Rape in Utah | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

December 31, 2013 News » Cover Story

Rape in Utah 

1 in 8 women will be raped, but few will ever see justice

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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.

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