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A Grand Chute police recruit alleged she was sexually assaulted. Days later she lost her job.

The department didn’t seek outside investigation for case involving its own employee, yet invoked 'victim rights' laws to resist disclosing details

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A woman stands with her back to the camera, in a gazebo, facing a body of water
A former Wisconsin police recruit, photographed near her home outside of Wisconsin, was forced to resign from the Grand Chute, Wis., police department days after reporting sexual assault by two police academy classmates. Her former employer maintains her separation from the agency was unrelated to the alleged crime. Jenn Ackerman for Wisconsin Watch

This story was originally published by Wisconsin Watch. It includes details of an alleged sexual assault.

The Grand Chute Police Department forced the resignation of one of its own police recruits days after she made a sexual assault allegation against two male law enforcement academy classmates, a Wisconsin Watch investigation found.

The two men initially gave conflicting accounts of what happened in March 2022 during a night of heavy drinking that ended at a hotel near the Appleton airport. DNA results that came back two months later confirmed one of the men had sex with her.

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Yet, within 34 hours of the incident, Grand Chute decided not to refer criminal charges, and within five days forced the female recruit to resign.

Wisconsin Watch found that in cases where a police department employee is an alleged victim, Wisconsin has no rules for when an outside agency must be involved to avoid a conflict of interest.

Wisconsin has adopted a constitutional amendment, known as Marsy’s Law, guaranteeing a crime victim’s right to fairness. Grand Chute police cited the law’s privacy provisions in refusing to release details of the incident. It’s another example of a Wisconsin police department using Marsy’s Law to shield individual police officers from scrutiny.

Wisconsin Watch is not naming the parties because it does not typically name alleged sexual assault victims and because the two men involved have not been charged with a crime.

The woman involved said she felt the department used the separate disciplinary review as a pretext to force her out after she reported the assault.

“I feel so betrayed by law enforcement as a whole,” she said.

She said because her allegations involved officers from other agencies and she was subject to an internal review, her employer should have called in an outside agency as is required for police shootings.

A parallel administrative investigation by Fox Valley Technical College, where the three were enrolled, found the woman’s account — that she was too intoxicated to consent to sex — was credible. The investigation led to both men being suspended from the law enforcement academy. They also lost their jobs at their respective departments.

The two men did not respond to calls, voicemails, text messages and emails for comment.

A woman sits on the concrete with two dogs
A portrait of a former police recruit taken near her home outside of Wisconsin on Sept. 17, 2023. The woman says she doesn’t think the Grand Chute Police Department should have investigated her sexual assault allegations against two law enforcement academy classmates. Jenn Ackerman for Wisconsin Watch

Disciplinary review dragged on

The female recruit grew up outside Appleton and shortly after turning 20 joined the Grand Chute police department as a community service officer.

A year and a half into her employment, someone filed a complaint alleging she disparaged the department in front of academy recruits and also used insulting language about a co-worker with whom she had clashed, both claims she disputes.

The complaint also alleged she had neglected some of her assigned duties such as neighborhood patrol checks, which she acknowledged. A review began in early January 2022, but dragged on for weeks without resolution, she said.

On March 2, 2022, the woman was out with a friend for dinner and a cocktail when she spotted two academy classmates.

The trio drank in the lobby bar of the Comfort Suites where one of the men was staying, before heading to The Peppermint Hippo strip club in Neenah for more drinks.

By the time they returned to the Comfort Suites, she told investigators, she had as many as 12 mixed drinks and shots over the course of the evening — all paid for by the two male classmates, she said.

She was too drunk to drive home, so one of the men rented a second room. What happened next inside the room is in dispute.

In the report, one of the men said he picked her up and tossed her onto the bed as she was laughing. She told investigators she may have been carried to the bed, but her recollection was hazy.

She later recalled both men performing sexual acts on her while she slipped in and out of consciousness, unable to physically resist.

“I couldn’t get myself to come to,” she said, “to wake myself up and stop anything.”

Speaking to Grand Chute police investigators, one of the men at first denied any sexual contact, claiming she had attempted to have sex with him and he could be considered a sexual assault victim. After police revealed the other man confirmed the three had sex, he changed his story.

All three told investigators they fell asleep but minutes later the woman’s alarm went off around 2 a.m. They carried her into the bathroom, set her on the side of the tub and turned on the cold water to wake her up.

She then left and called an on-duty police officer she knew.

Investigators interviewed her that morning and a second time that afternoon. They coached her on how to answer a social media message she received from one of the men, she said.

The coaching is not reflected in the report that includes a transcript of the written exchange. She responded at one point that she was “embarrassed” — a word choice she said was suggested by the detective and which she later thought hurt her credibility.

“Embarrassed isn’t the right word to describe how I feel about this,” she told Wisconsin Watch. She said if she simply had regrets, she wouldn’t have reported the encounter as a potential felony.

​​Side profile of a woman
A portrait of a former police recruit taken near her home outside of Wisconsin on Sept. 17, 2023. The two men she accused of sexual assault are no longer in law enforcement, but could be eligible to reapply to a law enforcement academy as early as next year. Jenn Ackerman for Wisconsin Watch

Open and shut in less than 34 hours

Investigators concluded the woman wasn’t completely incapacitated by alcohol because she wasn’t visibly swaying when she checked into the hotel and she used her phone to call an officer she knew.

“There was her statement and there are the statements from (the two male recruits) — their opinion that she wasn’t completely blacked out,” Grand Chute Police Chief Greg Peterson said.

Experts say sexual assaults can be difficult to prosecute for a number of reasons, but particularly when the parties know each other, there is no sign of physical coercion and alcohol is involved.

A lot of times it comes down to whose account investigators choose to believe, said Cassia Spohn, an Arizona State University criminal justice professor and nationally recognized expert in sex assault investigations.

But Spohn also called the quick resolution of the case “troubling.”

“In my experience of reviewing these kinds of cases, the police would not close the case so quickly,” she said. “They would spend a little more time giving the victim at least the satisfaction of knowing that they did do a thorough investigation.”

Spohn also said it was odd that a detective would suggest the victim say she felt “embarrassed” if they wanted to get information out of a potential suspect.

In an interview, Grand Chute Capt. Colette Jaeger said investigators believed the woman was telling the truth, but the evidence they found wasn’t consistent with someone being incapacitated to the point of being sexually assaulted.

“She reported sexual assault, and then the elements of the crime just weren’t able to be confirmed,” Jaeger said.

Ian Henderson, policy director for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said that the woman being confused and expressing doubt over what had happened immediately after a traumatic event should not be a surprise.

“Doing a comprehensive, investigative interview, a day or two after the assault” is considered “best practice,” Henderson said.

But investigators notified all three within 34 hours that criminal charges weren’t warranted. Peterson said his department didn’t rush anything.

“I think it was very thoroughly investigated,” Peterson said. “I do feel sorry for the experience that (she) went through. But I do think she was treated with respect.”

Grand Chute police officials confirmed they have no plans to reactivate the investigation. Toxicology found no evidence of a date rape drug in her system.

The Outagamie district attorney concurred with the decision not to bring charges.

“There was a consensus between the investigator and me that this was not a case that could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Outagamie County Assistant District Attorney Randall Schneider told Wisconsin Watch. “If additional information has come to light, this decision can be reevaluated.”

No professional standards for potential conflicts

Wisconsin law only requires police to call in third-party investigators when officers kill or seriously injure someone in the line of duty.

Professional standards don’t provide concrete guidance over investigations when there are potential conflicts of interest, said Glendale Police Chief Mark Ferguson, president of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Accreditation Group.

Grand Chute’s police chief disputed there were any conflicts in investigating an alleged crime against the recruit while she was separately under administrative scrutiny.

Daniel Shaw, regional program manager for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, of which Grand Chute is not a member, said if an officer under a personnel investigation is an alleged crime victim, he would want an outside agency to review the case.

“I guess if that happened in my jurisdiction, I’d want to give it to some other agency,” Shaw said. “That’s my personal view — not a CALEA view.”

Sheboygan Police Department
A Sheboygan Police Department recruit was accused of sexually assaulting a law enforcement academy classmate. The agency’s civilian oversight commission that approved his hire wasn’t aware of issues in his past. The department building is photographed on Nov. 8, 2022, in Sheboygan, Wis. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

Separation not voluntary

Five days after the incident, the woman was told due to the findings of the administrative inquiry, she had a choice: be terminated or resign.

Peterson noted in an administrative review that her alleged disparagement of the department to fellow students could damage the agency’s reputation and make it harder to recruit.

Peterson denies any correlation between her departure and her allegation of a crime.

“It didn’t change or alter my assessment of the administrative violations,” Peterson said. The administrative violations warranted “substantial discipline up to and including termination. It became moot, you know, she had chosen to resign.”

Town of Grand Chute Human Resources Director Sue Brinkman was among those present when the woman was called in on the last day of her job. She confirmed her resignation was not voluntary.

The two men also lost their jobs with their respective police departments.

Appleton police declined to answer questions but did release a summary of its disciplinary review. Grand Chute’s police chief contacted his Appleton counterpart the evening of the incident to notify him of the situation.

Appleton Police Chief Todd Thomas wrote that the recruit was terminated for “immoral” and “unbecoming” conduct three days later.

The recruit, who had previously resigned after about a year and a half as a prison guard at Oshkosh Correctional, returned to his job as a corrections officer at the medium-security prison.

The Sheboygan recruit resigned from his job on March 15, 2022.

“I am grateful for the support and belief you all had in me,” he wrote. “It brings me sadness and disappointment to have to submit this letter, but I am honored to have had the time spent with this department.”

College mum on sexual misconduct complaints

Fox Valley Technical College investigators reviewed Grand Chute’s reports and conducted interviews with three additional witnesses, according to a May 27, 2022, letter outlining the college’s investigation.

College administrators found the woman’s account credible and moved to sanction the two male students.

“The preponderance of the evidence outlined above leads me to the finding that the complainant was unable to give valid consent to sexual intercourse due to her incapacitation,” wrote college Associate Vice President Elizabeth Burns.

The female recruit returned to the academy the week after the incident and went on to graduate in May 2022. She said she was warned not to discuss the incident and deliberately skipped the graduation ceremony.

“Going back to the academy as a whole was probably like, one of the hardest things I’ve done,” she said. “I was very isolated from my classmates.”

The Department of Justice lists the Appleton recruit as “terminated for cause” and the Sheboygan recruit as resigned “prior to completion of internal investigation.”

They could apply to have their college suspension lifted next year.

Wisconsin Watch reporter Phoebe Petrovic contributed to this report.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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