A U.S. Justice Department investigation into the handling of sexual assault cases by the Missoula Police Department, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and the University of Montana will be announced Tuesday.
Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said he received a letter Monday informing him of the investigation, and was visited by representatives from the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Mayor John Engen confirmed the investigation, but declined to elaborate on its focus, as did Van Valkenburg and a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
UM President Royce Engstrom said he likewise was informed about the probe Monday, and that it was his understanding that the university and the other two agencies would be the focus.
“That’s my understanding,” he said, when asked if the investigation would center on the handling of sexual assault cases at UM and the city of Missoula.
“Whatever they want, we’ll cooperate fully,” he said.
Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir referred all queries to the Justice Department, but said – as did Engstrom – that he would be present Tuesday when the announcement is made.
Questions over the handling of sexual assault cases have embroiled both agencies and the university ever since UM announced in mid-December it had hired an outside investigator to examine reports that two UM students reportedly were drugged and gang-raped earlier that month by several male students.
That investigation eventually grew to include nine alleged sexual assault cases involving students that occurred between September 2010 and December 2011. Still other reports were made after the university began its probe that concluded in March.
In addition to the Justice Department investigation, the federal Department of Education is evaluating a complaint alleging harassment by members of the University of Montana Grizzlies football team. That complaint names UM, the Grizzlies football team, Engstrom and former President George Dennison, as well as an athletic director and football coach.
The last two names were redacted from the copy of the complaint obtained by the Missoulian, as was the name of the complainant. Engstrom fired football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day in March.
Long before the Title IX complaint was filed with the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, some of the women involved in the sexual assault cases criticized the way the Police Department and County Attorney’s Office handled their cases.
One woman said she went to police immediately after she was assaulted, possibly after being drugged, allegedly by members of the UM Grizzlies football team in December 2010.
After a police investigation, the County Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute, citing a lack of evidence. The Police Department has said it then met with Pflugrad to let him know no charges would be filed.
Another woman said that then-Chief Deputy County Attorney Kirsten Pabst LaCroix testified on behalf of the alleged assailant at a university hearing that resulted in the man’s expulsion. LaCroix, who left the County Attorney’s Office in February, would not comment on the hearing but said the office was acutely aware that “when we file sex charges against someone, it’s going to ruin their life. Filing charges rings a bell that cannot be unrung.”
Two other female UM students, who said they were assaulted in separate attacks last fall, complained to Police Chief Mark Muir about how their cases were handled by police.
Each woman said she was told her case lacked enough evidence to warrant filing charges.
The women said that when they complained to Muir, he talked to them about the challenges in prosecuting rape cases, and cited research he said showed a high incidence of false reports in sexual assault cases. He later sent one of the women – and the Missoulian – a copy of the research he cited.
That was in January. A month later, Muir and other police officers, along with state, county and UM law enforcement, stood beside Engen and Engstrom as they kicked off a campaign to encourage sexual assault victims to call 9-1-1. Pflugrad and O’Day also attended that news conference.
“We’re creating an environment where reporting the crime of sexual assault is always the correct, safe choice,” Engen said at the time.
The news conference followed an avalanche of criticism for the university’s handling of yet another rape case, this time allegedly involving a Saudi student who was informed by the university in February that another student had accused him of sexual assault.
That man fled the country before his alleged victim made a report to Missoula police.
Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, email@example.com or @CopsAndCourts on Twitter.