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Survivors, Nationwide Guard officers again invoice to shift intercourse assault investigations to BCA

Survivors, Nationwide Guard officers again invoice to shift intercourse assault investigations to BCA

After a night of drinks with colleagues in the Minnesota National Guard, the leader of Bonnie Daniels’ unit invited her up to his office.

They chatted about their mutual love for country music and he showed her a few YouTube videos. Soon enough he was asking her to dance, but she told him it was late and she should leave. Then he turned off the lights, locked the door, lay down on his cot and told her to come over to him.

“He was four ranks above me,” Daniels said she thought at the time. “If I don’t go over to him, am I going to be in trouble tomorrow?”

He pulled her down on top of him, but she said she made it clear she was not going to sleep with him. When Daniels was finally able to get up to leave, he kissed her and put his hands down the front of her pants before letting her go.

She reported the assault in January 2016 and it took two years to investigate and discharge the perpetrator from the National Guard. He’d served 18 years by that point and Daniels said he had done this to other women, too. Those years took an emotional toll on Daniels, but her story and others prompted the Guard to evaluate its sexual assault cases and procedures. And now a bill moving through the Legislature aims to create a clear process for investigating assaults when the perpetrator and victim are both members of the Minnesota National Guard.

“For two years, there’s no closure. There’s no healing with a pending investigation,” said Daniels, who no longer serves in the Guard. “I’m really hoping this bill will reduce the time it takes to investigate these cases.”

There is no consistent and timely system for handling sexual assault cases in the Guard, which has roughly 13,000 members spread out across more than 60 communities.

Complaints first go to local law enforcement because members live and work all over the state.

The Guard or a victim will refer cases that occur at the Camp Ripley training facility near Little Falls in central Minnesota to law enforcement in Morrison County.

But every county handles these cases differently, and several women told the Star Tribune they felt their stories were not taken seriously by local law enforcement when they reported what happened.

Minnesota National Guard member Sara Kostek said she was dismissed by Morrison County officials when she told them her first sergeant grabbed and kissed her after a day of training at Camp Ripley.

The Morrison County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment for this story.

Like Daniels, Kostek’s case then went to the Office of Complex Investigations, which is part of the National Guard administration in Washington, D.C. In both cases, that process took roughly two years and resulted in the discharge of the offender, but it’s a process that’s rarely used.

Between 2014 and 2019, the Guard fielded 112 reports of sexual assault. Nine of those cases resulted in criminal charges from local law enforcement offices.

During that same period, the Guard referred 22 cases to the Office of Complex Investigations, and nine were substantiated.

In 2019, former Maj. Gen. Jon Jensen appointed Guard leaders to work with sexual assault professionals to review how they respond to assaults and harassment.

The review found the Guard needs to speed up investigations and make it easier for victims to access information on how to report a case of assault or harassment.

“It’s just nerve-racking; you don’t know if they believe you or not,” Kostek said. “You don’t know what is going to happen.”

The bill at the State Capitol would require any sexual assault case involving two members of the Minnesota National Guard to be investigated by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a statewide law enforcement agency.

“I think it’s consistent with what we hear about in a lot of sexual assault cases and from victims who report and nothing happens,” said Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, who sponsored the bill in the House.

“It’s not just one county that’s the problem. Even if they are investigating it, even if they are talking to the victims and taking their report seriously and investigating it, there’s not a consistent timeline across the state.”

Kostek was one of the first people to come forward with her story, and she told it at town halls the Guard held about sexual assault and harassment.

She’s relieved the legislation is moving forward and hopeful it signals a more systemic shift in the Guard. “I’m hoping it will change the culture,” she said. “I’m hoping that more victims will feel comfortable coming forward.”

The bill is supported by officials in the Guard, who think sending all cases directly to the BCA will make the process more efficient and accountable to victims.

The Guard doesn’t have internal criminal investigative capabilities and this would fill that gap, said Don Kerr, the executive director of the Minnesota Department of Military Affairs.

“Additionally, it will allow the victims of sexual assault within our organization a nonbiased investigation with more rapid results compared to investigation methods currently being used,” Kerr said.

Nearly all of the cases of assault in the Guard were male offenders preying upon women who were lower in rank.

In Texas last year, more than a dozen officials were fired or suspended from the Fort Hood military base after pressure from Congress and following the revelation of a yearslong culture of sexual assault and violence against female members.

“Is that going to cause someone to not reach out to someone like me when they need to? Are they going to lose faith in the program here in Minnesota?” said John Thompson, the sexual assault response coordinator with the Minnesota Guard, who’s hopeful that creating a more responsive system will give comfort to women who are already in the Guard or thinking about enlisting.

Sheyla Scholl reported her rape by another Guard member to Crow Wing County in 2016 and prosecutors didn’t pursue any charges.

She then met with Moller to talk about the need for a bill to fill in the “procedural gaps” she saw in her own case.

Now that it’s actually moving forward, she’s feeling “a little bit of everything” — relieved, excited, anxious.

“It’s needed to happen for a while,” said Scholl.

“I’m hoping it will spark a little bit more of a motivation to continue this work and continue this reform.”

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach

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