SIOUX FALLS | The thought of someone convicted of illegal sexual contact walking around a college campus is disturbing to rape victim Tara-Claire Whalen.
Whalen, a sophomore at the University of South Dakota, was shocked when in October, the heart of football season, two of the school’s players were arrested on rape charges stemming from an incident at an off-campus residence.
What concerns her now is that one of them, who admitted to his involvement and was criminally convicted, is still enrolled.
“It’s terrifying to think someone who should be in jail isn’t and can still be walking around our campus and still has the potential to do this to someone else,” said Whalen, who is part of student organization PAVE: Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment.
Danny Rambo Jr., a USD junior, was charged with second-degree rape after a woman reported being sexually assaulted by him and another student, Dale Williamson Jr., while she was having consensual sex with a different student, who was also a football player. Williamson was charged with attempted rape and has pleaded not guilty.
In November, an arrest warrant for a separate case was issued for Williamson. He was charged with second- and third-degree rape from a March 2017 incident. Williamson is awaiting trial on both cases.
Neither individual is on the football roster, the university confirmed. Williamson is no longer enrolled.
Rambo’s criminal case has closed up: he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and received his sentence in February, leaving some to wonder how a student who admitted to a crime involving sexual contact can remain on campus.
But criminal procedures and college disciplinary processes are separate, and universities are strapped in their ability to respond until their own Title IX investigation can be completed.
USD officials said in October a Title IX investigation was taking place but have not said if it was completed.
“With the exception of interim measures and the general authority to protect the safety and well-being of the campus community, no action is taken against a student accused of violating the Student Code of Conduct until the conduct process is concluded and the student is found to have engaged in prohibited conduct,” South Dakota Board of Regents general counsel Guilherme Costa said in an email.
Rambo is still enrolled at the university and won’t be seeing much jail time, a result that isn’t uncommon locally and nationwide. That’s true even for an incident that was jarring when it was first reported last fall.
The victim and two of her friends joined Williamson, Rambo and another USD football player to watch a movie in his bedroom at an off-campus residence on Oct. 22, according to an affidavit for an arrest warrant.
The victim’s friends left the residence, and Williamson and Rambo exited the room at 10:26 p.m., according to the court document.
The victim texted her friend until 11:06 p.m., when she told her friend that she and the third student were going to have consensual sex, according to the court documents. Rambo and Williamson re-entered the room without the victim’s knowledge.
Rambo, according to court documents, approached the victim without her knowing and penetrated her with his fingers. She stopped him and he left the room. Williamson twice tried to force the victim to give him oral sex, according to the affidavit.
The victim told police that the other player, who is a senior and will graduate, did not seem surprised that Rambo and Williamson entered the room. She also said he did not ask them to leave the room.
The three players were suspended from the football team.
Rambo, 21, was initially charged with second-degree rape. In February, as part of a plea deal, he pleaded guilty to sexual contact without consent with a person capable of consenting, a Class 1 misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of a year in county jail. The charge does not require Rambo to register as a sex offender.
Rape in the second degree is a Class 1 felony, which would have given the judge the opportunity to sentence up to 50 years in prison.
Rambo was sentenced to spend 10 days in the Clay County Jail, starting Nov. 1.
Jason Rumpca, a Beresford lawyer who handled the defense proceedings, declined to comment beyond providing sentencing information.
Clay County State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy said she was unable to comment on Rambo’s case, as it is connected with Williamson’s currently open case. But experts say a drastic drop in sentence parameters and charge level is nothing new in cases involving a sexual crime.
Sexual crime cases hinge upon victim involvement, said Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan. From identifying the assailant, if possible, to repeatedly providing intricate details to an intimately harrowing experience, the court process can be another barrier to closure.
But softer sentences can also be difficult to grasp.
“It’s rough on victims when it gets (pleaded) down because a lot of them come to us and want justice to be done,” said Michelle Markgraf, director of the Compass Center for sexual assault and domestic violence advocacy in Sioux Falls. “They don’t see that as justice happening.”
Each sexual assault case is unique. Best-case scenarios involve a participating survivor, DNA evidence, physical evidence and witnesses — elements that would give a jury confidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the person being accused of the assault is guilty.
Rape cases are fluid, McGowan said. A victim can change his or her mind halfway through the process and not want to continue the case. There could be no physical evidence to counter a denial from the accused.
For cases where evidence is unavailable and a victim isn’t ready to share in open court, prosecutors often try to get what they can, such as working with the defense to reach a plea deal, which isn’t always satisfying justice.
“Even at the beginning of the process when I’m in the ER with somebody who is reporting a sexual assault and is considering a rape kit, they want to know at that point, am I going to get justice?” Markgraf said. “That’s so tough for me as an advocate because the chances are they won’t get justice just because these cases are hard to prosecute and very rarely do they go to trial.”
Nationally, about 1 in 10 rapists see jail time, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). That number includes the two-thirds of rapes that don’t get reported to law enforcement, according to the same site.
About 16.5 percent of those charged with rape were convicted, according to a 2009 data analysis on felony defendants from the country’s 75 largest counties from the Bureau of Justice. The majority of those were reached in a plea deal with attorneys rather than a jury trial.
The same trend carries into cases involving a college student.
Former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner was given a six-month sentence but was released after only three for good behavior after a jury found him guilty of multiple felonies from a 2015 assault of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.
University of Colorado student Austin Wilkerson was convicted by a jury of sexually assaulting a woman in March 2014. Prosecutors said he “isolated and raped the half-conscious victim” after a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, according to The Guardian, after he had told his friends that he was going to take care of her.
He saw no prison time, and instead was ordered two years of “work release” and 20 years to life on probation.
The reality of sentencing in these cases could serve as a barrier to future victims who are considering reporting the offense, Whalen said.
“It’s terrifying that (Rambo) got sentenced to 10 days in jail after admitting he did this to a girl,” the Mobridge native said. “If it would happen to me again, I (wouldn’t) want to tell anyone because they just get a slap on the wrist. I feel like it’s more of a downer on people who would want to report.”
The victim in Rambo and Williamson’s case didn’t report the incident to police, according to court documents. Someone known to the victim reported it to university police.
“The victim was very reluctant about having an investigation started due to the backlash she believed she would suffer from the football team, student population and community,” according to the affidavit.
The fear of backlash hovers over nearly every survivor who walks into the Compass Center, Markgraf said. They’re often told by people in whom they confide that their assailant “would never do this.”
“They’re not believed a lot of the time. We’ve seen it a lot,” Markgraf said.
It’s even more intimidating when the accused has the high profile of an athlete.
ESPN’s Outside the Lines did a five-year look at 10 major college sports programs across the country. It found that the status of an athlete has a “chilling effect” on whether cases were brought to police and how the cases were investigated.
More than 2,000 documents showed that athletes from the 10 schools examined benefited from the “confluence of factors” readily available to many college sports programs, such as quick access to high-profile attorneys and intimidation felt by witnesses to take on a well-known accuser.
“Numerous cases never resulted in charges because accusers and witnesses were afraid to detail wrongdoing, feared harassment from fans and the media, or were pressured to drop charges in the interest of the sports programs,” according to Outside the Lines.
“It’s surprising to think that anyone would do this, and athletes are held to a higher standard than most,” Whalen said. “It was crazy to think that they would risk everything for what they thought was fun.”