Four Austin Women Reported Their Sexual Assaults. But Police And Prosecutors Failed To Hold The Perpetrators Accountable.
While a debate over defunding the police rages in Austin, a new lawsuit reminds its residents that assault cases in the city are routinely ignored.
In 2019, W.D. dated a man in Austin, Texas, who unbeknownst to her, began making plans to gang rape her. W.D. said the man used social media sites to find men willing to participate in the assault. Later, her boyfriend blindfolded her and he, as well as multiple strangers, penetrated without her consent. W.D. said that after confronting her boyfriend about the assault, he raped her again.
Despite the fact that W.D. provided the Austin Police Department with a trove of evidence—including text messages confirming the rape such as one from her boyfriend that said she “should be scared” because “I raped you”—the Travis County district attorney’s office instructed Austin police to drop the case because W.D. ’s prior consensual sex with her boyfriend “invalidated” the rape claims. (The Appeal is identifying W.D. only by her initials because or the brutal sexual assault she says she endured.)
W.D. is one of four women who filed a lawsuit on Sept. 14 in Travis County Court contending that the Austin Police Department has failed “thousands of women in Travis County” for years.
The class-action gender-discrimination suit against Travis County, the city of Austin, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, former DA Rosemary Lehmberg, Austin police Chief Brian Manley, and former Chief Art Acevedo, alleges that “for years female victims of sexual assault in Austin have been disbelieved, dismissed, and denigrated by the APD [Austin Police Department] and DA’s Office.” The lawsuit blasts the district attorney’s office for “systematically refus[ing] to investigate sex crimes against women based on biased assumptions about their gender.”
The plaintiffs say police and prosecutors failed to investigate at least one date rape, repeated sexual assaults that required hospitalization, and at least one gang rape that they reported to Austin police while Acevedo, who now runs the Houston Police Department, was in charge. (The lawsuit also alleges that Austin police didn’t investigate an additional date rape under Manley.)
W.D.’s claims in the lawsuit present a portrait of law enforcement failures in sexual assault cases. “Essentially,” the lawsuit says, W.D “presented the APD with a written confession to multiple crimes”—and her rapist, who led a brutal and calculated gang rape, went unpunished.
The lawsuit comes as Austin’s Democrat-dominated City Council is sparring with state conservatives over defunding the local police department. In mid-August, Austin became one of the few major cities in America to substantively defund its police. On Aug. 13, the City Council unanimously voted to cut nearly $150 million from the department’s then $434 million budget and partially reinvest that money in other social services. (Austin Mayor Steve Adler, however, recently said that “in an over $400 million budget, we really voted to cut about $20 million.”) Texas Republicans quickly struck back. “We can’t let Austin’s defunding & disrespect for law enforcement endanger the public & invite chaos like in Portland and Seattle,” Governor Greg Abbott tweeted in September.
The Austin Police Association, the city’s police union, later tweeted that crime victims, including victims of sexual assault, would be “the ones who are harmed most” by the cuts.
But the September lawsuit claims that sexual assault victims in Austin were failed long before this year’s budget cuts. “Women who survive sexual assault in Travis County therefore endure multiple traumas,” the lawsuit says, “first, the criminal assault itself; second, an investigation—assuming one even occurs—that puts the victims under a microscope and subjects them to invasive physical exams with little to no urgency for justice; and finally, the additional trauma of watching their cases and hopes for justice languish and ultimately vanish, due to the inaction and refusal to act by the law enforcement personnel charged with obtaining justice for them.”
In a 2018 case from the new lawsuit, a woman told police that she was drugged and raped at a conference held at an Austin hotel. Despite the fact that police obtained a video that showed her entering the hotel with a man who fit the description of her rapist and that “the footage also showed” that she “was unable to stand or walk independently”—police decided to “exceptionally clear” her case “without ever speaking to the victim.”
The Austin Police Department did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal. Through a spokesperson, Moore defended her record as Travis County DA and said she believes she will win the case.
“I am confident that this Office has consistently fought for the constitutional rights of all citizens, including sexual assault victims, thoroughly and vigorously,” she said in an email. “I expect this lawsuit to be as unsuccessful in state court as it was in federal court.”
According to the lawsuit, about 1,000 sexual assaults are reported each year in Austin, home to just under 1 million million people and the University of Texas’s flagship campus. Of those complaints, the lawsuit states that just 25 annually are actually completed by law enforcement. The lawsuit also alleges that Austin police and prosecutors treat claims of sexual assault from men with far more seriousness and that rape kits and other key evidence that could be used to solve cases sit dormant once collected by officers.
The lawsuit makes particularly damning claims about Acevedo’s tenure in Austin, which lasted from 2007 to 2016. During that time, according to the lawsuit, the police department “maintained a wall in its sexual assault unit on which numerous pictures of female victims were posted—each one purportedly representing a ‘false report’ that officers had unilaterally determined had no merit.” Officers, the lawsuit says, “posted pictures of these ‘debunked’ female accusers on the wall as a matter of pride, as trophies of their ‘investigations.’” In May 2014, body cameras caught two Austin officers joking that, even if assault victims reported their rapes to the police, cops “can’t un-rape you.” And the lawsuit alleges that the department didn’t even take sexual assault allegations of female officers seriously: “Chief Acevedo dismissed allegations of sexual assault between officers as ‘bad sex’ or something the female officer just regretted after the fact, despite evidence demonstrating injury to the female officer.” (Acevedo’s office in Houston did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.)
The suit also accuses several prosecutors of making derogatory statements about female sexual assault victims, including calling some women “unworthy” or “bad victims” if, for example, they had previously consented to sexual contact with people who later raped them. In one case, the lawsuit alleges that prosecutors claimed they could not bring multiple charges against Saffa Bell, a man accused of five separate rapes. Even though they had taken a male victim’s case to trial, prosecutors said they could not prove the female victims’ cases because a jury would not believe the women did not consent to having sex with Bell. While men typically account for just 8 percent of sexual assault claims in the county, the lawsuit notes that half of the cases that Moore’s office takes to trial involve male victims.
“The culture at the DA’s Office supports the belief that a man would not willingly identify himself as a victim of sexual assault unless it were true,” the lawsuit says, “while simultaneously focusing on ‘false reports’ and the possibility of implied consent where female victims are concerned—even when the perpetrator is a stranger.”
This is not the first time Austin police, the Travis County DA, or Acevedo have been accused of failing to properly investigate sexual assault cases. In 2016, the department’s crime lab, which processed DNA evidence including rape kits, was shut down after state auditors found that employees were untrained and that testing procedures were so poor that they imperiled thousands of criminal cases in the county.
In 2017, Austin reported the highest number of rapes of any major city in Texas; the Travis County DA’s office told KUT, Austin’s NPR affiliate, that it had investigated 600 sexual assault cases that year. Of those cases, KUT reported that only one led to an actual conviction. That same year, the Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT), a group founded in 1992 to help survivors navigate the criminal legal system, wrote a scathing letter accusing Moore of being complicit in a “system that condones rape and does not hold perpetrators, or itself, accountable.”
And in 2018, a separate group of eight women filed a federal class action suit against the city of Austin on behalf of approximately 6,000 women who reported their assaults in Travis County. But in February, federal Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed the case in part because he felt any federal ruling would “disrupt” Texas’s “efforts at policy reform on matters of paramount public concern.”
As part of that case, lawyers for former chief Acevedo, and current chief Manley argued that the women had not demonstrated that the police department’s policies violated “clearly established law” and, “both Manley and Acevedo are entitled to qualified immunity” in regards to the women’s civil rights complaints.
While that lawsuit is still being appealed, the four women in the September class action suit decided to sue the department in county court.
“Some of these women, their claims are still within statute of limitations, so it’s an option for the DA to open those cases up and we believe they at the very least they should consider that,” Jennifer Ecklund, an attorney representing the four women, told The Appeal. Ecklund, who also served as an attorney on the federal case, added that “the issue is systemic gender bias. What the plaintiffs want is for survivor voices to be heard—and to train and actually create a culture that is the polar opposite of what exists right now.”
Few, if any, major American police departments take sexual assault cases as seriously as they should, if they take them seriously at all. According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, for every 1,000 sexual assaults that occur in America in a given year, just 230 are reported to police. Of those 230 cases, just 46 accused perpetrators are ever arrested. Just 5 complaints actually end in a felony conviction.
In 2019, The Appeal reported that New York City Police Department appeared to be categorizing many sexual assault claims as “unfounded”—or false—when officers had actually never investigated the cases. One woman, Rachael Stirling, told The Appeal that after she reported being sexually assaulted by the man she’d been dating, Manhattan Special Victims Division Detective Lukasz Skorzewski didn’t arrest him even after he confessed on a controlled phone call to penetrating Stirling without her consent. Skorzewski himself later pleaded guilty to departmental charges after groping and kissing a sexual assault victim. He was suspended for 10 days and docked 30 vacation days.
There are also ongoing Internal Affairs Bureau investigations into misconduct by Special Victims Division officers. The bureau has repeatedly raided various division offices, including one raid that occurred in December.
Sexual assault survivors are calling for the resignation of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who they say has demonstrated little, if any, interest in prosecuting sexual assault cases—especially those involving powerful men. Vance failed to prosecute the film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2015 and for years his office avoided charging wealthy pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. In 2011, Vance’s office argued that Epstein, who died in jail last year, deserved to have his sex offender status reduced in New York State.
In 2016, Vance’s office struck a plea deal with Robert Hadden, a wealthy, former Columbia University gynecologist accused of sexually abusing 19 women, that let him avoid jail time entirely. In January, an attorney for Hadden’s victims said he may be the “most prolific serial sexual predator in New York history.” That month, Evelyn Yang, the wife of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, said she, too, was sexually abused by Hadden. On Sept. 9, Hadden was charged in federal court in Manhattan for enticing and inducing six victims to travel interstate to engage in illegal sexual activity. Federal prosecutors claim that Hadden sexually abused patients from 1993 to 2012—a civil suit filed against Hadden and Columbia University now has at least 140 plaintiffs. (Vance’s office has repeatedly denied treating wealthy white men like Epstein and Hadden with kid gloves.)
Marissa Hoechstetter, the only named plaintiff in the civil case, has also publicly asked Vance to resign. She told The Appeal that she feels dismayed that it often takes abuse of this magnitude for prosecutors to take claims of sexual assault seriously. Generally speaking, she said, law enforcement officials often fail to do basic legwork when investigating sexual assault cases, such as obtaining personnel records or employee complaints from people accused of assault. She added that prosecutor offices, including Vance’s, tend to keep their decision-making processes private—and that she’d like to see prosecutors open up about why they continually say sexual assault cases are “hard to prosecute.”
“For me, I could not get over this incredible betrayal, which was in some ways worse than what happened to me,” she said of her experience with Vance. “Because I did what was quote unquote ‘right,’ but it was within a system that preferences wealthy white men, especially in New York. I couldn’t let that go.” She said she hopes speaking about her case can “help shine a light into a very closed system that’s easy to hide behind.”
But Manhattan is far from the only jurisdiction where police fail to investigate sexual assault. In 2018, a joint ProPublica, Newsy, and Reveal investigation found that multiple U.S. police departments had been using a label called “exceptional clearance” to claim they’d solved far more sexual assault cases than they actually had. To “solve” a case through exceptional clearance, police are supposed to have found probable cause to arrest someone for a sexual assault, but have been prevented from doing so by circumstances out of their control such as a suspect’s death or a victim’s failure to cooperate. The reporters found that officers were simply applying the “exceptional clearance” label to cases they hadn’t properly investigated.
Jurisdictions with high “exceptional clearance” rates included Baltimore County; Hillsborough County, Florida (Tampa); Oakland, California—and Austin.
The new lawsuit filed in Austin last month by the four women came after Jose Garza, a former public defender, defeated incumbent Moore in the DA Democratic primary runoff in July. During the primary season, sexual assault victims, including two who’d been named in the 2018 federal lawsuit against the Austin police and the DA’s office, endorsed Garza, who said during a press conference that Moore had “lost the trust of survivors of sexual assault.” Moore told KXAN, Austin’s NBC affiliate, that the “idea that this office, under my leadership, has mishandled or not handled sexual assault cases is so easily refuted if you look at the actual record.”
But the September lawsuit alleges that Moore’s office and the Austin police failed to improve their record of investigating sexual assault. After the 2018 federal lawsuit, police stopped sending representatives to Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team meetings, despite the fact that the department had done so for decades. In 2017, Moore split from SARRT and created her own organization, the Inter-Agency Sexual Assault Team. Soon after, Austin police stopped sending representatives to SARRT meetings, despite the fact that the department had traditionally done so. Moore claimed the new group would better train police to investigate sexual assault. Advocates for assault victims, however, said Moore simply wanted to retaliate against SARRT for criticizing her record.
Furthermore, the suit alleges that after the 2018 federal complaint was filed, one of Moore’s assistant district attorneys called a family friend of one of the plaintiffs, accused the woman of consenting to sex with her alleged rapist, and further stated that “it’s always the women” who make it hard for prosecutors to prosecute sexual assault cases.
“We need to create a system that believes survivors when they come forward,” Ecklund, the attorney, told The Appeal. “We can all agree that we understand this is going to be a challenging process once they do report an assault, but there’s just no reason to accuse people of lying when there’s no evidence that’s happening.”