Water bills in Casper spiked in July. Or maybe they didn’t. But either way, Aimee Kidd showed up at a city council meeting in September to talk about her water bill, and after other people had complained about their bills, and the assistant public works director had defended the city, and a softball coach had complained to council that he couldn’t secure a field for his team, Aimee stood up and said that she was sorry, she was new to this, and then she planted the seed for a growing club that nobody wants to be a part of.
“In January of this year I was raped,” she said.
Her hands went to her stomach, which bulged under a baggy gray sweatshirt.
“And I’m pregnant.”
Aimee returned her gaze to the seven men and one woman sitting at the council dais.
She said the Casper police detective on her case had been wonderful but that it took weeks to receive updates. Sgt. Mike Ogden had told her the investigators were overworked. But, she wanted to know, wasn’t rape a serious enough crime to attract their attention?
“I mean, this is life-changing,” Aimee said. “And it’s just kind of being dealt with like a stolen bike.”
The mayor said he was sorry. That he wasn’t going to make excuses.
But he warned that discussing the particulars of her case could jeopardize the investigation.
“I’m not interested in discussing those,” she said. “I’m interested in making you aware that there is a huge problem here, and this is happening in our town, and people are being able to commit crime like this because there’s no time to investigate.”
City council members have said they prefer to keep messy disagreements behind closed doors, even calling each other ahead of time to hash out their differences.
Then they show up every other Tuesday and present the public with what they think well-oiled local government should look like. Dozens of items may be approved by “consent.” No debate.
Public comment is a rare opportunity for drama to enter the council chambers.
It comes after most of the official business is done and often features locals repeating grievances about the council’s priorities. Occasionally someone like the softball coach speaks. Or a resident who wants a speed bump installed on his street. For a few weeks, a pair of Christian bikers wanted to remind everyone that this country was founded to honor the Lord and to please bow your head and pray.
But after Aimee came to talk about her water bill, and then said that, actually, she had something else to mention, and then posted her story on Facebook, more women started coming to council saying that they, too, had been raped, or sexually assaulted, or attacked by their spouse, and felt their cases weren’t a high enough priority.
The minutes from council meetings list public comments under “COMMUNICATIONS—From Persons Present.” During the past few months, at least seven women as well as former councilman Keith Goodenough spoke about the perceived lack of attention paid by Casper police to sex crimes. Their comments are neatly summarized in the minutes: “regarding police staffing,” “regarding funding for victim services,” “regarding the need to address Council on topics … and Casper police staffing.”
The stories threw things off a bit.
Local businessman Pat Sweeney makes a point to show up at council meetings and weigh in with questions about city business. He seems to enjoy holding forth on his inquiries as council attempts to bat them away.
On Oct. 4 he approached the lectern after Aimee and a local attorney, Jackie Brown, had again assailed the council for not doing more to help women reporting sexual assault.
“Who gives a crap how much business we have in a community if our victims are not safe and don’t feel protected?” Brown had asked.
Then Sweeney came up to talk about parking. He paused. Looked over at the women seated near the front of the room. Looked back at council.
“Uh,” he started. “Really, what I have to say is pretty inconsequential.”
Speakers at council are asked to provide their full name and address. Their comments are broadcast on television and posted online. Many of the women who have spoken out made the decision to publicly identify themselves as victims of sexual violence. They insist there are many more women who haven’t come forward.
Aimee said she was flooded with social media messages from women with similar experiences after she shared her account on Facebook. She has since kept in regular touch with around 10 other women. They meet in person occasionally and keep one another updated on the progress, or lack thereof, in their cases.
“We can all relate to the lack of urgency,” one Casper woman said about Aimee’s experience.
The woman left a gynecology appointment last September feeling shocked at what had happened. It took her three weeks to process the assault by her doctor before she reported it to police.
She figured she wasn’t alone.
“I asked the detective how many other women have come forward,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. She was told half a dozen women had accused the same doctor of inappropriate behavior.
But the woman said it took a year before she was told that charges against the doctor had reached the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office.
She asked that her name not be published because the doctor successfully filed a stalking protection order against her in February. He accused her of cyber-bullying: She had posted on Facebook seeking other victims of the doctor.
Court documents and police affidavits lend credence to the woman’s story.
In the stalking order, the doctor wrote that the woman’s allegations had “caused me to be no longer employed.”
Casper police also distributed six affidavits at a media briefing in October showing nearly identical claims of sexual assault against a local doctor whose name was redacted. Police subsequently said the affidavits were shown to reporters by mistake and refused to release copies of them.
Despite what the woman was told, District Attorney Mike Blonigen said in an email that he had not received the affidavits.
“I don’t know why the district attorney’s office would say they haven’t received them,” Casper Police Chief Jim Wetzel said Wednesday.
In any case, the woman has a theory as to why the process has been so slow despite six women coming forward to report the doctor.
“I did my interview, and then I didn’t hear anything,” she said. “I left voicemail twice. They never responded.”
For months, the woman said, the only way she could get an update was to hound the detectives: calling, emailing, visiting the police station.
Wetzel said the frustration victims feel might be due to the way police investigate. While six separate victims accusing the same suspect might look like an open-and-shut case to outsiders, detectives would have to interview and corroborate six separate stories — which can actually add significant time to the process.
The woman attempted suicide and received in-patient treatment. When she got out, she said the police’s victim services liaison assumed she was being treated for drugs.
“To me that’s kind of offensive,” she said.
But mostly the endless pushing has taken a toll.
“I’ve just been having to fight stuff that you shouldn’t really have to push,” she said.
Aimee feels the same way.
She is angry, certainly, that the man she says drugged her and raped her as she cuddled her toddler in bed is not behind bars.
But she understands it would be a hard case to win.
The man was an acquaintance. The incident happened at home, without witnesses who could testify in court. And she did not report it to police for six weeks after prolonged sickness and exhaustion brought her to a doctor’s office, where she found out she was pregnant.
That took her back to a morning in January when she awoke naked from the waist down, with no memory of the night before. She had gone out with two girlfriends for drinks. Two male acquaintances ran into her group and persuaded them to come to another bar. When she returned from the bathroom there was a draft beer waiting for her.
After drinking the beer, she soon felt sick and doesn’t remember going home.
Aimee later learned that her friend had offered her and one of the men a ride home. The man told Aimee’s friend he needed to use the bathroom and followed her into the house.
When she confronted him about her pregnancy, he professed shock that she did not remember.
He said the way she was moaning, she must have liked it.
That, she said in an interview, is absurd. She runs a house-cleaning service and is the sole provider for her five — now six — children. Her 2-year-old sleeps with her in bed. There was no way she decided to bring this man to her house to have sex with him in the bed where her young daughter was curled up.
“I told him I had to have been like a dead person,” Aimee said. “He just said, ‘I can’t believe you don’t remember.’”
Understanding the difficulty of proving her case, Aimee handed over various evidence to the police. She gave them her cellphone, which contained conversations with the man. Police took photographs of her bedroom. She told them other things: He was a “hot shot” truck driver for an oil field company, for example.
When he was arrested for domestic battery in August, she said she told police that, too.
“Whenever I offer information, there are delays,” she said. “I feel like I’m spoon-feeding them.”
Wetzel said that investigations are like puzzles. Detectives piece together evidence until they have a complete picture. But police risk compromising the case if they share the puzzle with victims as it is being assembled.
“(Victims) don’t know to what degree the interior of the puzzle is filled in,” Wetzel said. “They think, ‘Well, if they cared...’ But it could be the detective already knows.”
He added that since law enforcement was legally barred from saying anything that could identify a suspect or victim in a sexual assault case, it was impossible to directly respond to the allegations made by women at city council.
Aimee says she would understand if the case went to trial and the prosecution was unable to prove the man’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. What she can’t understand is why the investigation into a crime she reported eight months ago remains open.
That is what drove her to speak up at council in September. She’d hit a wall with the police and figured council — which oversees the police department and the rest of the city government — might be able to give police the resources they needed to investigate cases like hers.
But she believed the issue would better resonate with council members if she provided a firsthand account.
“I think they really need a face to go with this story,” she said in an interview shortly after first speaking to council.
But as Aimee’s story attracted more women to speak at meetings and connect with one another on social media, city council became increasingly hostile.
When Aimee spoke at the Oct. 4 meeting, she told the council members that in 12 days she would give birth by cesarean section. She laid out what that meant in no uncertain terms: she would receive an IV, a urinary and a spinal catheter. Then she would be “cut open from hip to hip.”
“Laying on my back under bright lights, I’ll hear a baby start to cry,” she said. “A baby I had no part in putting inside of my body will be born.”
The first time she spoke to council, she was apologetic and slightly flustered. This time she held nothing back.
She couldn’t decide whether it would be better if she remembered the night she was raped. As it was, she told council, her imagination took hold.
What did the man do while I laid like a dead person in my own bed? What did he do while I held a sleeping toddler in my arms?
Aimee said she would break down in tears at the sight of onesies with cute phrases printed on the front: “Daddy’s girl” or “Daddy’s little princess.”
People make jokes, too. “Don’t you know what causes that yet?” they’d ask, pointing at her stomach.
“I walk around pregnant, as an unmarried woman, with a bastard child protruding from my belly,” she said. She felt humiliated.
Council members looked on, frozen. Mayor Daniel Sandoval teared up.
Wetzel, who attends every council meeting, sat stone-faced in the back of the room.
Council member Kenyne Humphrey appeared distracted. She fiddled with her phone and glanced over at Wetzel.
After Aimee and the other women had left, Humphrey asked the chief: “Do you know, off the top of your head, how many rapes we have per year?”
Wetzel said he did not.
“I’ll just leave it at that,” Humphrey told council. “I’m done.”
Humphrey said in an interview that she was texting Wetzel and former police chief Chris Walsh to see if either had statistics on sexual assaults in Casper.
Sandoval, who had spoken sympathetically to Aimee before she left the meeting, adopted Humphrey’s frustrated attitude.
The mayor said in an interview that his main concern was that Aimee would publicly out her alleged rapist.
“We’re walking pretty close to the precipice of trying a case in the court of public opinion,” he said.
At the meeting he said that he had tried to tell Aimee that city council was the wrong forum to bring complaints about the police department. But he’d done so “probably too diplomatically.”
For her part, Aimee had decided to abandon diplomacy before she got up to speak.
She had hoped to provoke the same emotion, what she calls the shock and awe, that she experienced realizing that she had been raped, that she was pregnant, that the police didn’t seem likely to arrest the man who did it. It is the same thing other women have felt, she said.
“As uncomfortable as they were,” Aimee said of the council members, “that’s what we feel, times 100, every time we tell our stories.”
About two months after Aimee first spoke up, Wetzel addressed the issue at a city council work session, a less formal meeting where the members discuss issues and possible solutions.
Wetzel talked about the department’s investigative staff. Many of the women had been calling on the city to hire more detectives, but Wetzel said his department had eight detectives and money to hire a ninth — it was just hard to find qualified investigators.
A few weeks later, during an interview in his office, the police chief stood and walked over to his desk. He picked up a stack of paper. It was a print-out of a Facebook post with a long string of comments. The post showed a Casper police detective, one who was assigned to some of the sexual assault cases, directing traffic at Highland Park Community Church.
Wetzel read one of the comments.
“If she got hit by traffic I’d celebrate.”
That, he said, is just one example of what makes it hard to recruit more investigators.
At the work session, Wetzel defended the department’s victim services program, which some of the women had harshly criticized. Last year, Casper was one of just three cities nationwide to receive a $300,000 grant as part of a program intended to establish best practices in victim services, Wetzel said.
The department has 12 volunteer “victim advocates” who are specially trained to respond to reports of crimes with police officers and comfort and offer services to the person reporting the crime.
(The department’s last victim services coordinator resigned in 2015 after being charged with sexual assault. He later pleaded guilty.)
While law enforcement is legally barred from discussing sexual assault cases, Wetzel walked the line in addressing the specific claims raised by Aimee.
“It’s frustrating,” Wetzel said. “Because there is another story that you’d like to tell.”
Instead he spoke in general terms of “difficult” cases to prove and described an example that sounded just like Aimee’s: the victim and offender know each other and the crime is not reported quickly enough to collect physical evidence.
“It’s damn near impossible to bring charges on that, because there’s just no way to identify which way the scales tip on that, as to whether or not it was consensual,” Wetzel told council.
Wetzel clarified that this describes most adult sex crimes in Casper.
He said that sex crimes, both adult and child, made up 20 to 30 percent of his department’s investigative workload and that every detective had been taught to investigate those crimes, with at least three having received in-depth training.
As to other women’s complaints that they had difficulty receiving updates on their cases, Wetzel said the department promptly responded to phone calls asking for information.
“Unfortunately, I think some things were over-embellished or exaggerated a little bit,” he said.
Wetzel said in the interview that he does feel something when Aimee and the other women speak at council. He considers himself a compassionate person. But police can’t let their emotions guide them.
“If you do this for long enough, you will get emotionally involved in a case,” Wetzel said. “And if you do this long enough, you’ll get burned.”
People lie. They misremember. They gloss over facts that will contradict their story.
But he feels bad that so many women think the department isn’t taking their cases seriously. Detectives are like greyhounds, he said. They see the rabbit run and take off after it. He acknowledges this tunnel vision can lead to victims being dealt with brusquely.
It is something the department is working on, Wetzel said. He has high standards and calls his detectives the best in the state. But he still wants to improve the “bedside manner” of his investigative staff.
All that said, Wetzel told the work session he had looked into specific claims brought before council and that more staff would not have changed anything that the women had complained about.
And, for council, that was that.
After the chief had finished fielding questions, Councilman Bob Hopkins deemed the issue closed.
“I think we have looked into this,” he said.
The women coming before council have consistently operated at an information deficit. There are things they don’t know. Things they’re wrong about. Some of their proposed solutions seem impractical.
The chief of police, after all, had a one-word answer when Humphrey asked at the work session whether more money or staff would have changed the outcome of any of their cases.
Council has occasionally seized on this information imbalance. When several women complained that the investigator had apparently been assigned to control traffic at the church, Ogden, the investigations sergeant, clarified that the church had a contract to pay police overtime to help out. The detective had volunteered.
Sandoval has said that the women ought to stop coming to council because all he can do is request that City Manager V.H. McDonald look into the police department’s staffing and report back.
Yet the women keep coming.
At the end of his presentation, Wetzel told council that many of the problems with investigating sexual assault are rooted in the wider criminal justice system — not just in his police force.
“Unfortunately, law enforcement and police are the face of government,” Wetzel said. “We’re used to taking the brunt of quite a bit.”
Council members have generally been respectful to the women, and several have expressed sympathy.
Councilman Shawn Johnson said it was wrong that a first-time drug offender can go to prison for longer than someone who rapes a child.
Council members Ray Pacheco and Charlie Powell have thanked the women for sharing their stories, and Sandoval regularly expresses his disappointment in the justice system.
Humphrey said everyone on council cared and followed up with McDonald and Wetzel after the women first spoke.
“We all made phone calls to ease our own minds,” she said.
But, despite caring, they all insist nothing can be done.
“There is very little city council can do,” Hopkins said.
Council’s professed impotence is in line with its members’ working style.
Casper uses a “weak mayor” system, meaning that the day-to-day operations of the city are run by the city manager. But McDonald, the manager, still answers directly to the council and implements its directives with individual departments, like the police.
Yet after a tumultuous period that ended in a former city councilman suing a former city manager, council members say they’ve spent the past year working very hard to ensure things run smoothly. They trust McDonald’s judgment and are loath to criticize his reports on what the city can and can’t do.
After the Star-Tribune revealed that fire chief Ken King had sent an email telling a subordinate to delete the “bad parts” of a video being used as evidence in the Cole Creek Fire investigation, several council members said they had learned about the email from the newspaper in October.
None was upset that McDonald had not informed them months earlier when the city first discovered it.
“The buck stops with our city manager,” councilman Ray Pacheco said at the time. “He lets us know the things we need to know.”
That attitude may explain why Sandoval and other council members claim their hands are tied when it comes to examining, and potentially changing, the police department’s response to women reporting sexual violence: They defer to McDonald and Wetzel.
“You don’t micromanage the police chief,” Sandoval said.
“Council can, and did, address the one purview the council has, and that is staffing levels,” he said.
Council members’ authority actually extends far beyond the number of police officers they agree to pay for. They can ask the police, or any other department, to change its priorities, McDonald confirmed.
But Sandoval demurred at the suggestion council might take action like that.
“That’s some dicing of ... the city manager form of government,” he said.
Still, according to the city’s organizational chart, Pacheco and the mayor are wrong. The buck stops with council. McDonald serves at its pleasure.
“They absolutely have the ability to tell the city manager: Let’s invest more here,” said Ann.
Ann, who asked to be identified only by her middle name, described repeatedly calling the police on her husband. She said they didn’t take her claims of domestic violence and spousal rape seriously. They treated the incidents like marital spats.
“It became, ‘Well, one of you needs to leave the house,’” she said. “I’m sitting there with bruises all over my face — like, why aren’t you being arrested?”
Wetzel said that police have to make complex assessments when they respond to reports of domestic violence. “Harsh physicality,” Wetzel said, should always result in arrest.
But that’s not always the case when police are called to a domestic disturbance.
“Every family has some level of dysfunction,” he said. “If we say no ifs, ands or buts — someone is always going to jail — that would be a pretty scary society to live in.”
A judge eventually issued a restraining order against Ann’s husband after Ann received legal help.
Before Aimee and other women began speaking at city council, Ann had found a support group for domestic violence victims at the Self-Help Center in Casper. She described the power of solidarity among other women who also felt like police hadn’t taken their calls seriously.
“We had a beautiful home, we looked normal, but it’s what happens behind closed doors,” Ann said. “When I shared my story you could almost see light bulbs going off in people’s eyes: ‘That’s what happened to me.’ ‘That’s what happened to me.’”
For many of the women, that is the disappointment with council’s response to their complaints. Even as they have found a community of other women in Casper who have experienced similar frustration with law enforcement, council has not shown what they believe to be adequate concern.
“I’m proud of those ladies for coming, because it’s definitely getting some education and discussion going and creating awareness,” said Self-Help Center executive director Jennifer Dyer. “We need all the awareness we can get.”
Whether or not the women speaking up at council played any role in the elections earlier this month, council is due for a shake-up when four newly elected individuals take their seats in January.
How the new council will handle their complaints against police remains to be seen. Ward 1 council member-elect Amanda Huckabay, who unseated Sandoval, was one of the women who spoke about sexual assault at city council.
During the campaign she emphasized the importance of bringing more women’s perspectives to council and noted said she had been assaulted during her time in the military.
“I have faced challenges in my life that maybe not everyone on council can attest to,” Huckabay said at a candidates forum in October.
Huckabay said she was motivated to run after a man exposed himself to her daughter as she walked home from school in April. She said police had received dozens of calls of the man doing the same thing in the same area.
This may set up a showdown when Huckabay joins council.
“I can tell you in that specific case there were zero reports,” Wetzel said.
Huckabay will be seated along with Walsh, the former police chief, who has called for more stable funding of the police department.
Despite the continued lack of progress in her case — she said she hasn’t heard from the police in over five weeks — Aimee has no plans to stop asking council to take steps to improve the police’s response to reports of sexual assault.
Her current goal is for a group of the women to sit down with council and brainstorm together. She still holds out hope that her rapist will face some consequences.
On Monday, a detective came to her house and took a DNA sample from her newborn.
“I don’t know,” Aimee said. “I just feel feel like I know nothing is ever going to happen.”
But her case isn’t over yet.
Come January the council dais will have many new faces, but the meetings will be the same. The Pledge of Allegiance will recited. Land will be rezoned. Payments will be approved. Boy scouts will be honored. Liquor licenses will be transferred. And Aimee Kidd will wait through all of this, rise from her seat and walk to the lectern.