to the dismay of sexual-assault responders, the domestic- violence unit headed by Michaela Andruzzi. Andruzzi complained of being marginalized by Gill, ultimately settling after a two-year fight with Salt Lake County over her treatment by his office.
Andruzzi—seen by some as deeply committed to justice for rape victims, and by others as overzealous—focused on intimate-partner-related rape cases and date-rape cases, which typically had gone to the special-victims unit. That resulted in a unit that became specialized in sexual assault as well as domestic violence. That, in turn, some detectives say, led to more confidence among law enforcement in screening sex cases.
Donna Kelly of the AG’s Office says that the “key is training; that’s the holy grail of sexual-assault prosecution.” In many other states, she notes, in contrast to Salt Lake County, prosecutors have gone to specialized units because of the intense level of training required.
It also requires personal commitment to a very demanding area of prosecution, where, Andruzzi says, a lack of motivation can derail a victim’s quest for justice or healing.
One victim advocate says that she gets multiple calls a week from survivors “who have no sense where their case is at, where they can get services,” having been left high and dry by the detective who put their case aside.
While Andruzzi says she tried to always tell victims personally why prosecutors were declining cases, there seems to be disagreement between officers and the DA’s Office over who is responsible for informing the victim if the DA declines the case.
“I call my victims, I don’t like leaving it to someone else to make the call,” says Sandy detective Hanson. But, she says, “the prosecutor is supposed to notify them. ... That wasn’t happening; we brought it up, and it was changed.”
But Blake Hills, chief of Salt Lake County’s special-victims unit, says, “It’s typically the detective who touches base with the victim to let the victim know what the decision was.”
Advocates say such a hit & miss system leaves many rape victims dangling in limbo. “Victims aren’t the easiest people to deal with,” says one advocate, “but to leave them with no recourse, direction or justice. … Just to hear the agony and loneliness in their voices, what do you do with that?”
What also dangles in limbo are many of the rape kits SANE nurses collect from victims. The survey revealed that half of the Code R kits in the 21 cases where no known suspect had been identified had not been sent to the Utah state crime lab for processing, meaning that DNA evidence of a rapist—potentially a serial rapist—gathered dust on department shelves.
FEAR OF THE DARK
As Valentine presented the survey to different audiences in law enforcement, the court system and sexual-assault responders, concerns quickly emerged about how rape victims, both past and future, would view the figures.
Valentine hopes the survey will not discourage victims to report rape and sexual assault. Rape, Valentine says, is about taking away control. “We want every victim who is raped to report. We want to provide care to them. This is their examination, and they’re in control.”
Unified Police Department Chief Jim Winder says he also hopes victims will always report. “When you’re victimized, the best approach is to begin to take back control, which means reporting,” he says. “Even in the eventuality that it isn’t prosecuted, hopefully, you’ve saved some other victim. I say dime every one of them out, report it, let us do our job.”
In order for a victim to heal, they first have to realize, Valentine says, that “they are the victim of a violent crime, and that they bear no responsibility for what happened.”
In spring 2013, Jessica Ripley took part in the SlutWalk, an annual march to the Capitol where women wear whatever they want—from bikinis to burkas—in an effort to dispel the myth that dressing modestly can prevent rape.
She held a sign on the walk that read, “I guess the drinks I had and an outfit like this was asking to be drugged, beaten and raped and left in the parking lot at Shilo Inn. Only rapists cause rape.”
But though Ripley immediately reported her Feb. 5, 2012, rape, she still struggles to move ahead. “I guess I’m expected to move on, to forget it ever happened,” she says. “I think about it honestly almost every day. You just don’t get over it.”
Memories of that night haunt her. She loathes the sight of the Shilo Inn, but can’t escape, she says, “that huge red building that glows at night.” Every night, she walks her dog, and every night, her fear of the dark reminds her of what an unnamed man brutally did to her.
“People always ask, ‘Why aren’t you dating, why aren’t you going out?’ ”
Her answer is two words, which she says with a slight smile: “I’m broken.”
WEST VALLEY CITY: LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
After West Valley Police Chief Lee Russo took over his agency five months ago, he authorized an audit of the department’s 260 sex-crimes cases from 2012. That audit found that in 10 cases, investigators’ claims that they had submitted them to the DA’s Office for screening were denied by the DA. Those cases have gone to Internal Affairs, which will investigate whether the officers were lying.
Of the three investigators in the unit, Russo says, one was terminated for unrelated misconduct, one subsequently resigned and one was reassigned to patrol. The supervisors were also reassigned.
In total, only 16 percent of West Valley’s sex-crimes cases were referred for prosecution, in contrast to the 34 percent county-wide shown by the survey. The deeper question, Russo says, is “why weren’t they being pursued?”
Russo says that “officers want to get as much of the story as quickly as they can to move the investigation forward. There are times when tunnel vision makes you forget about trauma, how the victim is perceiving it—we see it as just facts, get the investigation under way.”
That “impersonal professional perspective,” he continues, means that law enforcement “can become part of the problem with the victim, just one more overwhelming step in what happened to them.”
The survey should not be about pointing fingers, Russo says. Rather, “there’s an obvious problem and we have to fix that problem.” Law enforcement, prosecutors and victim advocates have to come together to define “how we make the system better for victims and hold offenders accountable.”
West Valley City is now taking point on trauma-awareness training in sexual-assault cases. It’s starting a one-year pilot program in January with the Attorney General’s Office’s Donna Kelly and WVC Detective Justin Boardman, training all WVC officers and detectives in the neurobiology of trauma. Valentine will measure the impact of training on both law enforcement and victims throughout the year.
She says this approach is so new that there is no literature available nationally on how to train a law enforcement agency in sexual-assault trauma.