Investigation: Sexual Assault in Utah

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Sexual assault is one of the least prosecuted violent crimes in the state of Utah. The rate of prosecution is just 6%. And according to the Department of Justice, only 39% of rape cases in the U.S. are reported. These shocking numbers are getting the attention of several state leaders who are now working to create change.

For Jessica Ripley telling her story is hard, but she does it with a purpose.

“I just don’t want anyone to go through my experience again. I hope to make it better for others in the future,” Ripley said.

On February 4th 2012, Ripley and some friends went out for a night on the town to celebrate her sister’s birthday.

“She loved to go dancing, all of my friends did so we decided to go dancing for her birthday,” Ripley said.

The night began innocently enough. The group started at a bar called The Hotel then went next door to Club Elevate. The ladies were dancing when a man came over and started chatting with them. They all got some drinks, and shortly after Ripley said the evening took a turn.

“That’s when the night started going blurry and black. The last thing I remember is he was leading me to the bar to close my tab. After that I have very few memories,” she said.

She remembered being outside with the guy right before the assault and that is pretty much it.

“And then after that the next memory is waking up at the hospital with a doctor over my head,” Ripley said.

A stranger found Ripley on the sidewalk outside of the bar. She was only partially clothed, and bleeding from her head.

“I didn’t even know at the time that anything physical had happened to me, I didn’t know any sexual intercourse had taken place, I didn’t know that my face had been beaten,” Ripley explained.

She said it took five days for an officer to contact her about her case. By that time, the surveillance videos that would have caught the attack had been cleared.

“Any information they could have picked up or found was gone,” she said.

It would be nearly three years before Jessica’s rape kit would be processed, and her attacker is still out there. Ripley said she felt like she had been victimized twice. According to victim’s advocates, in the past this kind of response was unfortunately not uncommon at any law enforcement agency.

“the overall philosophy has to be we’re not going to look backwards except to evaluate what needs to be done and we’re not going to point fingers and blame we have to just all come together as a system and say how do we make this system better,” said BYU Assistant Professor, Julie Valentine.

Valentine is a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, also known as a SANE nurse. She is one of several Utahns trying to change the way sexual assault cases are handled in our state. The group consists of prosecutors, victim’s advocates, lawmakers and police. One man who has been outspoken about the cause is West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo.

“It’s really about educating the profession and that’s the goal here. If we can improve the profession overall. Not only law enforcement investigations, but also the prosecution, if we can help communities, if we can help victims heal, it’s a win-win for everybody,” Chief Russo said.

The momentum began back in 2014 when Valentine finished a study claiming only 6% of rape cases in Utah were being prosecuted. Chief Russo didn’t want his department to be part of the problem.

“He reached out to I believe it was Donna Kelly at the Attorney General’s office and said we want to make a difference I want to improve this, I don’t want 6%,” Valentine said of Russo.

“It was evident we needed to put victims first,” Chief Russo said.

With the help of Julie Valentine, Donna Kelly from the Attorney General’s Office and West Valley Detective Justin Boardman, a new interview protocol was created. It focused on how trauma affects the brain and changed the way officers interact with victims.

“The trauma research is one of the keys, a very important key to understanding victim’s behavior and understanding victim memory,” said prosecutor, Donna Kelly.

Once the protocol was in place Valentine began studying the department. One year later, the numbers from that research are starting to roll in and the results are astounding. Before the changes, only a third of cases were being screened with the DA’s office.

“So far with our West Valley City study, we’re finding that they’re screening 80% of their cases. So we’re going from 33% to 80% of cases being screened,” Valentine said.

Now, Valentine will follow these cases through the court system. I asked if she thought that 6% prosecution rate will increase.

“I do, I do. It’s just going to be interesting to see how far it grows,” Valentine answered.

One state leader is excited about the changes as well.

Representative Angela Romero said, “If we work together as a community we can create lots of change so that everybody feels safe in their community.”

This legislative session, Representative Romero took an active role in creating the change she wanted to see. She introduced the Start By Believing campaign and House Bill 74, redefining consent in the state of Utah. Both bills passed.

“And this doesn’t just impact women, it impacts men it impacts children,” Representative Romero said.

She added anyone can become a victim. But, every person in this group says if we all work together we can do better. Better for victims like Jessica Ripley.

“It’s just amazing to me that they’re taking these steps because I think that will make more people come forward,” Ripley said.

She added, if victims know they’re going to be supported and believed they won’t be afraid to make their attackers face justice.

Julie Valentine is applying for several grants right now that would fund research in Utah County and overhaul the entire system in Salt Lake County. Valentine believes these grants will be “game changers” for our state. We’ll keep you updated.

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