U.S. Rape Probe Shocks Town Known as Montana’s Berkeley
As she tends her inn on the bank of Montana’s Clark Fork River, Meg Estey says she welcomes the federal government’s investigation of 80 reported rapes in three years in the college town she calls home.
“I have never in my life felt concerned about my safety in Missoula,” said Estey, an innkeeper at Goldsmith’s Bed and Breakfast. “This is alarming, knowing this is going on in your community. To know the book is being opened and evaluated is a good thing in our minds.”
The U.S. Justice Department disclosed the number of sexual assault complaints on May 1, while announcing it will investigate how local law-enforcement agencies and the University of Montana responded to rape allegations.
The review is the latest in a string of sexual assault news that has dominated local headlines in Missoula, population 67,000, since December.
Until this week, attention focused on 11 reported rapes in 18 months involving college students at the University of Montana and a string of allegations against players on its football team. The events led to an investigation commissioned by the university and to campus forums, a new code of conduct for athletes and the requirement that all students take online tutorials on sexual assault.
The Justice Department said it is examining whether gender discrimination affected investigations and prosecution of sexual assaults by the university’s Office of Public Safety, the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office.
“Late last year, the department became aware of serious concerns that alleged sexual assaults of women, including but not limited to students at the University of Montana, were not being investigated in a prompt and adequate fashion,” said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
The news sent shockwaves through Missoula, where businesses are preparing for the busiest season of the year in an area famous for its scenic rivers and mountain views, nestled between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
“Absolutely we are concerned,” said James Grunke, chief executive officer of the Missoula Economic Partnership. “We want students, citizens and visitors to feel safe.”
“But this is not an ongoing criminal investigation, or that there’s some sort of rapist running around Missoula,” he added. “It’s a review of the process of how sexual assaults were reported.”
County Attorney Responds
Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said he thought federal investigators were overreaching.
“We don’t investigate the reports; we review the investigation that’s been done by law enforcement, and we decide whether there is sufficient evidence to file charges,” Van Valkenburg said in an interview. “We do a good job. We’re not changing anything, and we don’t have anything to apologize for.”
Missoula Mayor John Engen said city agencies would work with the Justice Department.
“I’ve pledged the city of Missoula’s cooperation in ensuring the investigation is thorough and complete,” Engen said at a May 1 press conference in Missoula. “I have tremendous faith in the men and women of the Missoula Police Department and no knowledge of any failures on our part to investigate sexual assaults against women.”
The investigation is similar to reviews that found a pattern of gender discrimination in the New Orleans Police Department and mishandling of sex crimes in the Puerto Rico Police Department and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona, the Justice Department said.
Each year, about 2 million people visit Missoula -- situated at the confluence of three rivers and surrounded by seven wilderness areas -- with half of those spending the night, said Barbara Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula, the area’s convention and visitor’s bureau.
“This community is very unusual in Montana,” Neilan said in a telephone interview. “It’s a very liberal, all encompassing community of all types of people.”
Students walking to class May 2 amid swirling snowflakes near the campus’ landmark clock tower said the rape investigations shattered their sense of safety.
“When things like this happen, it kind of bursts your bubble,” said Maddy Miller, 20, a sophomore majoring in social work. “Coming from Cincinnati, I thought it would be 100 percent safer here.”
Miller said she now shies away from running at night on a trail that parallels the Clark Fork River.
In town, bar patrons said they were concerned the Justice Department’s investigation would give the haven for artists and writers -- festooned with maroon and silver signs celebrating the university’s winning football team -- a bad name.
“I hate the thought that word is getting around that Missoula is like this,” said Gary Daley, a 56-year-old construction worker. “This is ruining our city’s reputation.”
Trouble in Missoula started as early as 2007, when members of the university’s popular football team, known as the Grizzlies, were arrested on charges including assault, robbery, burglary and aggravated kidnapping.
In 2010, running back Beau Donaldson was accused of sexually assaulting a woman sleeping on his couch after a party. He was arrested in January and charged with sexual intercourse without consent, according to an affidavit.
Donaldson pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial in September. His attorney, Milton Datsopoulos of Missoula, didn’t respond to a telephone message seeking comment.
The state’s oldest university, with about 16,000 students, retained retired Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to investigate the allegations. In a five-page report released on Jan. 31, Barz recommended that all university personnel receive training on how to report and respond to sexual-assault allegations.
“The UM has a problem of sexual assault on and off campus and needs to take steps to address it to insure the safety of all students,” she said in the report.
In March, the university announced it wouldn’t renew the contracts of Athletic Director Jim O’Day and head football coach Robin Pflugrad, who led the team to an 11-3 record last season.
The Montana allegations are reminiscent of a scandal at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2004, when several women said they were sexually assaulted by football players. After months of investigations, including a grand jury report, the school’s president resigned. The university settled with two of the women.
“When you have so many incidents in such a short period of time, there’s a big problem,” said Kimberly Hult, a partner at Boulder-based law firm Hutchinson Black and Cook, who represented one of the women. “Universities are increasingly under fire for not taking strong action to protect women.”
Colorado officials involved in the investigation said the publicity surrounding such a rape probe leads to months of distractions.
“There were thousands of e-mails and phone calls and open- records-act requests,” said Ken McConnellogue, a vice president for communications at CU-Boulder. “When you have something of this magnitude, there’s no question it affects an organization from top to bottom.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Jennifer Oldham in Denver at Joldham1@bloomberg.net; Amy Linn in Missoula, Montana, at
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeffrey Taylor at Jtaylor48@bloomberg.net