Every morning when Angela Alexander showers, she sees in the mirror the marks Helaman Pragana left on her body. Two long scars down her back recall the time her former partner dragged her back into their house when she tried to flee his fists. A smudge by her right eye reminds her of a rug burn she received during one of the many times he sexually assaulted her. Such scars, the 29-year-old hair stylist says, remind her that, “I’m so very lucky. I had a lot of close calls with that man.”
Thanks to the information Alexander gave the Unified Police Department, Pragana is currently serving 35 years in the Utah State Prison in Gunnison for a six-month spree of robberies in 2011 at ATMs and gas stations that included kidnapping and vicious sexual assaults at gunpoint.
Pragana robbed people, his attorney would later tell a judge, to get money for food for Alexander, her children and other dependents. He said he also gave a percentage of his take—which totaled just under $7,500, according to court documents—as a tithe to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But, Alexander says, the terrifying reality behind his Robin Hood persona was a man who, she later told police, “was one minute as soft and cuddly as a kitten, the next minute an absolute psychopath.”
If Alexander hadn’t turned him in to Unified Police Department, she believes the now 23-year-old Brazilian jujitsu expert would have killed her or someone else. Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder acknowledges that she was “absolutely critical” to his agency arresting Pragana. “Did we catch him because of her? Yes.”
After she initially called the Unified Police Department to report that she had information about a recent series of armed robberies, she didn’t turn up for a meeting with a detective or return phone calls, so UPD arrested her on an outstanding traffic warrant. She was handcuffed in front of her children, held for 14 hours, she says, and then released, only for her and her children to be evicted from their home. Despite her allegations against Pragana detailing cruel violence and sexual assaults, he was never charged with abusing her. And according to some in the criminal-justice system, the woman who brought an end to Pragana’s frightening rampage was practically a criminal herself.
“They’re painting me as the bad guy, even though I’m the one who made the whole case. I gave them my fiance on a silver platter,” Alexander says. “I was a black chick with a record [for passing bad checks] and tattoos,” which, she argues, led Unified officers and prosecutors to distrust her.
“It’s true that initially she was viewed as a subject, as a co-conspirator, and, frankly, she is,” says Winder, who says that Alexander had been “fully aware of the robberies” that Pragana was committing. “She could have been charged with these offenses. She was transporting him there, watching him conducting robberies. Essentially, she was fine with that.”
In a four-hour video of the police’s interview with Alexander, many of her comments were rife with ambiguity or contradiction. Some of her statements regarding her knowledge of Pragana’s criminal acts could be interpreted as suggesting that she was aware of the robberies from the beginning of their relationship, or—as she argues—that it was only in June that she became aware of them, by which point she was so mired in an abusive relationship with a manipulative, highly intelligent predator that she could not escape. Unified Police Department Capt. Don Hutson says Alexander knew “far too many details” about Pragana’s crimes, “details that fly in the face of a woman who says, ‘You go out and rob, I don’t want to know about it.’ ”
While Winder says his staff recognized that the abuse dynamics involved in Alexander’s relationship with Pragana were “troubling, to say the least,” UPD believes that it was only when Alexander found out her boyfriend was raping his victims that she turned on him. “Frankly, what we perceive is Ms. Alexander was angry he was having sex with other women,” Winder says.
Winder’s characterization of her attitude toward Pragana’s sexual assaults deeply offends Alexander. “It was sexual assault, it wasn’t sex,” she says in tears. “Who do you think he practiced on? How many times do I have to say this?” Winder, however, says he doesn’t dispute she was “as disgusted as everyone else” by what Pragana had done. Winder says he is simply trying to define the point where she “had a moment of departure from her willingness to tolerate Mr. Pragana’s behavior. That ended when she became aware he was sexually assaulting women.”
While the police say she sought compensation in exchange for information, she says she asked for help with her family’s relocation, not for snitch money.
All this leaves Alexander bewildered and upset. She went to the police, she says, because “I knew it was the right thing to do. The fact they’re trying to turn it around on me because I’m disagreeing with how they did their job is disgusting.”
Capt. Hutson is irritated by Alexander’s criticism of his agency. “It is a little frustrating and disappointing to me that she doesn’t feel like the system worked. I feel like we bent over backward to provide her all the services at our disposal, as well as trying to make sure she wasn’t in any sense victimized by law enforcement. I believe we treated her very fairly in the process.”
In the wake of Pragana’s November 2011 arrest, the Deseret News quoted Winder as saying they got their man through a combination of forensic evidence and “some good old gumshoe leather.” Alexander’s evidence was not mentioned. Furthermore, while UPD and the District Attorney’s Office acknowledge her as one of Pragana’s victims and indeed provided her with support and services, Pragana was not prosecuted for what he did to her.
Alexander says she used to say to Pragana, “If you’re going to hit me, can we get it over with, ’cause dinner’s got to be done.” While her own statements during interviews with police regarding her knowledge of Pragana’s robberies might have rendered her a problematic witness on the stand against her abuser, she feels she has the right to see Pragana held accountable for the physical, psychological and sexual abuse he inflicted upon her.
“Everybody wants their day in court, but not everybody can have their day in court. As a prosecutor, I have to acknowledge the challenges that her narrative presents,” says Sim Gill, Salt Lake County District Attorney. “It may not be the most perfect justice that she got, but Mr. Pragana is going to be in prison for a long time.”
But who, Alexander asks, has the right to make that call? “Who’s the detective and who’s the prosecutor to decide that’s enough justice meted out?” she says. “That’s not justice for all. That’s justice for some.”
Alexander raises important questions not only about the kind of victim that society finds acceptable as opposed to ones it turns away from but also the very nature of justice itself.
Alexander’s friend of five years, Leslie Miller, works for the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault (UCASA), where she focuses on the coordination between agencies responding to sexual assaults. While she cannot comment on the specifics of Alexander’s case, Miller says her friend’s story begs the question of whether justice has truly been served. Is Pragana’s incarceration “enough justice for Angie? Obviously it’s not.”
A New Man
Alexander moved to Utah from Philadelphia with her mother and two sisters in 1996 when she was 14. Six months later, she says, she was brutally stabbed multiple times by a white supremacist, who later served five years in the Utah State Prison. She graduated from Hillcrest High School in Midvale and eventually opened her own hair salon, Urban Hairz, in South Salt Lake, where she made “more money than I knew what to do with.” Alexander’s services were sought by a growing number of loyal clients, among them UCASA’s Miller. “Finding a hair stylist for a black woman in Salt Lake City was a hard thing,” Miller says. “When you do, you hang on to her.”
By the time Alexander met Helaman Pragana while signing up for classes at Salt Lake Community College, she was a divorcee with four children. He had been adopted by a Brazilian family in Recife, Brazil, before his family moved to Florida, and then, when he was 16, to Utah. His adoptive family raised him in their LDS faith—he’s named after a Nephite prophet and warrior. Letters submitted to court pre-sentencing from family members, friends and supporters paint a picture of a hard-working young man who struggled with education and communication issues. He also had problems with the law in December 2007, beating a store detective who’d caught the 18-year-old stealing two $200 shirts from Nordstrom. Pragana was convicted of assault and theft and got a suspended year-long jail sentence.
Pragana convinced Alexander to move into his Kearns home with him in March 2011. At the beginning, Alexander says, she loved Pragana “with my soul. But one day, I woke up and the man I loved never existed. I was in love with an idea, a fabrication.”
Alexander told detectives that after she started living with Pragana, “I was getting my ass whipped all the time.” She says her partner slowly escalated his violence against her, at first interspersing it with pleas for forgiveness, with excuses as to his own history as an abuse victim. “After he hit me, I ended up sympathizing with him; he seemed so crushed.” Now, she looks back and finds his behavior “nauseating, sad. He’s completely textbook. It doesn’t matter how smart and strong you are—anybody can be a victim.”
After a few months, “I couldn’t tell what was up from down. I lived in constant fear.” He had so entwined himself in her life and finances, she couldn’t find an easy way to leave him. “He was warping everything in my life so I’d be under him.”
Pragana told her he lost his job as a Certified Nursing Assistant in April but was coming home with a wallet full of ones, fives and tens. “Who gets paid like that?” she asked herself, she told detectives in the November 2011 interview.
While detectives believe Alexander knew from the beginning about her partner’s criminal activities, Alexander says she first learned about Pragana’s robberies after he held up a Dollar Tree on May 29, 2011, and she saw it on the TV news. When she confronted him, she says, “he spilled his guts about everything.” He told her he robbed people to get money because he “felt less than a man since I was paying his bills.” It was at this point, she says, that she started learning much of the information she later revealed to detectives on the phone and in the UPD offices in November 2011.
Through a record request, a City Weekly reporter watched the first four hours of Alexander’s videotaped interview with detectives. It provides little clarity. The timeline of many of Alexander’s statements are unclear. “He told me all his dreams and aspirations of robberies,” she says at one point. “I told him, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it.’ ” She recalled details of how he planned his robberies of ATMs that were near bushes, how he felt bad after robbing an elderly African man, or how little money he got from sticking up a “crackhead.”
Such details indicated to detectives that she was very familiar with Pragana’s activities. On the other hand, she told detectives, “I drank myself half to death while he did what he did.” She also talked about the abuse, including the fact that after Pragana got her pregnant the first time, “he beat me so good, I lost the pregnancy.”
Alexander says Pragana begged her in June not to turn him in after she confronted him about the dollar store robbery. “I only robbed the store to take care of you,” she says he told her. “He was beating me so bad, what was he going to do if I turned him in?”
Alexander helped Pragana get a Social Security number and a job, after which, she told detectives, she believed his robberies stopped. The abuse, however, only got worse. Friends recall regularly throughout the summer seeing new scars on Alexander’s body, bruises, slash marks on her legs and dig marks on her arms. One friend was also concerned about how Pragana would take charge of her children, separating Alexander from them, almost as if they were hostages to ensure she kept silent in public.
When Miller went to their Kearns home to get her hair cut, she suspected that things weren’t going well for the young stylist. Alexander had previously talked about having a beautiful wedding in Las Vegas. But now, with Pragana sitting nearby, glowering, while Alexander worked, the stylist told her friend in hushed tones that he hit her. “The only reason he was there, she told me, was because he didn’t want her to tell me anything,” Miller says. She couldn’t interfere because, “I didn’t want her to have to deal with the aftermath after I left.”
On Sept. 10, Alexander says, by chance, she saw surveillance footage on TV of an unidentified man who had robbed and sexually assaulted a woman at a Holladay ATM on Aug. 17, 2011. After an unsuccessful attempt at robbing a Smith’s gas-station attendant, the man carjacked the woman and ordered her to drive to a cash dispenser. Alexander recognized Pragana from the way he ran. “When were you raping women? When did this start happening?” she told detectives she shouted at Pragana, who denied to her that he had sexually assaulted anyone.
But Alexander’s involvement with the events of that night was more complex than that. In the hours before Pragana attempted to rob Smith’s and then raped a woman, he and Alexander had been fighting. That evening, Alexander told detectives, Pragana elected to go jogging while she visited a friend, so she dropped him off near her friend’s apartment complex, a few blocks from Smith’s. Shortly after, she noticed police cars heading from multiple directions near Smith’s, stoking her suspicions that Pragana was up to no good. Rather than meeting up with her friend, Alexander parked at Smith’s and went in to buy a NeuroSleep drink. Before she got out of her car, she told detectives, she saw a tall, dark man get into a woman’s car at the gas station. Alexander insists it wasn’t Pragana, but her convoluted story of that night left detectives convinced that she took him to the gas station, knowing he planned to rob it.
That’s an accusation she emphatically denies. “It just so happens I take him to this one, what sense does that make? It was a crime of opportunity [by Pragana]. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
But that night, she also told detectives in the interview, he counted out and hid the $500 he’d gotten that night in front of her, and swore to her, “I’ll never do anything again.”
After seeing the news footage about the rape, she says, she told Pragana he had 30 days to “get your shit fixed” and then she was turning him in.
On Oct. 6, 2011, she called the police because Pragana took her car keys during a fight, according to Salt Lake County District Attorney Gill. When officers arrived, Pragana told them that when he was angry he thought it wiser to drive away. Alexander says Pragana took her children to the den after the officers arrived. “You better make them believe,” were his parting words, she says. The police told her they could see she was scared and that they would return, she says, but they did not come back. UPD filed it as no more than a “domestic argument,” Gill says.
In mid-October, Alexander and her children moved out of the Kearns house to an apartment. Once she had a safe place for her family to live, she felt ready to turn in Pragana. Why it took her so long to turn him in, she says, reflects the highly complex, frightening situation she was in with her partner. “I can see how they look at me as a co-conspirator, but, once again, this is my life and my children’s life on the line. So, no, I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to die.”
She also says there were cultural issues at play. “Our way of life, we don’t get cops involved in things,” she says. “People are afraid to call the police; that’s simply how it is.”
“Why Didn’t You Leave?”
On Oct. 26, 2011, Alexander called 911 and told the dispatcher she had information “about All-A-Dollar robberies, Family Dollar robberies and gas station robberies,” according to a police report, and left her cell-phone number and her first name. Detectives identified Alexander through her cell-phone number and found the Oct. 6 domestic-violence incident in their records. UPD and the District Attorney’s Office drew up a search warrant for Pragana to do a DNA swab to check against the DNA profile they’d secured from several victims.
After Unified Police Department detective Isaac Pace called Alexander several times and left messages, on Oct. 30, 2011, she called him back in the late evening and they spoke for an hour.
They agreed to meet on Halloween, but that day, she says, she couldn’t get away from Pragana. She “did not honor this appointment,” Pace wrote in a report. UPD was concerned their lead on the serial rapist had disappeared. Pace texted and called, but a scared Alexander says she didn’t pick up because Pragana was sitting next to her. The next day, Pace arrested her for an outstanding traffic-related warrant, handcuffed her and took her to the station.
“I’ve got to get [Pragana] in custody right now,” Pace told her. “I need your help to do that. We’re not sleeping till I get him in handcuffs.”
By then, UPD had had officers watching for Pragana at his house. The information Alexander had given them, Gill says, meant the officers now had probable cause to arrest him.
On Nov. 1, UPD, Taylorsville detectives and U.S. marshals arrested Pragana at a North Salt Lake warehouse where he was working. He fought and tried to flee officers, who Tasered him before they got the cuffs on him. Pragana was charged with a misdemeanor for resisting arrest.
Alexander was released by the police and returned to her home, only for her and her children to be evicted, she says, after employees at the apartment complex recognized Pragana from the TV-news coverage of his arrest.
UPD’s victim advocate Nubia Pena found Alexander and her children shelter at the YWCA, a high-security complex for domestic violence survivors and their dependents.
Several days later, Pace and Pena gave her $500. Alexander felt they were paying her off to go away. Miller feels differently. UPD “realized the situation she was in, placed her in shelter care and also gave her money to live off of until she got on her feet.”
On Nov. 4, 2011, Alexander says, she gave the authorities seven pages chronicling Pragana’s abuse of her, which included disturbing details of two sexual assaults. No charges, however, were brought against Pragana based on Alexander’s complaints.
District Attorney Gill says that the story she was telling attorneys and different agencies “continued to evolve in complexity and the seriousness of offenses.” That complexity, he says, “did not readily or easily render [itself] to be subject to cross-examination” on the stand, further undermining any possibility that Pragana might be charged based on her complaints against him.
“The perception we throw every possible charge we can at him is not accurate,” UPD’s Hutson says. “DV incidents, be it right or wrong, are not nearly as notorious as abductions, kidnappings or people being robbed at gunpoint.” In addition, “historical DV reports are extremely difficult to prove. They come down to ‘he said, she said.’ ”
Michaela Andruzzi, formerly a senior sex-crimes prosecutor at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, now works as a defense attorney. She says that stranger rape, while a rarity, arouses public emotion, so “there’s a premium put on it” when it comes to investigating and prosecuting such cases. However, intimate-partner sexual violence does not come with the same cachet. Such claims by victims, while far more prevalent, are also often viewed more suspiciously by detectives. “They can’t blame a victim when it’s a stranger rape, but when it’s a DV rape, they can look at you and say, ‘Why didn’t you leave?’ ” Andruzzi says. Alexander says a detective asked her that exact question.
Andruzzi argues that a victim of domestic violence “in a sense is almost like a child. You’re going to expect a child to turn a parent in? You feel almost powerless.” Then, to suffer, as Alexander did from Pragana, sexual assault “is the worst thing that can ever happen to you,” the ex-prosecutor says. “It’s like surviving a murder. You go on with the rest of your life, but nothing is the same.”
In March 2012, Alexander met with prosecutors at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office to see what they were going to do about Pragana’s assaults upon her. The short answer was nothing. “They kept saying I was an accessory, I was made comfortable by these crimes. What about me makes you think I don’t deserve justice?” she says now. “All it would have taken was some black ink on white paper. At least he would have admitted what he was doing to me was wrong.”
“Be a Good Girl, Or I’ll Shoot You”
On March 9, 2012, as part of a plea deal that cut his charges almost by half, Pragana pleaded guilty to eight counts of aggravated robbery, two counts of aggravated burglary, four counts of aggravated kidnapping, an attempted aggravated kidnapping and two counts of aggravated sexual assault. The court dismissed 22 other counts, although Pragana would have to pay restitution on all 39 counts he was charged with.
In late May 2012, prosecutor Matthew Janzen filed a motion seeking a 35-year sentence for Pragana. He would be 58 when he got out, at which point he would be deported to Brazil. Janzen wrote that “there are now 19 lives permanently affected by [Pragana’s] criminal actions,” and then listed them by initials. In an e-mail included in the court file, 22 victims were listed by name. Neither list contains Alexander’s name.
Pragana’s attorney, Michael Peterson, asked 3rd District Court Judge Robin Reese not to accept a letter Alexander submitted to the court, since she was not listed as a victim, “and what she’s talking about is not any of the criminal activity he pleaded to.” Peterson questioned her “motivations and agendas,” given “what was going on with my client and Ms. Alexander at the time these crimes were occurring.” If Peterson fought that hard not to let Alexander’s letter in, Gill asks, how much harder might he have fought to impeach Alexander as a witness?
Pragana came before Judge Reese for sentencing on June 11, 2012. Prosecutor Janzen cited a “chilling” comment by Pragana in his pre-sentencing evaluation. His crimes, Pragana told a prison official, “started off to help my family and neighbor, then overpowering people and having a handgun made me excited to do the sexual assault.” Janzen questioned whether Pragana should ever be a candidate for parole.
Janzen described one incident where Pragana sexually assaulted a robbery victim so violently that he caused her to vomit. “Do it right, be a good girl, or I’ll shoot you,” he told her. In her statement of assaults submitted to the authorities the previous November, Alexander had accused Pragana of doing the same thing to her.
While Judge Reese accepted Alexander’s letter into the court record, his comments did not bring the validation she might have hoped for. “She may have had some complicity in the crimes, and by writing this letter she is trying to excuse herself of her behavior,” Reese said, shortly before sentencing Pragana to 35 years.
“I never had a chance to tell my side of the story,” Alexander says. “I was never able to say anything on my behalf.” While some in law enforcement see a contradiction between her wanting to be protected as a domestic-violence victim and wanting to confront Pragana in court, she disagrees. She wanted him “to face what he did to those poor women.”
The Healing Process
In the months since Pragana began his prison sentence in Gunnison, in central Utah, Alexander took courses in domestic-violence and sexual-assault crisis counseling and started a nonprofit called The Mended Wounds Association, which she hopes will assist domestic-violence victims hold offenders accountable.
In the summer, Alexander gave birth to Pragana’s son, Thristian. “What’s so heart-aching for me is to have to see my son’s beautiful face and know, one day, I’ll have to answer some really serious questions. I’ll have to explain not only to my children but [Pragana’s] child why’s he not here.”
Miller, for one, hopes Alexander can heal. “I do want her to be who she’s destined to be. But it’s got to be on her terms. It’s a process she has to go through, and it looks different for every victim.”
One detective familiar with the case argues that Alexander’s bravery should be commended. UPD Detective Tim Duran, who worked Pragana’s ATM robberies in Taylorsville, says regardless of her motivations, many people in the valley owe Alexander a debt. “I’m thankful she came forward. I’m sure all the other victims are glad too.” While his agency had DNA on Pragana and would have gotten him eventually, he believes, “his violence was escalating, he was becoming bold. She sped up the process. She probably saved some other people being attacked or robbed. I’m glad he’s off the streets.”
Ultimately, Alexander wants the police department and the District Attorney’s Office to acknowledge “how this case was handled from the beginning was inappropriate, wrong.” Her concern is for those in the future who bring allegations of domestic violence and rape to the criminal-justice system. “I’m worried how people after me are going to be treated. Are they going to be judged, or are they going to be helped?”