2018 Year in Review: Silverthorne sex assault case and the #MeToo movement (No. 8)

Justin Erwin
Special to the Daily

Editors note: The Summit Daily is counting down the top stories and trends of 2018.

A night that began as an innocent and joyous celebration quickly spun out of control in a Silverthorne apartment on St. Patrick’s Day in 2016. For those inside, along with those close to them and the countless others who have been asked to recall their memories of the night, it would change their lives forever.

Perhaps the biggest story to come out of the courts this year was the ongoing adjudication of four separate cases of felony sexual assault, more than two years after a woman accused four men of engaging in group sex with her while she was too inebriated to consent. This year saw plea agreements, mistrials, partial exonerations, convictions and sentences as accuser and accused alike still await the incident’s legal conclusion.

On the night in question the accuser, following a fight with her then boyfriend at a bar in Silverthorne, found herself in an apartment with the four men — Paul Garvin, Michael Gelber, Justin Erwin and Ramon Villa. The four men engaged in sex with the woman, moments of which were captured in video on Villa’s cell phone.

According to the woman — whose testimony throughout the process has been characterized by spotty memories of an alleged hours long assault — the sex was non-consensual.

Several cases stemming from the incident have already been adjudicated. In March, Garvin was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison by Judge Karen Romeo following his conviction on charges of sexual assault, unlawful sexual contact and invasion of privacy in October 2017.

Gelber agreed to a plea agreement in June, admitting guilt to a felony count of attempted sexual assault, as well as two misdemeanor charges of unlawful sexual contact and invasion of privacy. Gelber was sentenced to one year in the Summit County Jail, in addition to eight years of supervised probation that includes treatment for sex offenders.

Villa went to trial in September, though a mistrial was declared after three days worth of testimony. During the trial — taking place in Eagle County due to prolific media coverage in Summit — a juror discovered a page in one of their notebooks containing notes from the trial of Justin Erwin, and Judge Frederick Gannett was forced to declare a mistrial.

Two months later Villa accepted a plea agreement, admitting guilt on charges of felony attempted sexual assault along with misdemeanor charges of invasion of privacy for sexual gratification and unlawful sexual contact. Villa is set to head back to court in Eagle County for sentencing in February.

Erwin is the last of the accused yet to receive a final verdict. In July, following an eight-day trial in Eagle County, Erwin was found not guilty on 11 of the 20 charges against him. Judge John McMullen declared a mistrial on the other nine counts — three counts of sexual assault, two counts of unlawful sexual contact, three counts of invasion of privacy for sexual gratification and one count of conspiracy to commit invasion of privacy for sexual gratification — after the jury reached a stalemate in deliberation. Erwin is expected to return to court in Clear Creek County to set a new trial date in January.

The case comes at a time of heightened awareness regarding issues of sexual assault and harassment, in light of the nationwide #MeToo movement and the Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office push to curb sex crimes in Summit County.

In 2017, 22 men in Summit County were charged with 28 sexual assault related crimes, nine of which involved children. Summit had more sex crimes than any other county in the district, and according to national estimates these cases likely represent only a fraction of the assaults in the county. Underreporting of sex crimes is common, as victims are often aware of the potential that they either won’t be believed or actively blamed for an assault.

But each year seems to bring more sex crimes to light, whether in court or in statistics gathered by forensic nursing units. At St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, the forensic nursing program has seen its patients triple since 2015. In 2017, Summit’s forensic nurses treated 175 patients, one-third of whom were victims of sexual assault. One-sixth of the victims were from Summit County.

Sexual assault crimes are also unique from a litigation perspective. In the Fifth Judicial District only two percent of all felonies go to trial, compared to 10 percent of sexual assaults. The process of proving a case publicly can also be daunting for victims, highlighting the importance of support services in the area like Summit Advocates for Victims of Assault and the TreeTop Center.

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