Reporting Liz Collin
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – They are shocking allegations set in one of Minnesota’s top tourist attractions: a brutal sexual attack in the Boundary Waters while the system designed to protect her points fingers.
Julia visited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last summer with three friends for a five-day camping trip. She asked us not to use her last name as she still has fears for her safety.
Thirty minutes from that cool summer night will forever haunt the young woman.
“It was really hard, and it still is,” Julia said.
The time has left a family and a deputy desperate for a different outcome.
It was late afternoon on Julie’s group’s last night when they encountered a group of men on the water.
“We were just talking, and they were drinking,” Julia said. “They were offering us all shots.”
Julia said she took a couple, but her group ended up going their own way.
Hours later, after the women set up camp for themselves, some of the men were back.
Julia said they sat around the fire watching the men drinking and smoking pot.
One by one, her friends started to go to bed. Another left with one of the men, until it was just Julia alone with two of them.
“One of them put his arm around me and was like, ‘Hey you should have this shot. You haven’t had anything all night,’” Julia said.
She agreed and said within minutes she felt sick, like she was going to pass out.
That’s when she said the two men dragged her by her shoulders deep into the woods, more than a quarter-mile from her campsite.
“I’m like ‘Stop. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this,’” she said.
The next 30 minutes would leave Julia bruised and her spirit broken. She said both men took turns in a brutal sexual assault. Then, a third man came back and held her down while it continued.
Finally, a friend started coming down the trail, calling her name. Julia said the men were startled and they stopped.
“As they were finally getting off our little island, you could hear them all high-fiving and being like, ‘Yeah, three-way,” Julia said.
She told her friends about the attack the next day. Her friends had already suspected something bad happened in the woods that night. Julia reported a sexual assault 72 hours later at a hospital near her mom’s home.
Investigators said it’s behavior common for rape victims to wait. They want to feel safe before saying anything.
Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk said when you visit the BWCA, visitors know they are usually on their own.
“It’s very rugged, very remote,” he said. “There’s no roads, there’s no telephones, there’s no cell service. You have to be really self-reliant.”
The BWCA is made up of more than one million acres, and a third of them are within Cook County’s boundaries. There are no regular police patrols on the land beyond periodically checking access points, simply because the area is so large.
“What if there’s somebody just like her, canoeing with their friends, their church group, their women’s group, their family, and the same thing happens,” said Julia’s mother, Maggie. “And that’s the only thing that got her to report it.”
Deputy Julie Collman works on criminal sexual conduct cases in Cook County and was assigned to Julia’s case.
“So many things fell together that I never doubted what they were telling me was true,” Collman said.
When Cook County got the case, Collman didn’t have much to go on, beyond descriptions of six men.
After spending weeks scouring through permits, paddling out and photographing the site, and questioning Julia’s friends, Collman was convinced she had the guys in the group. They all lived in the Twin Cities.
Collman said due to overtime concerns in her small department, she asked an agent at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul to conduct the interviews.
“I understood it made more sense for the BCA to intervene at this point, and interview the suspects,” Collman said.
Records show Collman first notified the BCA of the case about a month after Julia went to police. The agency was asked to interview each man at the campsite that night.
Two weeks later, Collman asked about the BCA’s progress in an email. The agent told her he had a heavy case load.
A month after that, Collman was told two different agents were taking over and that no interviews had yet taken place.
Drew Evans is a Senior Special Agent at the BCA. While he wasn’t directly involved with the case, he spoke to WCCO after studying the files.
“We’re always trying to conduct everything as quickly as they’re able,” Evans said, “depending on schedules and the constraints of the case.”
One man told agents he had “no knowledge of any sexual activities taking place.”
Another said Julia willingly went back into the woods.
The third said he saw “consensual sexual activity, but didn’t take part.”
Another man lied to agents about who he was and then refused to talk.
Two more never returned the agents’ calls.
“Things they were saying weren’t adding up with what another one said,” Collman said. “Their stories weren’t adding up.”
“I think the agents conducted the interviews they were requested to do,” Evans said.
The Cook County Attorney got the case back at the end of November to consider charges. Tim Scannell said he didn’t read the full report until December, just before a suspect in an unrelated case put him in the hospital with three gunshot wounds.
“A number of files went out to other counties because of the shooting,” Scannell said. “And this was one of them.”
Hennepin County took over in January and considered charges for two more months.
Then in March, nine months after that camping trip, Julia was told her case would be dismissed, in a voicemail left on her phone.
“I’ve tried 100 percent in my capability to stop these guys from doing this again,” Julia said. “But I don’t really trust in the justice system anymore. If they’re going to not even take these prosecutors who are supposed to be on my side, and help me through this to get these guys to justice, and then say they don’t believe in sex crimes and that they believe in me, I don’t see why I should believe in them.”
Said Collman, “I worked really hard and was just surprised it was dismissed.”
In her decision to dismiss, Hennepin County prosecutor Amy Sweasy wrote “something went wrong in the woods between Julia and the suspects. It is not at all clear to me that Julia consented to the sexual acts that took place. On the other hand, I believe the evidence is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the sexual encounters in this case were forced or coerced.”
“You can’t accuse people if you don’t believe you can prove your case out in a court of law,” Scannell said. “And that’s what I believe happened here.”
It was the final word Julia didn’t think was possible after so much time.
“The fact that my life has changed, and has flipped upside down, and people don’t believe that,” Julia said. “It’s just incredulous.”
Said Collman, “Every other crim sex case I do from now, I’m sure I’ll think about her.”
Julia has a blog to help other sexual assault victims, check it out by clicking here.