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The justice gap: SLO leads the county in reported rapes, yet few perpetrators end up in a courtroom 

In a quiet suburban neighborhood on Del Rio Avenue, where cars are parked in driveways next to tidy green lawns in front of unassuming homes.

A stone's throw away from the university, in the boxy buildings of the Mustang Village Apartments that flank Mustang Drive.

On a dusty access road that winds its way toward Madonna Mountain.

As far north as Daly Avenue.

As far south as Poinsettia Street.

The locations are a testament to the patchwork of people, industries, and communities that make up San Luis Obispo. But they also have another thing in common: They are all sites where reported rapes took place.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • Illustration By Alex Zuniga

As the #MeToo movement continues to gain momentum, SLO increasingly finds itself confronting the issue of sexual assault and rape within its borders. From the recent arrest of an Uber driver charged with sexually assaulting multiple female passengers, to a firestorm of controversy surrounding comments by a SLO Police Department sergeant about rape victims, to a growing vocal population of young students raising concerns about assaults in and around campus, the issue continues to rear its head in a city that takes pride labeling itself as "The happiest city in America."

Similar to the locations where they've been reported, the circumstances and facts surrounding each reported case of rape in SLO are different, but one thing remains clear. In many cases, investigations didn't result in criminal charges or prosecutions. New Times analyzed police logs, court cases, and other public records and found that, despite recording more reported rapes than any other law enforcement agency in the county, only a handful of SLOPD's cases resulted in felony criminal charges being filed in SLO County Superior Court.

The problem isn't limited to SLO city, SLO County, or even California. Law enforcement agencies and district attorneys across the country are struggling with how to investigate and prosecute such cases, attempting to grapple with myriad difficulties that mean the vast majority of perpetrators will never see the inside of a prison cell.

By the numbers

Law enforcement agencies across the United States submit data on the number and type of crimes in their jurisdictions to the FBI for its annual Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. That includes reports of rape. The UCR definition of rape does not include groping, or statutory rape in its statistics.

In 2016, the most current year of available UCR data, the SLOPD reported a total of 38 rapes to the FBI for the UCR. The number was higher than the total number of rapes reported by the SLO County Sheriff's Office (21 for the same year), and nearly five times higher than Paso Robles, the next most populated city in the county. SLO has topped the county in rapes for the last several years, accounting for a almost 42 percent of the 284 total rapes reported by the county's various law enforcement agencies between 2014 and 2016, according to the UCR's data.

ACROSS THE MAP In 2016 the SLO Police Department received 81 reports of alleged sexual assaults in the city, including 38 reported rapes. This map, based on SOPD call logs, shows a sampling of those rapes, which were reported across the city in residential, commercial, and even open space areas.

 

According to SLOPD Chief Deanna Cantrell, the city's age demographics likely play a role in the high number of rapes reported to the department each year. In an email response to questions from New Times, Cantrell said the average age of the victims in the rape crimes that the department investigated over the last year was 23.

"We have a large number of people in this age group with the presence of both Cal Poly and Cuesta [College]," wrote Cantrell, who became chief in 2016, "with many of those students living in the city, which may account for the higher number of incidents in this community."

Of the 38 rape cases the department investigated in 2016, fewer than half (14) were referred to the SLO County District Attorney's (DA) Office, which is tasked with determining whether to file criminal charges. Cantrell said that the department looks at a number of factors when deciding whether to refer a case to the DA.

"We consider the evidence in each case, and the willingness for the victim to prosecute before submitting it to the DA," Cantrell said. "We develop a case as far as we possibly can before submitting it to the DA for review and possible filing."

Cantrell said she didn't know how many of those 14 cases ended with the DA filing criminal charges, but a review of hundreds of court records indicates that it was relatively few. Of all the felony cases filed by the DA's Office in 2016, the records showed just three SLOPD cases resulted in prosecutors filing felony rape charges against a defendant. Only two involved victims who were adults. Those included felony rape charges against then 22-year-old Brandon Scott Ganguet and felony charges including oral copulation of an unconscious person against then 25-year-old Ryan Richard Espinoza. Both men ended up taking plea deals from county prosecutors. Espinoza pleaded "no contest" to a felony charge of assault with intent to commit rape and was sentenced to two years in state prison. Ganguet pleaded "no contest" to assault with great bodily injury and was sentenced to 364 days in jail and five years probation.

The third case, filed against then 44-year-old Matthew Roland Betts, included multiple charges in connection with his alleged sexual abuse of two underage victims. His case remains ongoing.

While 2017 UCR rape statistics will not be available until later this year, court records show that the DA's Office filed another three felony rape-related cases out of SLOPD's jurisdiction that year. Of those, only a single case, a felony attempted rape case, involved an adult victim.

Cantrell said there could be a number of reasons why cases may not get filed, and she expressed confidence in her department's ability to investigate such cases.

"To my knowledge, we have not received negative feedback from the DA's Office regarding the quality or viability of our cases. We have received positive feedback regarding the quality of our investigations," she said. "We understand that a number of these cases do not get submitted because of lack of evidence and/or a victim withdrawing from prosecution."

Reporting roadblocks

The gap between the number of rapes reported to police and charges filed by prosecutors in SLO didn't surprise retired police chief Fred Fletcher. Prior to retiring as the head of the Chattanooga, Tennessee, police department, where he revamped the way the agency handled sexual assault cases, Fletcher spent 10 years working for the Austin Police Department. There he did two stints in the department's sex crimes unit. Now, he does occasional consulting work for the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). According to Fletcher, investigating rape and sexual assault cases is a notoriously difficult task for police departments.

"There are countless nexuses where things can get difficult," Fletcher said.

click to enlarge WARNINGS After the arrest of an Uber driver accused of sexually assaulting four young women, SLO Police distributed this flyer of safety tips. - COURTESY OF THE SLO POLICE DEPARTMENT
  • Courtesy Of The SLO Police Department
  • WARNINGS After the arrest of an Uber driver accused of sexually assaulting four young women, SLO Police distributed this flyer of safety tips.

In addition to challenges of providing training and resources, Fletcher said that the impact of trauma on sexual assault victims could also make investigations difficult. For example, victims of sexual trauma will sometimes minimize their experience or omit details out of a sense of embarrassment or shame, behaviors Fletcher said inexperienced or improperly trained investigators could interpret as deceitful or misleading.

"If law enforcement is unfamiliar with the effects of trauma, the way a [sexual assault] victim presents themselves can be confusing and that can complicate things," Fletcher said.

And that's just the victims who are willing to report their attacks to law enforcement. According to data from RAINN, only about one-third of all sexual assaults are reported to police.

Jennifer Adams is all too familiar with the stumbling blocks that make it hard for sexual assault victims to report their attacks. Adams is the executive director for RISE SLO, a nonprofit organization that provides support and services to rape and sexual assault victims. Adams said there are a number of reasons why victims may not want to report their attacks to law enforcement, including a perceived stigma that still surrounds survivors of sex crimes.

"Part of it is the shame," she said. "We tend to blame victims of sexual assault in our culture. When something like this happens, victims can sometimes tend to blame themselves."

Adams also noted that the process of sexual assault investigations requires victims to describe a highly intimate, violent, and personal trauma to investigators.

"Just the initial interview can be very difficult, not even considering how many times they might have to tell the story again, including in court," Adams said. "Think about having to describe your most recent consensual sexual contact to somebody you don't know. ... No one wants to do that, let alone an experience that was traumatic."

RISE doesn't require victims who seek their services to report their assaults to law enforcement. Instead they provide information on how the process will move forward if they do and offer support to those who choose to take that path. Some survivors find the reporting process empowering, while others find it too difficult. Adams noted that victims have the ability to stop participating in the investigation at any time, which can halt a case or end it altogether.

"Locally, our law enforcement agencies and the DA's Office are very respectful of that. They let victims know that they are in charge of the process, and it can stop at any point they want it to," she said.

When asked about the gap between the number of reported rapes and criminal cases originating out of SLO, Adams indicated that it was a sign of a larger problem.

"What I will tell you is that it does not surprise me, but it's not specific to the SLOPD," she said.

According to RAINN's national statistics, only 310 rapes out of 1,000 are reported to police. Of those 310, only 11 of those cases will be referred to prosecutors.

"It is a nationwide problem with how we handle sexual assault cases," Adams said.

In the courts

Whether a police department investigates one or 100 rapes within its jurisdiction in any given year, the decision to file criminal charges is ultimately in the hands of prosecutors. In SLO County, it's the DA's Office that decides if cases from local police departments are strong enough to hold up in court.

"There's always been a sort of internal tension between law enforcement in the field and a prosecutor's office that's as old as the [criminal justice] system," said Eric Dobroth, SLO County assistant district attorney. "Law enforcement officers in the field make an arrest based on probable cause, but the DA's Office files a case when we feel we can prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt based on admissible evidence."

The process begins with a law enforcement agency responding to a reported crime, conducting an investigation, and collecting evidence. Depending on the type of crime and its seriousness, the DA's Office, which has its own investigators, can be looped in as well. When the agency feels it has developed a sufficient body of evidence, they submit it to the DA, which determines what charges it will file, if any.

"If we don't think that a case can be proven, then that case will be rejected," said Dobroth, whom SLO County DA Dan Dow picked to succeed longtime Assistant DA Lee Cunningham in late December 2017 after the latter retired. "There is a process through which we refer cases back to [law enforcement] agencies if we don't think there's enough there, and that happens quite frequently."

Making that call becomes even more difficult when it comes to rape and sexual assault. Dorboth said such cases cover a wide spectrum and are some of the most "sensitive, complex, and hard to prove" cases that the office's prosecutors tackle. The DA's Office has its own sex crimes unit, consisting of two deputy district attorneys who work such cases.

"We want a thorough and complete investigation before we pull the trigger on filing," he said.

When asked about the quality of the cases SLOPD was referring to the DA's office, Dobroth expressed confidence that the department was doing its job.

"It's been my experience that they do good investigations," Dobroth said, noting that the department was responsible for the investigation that led to the Jan. 17 arrest of 39-year-old Alfonso Alarcon-Nunez, an Uber driver accused of sexually assaulting four female students he'd picked up as passengers. Alarcon-Nunez was charged with multiple felony counts, including rape of an unconscious victim and rape of an intoxicated victim.

"I think that their detectives and investigative staff are some of the best," Dobroth said.

Nearly all of the sexual assault and rape cases that SLO County prosecutors filed between 2014 and 2017 ended with the defendant being convicted and sentenced. The bulk of the cases reviewed by New Times were resolved after the defendant pleaded "no contest," effectively a guilty plea, after making deals with SLO County prosecutors. Sentences handed down as a result ranged from 10 days to a year in jail, two to 15 years to life in prison, and between two and five years of probation, depending on the type of crimes and conditions of the plea agreements.

Dobroth indicated that the large number of pleas was a sign that the SLO County DA's Office was filing solid cases with strong evidence.

"I'd like to think that there's a significant number of pleas because these cases are vetted [by the DA's Office] at multiple stages," he said. "So by the time you get to a situation where it's in court, it's clear that someone has committed some sort of wrong."

Still, the cases filed by the SLO County DA's Office represent only a small portion of the 284 total rapes that the county's law enforcement agencies reported to the FBI between 2014 and 2016.

The fact that every crime can't end with justice for the victim wasn't lost on Dobroth.

"Just because a case cannot be filed in a criminal court doesn't mean that law enforcement or prosecutors don't believe the allegations actually occurred," he said. "One of the hardest things about being a prosecutor is having the gut feeling of knowing someone is good for a criminal allegation ... and not being able to file it because you don't believe you can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt with the admissible evidence."

Justice delayed

The criminal justice system's struggle to catch up with an evolving understanding of rape and sexual-assault related crimes also impacts victims, many of whom must cope with the fact that their attacker may never be brought to justice even when they fully cooperate with law enforcement.

"When you take the risk and put yourself through all the difficulties of reporting it, and there is a bad outcome, its devastating to a victim," said RISE's Adams. "It absolutely compounds their trauma. It's like they've been victimized a second time."

Morro Bay resident Desiree Kimball knows that feeling all too well. Kimball said she was raped in 2005 while attending a party in SLO. At the time, she felt it was important to report what happened to her to the police.

"I decided I wanted to do the right thing and report it," she said. "I didn't want it to happen to someone else."

She said that when she reported the crime to the SLOPD, the interviewing officer questioned the veracity of her story.

"He said something like, 'Make sure you get all your facts straight, because what happens is that sometimes girls get drunk and feel bad about it, and out of their guilt, they think they got raped,'" Kimball said.

Kimball said the case was eventually dropped due to lack of evidence. In response to questions about her case for a previous story, SLOPD officials told New Times they could neither confirm nor deny that they handled the case due to sexual assault confidentiality laws.

The experience still bothers Kimball. She said it was hard to move forward knowing that her alleged attacker would never be held to account for what he did to her. More than a decade later, Kimball said it was still very unlikely she'd report another assault to the police based on her previous experience.

"I felt really powerless. Like it didn't matter," she said. "I kind of tried to move on and forget about it. But I think about it sometimes and get angry. ... He basically got away with it."

According to Kimberly Lonsway, research director with the nonprofit End Violence Against Women International, failures at each level of the criminal justice system can cascade downward in a damaging cycle. For example, if prosecutors don't think they can persuade jurors to convict defendants in rape cases, they may end up charging fewer cases. If police see that prosecutors are trying fewer cases, then they might be disinclined to file such cases with the district attorney's office. When victims see that fewer cases are being investigated and prosecuted, they could be less likely to report a sexual assault or rape to law enforcement.

Lonsway sees it as a sign that there is still a long way to go in making progress on how rape and sexual assault cases are handled at all levels.

"If you take a very long view, since the '60s and '70s, sexual assault reporting has dramatically increased," she said. "But when you look at it, we haven't changed our criminal justice response accordingly."

But that doesn't mean there's no effort to make reforms. A new and vocal movement aimed at bringing issues of sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment to the forefront of the public discourse may also push law enforcement and prosecutors to change the way they handle such cases.

"We've never seen anything like this," Lonsway said. "I think that, as a culture, we are reckoning with this in a way we haven't in the last 30 years."

#MeToo

A crowd of young students gathered outside Cal Poly's student union on an overcast day in January. They listened as one of their own, student Katie Ettl, spoke from behind a wooden stand cut and painted into the shape of a clenched red fist. She was flanked on either side by tall banners proclaiming "#TimesUp."

"Rape culture needs to end," she said, drawing cheers and applause from the audience.

The speech was kicked off by an on-campus march against sexual assault and rape culture organized by 10 student groups. The march was yet another sign of the growing power of the #MeToo movement. Reports of multiple victims coming forward to share their stories of being sexually assaulted and harassed by high-profile men like comedian Bill Cosby, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and others, rocketed the issue to the forefront of public conversation, and placed increasing pressure on institutions like the media, government, and law enforcement to examine how they handle allegations of rape and sexual assault. According to retired police chief-turned-consultant Fletcher, that is not a bad thing.

"I think what the current environment will do is force accountability on our industry," he said. "If the broader society is more aware of the situation, they are going to expect more from us."

One of those groups expecting more from police is the students who marched at Cal Poly in January. The march was organized, in large part, to draw attention to concerns about the handling of sexual assault on and off campus by the university's police department and the SLOPD. In her speech, Ettl specifically referenced comments made by SLO Police Sgt. Chad Pfarr, who was quoted in an October 2017 New Times article stating that some victims "conjured" reports of rape after consuming too much alcohol. In response to the public outrage, the department said it would review Pfarr's remarks.

"When I hear something like this, ... I get angry," Ettl told the march's attendees. "I get angry that alcohol, an inanimate object, gets more blame for sexual assault by the university administration and the SLO Police Department than the actual abuser enacting violence."

SLOPD Chief Cantrell said that the department was in the final steps of conducting its investigation, but she said they could not share any personnel decisions because it would violate the Peace Officers Bill of Rights.

According to research director Lonsway, changes within the criminal justice system will also require a shift in the way society views rape and other sexual-assault related crimes, which have long been an uncomfortable topic.

"We have not taken sexual assault very seriously. ... We are all complicit in what has happened," she said. "It is a systematic problem, not just in our agencies, but in our communities."

Still, for sexual assault survivor Kimball, the movement has given her some hope that what happened to her is less likely to happen to someone else in the future.

"People are actually hearing victims out now. I can feel that there's a shift," she said. "I feel like cases in the future might be handled more seriously." Δ

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com. Staff Writer Peter Johnson contributed to this article.



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