Brittney Westphal, who was at the center of a startling November 2016 exposé revealing that seven of ten sexual-assault reports in Denver during the previous two years weren't prosecuted, and Kendra Heuer, whose attacker, former CU Boulder student Austin Wilkerson, received no jail time despite being convicted of unlawful sexual assault against her, have joined with Lizzie Stelten, another sexual-assault survivor, to create a new and novel support group that will be meeting for the first time on April 18 in Niwot.
According to Westphal, who, like Heuer and Stelten, have approved the use of their names and provided photos for this report, the Sexual Assault Survivors Peer Support Group will be structured using a format similar to the one employed by organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous. At the meetings, victims of any gender identified by their first name only will be able to share their stories or simply listen to those told by others in a welcoming and encouraging environment of the sort that Westphal wishes had been available after she was assaulted.
"I really had no avenue of speaking to anyone who could relate, and that was something I desperately needed," she says. "This is going to be a safe place for someone to find help and to build kinship and community with other people who have been through similar experiences — so you can see you're not alone."
Westword previously wrote about the attack on Westphal, though we didn't know it at the time. In July 2016, we published "Eight Sex-Crime Reports to Denver Police That Started on Tinder," a post in which we detailed sexual assault reports to the Denver Police Department that involved individuals who'd first connected using the Tinder dating app. Victims' names were blacked out in all the documents.
Of the eight reports issued by the DPD between the start of 2015 and July 6, 2016, six weren't prosecuted, including the one Westphal now confirms involved her — and in her case, this decision was made despite the presence of physical evidence that a crime had occurred.
On July 18, 2015, Westphal says, she and a man also on Tinder encountered each other at the NATIV Hotel: "I had other friends there. I wasn't necessarily going there to meet up with him, but he suggested a place and I felt comfortable going there."
At NATIV, Westphal didn't see any red flags, and neither she nor the man drank much. At closing time, she says, she accepted his offer to drive her home, in part because she thought her other friends would soon be joining them. However, those plans fell through, leaving her alone with the man — and at around 3:30 a.m., "he really started putting pressure on" about having sex. After saying "no" multiple times, she allowed him to stay at her apartment and went to bed alone wearing her pajamas. She promptly went to sleep, only to awaken some time later to find that she was face down with her hands behind her back and was being sexually assaulted in a way that made it impossible to fight back.
Once the act was over and the man got off her, "I told him to get the fuck out of my house," Westphal recalls. "He said, 'Are you serious? It's 5 a.m.' And I repeated, 'Get the fuck out of my house.' He didn't say another word. He left a Hanes T-shirt at my apartment, but he put the rest of his clothes on and just walked out."
That morning, Westphal went to a hospital and underwent a rape examination that revealed a number of injuries consistent with sexual assault, including bruises on her wrists, arms, neck, back and legs. There was also DNA evidence aplenty. But while Westphal was interviewed by DPD investigators and made it clear she wanted to press charges, nothing happened for nearly a year. Finally, on May 27, 2016, she was informed that the Denver District Attorney's Office, then under the leadership of Mitch Morrissey (who handed over the DA's job to Beth McCann in January), had decided against pressing charges.
Why? For one thing, the man proclaimed his innocence. "In the report, he said that he woke up to me grinding on him and thought I wanted attention, so he gave me some," Westphal notes. "Then he said I acted weird and told him to leave and he respectfully did — but he also expected that I would call him in the morning." She speculates that his background — "He was a rich, privileged white guy" — and the fact that he hired a lawyer who'd worked for years as a member of the DA's office played a part in the no-prosecution conclusion, too.
The same month the Westword Tinder post appeared, Westphal was contacted by Fox31, which expanded beyond the Tinder reports we published with data showing that of 398 sexual-assault cases investigated by the Denver Police Department between August 2014 and August 2016, Morrissey's office "refused or dismissed at least 278 of them. That's seven out of ten rape victims who never got their day in court."
Westphal was front and center in the Fox31 piece, which finally aired last November 3, and afterward, she says, "I was contacted by a lot of women who had been sexually assaulted — women who were looking for some sort of support and were just really impressed by my bravery of coming forward. I didn't necessarily want my name out there, but I didn't want my face to be hidden during that interview. I strongly believed that if anyone needed their face to be hidden, it was Mitch Morrissey and the perpetrator, not me. I did nothing wrong. They were the ones who needed to be ashamed of what they did."
Shortly thereafter, Westphal met Kendra Heuer through Facebook. In Westphal's words, "I was looking for support for how to handle having your story on the media, which brings a whole new aspect to an assault."
If anyone understood, it was Heuer, a CU Boulder student who was put through her own press gauntlet. On March 15, 2014, according to court documents, she'd had too much to drink while celebrating St. Patrick's Day weekend — and Wilkerson told friends that he was going to take care of her. Instead, prosecutors say, he sexually assaulted her, after which he sent a text to Heuer's friend in which he portrayed himself as a caretaker. The text earned him a thanks for his supposedly thoughtful behavior.
The case became a national cause upon Wilkerson's sentencing in August 2016. For being convicted of unlawful sexual assault and sexual assault against a helpless victim, as we reported, he could have received between four and twelve years in prison. Instead, Boulder District Judge Patrick Butler gave him two years of work release and twenty years to life on probation.
A petition to remove Judge Butler for imposing this relative wrist slap eventually collected more than 82,000 signatures. Meanwhile, Heuer decided to go public, speaking in November to People magazine for an issue devoted to "25 Women Changing the World."
Lizzie Stelten came into contact with the other co-founders of the Sexual Assault Survivors Peer Support Group via a different group Westphal created under the auspices of Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA), a nonprofit in the Boulder area. Stelten had been sexually assaulted four years earlier but had never pressed charges. Westphal subsequently accompanied Stelten to the Boulder Police Department, where she says the officers there reacted with much more professionalism and respect than she'd experienced in Denver.
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Being there for Stelten was empowering, Westphal acknowledges. "I was finally out of my own predicament, and I was able to play this strong role — like the crusader who got her through that. I don't know where that came from, but it helped tremendously to be someone who could be there."
This philosophy extends to the new support group, which is scheduled to meet every Tuesday from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Eagle Place Community Center, 6790 North 79th Street in Niwot. "It's open and free to everyone," Westphal says. "You can come if you want to, you can share if you want to. We only ask that you say your first name, but there's no obligation. You don't have to come every week and you don't need to share your story, because it's your own. But if you want to, great — we encourage that."
Talking about being sexually assaulted "will never be comfortable," Westphal concedes. "But it brings a lot of healing and strength when I'm able to help someone else."
Click for more information about the Sexual Assault Survivors Peer Support Group.