Who Gets to Speak About Sexual Assault?

A woman who posted her account of sexual assault on Facebook says the mayor tried to silence her in his effort to clear his own name of an unrelated allegation.
(Johannes Krupinski/Unsplash)

by | Oct 6, 2020 | Crime

At a Jackson Town Council meeting Monday, Eden Morris testified that Mayor Pete Muldoon asked her to remove a Facebook post about being sexually assaulted. Her testimony cast a somber pall over the meeting, which had begun with a proclamation recognizing October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. 

Morris is a stranger to Muldoon, who is running for a seat on the Jackson Town Council. She said she was inspired to write about her assault by her friend Jessica Gill, who posted her own sexual assault story on her blog. Gill spoke out to support the woman who accused Muldoon of rape. 

That woman’s story entered the public sphere through a public records request filed by political activist Gloria Courser, a vocal opponent of the mayor who has taken aim at Muldoon for his policies, most recently that has included his support of public health orders meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Morris said she “had no previous knowledge” of any sexual assault case involving Muldoon.  

“I do not know him personally,” she told the council. “I had never met him or encountered him in any way until [the] morning of October 4 when he sent me private Facebook messages to ask me to remove my post, a post written to reflect my personal experience with sexual assault, not the case brought against him in 2018.”

She spoke of an incident in her past when she was sexually harassed by a professor and likened Muldoon’s attempt to communicate with her in private to that of the professor who cornered her behind closed doors.

“Today, in this moment, I chose to overcome my deep-rooted fears and speak on behalf of those who are still processing the damage and trauma from their own horrific experiences,” she said.

A stunned silence followed her testimony. Muldoon’s voice shook as he thanked Morris for speaking out. He did not respond immediately to KHOL’s request for comment. 

The Mayor’s Messages

In his oscillating Facebook messages to Morris, Muldoon suggested that women’s social media posts describing their sexual assault stories could be discredited once a report from Wyoming’s Division of Criminal Investigations is released. Muldoon wrote that his accuser lied and when the report comes out showing that, “it will feed into the narrative that women lie,” Muldoon wrote. “That sucks. I don’t believe that.”

Though Muldoon’s message to Morris began with an apparent intent to protect survivors from scrutiny, he quickly turned the focus back on himself.

“Until that report comes out, I don’t have a way to defend myself,” Muldoon wrote.

In his message to Morris, Muldoon claimed that former Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith believed half of all sexual assault claims are made up. However, Muldoon wrote he doesn’t believe that, citing studies that show only 2 to 8 percent of sexual assault accusations are false. He then wrote that Morris’s account serves interests outside herself, namely Muldoon’s political opponents who dislike his criticisms of law enforcement.

“I was the only elected official who was clear about what Roger Schulz [sic] did, and who has had the courage to criticize law enforcement,” Muldoon wrote.

Jackson Police Lieutenant Roger Schultz resigned in August following public outcry over a post he wrote for the Jackson Police blotter that made light of a potential case of sexual assault. Muldoon strongly condemned Schultz’s post at the time.

 

A screenshot shows messages Mayor Pete Muldoon sent to Eden Morris about removing a Facebook post she wrote discussing her account of sexual assault. (Courtesy Eden Morris)

 

Muldoon tried to press his case to Morris, insinuating he was the victim of a smear campaign. “It’s no accident that the Sheriff’s department illegally released an accusation that [they] know to be false, in the middle of an election,” he wrote.

In her testimony, Morris said Muldoon’s response to her was inappropriate on many levels. By pleading his own victimhood to a sexual assault survivor, Morris said Muldoon had exhibited “a lack of understanding and awareness of the lasting damages that his words will cause survivors of sex assault.”

Muldoon’s comments to Morris about the election reference his vocal support for examining law enforcement. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, he has signaled an interest in scrutinizing police budgets. He also posted an article to his Facebook page about defunding the police and asked community members to offer their thoughts. But he is not the only elected official to look into better oversight of local law enforcement. The Board of County Commissioners set up a task force this summer and allocated $10,000 of county money to fund it. 

Who Receives Protection?

Muldoon has pointed out that the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation completed an investigation into the allegations against him in 2019. According to Teton County attorney Erin Weisman, the DCI agent concluded no crime had occurred and no criminal charges were filed. 

Muldoon released a statement Friday accusing the Teton County Sheriff’s Office of “committing a crime.” As the Jackson Hole Daily reported last week, the sheriff’s office released public records of rape allegations against Muldoon from two years ago at the request of Courser. Muldoon claims state law protects him from his name being released. Weisman says otherwise.

Weisman provided KHOL with the same statement she gave the Daily last week. In it, she explains that Wyoming law protects people charged with sexual assault but since Muldoon was never charged and the case is closed, his name is not required to be redacted.

“There is no ongoing prosecution or investigation,” Weisman wrote. “Thus, under current case law and statutes in Wyoming, the documents may be released.” 

But attorney Bruce Moats told the Jackson Hole Daily that Weisman’s interpretation of the law is contrary to why the law exists. “The idea was this was to protect those falsely accused,” he said. “I have a hard time wrapping my head around how that would change just when charges aren’t filed.”

Muldoon filed an ethical violations complaint with the Wyoming State Bar against Weisman’s office Tuesday.

In a statement, Muldoon said police are required to protect the privacy of both victims and the falsely accused. “If we cannot trust the police to follow the law and protect the identities of innocent citizens, do we really trust them to protect victims’ identities?” he wrote. 

Muldoon wrote that victims of sexual assault should be listened to and given a thorough investigation of the crime they allege. “Many victims never get that thorough investigation, and this must change,” he wrote.

At issue between Muldoon and the county attorney is the interpretation of a statute that has been the source of consternation for victim advocates. The statute affords a level of protection not given to people accused of other crimes, only that of sexual assault. In a 2015 article in the Casper Star Tribune, some sexual assault policy experts say the statute is rooted in misogyny. 

“This statute certainly perpetuates this myth that victims lie and that we need to protect these poor innocents, who are usually men, that perpetuate these crimes,” Tara Muir, policy director of the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, told the Tribune.

Supporting Survivors

Earlier in Monday’s town council meeting, prior to Morris’s testimony, Muldoon attempted to address what he says are false allegations leveled against him. Vice Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson interrupted Muldoon.

“Mr. Mayor, I don’t think this is an appropriate time or use of a town council meeting,” Morton Levinson said. “I would ask that if you have comments to make on your personal situation that you do that in another setting.”

As it turned out, Muldoon’s personal situation quickly re-emerged as a topic of the meeting when Morris gave her testimony. After the meeting, Morton Levinson commended Morris for speaking out. She said her concern lies with victims of sexual assault, not the political back-and-forth surrounding Muldoon’s campaign for town council.

“A leader needs to consider how their actions will affect an individual and community and recognize their unique position in interacting with others,” she said.

Councilor Arne Jorgensen said he was moved by Morris’s courage to speak out. Like Morton Levinson, he said he is concerned about sexual assault survivors feeling afraid to speak.

 “The thing I am most saddened by and pissed off about is when I hear people saying they are hesitating coming out publicly because of their fear of retribution,” Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen says elected officials need to address the systemic issues that keep sexual assault survivors silent. He said he supports a recent public statement by Morton Levinson and Teton County Commission Chair Natalia Macker about their commitment to address sexual assault and gender-based violence. 

“Laws alone won’t fix this,” Morton Levinson and Macker wrote. “But they are one of the places we have to start and we will be working with legislators to make changes to statutes. As leaders, we must not perpetuate the systemic and structural barriers that allow oppression in any form to exist.”

Adrian Croke, director of education and prevention for the Community Safety Network, said that news coverage, social media postings, and community dialogue about sexual assault can be triggering for survivors. She urged anyone who needs support to contact CSN.

We want people to remember they don’t have to be defined by a traumatic event in their life, but feelings of being triggered right now are absolutely normal,” Croke said.

 “Finding and using coping skills when triggered is something we can help with,” she said. The help line is 307-733-7233.

CSN will host a Zoom event October 13 at 6 p.m. on how to support survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Register here.

In the meantime, Morris has joined a chorus of voices calling for Muldoon’s resignation.

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About Meg Daly

A former community affairs director for KHOL, Meg is a freelance writer and arts professional. Her work has appeared in Planet Jackson Hole, Homestead, Jackson Hole News&Guide, The Oregonian, and other publications.

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