ALT LAKE CITY -- Hundreds of untested rape kits are sitting with the Salt Lake City Police Department.
On Tuesday, they launched the "Code R Kit Project" to review every sexual assault evidence kit in their custody and report to the public the reasons those kits have not been sent to the State Crime Lab for analysis.
The department has committed to clearing the backlog of nearly 700 untested rape kits. Four detectives will be looking over every detail of each case -- again -- to determine if the kits warrant processing at the crime lab.
"Every single kit is going to be one person, four to six hours, where they have their body treated purely like a crime scene and that's really devastating. It was for me," said Tiffany Thorne, a sexual assault survivor. "It's hard to feel like after all this time that this is a point of progress but I understand that it is and I recognize that they're trying to do the right thing here."
For the first time in history, SLCPD is allowing public access to how rape and sexual assault cases are handled.
The "Code R Kit Project" has its own page on the department's website.
"I think it demonstrates a desire to be open and clear and demonstrate to the public that these cases and the victims of these cases are folks that the department cares about," said Alana Kindness, Executive Director of Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.Read more
SALT LAKE CITY — Sexual assaults in Utah are going underreported, but the work of a BYU professor is helping to convince lawmakers and law enforcement to pay more attention to prosecuting such cases.
Julie Valentine, a sexual assault nurse examiner and nursing professor at BYU, found that only 6 percent of cases in Salt Lake County have been prosecuted. Valentine examines rape victims and collects forensic evidence for cases. As she examined victims for prosecution, she would not hear back about any follow-up and wanted to find out why.
“We would do these examinations — we’d do hundreds — and it was rare that we would hear anything about the cases. I only testified in one case,” Valentine said.
Valentine attended a forensic conference in Puerto Rico, where Rebecca Campbell, whose research focuses on violence against women, spoke on prosecution outcomes when a sexual assault nurse examiner program exists in a community.
“I went to the conference and was blown away and thought, ‘We have to do something about this,’” Valentine said.
She, with the help of two other students and a BYU ORCA grant, conducted a study on prosecution outcomes with sexual assault nurse examiners throughout the state of Utah. She examined 270 random study cases out of a total of 1,657 cases in Utah, spanning from the year 2003 to 2011. The outcome of the study was published in 2013.
In that time span, only 6 percent of all sexual assault cases were prosecuted. That number is supported by a recent review in Salt Lake City that found police there had a backlog of more than 600 rape examination kits. Connecting DNA in the rape kits to known offenders tracked by law enforcement is often the first step to prosecution. Police Chief Chris Burbank promised the Salt Lake City Council earlier this month that his department will expedite processing the kits and publicly report how many kits have been reviewed, according to the Associated Press.
According to Valentine’s study, the most commonly written reasons for not screening a case were because the victim did not want to pursue, was unavailable for contact, the suspect was unknown, or the victim would not cooperate.
“The data shows that there are numerous reasons given by law enforcement officers as to why they could not pursue a case,” said Holly Mullen, director of the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City. “We hear that the victim is uncooperative, changed her mind, changed her story.”
According to Mullen, the victim is traumatized so deeply, they have trouble remembering details about the incidents.
“They may not remember for several days or several hours. They’ll interview her right after she gets raped, and then she’ll come back and change the story, and so the police will say that she’s lying or changing the story.”
“There’s a real issue with training, especially law enforcement, especially prosecutors, about what a victim goes through when assaulted,” Mullen said.
Here’s a well-known fact connected to the problem: animals will often play dead as a defense mechanism when under attack.
It turns out the human brain does something similar when being assaulted, or more specifically, sexually assaulted.
Donna Kelly, a sexual assault prosecutor in Utah County, said, “There’s one part of your brain that functions in the midst of trauma. It’s the amygdala. It’s called the primitive brain. It’s focused on survival.”
The brain, according to Kelly, is not focusing on colors or details. It won’t remember the color of a perpetrator’s shirt or what they looked like, because it’s focused on survival.
“A very common response is freeze,” Kelly said. “You can’t scream, you can’t move, you can’t fight — you can’t do what people think rape victims should be doing.”
Because of such response, there’s significant memory loss, according to Valentine.
“They don’t remember what the suspect is wearing because their mind is so focused on other things,” Valentine said.
Valentine and Kelly are looking to study together with the West Valley City Police Department regarding developing a law enforcement training program on trauma-informed care in sexual assault cases.
“Since the release of the study findings, West Valley City Police Department has changed its policy so that all sexual assault cases are screened with the District Attorney’s Office and all collected rape kits are submitted to the state crime lab,” Valentine said.
The study with the West Valley City Police will be a pilot study, according to Valentine. It will allow her to examine victims from different angles and understand more how to help them in what they go through.
The training will also help law enforcement officers know how to question victims. Kelly has been able to do some training in this area already, helping the officers understand what the victim is going through and how to question them.
According to Kelly, often the officers react, saying, “Oh. Wow. We didn’t know. We see all these weird behaviors, and we didn’t know what was causing it.”
The police try to sort out which things are a result of trauma and which things that are a result of lying, which is difficult when the victim can’t remember properly what happened.
“Nobody wants to do a bad job,” Kelly said. “They’re just not aware of this science that has recently come out, and it’s my job to go around and talk to them about the world of science.”
Alana Kindness, the executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, works on training for any kind of sexual assault advocacy. This includes training to direct service providers, like rape recovery center counselors. The coalition also helps provide technical assistants to nurses for a coordination program.Read more
SALT LAKE CITY -- Salt Lake City Police put the cuffs on two suspects accused of kidnapping a New York City woman and forcing her into prostitution.
The victim, a 23-year-old woman, escaped her captors by calling police at a downtown hotel.
The manager at the Double Tree hotel near 100 West and 600 South, told FOX 13 the suspects were staying at a hotel across the street but the victim managed to get away and ran across 600 South to the Double Tree where she used a cell phone to call police.
Once officers arrived, the victim said she was forced into sex trafficking and was kidnapped from the streets of New York City two to three weeks ago.
"She's been held in captivity this whole time and isn't quite sure how much time has gone by. At some point, she was knocked unconscious and woke up in a different state," said Sgt. Robin Heiden with Salt Lake City Police.
Police say she was beaten and forced into prostitution by two individuals who made stops in Pennsylvania, Denver and Grand Junction before settling in Salt Lake City Sunday night. The three were headed next to Las Vegas or California, police say.
However, Sunday night around 9:30 p.m., police say the victim escaped and police found her hiding behind a pillar at the Double Tree. It's unclear how she escaped or where she got a cell phone but police worked through the night and arrested the suspects at another downtown motel.
Jean Joseph of New York was arrested on charges of rape, aggravated assault, aggravated human trafficking and kidnapping, all felony charges.
Tara Pinnock was also arrested on charges of human trafficking.
Police say Pinnock helped Joseph book dates for the victim.
"Salt Lake City tends to be a thoroughfare," Heiden said.
That's partly because of Utah's location, said the executive director at the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Abuse (UCASA)
"We're at the crossroads of two major east and west corridors, the I-15 and I-80," said Alana Kindness. "We're also surrounded by several states that as we do have lots of rural areas so we see a lot of individuals who are smuggled or trafficked into the state for labor purposes but who are also vulnerable to sexual exploitation."Read more
SALT LAKE CITY — Several victims were outraged Tuesday over the sentence for a former Utah jail guard, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting female inmates.
Former Wasatch County Deputy and jail guard, Christopher Epperson, will no longer be able to work in law enforcement. His attorney said he has two kids and a baby on the way. However, one of the victims, Deb Hatch, said when the sentencing came down she received no closure.
"They might as well just have kept us both in jail or in prison because that's what this is like," Hatch said. "I'm a prisoner in my own home."
Hatch has been out of jail since January 2011, but she said she feels she can't get away.
"I'm awake most nights," Hatch said. "When I'm awake, I have nightmares. I wake up and my whole body hurts."
Hatch said the day she entered the Wasatch County jail in March 2010, the sexual abuse by Epperson began. She said it started with inappropriate comments and then she said it escalated.
"How many times do you think he touched you?"
"I have no idea," Hatch said.
Epperson faced five counts of deprivation of rights under color of law. He pleaded guilty to two counts.
"Most certainly he feels badly that he didn't act more prudently," said Epperson's attorney, Steven Killpack.
Killpack claims unsupported allegations were made by the victims. Epperson received no jail time but was sentenced to three years probation and 8 months of house arrest — a punishment Killpack believes is fair.
"He had requested a transfer out of there," Killpack said. "He was trying to be a good officer, a new officer, a young man and trying to do it right, but felt like he wasn't given the proper tools and as a result made some mistakes."
However, state prosecutors disagree and said Epperson used his position of trust to coerce and control the victims. But in court, the judge questioned Hatch's credibility.
Sam said, "This case is fraught with 'she said, he said.' It's fraught with the possibility of conduct that was lured, encouraged and invited."
"I think he deserves to go through half of what me and Julie have and what my family has gone through," Hatch said. "We're taught to go to police officers and everything will be ok. If anyone hurts you, if anybody touches you go to a police officer and everything will be ok."
The executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault said it matters even more to the case that the victims were inmates because they're more vulnerable, and they can't legally give consent.
SALT LAKE CITY — Activists shuffled their feet and took a stand against violence toward women.
V-Day, a worldwide women's rights activist organization, partnered with several Utah organizations Thursday for flash mobs, dancing and speeches aimed to raise awareness about violence.
The group joined the Domestic Violence Council, Women of the World, University of Utah Women's Resource Center and the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault for demonstrations at the state Capitol, the U. campus and IKEA in Draper.
SALT LAKE CITY — White, yellow, pink, blue and purple shirts hung Monday at the state Capitol.
Some featured words as colorful as the shirts, while others expressed messages of hope. Each of the messages were written by victims of sexual violence or domestic abuse. They were on display as part of the Clothesline Project, a nationwide effort to increase awareness of the impact of violence against women.
"Half a heart of love is stronger than all eight of your hate-filled hearts. I choose love," one shirt read.
"I never thought it would happen to me. It did," another read. "These problems are real. Silence is your enemy. Talking is your medicine."
According to the Utah Department of Health, 1 in 3 Utah women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime, and 1 in 8 will be raped.
Rapes reported to Utah law enforcement increased by 10 percent from 2011 to 2012, said Alana Kindness, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, in the "Utah Department of Public Safety: Crime in Utah" report for 2012.
"That means more survivors are coming forward," Kindness said. "We don't necessarily think that there's more assaults happening."
The Clothesline Project is another opportunity for victims to come forward and share their story.
"A really important piece of this is for other survivors to see the stories of those who have continued to move on and through it and thrive in their lives," Kindness said.
One of the most difficult aspects of abuse is the shame with which victims are left, she said. Seeing victims' shirts side by side "helps them know they're not alone, but also that they don't have to be ashamed," Kindness said.
Dozens of Utah's chiefs of police also gathered in the Capitol rotunda Monday for a luncheon. Kindness said having the nonprofit community together with law enforcement, lawmakers and the voices of survivors "helps make the connection that everybody has a role to play in ending sexual violence."
Woods Cross Police Chief Greg Butler said the luncheon is an opportunity to hear from other police departments, discuss worthy causes and make sure state lawmakers are aware of their top priorities.
"It's always great for law enforcement to see what's going on out there and seeing a different side," Butler said of the voices represented on T-shirts.
"It connects them," Kindness said. "(It) gives them a chance to connect with the survivors of the crimes that they are responding to and that their departments are responding to."
Many of the shirts on display were donated by the Utah Valley University Equity in Education Center, which held a Clothesline Project event in October.
Lujean Marshall, project leader at the center, said hundreds of shirts are made each year.
"We don't censor them, which is why some of the wording is very, very graphic," she said. "These people are in different stages of recovery, so if they're still in the anger phase, it's going to be really intense."
Marshall said one of her favorite shirts depicts a set of eyes peering out from the darkness with the words, "For everything bad that happens, something better rises."
Below the words, a pink flower is rising up from the ground.
"There are things that can be done," Marshall said. "It has to start with awareness in the community. There's a lot more of it going on than anybody realizes."
The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault is hoping to see HB286 pass, Kindness said. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, would require elementary schools to provide training and instruction on child sexual abuse prevention and awareness.
Kindness said the coalition is also hoping for the support of $150,000 in ongoing funding for sexual assault services proposed in the governor's budget.
A newly released police report shows the extent of child sexual abuse perpetrated against the three women of the piano group The 5 Browns went far beyond the three counts their father, Keith Brown, went to prison for.
The report and court documents detail abuses that happened over a span of at least eight years, hundreds of times for at least one of the daughters, and across state lines. Keith Brown exchanged emails about the abuse with his daughters before they went to police, the report stated.
The abuse would last some time for one daughter, and as that daughter got older, Brown would shift his focus to younger daughters, Deputy Utah County Attorney David Sturgill said last week after speaking with the Brown family.
Yet the egregious crimes may never have fallen into the public eye. Reporters following up on a car accident involving Keith Brown stumbled across charges filed against him just days before. On the way home from a Valentine's Day dinner with his wife, Brown drove his Porsche off the road and plunged 300 feet into a creek in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Police said he had been traveling too fast for the area.
"The position of a case of this magnitude was to have it resolved as quickly and quietly as possible," said Steven Shapiro, defense attorney for Keith Brown. "The intention was to not have this be any sort of a media event."
Sturgill said Brown's prosecution was treated "like any other." He pointed out it's hard enough for a victim of sexual assault to come forward, let alone have others know about it. "If I had my way, it wouldn't be reported on [by the news]," Sturgill said.
But Alana Kindness, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said media reports of abuse are advantageous to other victims. She believes the women of The 5 Browns coming forward have made a difference for other victims of a similar crime.
"I was very grateful to those young adults for coming forward," she said. "People say, 'Oh, I see this can happen to anyone.' It doesn't matter what neighborhood they come from or what family they come from. … It helps break down those misconceptions about who perpetrators are and who the victims are."
Being properly informed on the behavior of a suspect and the behavior of a victim "is critical in helping [other] victims to understand and not feel shame," Kindness said.
When Elizabeth Smart emerged from a federal courthouse Friday in Salt Lake City, she celebrated not only her own triumph but also the possibility of justice for all victims.
Eight years after Brian David Mitchell kidnapped her and subjected her to near-daily rapes, a jury found Mitchell guilty.
Advocates for survivors of sexual violence say Smart's willingness to confront her offender under the nation's gaze will help empower other victims and dispel the stigma often associated with rape. Other observers say they have been inspired simply by her courage, poise and strength.
"There is such shame associated with sexual violence, and to have it being talked about so openly and publicly is almost a relief to some," said Heather Stringfellow, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City. "[Smart] held [Mitchell] accountable, and that's a very powerful message."
In Utah, 29 percent of women older than 18 have experienced some type of sexual assault, according to a 2007 survey by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. One in nine sexual assault incidents is reported to the police.
Survivors often fear they won't be believed or that their own behavior will be questioned, said Alana Kindness, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
"I've been really impressed with [Smart's] candor and her ability to express herself and talk openly about her experiences," Kindness said. "It does give an opportunity for people to see that you can talk about it and that you can talk about it and be supported."