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Still fighting

County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg stands firm in the face of mounting criticism

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On a July morning inside a Missoula County courtroom, a sheriff's deputy leads a shackled man in an orange jumpsuit to stand in front of Missoula District Judge Karen Townsend. As the shackled man shuffles toward the podium, he nods smugly at a woman in the back row.

The man is being charged with failing to register as a violent offender. He was initially convicted of felony partner member assault. His girlfriend admitted to police that he choked her into unconsciousness. When released from prison, the muscular man with short hair lied about where he was living and allegedly contacted the woman that he had abused. He now faces up to 15 years in prison and a $60,000 fine. His attorney argues that the couple is in love and the restraining order creates a problem.

"How do you plead?" Townsend asks. The defendant says, "Not guilty."

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg rises. He explains that the man committed an extremely violent offense. "He gave a false address, was deliberately trying to deceive his probation officer... The woman was a co-conspirator," Van Valkenburg says.

The judge agrees with the county attorney and the man is led away. He'll remain in jail and won't be allowed to see the woman, who today, while leaving the courtroom, directs a hard look at Van Valkenburg. She departs holding a child's hand.

This is the start of a typical day for Van Valkenburg. As Missoula County's chief attorney, his job is to take a stand and argue for what he believes is right for the electorate, no matter how unpopular his stance may be. He's been good enough at his job to be re-elected three times—and he ran the last time unopposed, taking 95 percent of the vote. But after a 40-year career in public service—he says he won't run for the office again—the job is starting to wear on him.

The stress is clear when he sometimes holds his head in his hands while in court. His wife says he's crankier now than he once was. He also talks about his frustration with recent criticism of his office, which has surpassed the usual hard stares of his opponents in the courtroom.

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The past two years have been especially tough on the 65-year-old Van Valkenburg. In May 2012, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into how the county attorney's office, along with the Missoula Police Department and the University of Montana, handled sexual assault investigations during a four-year period. While MPD and the university cooperated with investigators and accepted their findings, Van Valkenburg has consistently struck an obstinate tone, maintaining the investigation signals a significant overstep by the federal government. His stand has drawn widespread criticism from community members who wonder why he won't just cooperate, especially if he's got nothing to hide.

It's not the first time Van Valkenburg has taken a controversial position. Throughout his career he's made headlines debating issues such as marijuana laws, the guilt of high-profile defendants and to what extent women should be ensured equal rights. Some of his stances have been more popular with voters than others, but in each case he's fiercely defended his side. Van Valkenburg's stubbornness is so much a part of his public persona that most locals likely envision him as perpetually red-faced and argumentative, unmoved by opposing opinions.

But as Van Valkenburg faces more criticism than ever before, including the ongoing scrutiny of federal investigators, he's not about to change his ways.

•••

On Dec. 15, 2011, the story first broke. Gwen Florio of the Missoulian reported that the University of Montana was hiring an investigator to determine whether several male students assaulted two female students earlier that month.

The next day, Florio elaborated on the allegations in a second article, reporting that at least three UM football players were allegedly involved in a sexual assault of two women that may have involved Rohypnol.

In an interview with the Independent, Florio recalls how the story developed. That winter, rumors of an alleged gang rape had spread across the campus community and the media. "It was one of these things that went around town like wildfire," Florio says. "So we were scrambling to confirm it." Former UM Vice President Jim Foley told her that the university was looking into claims that date rape drugs were used to impair a UM student.

Once the initial articles were published, additional women came forward with stories of victimization, Florio says. One young woman told Florio that she had been sexually assaulted the year prior, in 2010, by UM football players at an off-campus house party. The 2010 incident sounded strikingly similar to the one that allegedly occurred in December 2011. Florio had two separate alleged victims who both claimed that they had been gang raped in two different incidents.

The woman involved in the 2010 incident reported the assault to police, but Van Valkenburg's office declined to prosecute.

The student's mother in that case told the Missoulian that the family felt their concerns were brushed off by law enforcement. In the months that followed, Florio reported that a UM exchange student accused of one rape and one assault fled the country before charges were filed against him. In January 2012, she documented UM football player Beau Donaldson's confession to sexual intercourse without consent, a charge that he was later convicted of. In July 2012, meanwhile, allegations surfaced that UM quarterback Jordan Johnson raped another student. Johnson was prosecuted and found not guilty after a jury trial.

CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters

"I was disturbed to find the extent of it," Florio says. "A number of people, Fred included, have said Missoula's problem is no worse than anybody else's and that kind of makes my hair curl when I hear that. Because it's not that our problem is no worse, it's that the problem exists and exists to an extent that it seems like many, many people, myself included, were not aware of."

Florio's reporting divided the community. On one side, victim's rights activists called on law enforcement, including Van Valkenburg's office, to more seriously weigh allegations of sexual assault. On another side there were die-hard Griz fans and skeptics who claimed Florio was engaging in a witch-hunt. Critics called her a man-hater and a lesbian.

Florio took most of it in stride. However some of the barbs were surprisingly sharp, even for the veteran journalist.

"I don't mind my reporting being criticized," Florio says. "There are people who don't like it. As with this case as with a lot of cases around the country involving athletes, there's a real hair-trigger reaction when these kinds of allegations are leveled from certain quarters. What struck me about it was that the criticism was so sexualized. I'm not just a bad reporter; I'm a cunt. It's like, 'Whoa, okay then.'"

Van Valkenburg was among those who publicly criticized Florio's reporting, albeit using significantly less loaded language. During a City Club Missoula forum in June, he blamed the Missoulian for helping to foment a national scandal.

When asked to elaborate, Van Valkenburg itemizes numerous problems with the paper's reporting. For one, the crime lab has never seen a case involving Rohypnol, he says. Secondly, there simply wasn't sufficient evidence in the 2010 case to prove there was a gang rape.

"I think that clearly the evidence in the case indicates that what happened was with consent, not without consent," he says. "There may have been sex with more than one person—that may seem sort of odd to people that someone might agree to have sex with more than one person—but I don't think because it's odd makes it automatically a non-consensual situation."

The alleged victim in the 2010 case was intoxicated, but not to the point that she couldn't legally grant consent, Van Valkenburg says, while acknowledging that's a blurry line to draw. Another problem impeding prosecution was the fact that the second woman who engaged in sexual conduct at the 2010 gathering reinforced what the men had told police—that the sex was consensual.

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