Ali’s story: Surviving sexual assault through college and the court system

Caitlin Curley

The Collegian would like to inform its readers that the content of this article may trigger those affected by sexual assault. 

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Video by Caitlin Curley.

Three years ago, Ali Ellendorff went to a party the last day of her freshman year at Colorado State University.

She was at the party with some of her friends whom she had gotten to know over the previous six months through a dance organization at CSU. Ali had always loved to dance and had been attending practices for swing and blues dancing all year. She had built friendships with many involved in the club, including Ben Reichenback, the vice president at the time.

At the party, Ali and her friends were celebrating the end of finals. Toward the end of the party, Ali went to sleep on the futon. Ben, intoxicated and without a ride, decided to sleep next to her.

Ali woke up to Ben assaulting her — and her entire life changed.

Aftermath of the assault

When Ali left the party the next morning, she didn’t think she had rights. There was no physical evidence of the assault on her, so she didn’t think she would be able to report the assault to the police. She wasn’t even sure that what had happened was an assault.

As she drove home, Ali told herself what had happened wasn’t that bad and that it could have been worse.

“Even though I was trying to minimize it, it still felt really, really wrong, and it wouldn’t get out of my head,” Ali said. “It was there all the time.”

Ali wasn’t sure what to do, so she continued with her life like normal. This meant seeing Ben regularly at dance events and social occasions.

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Ben started putting Ali down whenever he had the chance.

“He would talk down to me, he would slap me on the a** or slap other people on the a** in front of me,” Ali said. “He would smile when he saw how uncomfortable I was.”

Ali was struggling to tell those around her what had happened. Many of her friends were also friends with Ben — leaving her in a damaging social circle.

“When I started talking about it, it was putting strain on my relationships because I was interacting differently than I was before,” Ali said.

When Ali did share her story with some of her friends, many of them told her to go speak with Ben and work it out. Ali had no desire to confront someone who had attacked her and violated her trust and safety.

One of Ali’s and Ben’s mutual friends told Ali that Ben had displayed a pattern of this behavior in the past, but it had been minimized by the group and no one had confronted him about it.

When Ali began to consider reporting the assault to the police, the host of the party where the assault occurred told her not to because they might get in trouble for underage alcohol consumption. This was false — police will not prosecute for alcohol consumption in cases like this.

Six months after the assault, Ali realized she needed to go to therapy. She was experiencing symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, including trouble sleeping and focusing on school.

“I started to crash pretty bad,” Ali said. “I couldn’t focus on my homework because every time I sat down to think about it, I would start having a panic attack. The memories would come back, and I would have physical pain. I’d feel like it was happening again.”

Ali went to therapy sessions, and her therapist told her to go to the Women and Gender Advocacy Center.

Reporting to the police

Up until this point, Ali hadn’t realized that she could report her assault to the police. She thought that since there was no physical evidence, it wouldn’t be possible.

When Ali went to the WGAC in May 2013, they explained that any victim of a sexual assault can report the assault at any time, regardless of available evidence. There is no guarantee of a prosecution, but reporting is always an option.

Her victim advocate at the WGAC called a police officer down to the office to listen to her story. Ali told the officer what happened.

A couple weeks later, Ali met with a detective and told her story again. They conducted a pre-text phone call, where the police department calls the perpetrator and makes the call look like it is coming from the victim’s phone, but records the entire conversation.

According to Ali, during the phone call, Ben admitted to the assault.

However, two months later, the District Attorney’s office told Ali that they would not be picking up her case. Ali accepted this and began trying to move on.

In February 2014, Ali was surprised to find a letter from the D.A.’s office telling her that they would be prosecuting Ben for a charge of sexual contact — no consent. They gave no explanation for why the case was now being picked up. The Collegian reached out to the victims/witness specialist assigned to Ali’s case to inquire about this, but did not hear back by time of print.

It is known that another victim reached out to the police about an assault with Ben. This assault was brought up during the court process, and the victim obtained a restraining order against Ben, but did not wish to be further involved in the court process so the assault cannot be confirmed.

The courts

The court process following the first letter took one year, six dispositions and three different members of the D.A.’s office to prosecute Ben for the assault against Ali.

“Going through the court process was so bad,” Ali said. “The court process is probably the thing I’m most angry about besides being assaulted. It was so terrible.”

The first three dispositions were each postponed. It wasn’t until the fourth disposition that Ali and Ben actually appeared in court. On this day, the D.A. that Ali had been meeting with was not present. A different member of the D.A.’s office appeared to present Ali’s case.

Ali’s case was put at the end of the docket, so she waited there all day with supporters around her. When her case came up, the D.A. presented a plea of one year unsupervised probation. The judge told the D.A. that this plea did not match the assault, and the disposition was once again postponed.

Later, according to Ali, the D.A. apologized to her for not reading her case.

“The D.A. was completely incompetent,” Ali said.

Ali was then assigned a different D.A., who she said was much easier to work with. After two more dispositions, Ben finally pleaded guilty and received two years of supervised probation.

During this entire process, Ali had to share her story many times with many different people.

“It’s very re-traumatizing,” Ali said. “You have to re-tell your story over and over again in a very invalidating way. Every aspect of your story is weighed. When you’re going through the court process you’re also struggling with the symptoms of PTSD, including memory loss and mental confusion, and as soon as you change your story in any way, everything about your story is questioned. ‘Why didn’t you say that before?’ and ‘Why is that different than it was then?’ and honestly, you don’t know because your brain is not functioning at a proficient cognitive level.”

Ali said she felt she should not have had to tell her story this many times, especially when it was in her file. She also said she felt she should not have had to monitor the pleas and that the D.A.’s did not do their job well enough in getting a plea bargain together and prosecuting Ben.

“The waiting is terrible, the not knowing is terrible,” Ali said. “While it’s understandable that it takes a long time, there’s also a level of competency that needs to be upheld. They were passing it between different district attorneys, and I had to repeat myself quite frequently because I was always talking to a different person. It didn’t really feel like my case mattered.”

The Collegian reached out to Jodi Lacey, executive assistant to the District Attorney. Lacey said that according to records, the first disposition was postponed because Ben called ahead to say he could not make it. She was not able to see why the rest of the dispositions were postponed, but said that dispositions are usually postponed when the plea bargain cannot be agreed upon, and/or the defendant is considering the plea offer but has questions and needs time to find out more.

In regard to the D.A. who did not read Ali’s file before presenting the plea, Lacey said that D.A.’s substitute for each other when they are sick or have family emergencies.

“Sometimes attorneys are thrown into it in the last minute, so they haven’t had the chance to check the facts, but they want to be there to represent the people in the case,” Lacey said.

Reporting to the University

Ali also reported her assault to CSU Student Conduct Services. In two months, Student Conduct Services found Ben guilty of the assault, around the same time he was graduating.

CSU required Ben to attend therapy and withheld his diploma until he did so. Ben was also not allowed near campus until Ali graduated.

“The process for CSU reporting is much quicker than reporting to the police because their burden of proof is much lower,” Ali said.”But, waiting for CSU still felt terrible.”

The WGAC: Problems with the court system and the lack of support for survivors

Ali’s difficulties when telling her friends what happened are experienced by many survivors. Often, a survivor will not be believed when the person is friends with the perpetrator.

“It’s easier to think you’re hanging out with someone who’s a liar than to think you’re hanging out with someone who is a rapist, when statistically speaking, it’s probably the opposite,” said Monica Rivera, interim director of the WGAC.

This can prevent survivors from sharing their story, said Casey Malsam, program coordinator for victim advocacy.

“Sexual assault is very silenced,” Malsam said. “Assault often happens within friend groups, and survivors struggle with coming forward and losing the friend group. It’s not just coming forward and talking to the police that’s scary, but sometimes it’s what happens to the social circles that can be silencing.”

It’s also a regular occurrence for friends and family to downgrade the situation and make excuses for the perpetrator.

“Because it’s so common for us to make jokes about sexual assault and minimize the impact of survivors, a lot of times, survivors’ friends ask them why they aren’t over it yet,” Malsam said. “We do such a good job about minimizing the actual impact that this has on people that I believe that allows us to excuse rapists for not knowing or being confused, when ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking the law.”

Ali’s experience with the court system is also extremely common for sexual assault survivors.

Malsam said she has heard D.A.s tell survivors that perpetrators have a right to due process, and if the D.A. does not cooperate with due process at any point, this can overturn a conviction. So, they tend to allow for dispositions to be pushed in order to prove that they are cooperating with due process.

“It’s just another reason why our criminal justice does not work in these cases often enough,” Malsam said. “Very rarely do you have a survivor that comes forward. When they do come forward, oftentimes the D.A. won’t take the case. If the D.A. does take the case, it very rarely results in any jail time — it’s oftentimes probation. So long as the perpetrator doesn’t do anything for the time they’re on probation, it just goes away in the end. That’s the kind of justice that we’re talking about when were talking about sexual violence in our court systems.”

Rivera said the long wait of the court system would not be as bad if our society was better at being supportive during the process.

“It’s not just that the survivors are experiencing this long waiting time, it’s that then they’re surrounded by friends and family and media that tell them they’re lying, they’re making it up, they’re overreacting, they were probably asking for it,” Rivera said. “So, I think that’s also what makes the process so brutal. If we lived in a more victim-supportive society, then we could take as much time as we need to make sure that we’re honoring due process and still giving people the support they need in the process.”

The WGAC is available to anyone who has been affected by sexual assault, including friends and family of survivors. The WGAC can talk students through how to support a survivor during their healing process.

“We will see anyone, even if people are questioning and they’re not sure what happened but they want someone to talk it over with,” Malsam said. “We’re a really great place to do that. We are a confidential resource, and we won’t ever share your story without you asking.”

Ali’s message to other survivors

After Ali’s court process ended, she was finally able to start her healing. After months of trauma therapy, group therapy and surrounding herself with more positive people, Ali is now leading a happy life in her senior year at CSU. She has a message for other survivors of assault:

Collegian Digital Managing Editor Caitlin Curley can be reached at ccurley@collegian.com.