In wake of Forest Thill case, district attorney wants SPPD to take lead on serious offenses on campus
By Brandi Makuski
The Stevens Point Police Dept. could soon be the agency of record when it comes to serious offenses occurring on the UW-Stevens Point campus.
Portage Co. District Attorney Louis Molepske said residents may be surprised to learn UW-Stevens Point Protective Services (UWSPPS) doesn’t automatically contact city police when dealing with serious offenses; he sure was.
“I said we need to have an agreement — either a contract or an MOU (memorandum of understanding) in place, between protective services and city police, for serious offenses that occur on campus,” Molepske said. “We’re talking the most serious offenses like sex assault, domestic violence, homicides and other serious felonies, where the university would automatically contact the city police department.”
Molepske said during the recent Forest Thill case — a case alleging Thill sexually assaulted a woman while she slept — his office noted gaps in the investigation, conducted by university protective services, which could have been avoided if city police had been involved from the beginning.
While UWSPPS Director Bill Rowe declined to speak specifically about the Thill case, he did say, “If a student is better served by calling in law enforcement, we certainly will do that.”
The case was just one of many catalysts, according to Molepske, prompting his office in 2015 to begin talks of creating a formal agreement between UWSPPS and SPPD — one that clearly outlines city police will take the lead on serious offenses on campus.
“City police have more resources, unlike protective services — which doesn’t identify itself as a police department,” Molepske said. “A big concern currently is the turnover at protective services; it is a fact they have officers that [sic] only stay there a brief period of time before they move on.”
Molepske also said UWSPPS doesn’t participate in local training events — to include sex assault and domestic abuse training — hosted by law enforcement from Portage Co., Stevens Point and Plover.
“What we’re doing at these training sessions is develop protocol — but UW Protective Services is not there,” Molepske said.
At the crux of the problem, many in local law enforcement say, is the head of UWSPPS, Director Bill Rowe.
Agencies Aren’t on the Same Page
“He is the biggest obstacle on campus for this kind of thing,” said Dan Kontos, chief deputy of the Portage Co. Sheriff’s Office. “You can’t force someone to show up. We try to get protective services involved, we reach out to Bill [Rowe] for communications, training….but the only time we hear from him is when he wants something.”
Kontos called Rowe’s position a “Catch-22” in that he answers only to the university — and bad press could negatively affect student enrollment.
“The Clery Act requires all universities to report their offenses every year, and they all get compared to each other,” Kontos said. “It’s in the school’s best interest to not have those instances reported, so instead [the alleged crime] goes to the campus disciplinary council, where they get scolded and have to attend a class on sensitivity. It’s an internal corrective measure, and all the schools do that.”
When crimes are handled internally by the university, Kontos said, local law enforcement has no way of knowing they ever occurred. It’s particularly troubling for law enforcement agencies, according to Sheriff Mike Lukas, when they aren’t aware of a suspect’s past offenses.
“If they don’t go through the criminal court system, we have no way of knowing whether we’re arresting someone for a second offense of domestic abuse or drunk driving,” Lukas said. “And knowing that history could go a long way in how we handle certain cases.”
Molepske insisted, “This isn’t about making protective services look bad; this is about creating best practices for law enforcement,” but he also noted some offenses which UWSPPS handles via a noncriminal administrative disciplinary process are the same which SPPD will send to the DA’s office with a request for charges.
“We need some consistency when it comes to serious criminal offenses,” he added.
Stevens Point Assistant Police Chief Tom Zenner said UWSPPS sometimes contacts city police for assistance, but oftentimes city police only act in a support role.
“We represent the city; you can start looking at where we can help, but at the same time we’re not going to walk into something and then end up where we’re liable because of an investigation that may have not been done the way it should, and it’s been that way for quite a while,” Zenner said of the department’s relationship with UWSPPS.
Zenner added the department is always available to help investigate crimes on campus — and added they have the manpower and tools not available to university officers.
“We have 44 sworn officers, six of whom are dedicated investigators,” Zenner said.
Zenner added he, along with Chief Martin Skibba and Assistant Chief Tony Babl, have all been to at least one meeting with university officials to discuss the MOU, and all three agree it’s a no-brainer.
“This is about ensuring our community — our whole community — has the services it should,” Zenner said.
Zenner, Lukas and Kontos said a formal agreement will ensure accountability during criminal investigations — something they all believe was lacking during the Thill case.
The Forest Thill Case
The Forest Thill case dates back to winter of 2013, when a female student contacted protective services in early Dec. to report she had been sexually assaulted sometime on late Nov. 24 or early Nov 25.
According to the criminal complaint, the victim woke sometime during the night to find some of her clothing had been removed and Thill on top of her. The woman told police she did not consent to sexual contact with Thill.
Thill, who wasn’t interviewed by UW Protective Services until Feb. 13 of 2014, told the investigator the woman “did not say no” and alleged she gave him permission to remove her clothing. He also told the officer, according to the complaint, “he believed he had intercourse with [the victim] but was too drunk to remember clearly”.
The case wasn’t filed with the DA’s office until Dec. 1, 2015 — largely because, according to Molepske, Rowe would not sign the criminal complaint.
“Bill [Rowe] refused to sign the criminal complaint. It was his case, it wasn’t a request for charges — Bill didn’t want the case prosecuted,” Molepske said. “We listened to him, we had a meeting, and ultimately he did sign the complaint. [In recent interviews with the media] Bill said he did sign the complaint; that’s true, but it was three months later.”
“It’s unusual and unprecedented in our office that an officer would refuse to sign a criminal complaint,” Molepske said. “That along with the knowledge they have a lot of turnover, and their not showing up at sexual assault and domestic abuse trainings — that’s why we want this agreement in place.”
Thill pleaded no contest on July 26, 2016; Judge Thomas Flugaur sentenced Thill to one year of probation and a $50 fine, plus court costs, for a charge of fourth-degree sexual assault. A second charge, third-degree sexual assault was granted deferred conviction status, meaning the charge will be dismissed if Thill doesn’t violate his probation.
He was also ordered to have no contact with the victim while on probation, with the exception of an apology letter requested by the victim.
Molepske said while the formal agreement between the law enforcement agencies would have prevented some of the problems with the Thill case, he’s also quick to point out the goal is not to place blame.
“This is about discussing best practices, and addressing what we all know: the fact that yes, Director Rowe and three sworn officers have the full power Stevens Point police have — that’s a fact. But they have a different mission, they have different resources and levels of experiences,” Molepske said. “This is about responding to these issues up front, not making anybody look bad.”
Molepske said he’s hopeful the agreement will be in place by the first day of classes at UW-Stevens Point.
Lukas isn’t so sure. “We’ve been talking about this for a year, and I haven’t seen or talked to Bill Rowe since I was elected — I’d be surprised if it was done before students got back.”
Bill Rowe & Protective Services
Bill Rowe came to UW-Stevens Point in 2003 after 32 years in law enforcement at various departments in Wisconsin and Iowa.
“When I came on in 2003, there was one sworn police officer who was unarmed,” Rowe said. “So through today, we’ve made quite a few changes in the way we do different things — probably the most notable was going into an armed status in, I think, 2005.”
Rowe said his department has difficulty attending local training events because it experiences high turnover as students graduate or find other jobs, and noted, “We’re not a traditional police department in any sense of the word.”
“We employ a variety of different staff,” Rowe said. “We employ law enforcement for law enforcement responsibilities, we employ security officers for security officer responsibilities.”
Rowe said his department provides on-campus security for “well over 100 events a year” and assists with overseeing student groups and university governance issues, but also feels his sworn officers already know when to ask for help.
“Any type of case, it doesn’t have to be a sex assault case, we evaluate our capabilities and if it looks like it’s something we need assistance on, we certainly do call for assistance,” Rowe said.
Rowe said his department has a policy in place for investigating crimes of a serious nature, to include sexual assaults, but did not outline what that policy was.
“Remember sexual assault investigations are victim-drive processes,” Rowe said. “Obviously, our first and foremost concern is physical safety of the victim, and then we would go from there.”
When asked about the Forest Thill case, Rowe initially said he “couldn’t remember the details”, and referred questions to Molepske’s office; but moments later said he didn’t believe the complaint filed with the DA “was a fair representation of the case dynamics”, though he declined to say why.
“In many instances there are a lot of processes that could potentially impact the timeline of an investigation, whether it be medical reports, lab reports, or the victim doesn’t want to talk to law enforcement, things like that,” Rowe said. “I don’t know if those were factors in this particular case, but those are factors in many cases.”
When asked why he initially refused to sign the criminal complaint, Rowe said, “To be perfectly honest, I’d rather not discuss a sexual assault investigation because we’re getting into an area where we’re possibly re-victimizing, and I’m not sure that’s appropriate in this case.”
Rowe’s Support & Chain of Command
Under state statute, the official head of protective services is Chancellor Bernie Patterson, but Rowe’s immediate supervisor is Greg Diemer, vice chancellor for business affairs.
“The primary goal of protective services is to provide protection to the university, its occupants and surrounding community,” Diemer said, adding the department has had as many as seven sworn officers with “supplemental security officers and student cadets”, but added all criminal activity is investigated only by sworn personnel.
“Bill Rowe does the majority of the investigative work; he will sometimes assign an officer to pick up part of it, but for the most part, Bill is overseeing and/or doing it all himself, and he has several years experience of police work,” Diemer said. “He’s run a very good department for us; professionally managed and staffed and operated.”
Rowe also works closely with UW-Stevens Point Dean of Students Office, a relatively new position which sometimes takes complaints of sexual assault.
“The office was created to support students with some identified need or experiencing a crisis,” said Troy Seppelt, dean of students, who said the office is now entering its third year. “There are two pathways for a students, faculty, staff or guests, to submit information about a possible crime: one, of course, is to go to protective services; the other is to come through my office, and we have an online reporting system for [that].”
When asked how many sex assaults were reported annually on campus, Seppelt said, “In 2015 there were nine cases reported of alleged gender-based violence on university-owned property”.
Seppelt said the university allows victims to decide whether to report criminal offenses to the city police.
“It depends on what the reporter wants to do; we always encourage students, faculty and staff to report to the police, but that really falls to what the wishes of the reporter are,” he said.
Seppelt said his office speaks “directly to each student and their parents” to educate on campus safety issues, and also said new students are required to take an online course on “how to have consenting, respectful relationships…how to intervene if they see something concerning, and how to report it.”
When asked if Rowe’s office conducted any proactive education for incoming students on sex assault and other serious crimes, Rowe initially said, “We tend to work with students on a individual basis if we cross paths,” but then contradicted himself by touting his department’s “community policing” work.
“We maintain a very strong, very educational approach to law enforcement,” Rowe said. “We practice a very pure form of community policing, and that’s predicated on building relationships through trust and communication.”
But Molepske, along with municipal law enforcement officers, say that “trust and communication” hasn’t been extended to other law enforcement agencies — another reason the formal agreement is needed.
“This isn’t a mutual aid agreement; this isn’t, ‘We’ll call you if we need help’,” Molepske said. “This is clear lines, on the most serious cases; if there’s a sexual assault, a homicide, domestics reported on campus, that Stevens Point police officers are involved from the beginning.”
Molepske also noted his concern over non-sworn student personnel interviewing witnesses during the aftermath of an alleged crime, adding the agreement will make “very clear who’s going to be doing the evidence collection and investigation.”
“For victim’s sake, for case development, those resources should be brought to bear from the beginning,” Molepske said. “We have public tax dollars paying for this department that can and should be used immediately in these cases.”
“I’m for anything that creates better accountability,” said Sheriff Lukas. “I want more accountability for every resident of this county, and that includes students on campus.”
*This story is ongoing.