Albany County Sheriff's Officers Pushed Victim To Recant Assault Allegation. Now They're Being Sued
This story includes descriptions of sexual assault.
This week the Casper Star-Tribune broke a story about a lawsuit against the Albany County Sheriff's Office, over the alleged mishandling of a sexual assault investigation. Wyoming Public Radio has an interview with the plaintiff, as well as audio of the law enforcement interview at the heart of the complaint.
When a victim reports a crime, law enforcement gets to decide whether to move forward with the case. They might consider the evidence, if there are witnesses and the victim's credibility. When it comes to sexual assault in Wyoming, only about 30 percent of reports make it past law enforcement to the prosecutors office, according to data collected by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigations.
The way the Albany County Sheriff's Office chose not to move forward on a 2017 report from a University of Wyoming student is at the heart of a lawsuit filed in February. That student, who due to the sensitive nature of the crime will be referred to as the plaintiff in this story. The plaintiff said officers could have handled the situation more respectfully.
"What I would have preferred to hear was, you know, just the idea that they didn't feel that there was compelling evidence to have a successful case," said the plaintiff.
The unique challenge of prosecuting sexual assault is something the plaintiff recognizes.
"Often there are no witnesses, it's a bit of a he said, she said... And so that's something I would have been able to understand."
But instead officers told the plaintiff the allegation was a lie.
In a recording made by the Albany County Sheriff's Office, Deputy Aaron Gallegos and Sgt. Christian Handley made it clear there would be no further investigation, and if the plaintiff pressed the issue there could be consequences.
"So here's what's gonna happen . . . I'm not gonna tell anybody," said Gallegos. "Nobody would find out about any of this." Handley follows up to assure the plaintiff that charges would not be filed for false reporting
Then Gallegos reiterates, "We're not gonna charge you with anything."
The plaintiff described this moment as terrifying. The plaintiff said the mention of false reporting charges sent a message the officers were not there to help.
"I felt like the perpetrator," the plaintiff told Wyoming Public Radio.
Gallegos reminded the plaintiff that the alleged perpetrator was also a UW student with a promising future ahead of him, and that this case could ruin his life.
"Would you want that to happen, spend 20 years in prison for an alleged rape when it was consensual, it was weird, it happened, but he didn't rape you?," asked Gallegos.
The plaintiff continued to assert that what started as a consensual interaction turned into assault. Handley then pushed the plaintiff to explain the difference.
"I'm curious as to how it wasn't consensual in the morning," said Handley. "Did he basically hold you down and tie you down and rape you; is that what you're saying?"
The plaintiff responded, "He held my arms down." Handley rebuts, "In a manner that was consistent with intercouse or a manner that's consistent with somebody raping you and forcible having sex with you?"
Throughout the 23 minute recording Gallegos and Handley push the plaintiff to back off from the allegations.
The officers even suggest the plaintiff's sexual orientation as a lesbian was motivation for calling sex with a man rape. The plaintiff said there were earlier interviews with Gallegos that felt friendlier, but this last interaction felt like more of an interrogation.
As to why Gallegos and Handley didn't simply tell the plaintiff the case was a no-go remains unclear. Messages to the officers on Wednesday were not returned, and their legal counsel, the Wyoming Attorney General's Office declined to comment on the open litigation. The Sheriff's Office is represented by the Local Government Liability Pool, which also declined to comment.
The suit claims violations of several federal civil rights laws and mentions that the Wyoming Crime Victims Bill of Rights was not followed. The first point on the ten point list is: "The right to be treated with compassion, respect, and sensitivity within the criminal justice system."
Tara Muir, the Policy Director with the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said to ensure victims are treated respectfully law enforcement need training
"Law enforcement aren't mistake free. They are human." For that reason, Muir said training and clear guidelines are key.
"Like law enforcement shouldn't say, 'Oh, come on don't ruin this guy's life.' There's no sensitivity in that at all," Muir said.
She said that line was also used to describe movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was recently convicted of rape.
Muir said given the discretionary power law enforcement have to determine victims' access to justice, it's important they check how stereotypes and assumptions impact their response to sexual assault allegations.
"They get to be the judge [and] jury right out of the gate," she said.
As in, they can keep a case from going to a prosecutor or making it to trial.
At the time of the plaintiff's report, Gallegos had no additional training on sexual violence, and Handley had completed an eight-hour course on sexual assault investigations back in 2011. According to state training records, he's more recently completed a two-hour course on sexual assault victim reactions.
Because of the varying levels of training within departments and across the state, Muir said that's why victims need to know they have a right to a community-based advocate before an investigation proceeds.
"A victim should not be jumping into this system alone," said Muir.
Gallegos and Handley did mention that advocates are available through the Albany County SAFE Project in the last minute of the 23-minute recording. The plaintiff said that was too late.
Part of the motivation behind the lawsuit, according to the plaintiff, is to prompt law enforcement to examine how their actions impact victims' confidence in the criminal justice system.
"We have to build that trust somehow, and I don't want this to be a reason that people don't come forward," said the plaintiff. "I want this to enact changes so that people feel that they can."
In addition to training and increased access to advocates, both Policy Director Tara Muir and the plaintiff agree that Wyoming statute lacks clarity on what does and does not constitute consent.
Difficulties prosecuting sexual assault cases caused by ambigous and unclear statutes could be considered by the Wyoming State Legislature. It's a possible interim topic for the Joint Judiciary Committee. Management council will consider interim topics on April 16.