U.S. Department of Justice officials said Monday they see "troubling signs" in a letter Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst wrote, casting blame on a Missoula rape victim and attempting to stop publication of author Jon Krakauer's book "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town."

"We saw that. We are not missing that," said Deputy Chief Christy Lopez, who works in the Justice Department's Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division.

"Those are troubling signs, and we're going to be focusing on that to make sure this doesn't stall," Lopez added.

Representatives of the DOJ met with the Missoulian on Monday morning and later hosted a news conference in Missoula City Council Chambers, lauding the accomplishments of both the Missoula Police Department and University of Montana in their response to sexual assaults, per a 2013 agreement.

They called MPD's change a "transformation," noting that the department has fully implemented the plan outlined in the 2013 agreement and that UM is on track to be in full compliance as well. Both Police Chief Mike Brady and UM President Royce Engstrom were invited to speak at the event. 

Under the leadership of former County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, the Missoula prosecutor's office reluctantly entered into an agreement with the DOJ and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox last year, promising an improvement in sexual assault prosecutions.

A newly elected Pabst, however, was notably absent from the speakers' lineup Monday. She sat in the back of the room during the news conference and later held an impromptu, closed-door meeting with DOJ representatives in a separate room.

After about five minutes, she emerged and swept past reporters from Reuters, KGVO and the Missoulian, refusing to answer questions.

During the earlier meeting with the Missoulian, Justice Department representatives said the County Attorney's Office has made headway in working with "seasoned sex-crimes prosecutor" Anne Munch and in-house victim-witness coordinator Cathy Dorle.

But institutional changes don't occur overnight, said Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division.

"We know there's a lot more work to do with the County Attorney's Office," Gupta said. "We are not going to leave until we get this done right." 

***

U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter said during the meeting that only 2 percent of victims who were inebriated while being sexually assaulted ever file a report with law enforcement. 

UM student Kelsey Belnap is numbered among them. 

In the letter to delay the publication of Krakauer's book, Pabst used Belnap's story to highlight the "one-sided journalism" she alleges Krakauer used in investigating sexual assault prosecutions in Missoula.

"Kelsey Belnap claims she was gang-raped by University of Montana football players," Pabst wrote. "Krakauer believes her. The investigation showed that Kelsey got very intoxicated with her best friend, made out with the other woman in front of the men, and then engaged in what appeared to all present to be consensual oral and/or vaginal sex with 3 men.

"No doubt she was traumatized. She remembers very little." 

The suspects said sex was consensual and their accounts were consistent with Belnap's former friend, who was in the room at the time of the alleged assault, Pabst wrote.  

"The women were clearly intoxicated, but facts in the investigation show they were not incapacitated, as defined by Montana law," Pabst said. 

Two hours after the rapes, when she was admitted to the hospital, Belnap's BAC registered 0.219. DNA from four men was found on or inside Belnap, not three men as Pabst wrote in her letter.

Belnap contends that even in her highly inebriated state, she pushed the first man away and told him, "No, I don't want to," before he grabbed her jaw and forced her to perform oral sex on him.

After that, she remembers very little. 

"Of import, Kelsey told the detective that the men would not have been aware that she was not consenting," Pabst said. 

Belnap, however, says the original question asked to her by detectives was after the first encounter, when she did resist, would the rest of the men believe the encounter was consensual? 

During Monday's meeting with the Missoulian, Gupta said now that the police department has fully complied with the DOJ's stipulations, her department is "very much focused" on the County Attorney's Office. 

"We think that there's a lot of room for improvement," Gupta said. "And we know that we think there are steps that absolutely need to be taken. We have other tools to resort to."  

***

In its praise of the police department, the DOJ announced that rape reports are up 54 percent in Missoula since 2012, indicating an increased level of trust between community members and police. 

However, it remains to be seen if prosecutions of rapes are also on the rise. 

As stipulated in the 2014 agreement between the DOJ, the Montana attorney general and the Missoula County attorney, Pabst is required to submit a quarterly report that tracks sexual assault cases in the office.

The numbers don't show a complete portrayal of changes in prosecution rates, in part because some of the cases are still being adjudicated. 

However, the data do reveal that since June 2014, eight sexual assaults have been charged, while 16 have been referred to the prosecutor's office for "review only," meaning a detective investigated it but didn't recommend charges.

It could also mean that a suspect hasn't been identified and all leads have been exhausted, or the victim has decided not to pursue the case.

Of the 16 cases reviewed by prosecutors, four were referred back to law enforcement for further investigation. One of the cases prosecutors decided to pursue (not included in the eight mentioned above) was declined because the victim wouldn't respond to the detective's attempts at communication. 

AG Fox's communication director, John Barnes, noted his office will be publishing the second quarterly audit report later this week or next week, but gave the Missoulian a preview of the information that will be released. 

During the past quarter, the Missoula County Attorney's Office did not receive any cases in which local law enforcement made a charging recommendation.

Further, there is an approximate 25 percent increase in the percentage of cases that the MCAO is returning to the MPD for further investigation in this quarter compared to last quarter, he reported.

He also said that out of the 13 cases that law enforcement referred to the prosecutor's office for closure, the county attorney sent seven (53 percent) back to law enforcement for further investigation.  

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