Crime

Another Lawrence rape case. Another KU woman who says authorities don’t care

It’s been more than a year now since the young woman told police she was raped — forced to perform a sex act she did not consent to.

Since that night in April 2018, near the end of her spring semester at the University of Kansas, she has dealt with chronic physical and emotional pain.

Yet, she said, working with the Lawrence institutions designed to keep her safe — the police, the university and the district attorney’s office — has been almost as traumatic as the rape itself.

Her story reflects an emerging pattern of complaints over how Lawrence law enforcement treats women who report sexual assault.

In September, The Star reported that a Lawrence detective decided in less than a day that another KU student lied when reporting being raped last fall. That woman is now charged with making a false report, which, advocates say, could have a chilling effect on other victims coming forward. Her case goes to trial Oct. 28.

In August, The Star reported that a KU guest lecturer has not been criminally charged despite police reports filed by four women this year alleging sexual assault.

According to the latest woman’s story:

A Lawrence police detective shamed her for the circumstances surrounding her assault, telling her that these things happen when young women come to college and “experiment.”

The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office assigned a prosecutor to speak to the family about the case who is known for mishandling other cases. That prosecutor told her she would not bring charges because the man said the sexual incident was an accident. In addition, she said, the prosecutor told her it was his word against hers.

The University of Kansas failed to tell her when her alleged rapist re-enrolled and said it could not take any disciplinary action against him or protect her.

The Lawrence Police Department and University of Kansas declined to comment on specific cases. District Attorney Charles Branson said his attorneys determined that there was not sufficient evidence to move forward with the case.

After fighting for justice and a sense of safety for over a year, the woman said she finally gave up and transferred to a university out of state.

“They don’t support victims,” the woman told The Star. “I think that’s the bottom line is that they don’t do their job. They do not protect victims. They only protect perpetrators.”

The Star generally does not name possible victims of sexual assault without their permission. The Star also generally does not name people accused of sexual assault unless they are charged.

The incident

The woman said she and her alleged rapist had been on a date before. He asked if she would be comfortable having anal sex. She said no.

On their second date, she said, in April 2018, while they were having consensual sex, he anally raped her.

Injured and in shock, she texted a friend “SOS” and asked him to pick her up.

The next day she went home to spend time with her parents. Her mother quickly realized something was wrong.

“She was just acting really strange ’cause she’s usually really, you know, open or whatever,” her mother said. “And I knew she was in distress.”

At the urging of her mother, the woman went to Lawrence Memorial Hospital to complete a sexual assault exam, and she made a report to Lawrence police.

She told police she did not want to pursue charges. It was the end of the semester, and her focus was on making it through finals, despite what she was going through, she said.

She sought help from a social worker, Merrill Evans, who is employed by the university to support sexual assault victims. The woman provided The Star Evans’ notes from their meetings from May 2018 to May 2019. Those records corroborate much of the woman’s timeline of events.

According to the documents, the woman indicated she wanted to “finish the semester, do well in classes and then process what happened.”

“I think I was in so much shock and just trying to heal myself for that first while that I just had to focus on myself,” she said.

She returned home for the summer, went to therapy and separated herself from all of it.

When she returned to campus last fall, however, the woman said she couldn’t shake the idea that her alleged rapist would hurt another person.

“That feeling just started to manifest in me that, you know, this is gonna happen to someone else,” she said. “He’s getting away with this, and I can’t live with the fact that someone else would have to go through this too.”

That September, while meeting with Evans, she called the Lawrence Police Department and said she was ready to pursue her case, according to medical records.

“She is feeling more empowered and wanting to go through these processes,” said Evans’ notes from that meeting.

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Text messages between the woman and a Lawrence detective show the officer failing to respond to a message about her case for over a month. Submitted photos, redacted

The police

Throughout her dealings with Lawrence police, she said, she felt as if she was under investigation.

The department declined to comment on the case but referred The Star to information about its policies, provided for previous stories.

The department says it has officers and detectives trained in investigating crimes of a sexual nature, and it works closely with the Lawrence Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center in some of that training.

The department’s policy for investigating those cases requires that victim interviews be performed by those trained officers only “whenever practicable.” It is unclear how many Lawrence police officials have that specialized training.

All officers are given basic sexual assault investigation training during basic recruit academy.

“We strive to minimize victim trauma and aggressively investigate all alleged incidents of assault,” the department told The Star last month.

The woman, however, said that she did much of the work on her own investigation. She said Detective Lance Flachsbarth, who was assigned to her case, told her he could not move forward unless she picked up her own rape kit from the hospital, handed over her text messages related to the case and provided sensitive information from her medical and therapy records.

Evans’ notes from meetings with the woman confirmed she was “gathering records” for the police investigation.

The department’s policy recommends obtaining the rape kit but says nothing about a need for text messages or the victim’s personal records.

Flachsbarth declined to comment on the woman’s story and referred The Star to the Lawrence Police Department media unit.

The detective didn’t interview the alleged rapist until April 2019, seven months after the woman decided to pursue charges. It is unknown whether the man was asked to provide the same sort of personal information she was.

The detective interviewed her at least twice, she said, once for three hours as he asked her questions about her conduct the evening of the assault: What did she do? What did she say? How long did the rape last?

She said she had a panic attack immediately after the interview. The detective showed no signs of being trained in handling victims of trauma, she said.

“The way that it should be if it was trauma-informed, I would not have been scared. I would not have been shaking in the interview. I would not have been scared about what I was going to say, even though it was the truth,” she said.

“They make you feel vulnerable. More vulnerable than you should when you already are just horrified. You’re having to relive this horrible thing that happened to you.”

According to Evans’ medical records, the woman at one point requested emotional support when she called the officer.

The detective stressed the importance of her honesty, she said, so she was unabashedly truthful, even when she was ashamed of what she was saying.

In response, she said, the detective would tell her that she should have made better choices the night she was assaulted. He said these things in front of her mother as well as advocates who accompanied her to meetings with law enforcement.

“You know, well, girls just come to college and just experiment. And then things like this end up happening,” she said he told her. Twice.

Such conduct is contrary to trauma-informed practices but not uncommon for departments with inadequate training, said Lisa Avalos, a law professor at Louisiana State University who works with End Violence Against Women International to develop training documents for law enforcement.

“Officers that are not well trained, who are inexperienced, there’s often a lot of gender bias that gets passed down through police,” she said.

“(Police) don’t understand rape,” she added. “They interview victims as though they’re suspects, and they interrogate them, and that’s a very counterproductive thing to do because rape victims have a lot of trauma from the assault.”

The woman’s text messages with the detective, provided to the Star, showed him ignoring her questions and requests for updates on the investigation for weeks at a time.

She was consistently told that the department was busy working on a murder investigation. The detective at one point told her, “Your case is not my priority right now,” she said.

“It was just like a little slap in the face,” she said.

The district attorney

In April, the Lawrence Police Department passed the woman’s case on to the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office. Chief Assistant Attorney Amy McGowan was the senior attorney available to meet with the family.

The woman was optimistic, thinking, “Finally this is over. I have a woman prosecutor. They’re gonna look at all the evidence I’ve gathered.

“I was like, let’s go. I’m ready. I’m ready to tell her this is what happened and I’m ready to go to court. I’m ready to do what I have to do to make this happen.”

McGowan, however, has a history. She was removed from her trial duties in Douglas County in 2013 after a judge set aside the sentence in a case she prosecuted because she made improper comments during the sentencing.

McGowan was also a prosecutor responsible for the wrongful conviction of Ricky Kidd in Missouri for a murder he did not commit. In August, Kidd was released from prison after 23 years.

Branson, the district attorney, said McGowan was allowed to return to regular courtroom duties in 2014 — after one year. Branson said the Kansas Supreme Court never found reason to discipline McGowan.

In June, the woman said, she and her mother met with McGowan, and it started well enough. However, by the time her father arrived 15 to 30 minutes late, he would find his daughter sitting outside the office sobbing.

McGowan, she said, started by telling the woman that she believed her and that her story matched what her alleged rapist had told police in his interview.

Next, the woman said, McGowan read a transcript from that interview. He claimed that they had only met once, not twice — a statement the woman says is directly contradicted by the texts on her phone, which police had insisted she turn over.

She said he also claimed that anal intercourse occurred “by accident.” And, she said, he claimed to have mistakenly had anal sex with two or three other women who simply said “ouch” when it happened.

According to the woman:

The prosecutor said she didn’t want to put the woman through a lengthy court battle. The woman argued that after everything she had been through, she could handle it.

And McGowan said that because it was his word against hers, she would not prosecute the case. The woman said McGowan didn’t respond when she pointed out the discrepancies between his interview and the texts she provided.

When she asked whether the office had reached out to the other women the man said he had “accidentally” had anal sex with, McGowan said she was not going to go looking for victims.

“At that point I had never been … more upset or more angry in my entire life,” she said. McGowan “read me the whole entire transcript of my rape from my rapist’s perspective to then tell me, ‘You know, we’re not going to do anything to help you.’

“It should have been enough that I said no. I said no and that’s, that’s it. And then the next time, he raped me. Not only did I have all this evidence, but I had been telling the truth, and he said all these lies and I said no.”

When the woman’s father learned what had happened, he barreled into McGowan’s office and demanded an explanation.

He said McGowan told him that as a steward of public resources she only prosecutes about 20% to 25% of the sexual assault cases that land on her desk, and she refused to try the case.

Branson explained that multiple senior-level attorneys reviewed incident reports, police interviews, detective reports and lab results including the rape kit before making a decision.

“The victim reported the suspect intentionally penetrated her anally during consensual vaginal intercourse. The suspect claimed it was accidental during the act of consensual vaginal intercourse,” Branson said in an email to The Star. “The State believes that penetration occurred. The State does not believe there is sufficient evidence to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the act was intentional.”

He said that the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Standards advises prosecutors to file charges only if they believe that they are supported by probable cause, that evidence will support conviction beyond reasonable doubt and that the charge is in the interest of justice.

By the time his office closed the criminal case, the family could no longer bring a civil suit against the alleged rapist. The one-year statute of limitations for assault had passed.

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The Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center houses offices for the Lawrence Police Department and the county court system. Douglas County

The University of Kansas

At the same time that the woman was working her way through the legal system, she was also navigating the university’s Title IX office — the Office of Institutional Opportunity & and Access.

Last October, according to medical records, she met with the office to officially report the rape.

Her alleged rapist was not currently a student at the university, so Title IX officers could not take any action against him, according to Evans’ medical records. However, they told her they would flag his name in the system and alert her if he tried to re-enroll, the woman said.

In March 2019, she and her friends started seeing him on campus and around Lawrence, and she was experiencing “psychological and physical pain” as a result, according to Evans’ notes.

That April, after police interviewed him, he began asking her friends about her, according to medical records.

The day after his interview, the woman said, she saw him sitting outside her classroom in Watson Library, staring at her through the window.

The woman said she had already checked multiple times with university officials, who told her he was not enrolled.

Though the Lawrence police detective told her that she “had nothing to fear” and that the man wasn’t a threat to her, she said, she sought a protective order from the Douglas County District Court.

As she was walking into the courthouse with her paperwork, she received a call from the Title IX office: He had re-enrolled back in January.

His name had not been flagged in the system. The person who was supposed to do it had quit, she was told.

The university said it cannot comment on the office’s specific actions but provided links to the school’s sexual assault and harassment policies.

Even though the man was back on campus, the woman said university officials told her they couldn’t take any action against him because the alleged assault had taken place when he was not a student.

But the court issued an order preventing the man from doing anything on KU’s campus besides traveling directly to and from classes and exams.

When the woman returned to campus in August and asked for further protections, she said university officials told her they could not help. She said she was forced to leave the school while her alleged rapist stayed.

She said KU’s Title IX investigator “just sat there and looked at me in silence while I started crying,” the woman said. “I said, ‘So I have to leave. I’m the one that has to leave.’ And she said, ‘Yeah.’”

“After going through that with them and then after leaving that thing at the DA, I was like, ‘I cannot stay here anymore,’” she said. “They are not doing anything to protect me or help me, and this is traumatic, triggering and I’m just going to be miserable. I really tried to stick it out. I stayed for a whole other year and tried to stick it out. Which then led to me getting stalked and harassed by my rapist.”

Her father said KU should be focusing on safety.

“When you think about as a university how you’re going to protect young people, you shouldn’t be walking the technical lines of things,” he said. “You should be looking at how do we protect our students.”

watson library ku.jpg
A woman says that she caught the man who raped her watching her through a window while she was in class at Watson Library at the University of Kansas. University of Kansas

The impact

After a year and a half, the woman said she walked away from Lawrence with a sense that the institutions in the city were more interested in protecting young men accused of rape than protecting the victims.

“It makes you doubt yourself, which is so horrible, which is so awful because you have to unlearn so much shame that happens after your assault already,” she said. “And for them to re-traumatize victims like that is just unfair and not OK. And the fact that they’re getting away with this just makes my blood boil because I know I’m not the only one that this has happened to.”

She is one of many women to accuse law enforcement and the university of ignoring rape cases and mistreating women.

Last year it took the Lawrence Police Department 90 minutes to decide that a woman had lied about being raped. Now, she faces felony charges for making a false report.

Comic book writer and KU guest lecturer Jai Nitz has not been criminally charged despite police reports filed by four women this year alleging sexual assault. The women told The Star that they did a large amount of the work on their own investigations.

In 2017, KU paid $395,000 in a settlement after two students sued the school for violating Title IX over accusations that a KU football player had sexually assaulted them on separate occasions during the 2014-2015 school year. The assaults occurred in campus residence halls, and the women, who were freshmen at the time, said the university failed to protect them.

With the latest incident to come to light, the woman’s mother said her understanding of reporting sexual assault has changed.

“I was under the impression, too, that women don’t want to come forward,” she said. “Well, how many women have come forward and had the same experience? … It’s not that they don’t come forward, it’s that they’re treated so horribly.”

The woman said she believes she was treated this way so that she would simply go away.

“He messed with the wrong person,” she said.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How did The Star find out about this woman?

Star reporter Katie Bernard wrote a story in September about another KU student who said she was raped in Lawrence but was then charged with making a false report. Her defense attorney was quoted throughout the story, and the second woman’s family contacted her. The attorney referred them to Bernard.

How did the reporter research the story?

Most of the information came from interviews with people mentioned in the story — the woman and her family and law enforcement officials, and a national expert. The reporter also used documents and text messages provided by the family. She requested records from the Douglas County District Court and Lawrence Police Department, such as the woman’s case file, but those requests were either declined, never answered or the records were not immediately available.

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Katie Bernard covers Kansas crime, cops and courts for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star in May of 2019. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.
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