Girl assaulted: Case shows pain of young victims
JANESVILLE--Many people were shocked by a recent case in which a Janesville man is accused of luring a girl to his car and forcing her to have sex.
For one local family, it tore open a festering wound.
Nicholas W. Ackerman, 20, is slated to enter a plea and be sentenced in the case June 10.
Olivia Bruha says Ackerman assaulted her in a similar way in December 2011 when she was 15. Semen from her clothing matched Ackerman's DNA, but he was never charged with a crime.
By law, underage girls cannot consent to have sex, so sex between an adult and a minor is a crime--a felony that carries a penalty of up to 40 years in prison. This is commonly referred to as statutory rape.
Bruha was 15 and Ackerman 18 in December 2011. Police investigated and had DNA evidence to prove Ackerman had sex with Bruha, but the district attorney's office did not file charges.
District Attorney David O'Leary said he doubts a jury would have convicted Ackerman, and he wanted to protect Bruha from harsh cross-examination at a trial.
Two years and one month later, Ackerman was charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl under similar circumstances.
Ackerman is accused of chatting with the girl on a cellphone app called Kik. He arranged to meet her in a Center Avenue parking lot.
The girl told police she only wanted to sit in his car and talk, but he drove to a secluded spot near the Rock River, where he parked. She tried to get out of the car, but the doors were locked.
He then forced her to have sex, according to the criminal complaint.
Bruha's experience shows how heartbreaking such cases can be, the difficulties of prosecuting them and the life-altering effects on victims.
In the 2011 case, Bruha lied to police. She said that she barely knew Ackerman, that she ignored one online instant message he had sent to her and that he saw her on a swing set in her neighborhood late at night and forced her into his car.
Bruha later changed her story, admitting that she had been instant-messaging with Ackerman on MyYearbook, a social networking website. She described them flirting and talking about sex.
Bruha told Ackerman about a paper she was writing for school about rape and that she had a rape fantasy, she said.
She thought it would be “fun to experiment,” according to a Janesville police report.
The two made arrangements to meet the night of Dec. 5, 2011, and she left the house around midnight.
She got into his car, and he drove around the corner, parking in front of his house. That's when she told him she didn't want to have sex.
Bruha told The Gazette she initially was embarrassed to tell the truth.
FEAR AND EMBARRASSMENT
It was a time in her life when she was pulling away from family, Bruha said, “and then someone comes along and tells you you're attractive. … It kind of pushes you to want to satisfy them because you're getting this attention that you want.”
While not commenting on specific cases, YWCA Care House child and family advocate Andrew Jensen said Bruha's feelings are common among teens.
“They want to be accepted. They want to be loved,” Jensen said. “With the technology nowadays, I think it's even harder on these kids.”
Bruha said Ackerman seemed interested in rough sex, so “I said I have this fantasy because I knew it would grab his attention.”
People will assume she wanted to have sex, she said.
“But honest to God, all I wanted was that attention. It all seemed fun and fair until I was in his car.”
Bruha left the house without permission when everyone was asleep and got into Ackerman's car, she told police.
Then she said no.
He grabbed her by the hair and arm and forced her into the back seat, she told police, and he forced her to perform sexual acts.
The YWCA's Jensen said he talks to teens frequently and stresses this kind of situation.
“No matter if it's a boyfriend or not, no means no,” Jensen said. “That's the message we send out to all the teens: Anything after that, it's considered rape.”
Weeks went by as the case was investigated.
Bruha lived within sight of Ackerman's house, a daily reminder, said Bruha's mother, Sandra.
The case stretched on for months as police waited for DNA analysis, and then the district attorney's office began its work.
Sandra saw Ackerman one day at the Five Points intersection. He smiled and gave her the finger, she said.
Olivia Bruha suffered more.
Ackerman bragged online about the incident, and she endured taunting at school from boys who grabbed their crotches, exposed themselves and asked if she wanted sex, Sandra said.
Sandra said her daughter lost friends, was angry and resentful and blamed herself.
“She has lost her self-respect," Sandra said. “I don't know if she'll ever feel that she's worthy enough for that not to happen to her again.”
Self-blame is common for child victims of sexual assault, Jensen said.
Frustrated, Sandra wrote to victim-witness coordinator Shelley Sturdevant on June 2, 2012, nearly six months after the assault:
“I even started feeling sorry for Nick 'cause Livvy was told he was going to kill himself if he was convicted. Seems like he won't even get charged. But I was thinking what a shame it was he made the wrong decision and it would stay with him the rest of his life. Then I crossed the Five Points intersection, he's at the red light, and he blows his horn over and over to get my attention, then gives me the finger and laughs.
“Seems he has good reason to laugh since he's not having to face any consequences. … How would you feel if it was your daughter and her rapist lives where she has to see his car and his house every day, let alone him on occasion, and he's taunting and laughing at us? … Waiting this long for something to be done is to the extreme, unreasonable. I'm done waiting, I want something done!!!!!”
On June 21, Sturdevant wrote: “This email is to let you know that the prosecutor … will be offering the defendant and his attorney the opportunity to participate in a pre-charging conference. A pre-charging conference is where the prosecutor meets with the suspect and or his attorney to discuss the incident, his behavior at the time of the incident and to determine how to proceed with the case. This conference will probably take place in the next couple of weeks.”
More than two months later on Aug. 13, Sandra got the news that Ackerman would not be charged, also via email:
“Just wanted to touch base with you to let you know that the prosecutor, Anne Nack, assigned to this matter as well as one of her supervisors met with Mr. Ackerman and his attorney … During this meeting it was discussed with him and his attorney that he was the adult in this situation and that it was his responsibility to find out the correct age of your daughter, etc.
“It was further discussed with him that he is to avoid having any contact with your daughter in any manner including her family and is not to brag or taunt your daughter and your family about this matter. Mr. Ackerman was told that if the DA's office received any further reports of any trouble between himself and your daughter or any other future arrests for similar type of conduct in the future, we would reconsider filing charges. At this time, it is the decision of the DA's office not to issue any criminal charges … based upon the outcome of the pre-charging conference and due to some inconsistent statements that would make this case hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. …”
Sturdevant offered a meeting so Sandra could discuss the decision with Nack. She met with Nack and Sturdevant.
“They said it would be hard to prove because it was a he-said/she-said situation and because she had changed her story so much,” Sandra recalled.
Sandra said she was told that Ackerman's lawyer gave him a stern warning.
Sandra was angry then and is angry still.
“The whole thing has been shocking to me. How do they have his DNA all over her, and he says he didn't do anything. The DNA has been disregarded,” Sandra said
Sandra said even a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge or an apology delivered through Ackerman's lawyer would have been a better outcome
Despite the difficulties with Bruha's case, Janesville police Detective Dennis LeCaptain forwarded his evidence to the district attorney.
“The question we are answering is, can we prove it? And a lot of times it challenges me,” LeCaptain said earlier this spring. “There days, I feel horrible about it, but you can't let a victim walk away believing that, hey, this was a waste, nobody believed me and everybody let me down. … Because it's not a question of 'did it happen.' It's a question of 'what can I prove?'”
LeCaptain had evidence, but he doesn't criticize the district attorney's office for not filing charges.
“They weigh in on a much tougher standard than we do, and I respect that,” LeCaptain said.
O'Leary said in a recent interview that juries can take a dim view of victims who give conflicting stories, and the jury could have been further swayed by the fact that Bruha had been talking about sex with another teen less than three years older.
The decision also was based on a desire to protect Bruha from a defense attorney's cross-examination at trial, which would have centered on Bruha's behavior, O'Leary said.
“Based upon those conflicting accounts, the defense could certainly argue that the victim participated in the activities, even though she could not technically consent due to her age,” O'Leary said. “One of the hard decisions in this job is when to not charge a case in order to better protect a victim from further harm.”
“It would be very unlikely that we would get a conviction after they beat up my victim and attack her on the stand,” O'Leary said. “We could have put the victim through that, yes. But we used prosecutorial discretion and did not.”
O'Leary added: “We've had cases where we've had DNA, we've had everything else, and the juries have said we just don't like this victim, and therefore we don't believe that person, and therefore we're not going to convict,” O'Leary said.
David Schultz, professor of criminal law at the UW Law School, said it's normal for district attorneys not to prosecute cases such as this, even though the law does not require proof that a juvenile victim did not consent.
“While the victim's conduct that might indicate consent should be irrelevant, evidence of conflicting reports would likely be admissible. And it would be difficult to keep out all the evidence about the prior history between the two,” Schultz said.
PROTECTING THE CHILD
Ackerman, meanwhile, faces felony burglary convictions from 2011 as well as the new sexual assault charge.
The burglary convictions were on hold. He was given a chance to have the convictions wiped out if he completed probation.
Now, the burglary convictions will be reinstated, O'Leary said, and Ackerman faces sentencing if he is convicted in the more recent child sexual assault case.
Other agencies are complimentary about how O'Leary's office handles child sex assault, including YWCA officials who run the Care House, where child sex assault victims are interviewed.
YWCA Executive Director Angela Moore said the YW sits on a multidisciplinary team with law enforcement, the Rock County Child Protective Services office and the DA.
“Everybody is totally committed to doing their part to protect the child,” Moore said. “The (district attorney's office) is passionate and committed to make sure the child's rights are protected and make sure that justice is served.”
Detective LeCaptain also supports the district attorney: “I don't feel like these types of cases just get blanket ignored. That's not the case at all. They get carefully looked at, and they should be. They're the most vulnerable victims, and they're our kids.”
Bruha appears strong after all she has gone through.
“It happened, and it sucked, but if I live with that, I'm going to be a very unhappy person for the rest of my life,” she said.
Jensen said the care house's child sexual assault support group has a lot of kids who deal with their feelings by harming themselves.
“Cutting is huge right now,” Jensen said.
Bruha said she didn't hurt herself, but she has changed.
“I'm more skeptical of everyone. I see everyone as capable of doing anything, and I'm much more skeptical of the law, public safety. Anything can happen to anyone, and it eventually will,” she said.
Bruha is especially unwilling to trust men, but she said she has gained trust for her mother and three older brothers, who stood by her when most of her friends did not. She also sees a silver lining.
“Being the hope that something can happen, even years later, that's a good feeling,” she said.
Jensen said the care house works with families and victims and tries to get them past their desire for an arrest and punishment and focused on healing.
The fact that people didn't believe her after Ackerman was not charged seems to be what galls Bruha the most.
“Now, I'm believed,” she said.
“Something had to come up with another person for people to believe me.”