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Sexual assault cases difficult to prosecute

JOEL STONINGTON
pitkin county correspondent

ASPEN ” It was a few days after an incident that a 20-year-old female employee at Buttermilk went to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office to report a sexual assault.

From Jessica Lax’s account, another employee inappropriately touched her and verbally pushed her to be physical with him while she continuously resisted. The two were alone at the time, Lax claims.

“I was feeling very uneasy, confused and scared,” Lax wrote in her witness statement, which she provided to The Aspen Times. “I got up to leave and he said, ‘Don’t tell and I won’t tell.’ I did not see him the rest of the day. Right now I am hurt, angry, scared, confused and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else again.”

The report was written Feb. 9 and the case essentially was closed soon afterward by investigators. Without any witness and with a time lapse making physical evidence difficult to collect, the sheriff’s office had little with which to charge the accused with a crime. (Because no charges were filed, The Aspen Times is withholding the name of the accused.)

It’s a far cry from a different case handled by Pitkin County, in which Elidio Meraz-Lopez, 33, recently was charged with two counts of violent sexual assault. Meraz-Lopez, the first sexual assault charge in 2008, has had a warrant issued for his arrest after he failed to appear in court Monday.

The details in that incident have not been released by the Sheriff’s Office, just as details from the Buttermilk case have not. But in the Buttermilk case, Lax brought details showing how sexual assaults often are outside the reach of the law.

Cases of sexual assault rose in Pitkin County and Aspen last year; the county had three new cases under investigation since mid-January, including those of Lax and Meraz-Lopez.

But though the number of cases is rising, the ability to prosecute sexual assaults is low, with only two people charged with any kind of sexual assault in 2007 from either Pitkin County or Aspen. There were 15 reported sexual assaults in the county and city combined last year, up from nine in 2006.

One of those cases was resolved with a misdemeanor pleading of child abuse, and the second criminal case is pending.

But the Sheriff’s Office is spending significant time on the cases under investigation. Officers say sexual assault is one of the most difficult crimes to deal with on numerous levels.

“It’s a crime against a person, so we drop whatever else we are doing,” said Ron Ryan, an investigator with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.

When a sexual assault was reported to the Sheriff’s Office last month, detective Brad Gibson and Ryan logged about 20 hours straight, each, collecting evidence and working on the case. That was just the beginning. The investigation still is ongoing.

“Every minute that is ticking away is an erosion of evidence,” Ryan said.

Rape, or attempted rape, is also one of the most emotionally charged crimes, with victims often believing they are at fault in some way, according to law enforcement.

“The victim has suffered a traumatic event,” said Deputy District Attorney Gail Nichols. “It’s a very embarrassing and difficult thing to talk to other people about.”

That can be even more difficult when the victim is a child. A 2006 case fell apart when an 8-year-old victim of an alleged sexual assault changed a crucial part of her story the evening before trial, and Nichols subsequently agreed to a misdemeanor plea in the case.

Because most sexual assaults happen in private, behind closed doors, cases often rely on the testimony of one person.

“Many of them are ‘he said, she said,'” Ryan noted.

Nichols said it can take a great deal of courage for someone to come forward about a sexual assault, but stressed it is important for broader reasons.

“We are representing the entire community,” Ryan said. “If someone is committing violent crimes, we need to know.”

A key element for a case is having both the suspect and the accuser examined in Glenwood Springs by a nurse specially trained to collect evidence. Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) are trained to care for the emotional needs of a victim while also collecting crucial evidence.

The examination can sap crucial resources from investigating agencies because of the high cost, between $1,200 and $1,500.

In order to get a suspect to a SANE examination, law enforcement needs to obtain a search warrant. In two recent cases, Pitkin County has taken both the victim and the suspect to Glenwood for an exam.

“It’s just the amount of time it takes me to type an affidavit and see a judge,” Ryan said. “I give the judge a heads up because I’m going to be knocking on his door at 3 a.m.”

That kind of evidence can mean the difference between having a case to take to trial or not, according to Nichols.

Sexual assaults are made even more difficult by sentencing guidelines that require sentences for any kind of forcible sexual assault to make the range for prison to go up to life. Nichols said that means the department of corrections is left with the decision about when to release convicted rapists.

“The penalties are such that no one pleads,” Nichols said. “It’s an open-ended sentence and almost no one is getting out. It makes for a very difficult situation.”

The only case of sexual assault pending in Pitkin County District Court, other than that of Meraz-Lopez, involves an Alabama pilot accused of trying to rape a woman at the Inn at Aspen on New Year’s Day of 2007.

James Ryan Clifton, 37, faces felony charges of attempted sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact. He is due back in court March 17, for an arraignment. The case was continued for six months so the defense could investigate.

The other 2007 case was resolved with a guilty plea to two counts of child abuse. Fernando Morales-Valerio, 23, was sentenced to 30 days in the county jail and five years of probation. He originally was accused of sexual assault on a child 14 years or younger and unlawful sexual contact with a minor.

According to the 2006 National Crime Victimization Survey by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, sexual assault is among the most underreported crimes, with only 41 percent of sexual assaults reported.

3,802 sexual assaults were reported in Colorado in 2006, the most recent date for statewide statistics.


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