An Alaska Army National Guard sergeant who in the last six years has survived two sexual assaults, an abusive husband and a year of workplace harassment is finally seeing the system work the way it should.
This past summer, Anchorage police arrested the men suspected of sexually assaulting Sgt. Rosa Ralls. They are the only arrests made in any of the 20 known cases the department has looked into in which guard members were either victims or suspected assailants. Meantime, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, who has come under scrutiny for his handling of criminal allegations and other dire issues within the guard, invited Ralls to speak with him late last month.
It's a big turnaround from where Ralls found herself in 2013, when she publicly came forward as a whistleblower about problems in the Alaska National Guard, full of anger about failed cases and failed support systems.
Ralls was never raped by any active members of the Alaska National Guard. But she says the response by her supervisors to abuse she endured off-base was nothing less than workplace harassment.
Until 2012, the guard's sexual assault program was run by a contractor who operated "with little actual supervision and without adequate oversight," according to a recently published assessment of the Alaska National Guard. The assessment, performed by the Office of Complex Investigations within the National Guard Bureau, also noted that of 37 sexual assault allegations compiled since 2006, most "involved civilian perpetrators."
Before it was cleaned up in 2012 with new personnel, the assessment said, the Alaska guard's sexual assault program suffered from "poor execution, oversight and management, as well as suspected confidentiality breaches." And because of that history, the reputation of the program persisted after 2012, with victims still afraid or reluctant to report crimes to the guard.
Ralls declined to elaborate much about her chat with Parnell -- she didn't want to put words in his mouth -- but she did describe the encounter as "amazing." It was a comfortable talk, like one you'd have with a friend, she said. And a suggestion by Parnell that she could help the state do a better job serving sexual assault victims in the guard excited her.
"My intent is to make it easier for other people to come forward," Ralls said.
Parnell declined to talk about the meeting "out of respect for Ms. Ralls' privacy."
Ralls is one voice among several who have accompanied assault victims on visits to the governor's staff in hopes they might find relief. Her own story of abuse, survival and broken systems gave her the ire to speak out publicly last year, focusing her anger into a demand for accountability and improvement.
At the time, the storyline playing out in the media was one of the chronic mishandling of sexual assault cases within the guard. Ralls herself had been the victim of a rape by a non-guard member in 2009. She was frustrated her case had gone nowhere. She had also supported other women reaching out for help.
What she did not share was that she had also been the victim of a brutal physical attack by her husband in 2012. When she reported to work the following Monday, broken and bruised, her boss, a sergeant first class in the guard, intervened. But not the way she'd expected.
Ralls recalls her boss saying, " 'You're hard to look at. You need to go home.' "
To this day the memory of that interaction still causes Ralls to get visibly upset. She recently met with Alaska Dispatch News to talk about her experiences, and when the topic of her treatment at work in the Battle Force Surveillance Brigade on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson came up, she took a moment to collect herself, taking a deep, deliberate breath before launching into the nearly yearlong saga of harassment that followed.
This was the backdrop for the interview she did with the Anchorage Daily News last year. As an advocate and ally to other sexual assault victims, and a sexual assault victim herself, she was speaking up. But the entire time her anger was fueled by the way she was treated in the guard after her then-husband hurt her.
Ralls said she told the guard, "I won't let you win. I am not walking away from this."
In 6 years, 3 assaults, 3 arrests
Ralls' first sexual assault occurred in 2009. Her husband's violent beating occurred in 2012. Then she was sexually assaulted again this year. None of the suspects were members of the military at the time of the attacks.
Alaska Dispatch News has a policy of withholding the names of sexual assault victims unless they give permission to tell their story. Ralls granted permission to write about her experiences and wants her story told.
Her then-husband, Vanterry Joseph Jr., was arrested soon after the May 18, 2012, attack, and arrested again later that same year and charged with sexually abusing a teenage friend of the family.
Brandon Dennis, 48, and Raul Rodriguez, 64, were arrested a few months ago, accused in the other assaults on Ralls. They are the only sexual assault cases with any connection to the guard to make it to prosecution, according to Anchorage police. Even then, the case against Dennis fell apart one day after his arrest.
Here, the guard connection to the criminal investigations is that the victim -- Ralls -- happens to be a guard member.
Dennis was accused of assaulting Ralls on Dec. 4, 2009. They'd been at the Kings X Lounge in Anchorage. Ralls, recently out of alcohol treatment, started the night out drinking coffee. But at some point she switched to beer and shots. She doesn't remember making the choice to do that, or much about the assault that would occur later that night. A nine-hour period of time is wiped from her memory, she suspects because she was drugged.
When she awoke the next morning, her laptop, diamond rings and cash were missing. And her body was sore, as though someone had had sex with her. A friend told her Dennis had driven her home, despite Ralls earlier in the night having told Dennis she wouldn't go home with him and rebuffing his advances.
The police investigation gathered DNA, along with security video of a man matching Dennis' description walking in and out of Ralls' building.
Ralls has said it wasn't until a news story about her experience came out last year that the case moved forward. In a recent interview, Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew confirmed an oversight caused the delay.
"The detective submitted the paperwork to have the Property Section transfer the evidence to the State Crime Lab for analysis," Mew said in email. "Somehow the paperwork got lost, and it took us some time to realize the evidence had not been sent. When we realized the problem, the detective submitted new paperwork. The analysis was done -- albeit belatedly -- and after the results were back, we charged Mr. Dennis with sexual assault in the second and third degrees."
Still, one day after his arrest, the Alaska Department of Law dismissed the charges.
"There was not going to be a way for us to adequately prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence just wasn't there for us to go forward," said Paul Miovas, an assistant district attorney.
Second-degree sexual assault cases are "uniquely difficult," he said. This is the class of cases that involves sexual penetration with an incapacitated person. The very nature of these cases generally means there are no witnesses, and victims often don't remember what happened, Miovas said.
Police say Ralls was also incapacitated during the sexual assault that took place this year. According to police, Raul Rodriguez, a longtime friend, plied Ralls with Jack Daniels. Rodriguez knew Ralls was a recovered alcoholic, but he also knew she couldn't resist Jack Daniels, according to a police affidavit filed with the case. Rodriguez and Ralls had an agreement not to be intimate, and Rodriguez also knew Ralls took medications for chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and the head injury she suffered from her husband in 2012.
Ralls' roommate witnessed some of the assault, finding Rodriguez in Ralls' bedroom, Ralls half-naked in the bathroom, unsteady, and apparently unaware she was only partially dressed. The roommate told police that Ralls "did not appear to understand what was occurring." By text and during a phone call, police say Rodriguez would later admit sexual contact had occurred and that he knew Ralls had been clear while she was sober that she didn't want to have sex with him.
The case against Rodriguez is moving forward. He was arrested in August and indicted Sept. 15 -- the same day the case against Dennis was dismissed.
Of the 20 cases police have worked involving the Alaska National Guard, with guard members as victims or suspects, few have moved forward. Of those 20, eight involved a guard member as a suspect, Mew said in a follow-up email Friday.
The Alaska National Guard is aware of nine reported assaults from January 2009 to May 20, 2014, in which a guard member was the suspect, according to information provided this year by Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead, director of public affairs for the Alaska National Guard. Of those, seven were reported to law enforcement. Two were not reported because the victims did not give permission to do so, Olmstead said.
"We attempted to investigate each case," Mew said of the 20 cases into which his officers have delved. "In some cases, we determined something happened, but it wasn't a sexual assault. In other cases we simply couldn't make the case. We have referred three of these cases to state prosecutors to be charged in civilian courts."
Victimized at work
The physical assaults Ralls went through in 2009 and 2012 were difficult enough. But the emotional torment of having to go, day in and day out, to a workplace that seemed disconnected from human suffering was even more challenging, she said.
Ralls' husband started his attack on her on a Thursday. By Friday, he'd taken her phone and used it to text Ralls' boss to say she had a migraine and wouldn't be coming in. That should have been a red flag, Ralls said. In the military, it's unacceptable to text your boss to say you're taking a day off.
The Monday after the attack -- after being seen over the weekend at the hospital and discharged -- she showed up to work with a black, swollen eye and bite and choke marks. She would later learn she also had a head injury and broken bones. That's when her boss told her "You're hard to look at." She was promptly sent home and forced to use her leave time for missing work.
A week later, she found herself on the receiving end of workplace discipline. Counseling statements for a number of infractions related to the domestic violence she'd suffered were starting to pile up. She got one for improper notification for the "I have a migraine" text message, another for failure to report the incident and yet another for putting a soldier in danger, she said.
She was also getting in trouble for going to too many medical appointments and for being late, even though she'd work through lunch or stay late at the end of the day to make up the time.
The total failure of her workplace to support her astounded her. She found herself asking, "Really? You are punishing me for being assaulted?"
Her boss, whom she thinks simply didn't know how to handle someone who'd been through trauma, did other things that rattled her. He had a habit of standing in the doorway when talking with her. But by doing so he was blocking the only exit, which made Ralls extremely tense. He and his superior also denied repeated requests by Ralls to be transferred.
With her anger continuing to build, Ralls realized she needed help, both with her mental health and with getting out of that office. She sought counseling and used the guard's open-door policy, which allows members to go over their superior's heads to seek relief. Armed with police reports, medical files, emails and other documentation, Ralls asked Brigade Command Sgt. Clinton Brown to "please look at this and get me out of here." Brown, who could not be located for comment, honored her request.
Ralls said it took over a year for someone in her chain of command to say, "Hey, are you OK?"
She has since moved into the medical transition unit, where her full-time job is to heal.
'The guard is your family'
Ralls said there was a big change between the way her 2009 and 2014 sexual assault cases were handled. In 2009, she reported the incident to Anchorage police but didn't get much support from the Alaska National Guard. In the wake of her assault this year, it was the guard that first assisted, then put her in contact with police and continued to support her through the investigation.
The guard "went through exactly all of the steps that they should have. It gives me a comfortable feeling known that some of the other young female soldiers that I deal with, that if they are put in that situation that I know that it is going to be handled properly," Ralls said.
Looking back, she considers her interview with the media last year a "lesson learned." It was, she said, a knee-jerk reaction to broken systems she'd had enough of.
"Don't ever do an interview when you are angry," she said. "I had expected to hear from the governor way back when in 2010. I felt like they were not listening. I was critical of APD. I was critical of the National Guard. Because both of them failed to go through the proper process at that time."
"The guard is your family, and I felt like my family wasn't surrounding me and supporting me," she added.