A UW-Stevens Point student woke up on Nov. 24, 2013, in her bed at her on-campus apartment to find a 21-year-old man on top of her. The young woman’s pants and underwear had been pulled down, and the man was grinding on her, according to court records.
The man, Forest Thill, also a student at UWSP, told police that the woman didn’t say no, and that he had been drinking before taking an unidentified pill later discovered to be Viagra. Tests later confirmed the presence of his body fluids on the victim’s clothing. (She is not named in court documents.)
Originally charged with a Class C felony, with a potential penalty of 40 years in prison and a $100,000 fine, Thill walked away with a $50 fine and a year on probation.
This July, nearly three years after the crime, Thill pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor 4th degree sexual assault, with a felony 3rd degree sexual assault hanging over his head if he breaks the rules of probation. He has since left the university, according to student records.
Much like the national response to the sentencing of Brock Turner, dubbed the “Stanford Rapist,” news of Thill’s light sentencing in July outraged many in the community, even sparking a protest at the courthouse. Thill had no prior criminal record, a fact that likely played a role in his sentence. But that didn’t quell the calls for a much stiffer penalty.
Did something go wrong? Maybe not, but it raises concerns.
The case was investigated by UWSP Protective Services, a department that employs some sworn officers and a much larger number of student security staff. Its leader is quick to point out that the agency itself is not a police department.
That’s part of the problem, says Portage County District Attorney Louis Molepske. Because of the Thill case, he’s now calling for all allegations of felony crime at UWSP to be investigated by Stevens Point Police.
While a crime on campus could be investigated by one of three agencies—UWSP protective services, the Stevens Point Police, or the Portage County Sheriff— campus Protective Services is typically the first point of contact for student victims.
Under a new memorandum of understanding being worked on by UWSP and the city, all felony complaints on campus would be referred to the Stevens Point Police. That would ensure complaints are investigated by an agency with the resources to handle serious criminal allegations.
The work on the memorandum highlights the complicated nature of handling sexual assaults on college campuses throughout the U.S.
A college’s main concern is to protect victims and respect their desire for how to handle the assault. For a myriad of reasons, that means most cases won’t go through the criminal justice system, but rather through university student conduct proceedings—a process critics say may not always serve justice.
The Stevens Point memorandum is meant to ensure that felony criminal charges, if pursued by the victim, will be investigated through local law enforcement and the courts, not campus security.
Why not just go to local police?
Going to the police or campus security is only one way to report a sexual assault on campus. Often, sexual assault victims go straight to the university’s Dean of Students office. Newly created in 2013, the UWSP department handles all kinds of student conduct issues.
Staff are tasked with doing what they can to ensure the safety and continuing education of students, says Troy Seppelt, UWSP Dean of Students. The department helps victimized students work through their options, secure counseling, change classes to avoid the alleged perpetrator, and even report it to the next level, such as Protective Services or the police— if that’s what the victim wants. “It’s a survivor-driven process,” Seppelt says.
Students accused of such crime will go through a sanctions process and, depending on the findings of the department’s investigation, could receive penalties ranging from suspension up to expulsion from the UW System. That would bar the violator from any UW campus, including 4-year and 2-year schools. “Our intention is to support the survivor and hold those students accountable who violate the policy,” Seppelt says.
Why not send rape cases right to local police?
There’s a few reasons, including Title IX. Many are familiar with Title IX for providing equal sports opportunities, but there’s more to it. Title IX is part of a federal law requiring universities to ensure that no student is excluded from educational opportunity based on their gender. That includes doing everything possible to support victims of sexual assault, which, according to the Supreme Court, is gender-based violence and therefore falls under the goal of equal opportunities in education.
In practice, that means whether or not to pursue criminal charges for sexual assault is usually decided by the victim. It also means that, when a victim pursues criminal charges, many campuses handle the investigation themselves so they can at the same time protect the student’s educational interests.
But many assault victims don’t press criminal charges. A criminal investigation can be devastating for the victim. Only a small percentage of criminal cases involving rape—1 in 20, nationally—result in a prison sentence, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and in cases where the victim was unconscious, prison sentences are almost nonexistent.
Some victims of sexual assault believe the best thing is to simply separate themselves from the perpetrator, and put the incident behind them. The Dean of Students office can make sure the two don’t have classes together or live in the same dormitory. The perpetrator could be transferred or expelled. This process also helps the university track repeat offenders, Seppelt says.
If a victim wants to report the incident to police and pursue a criminal investigation, a UWSP student could do one of two things: Either contact campus protective services, which would investigate the claim; or contact the Stevens Point Police Department. The criminal investigation and the Dean of Students Office’s investigation can occur at the same time, Seppelt says.
UWSP also tries to get on the front end of sexual assault. All new students are required to complete an online course called “Consent and Respect.” The programs are designed to lay out clear expectations about what is and isn’t considered consent, and to inform students how to intervene if they witness concerning behavior.
UW-Marathon County has a similar process, says Kristine McCaslin, Deputy Title IX Coordinator. Title IX employees help survivors with resources including medical care, support services, counseling and information about how to file a complaint both through the campus procedure and law enforcement, depending on the victim’s wishes.
Few reported incidents go through the D.A.
Last calendar year, UWSP had 24 incidents of sexual assault reported to university personnel, down slightly from 27 in 2014. That number, however, includes any kind of reporting, including someone telling staff about an incident that occurred off campus or before he or she was a student.
The number UWSP report under the Clery Act—a law that requires reporting campus crimes to the government—are much lower. In 2014, for instance, UWSP reported seven incidents of rape on campus, including six at university residence halls.
Reporting requirements changed in 2014, so data collected prior to that is different. In 2013, there were five “forcible sex offenses” reported on campus. The previous year, zero were reported on campus, though four forcible sex offenses were reported on campus-adjacent property.
Clery Act reports for 2015 should be available soon, Seppelt says.
Portage County District Attorney Louis Molepske
Molepske says he has received only three requests for review on cases and one request for criminal charges from the UWSP campus in the roughly four years he’s been district attorney. That’s far fewer than the number of forcible sexual assaults reported in 2014 alone. This suggests that the vast majority of rapes cases are handled through the student conduct process at UWSP.
Under the current process, local law enforcement, including the DA’s office, say they have little idea what crime is happening on campus, outside of annual Clery reports.
“Unless I’m made aware of what’s happening on campus by UWSP Protective Services, I will never know the full extent of crime happening on campus,” Molepske says.
Molepske would like to see the office work more closely with the university to combat crime. The DA’s office holds regular trainings with local law enforcement to bring them up to speed on new laws and procedures so that the two organizations can better work together—so law enforcement knows what the DA requires to try a case and ensure justice is served. “It’s up to us to bring it to their attention,” Molepske says.
Those kinds of updates don’t happen as regularly with UWSP Protective Services.
Local law enforcement officials say they often invite Protective Services to their trainings but rarely hear from them. Protective Services Chief Bill Rowe says just because they don’t participate in outside training doesn’t mean they aren’t training at all.
His department currently has three sworn officers and about 70 administration and security staff, Rowe says. It’s now hiring more officers, and Rowe says ultimately he would like to have five to seven more on staff.
Most offenses Protective Services handles are minor, Rowe says, and run through the student conduct process, most often resulting in sanctions by the university. UWSP Protective Services officers tend to be rookies or have limited experience, Rowe admits. And there are currently no detectives on staff.
Critics say a lack of experience could hamper the investigative process of a sexual assault case on campus.
Typically, when a felony crime happens in a community, a law enforcement officer would call in a detective who’s trained to investigate a higher level of criminal charges.
That’s why it would make sense for UWSP to have an understanding that Stevens Point Police would handle felony level cases, Molepske says. “If you’re a person on campus, you should feel you have the same resources to protect you, and, if you’re a victim, the same resources to investigate your crime so the District Attorney can successfully prosecute your case.”
Who handles investigations in the UW system depends on the campus. UW-Madison, for instance, has its own police force with detectives and court services liaisons. Its website lists both the UW Police Department and the Madison Police Department as contact options for sexual assault. UW-Eau Claire has a Center for Sexual Assault Awareness on campus, and advises contacting local law enforcement.
A rape on campus
Thill didn’t have much to say at his plea and sentencing hearing. Portage County Assistant District Attorney Cass Cousins didn’t give the judge much detail about the case. Cousins admits the prosecution recommendation of 12 months of probation and a $50 fine plus court costs is “unusual” but noted that the state and defense attorneys largely agreed on the sentence.
The only point of disagreement was expungement — Thill’s attorney, Jonathan Smith, asked for the case to be stricken entirely from Thill’s record if he successfully completed probation. Cousins disagreed, as did Judge Thomas Flugaur, who otherwise went along with the recommendation. Thill is not required to register as a sex offender.
Was the sentence appropriate? Those protesting the sentence didn’t think so, nor do those critical of sexual assault sentences nationally.
There are a number of factors to consider, Flugaur said during Thill’s sentencing. Thill had no prior criminal record. A court-ordered psychosexual assessment revealed Thill to be a low risk to reoffend.
During sentencing, judges are required to consider probation unless doing so would depreciate the gravity of the offense, compromise the safety of the community, or not meet the offender’s rehabilitation needs. Probation would almost never be considered in a murder conviction, for example. The offense is too severe.
The sticking point in sexual assault is the severity of the offense. First, second and third degree sexual assault is considered a felony under Wisconsin law, meaning the sentence carries a potential prison sentence, as opposed to county jail time. Convicted felons lose certain rights such as the ability to buy a gun or to vote until their sentences are completed. The debate nationally is whether sexual assault should be considered a more severe crime with a stronger penalty, regardless of the perpetrator’s background.
Many people, both within and outside of Stevens Point, are angry that someone facing 40 years for such a crime would ultimately receive a $50 fine and probation, and not be required to register as a sex offender.
The timeline of Thill’s case is unusual. The assault was first reported in December of 2013.
Protective Services officers interviewed Thill two months later, on Feb. 13, 2014.
The criminal complaint wasn’t signed by Rowe until a year and a half later, on Nov. 30, 2015.
Rowe refused to discuss details of the case, including the lag between the time of the offense and the signing of the criminal complaint. He says there are “case dynamics” and that no case is cut and dried. Variables, such as victims or suspects leaving for semester break, or waiting for crime lab results, can delay proceedings, he says, though he wouldn’t say whether those things happened in this case.
Though the time lag is unusual, it’s not unheard of in a sexual assault case, says Milwaukee defense attorney Jonathan Smith of Kohn, Smith and Ross.
Smith, who represented Thill in the case, says about 60% of his cases involve sexual offenses. These are difficult to resolve and tend to get “muddy.” There’s rarely clear-cut evidence, and they often turn into “he said, she said,” Smith says.
During Thill’s sentencing hearing, Smith also pointed to the lag as unusual. “This matter did get issued almost two years after it occurred, and [Thill] did respond to it,” Smith says.
Judge Flugaur also pointed to the challenging nature of sexual assault cases during Thill’s sentencing. “I’ve seen these types of cases go to trial, and both parties are affected negatively, even if they don’t go to trial,” Flugaur said. “The victim in this case has been negatively affected for her lifetime… and so have you, Mr. Thill, because of drunken behavior while in college.”
‘These things are happening’
Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza says the city often works with the university to resolve certain issues that relate to students. He cites a newly painted crosswalk and walk button to safely lead students across Division Street as an example.
Details of the memorandum between UWSP and Stevens Point police are still being worked on. City Attorney Andrew Logan Beveridge says he was contacted about a month ago about the memorandum, which he says will lay out clear expectations of how city and campus police handle crime scenes. It’s his expectation that the memorandum will include language similar to what Molepske called for: that city police will handle allegations involving felony crimes.
Wiza says he’s confident that the two groups can work together to strengthen the process and help lead to better outcomes for students. “I think everyone needs to be on the front end of this,” Wiza says, talking about the debate nationally about campus sexual assault. “These things are unacceptable. People need to be cognizant that these things are happening.”