-- Missoula, a bucolic college town nestled in the Rockies, is known for two towering institutions: The University of Montana and Grizzly football.
But stories about high-profile alleged rape cases involving Missoula Grizzly football players led to scandalous headlines. An article in Jezebel dubbed Missoula “America’s Rape Capital.”
It has since helped set off a fierce nationwide debate about this country’s campus rape charges, as more alleged victims come forward to share how they felt the justice system failed them.
The Missoula stories caught the attention of investigative journalist and bestselling author, Jon Krakauer.
“Missoula is not the rape capital of the country. … I wish this was a unique problem,” Krakauer said. “Its rape statistics are about average or a little below.”
But Krakauer argues, “If this problem could exist in Missoula, it could exist anywhere in the country, and it does.” he said. “Rape is this huge problem, 80 percent of rapes are unreported. ... It's a huge price these victims pay.”
Krakauer is perhaps most famous for his nonfiction survival adventure classic, “Into the Wild.” But now he is taking on an entirely different struggle with his new book, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” which was released Tuesday.
One of the alleged rape victims Krakauer interviewed for his book was Kelsey Belnap, who was once proud of her beloved University of Montana Grizzlies, a high-octane Division 1 football team whose devout fan base is known as “Grizz Nation.”
“I just loved the atmosphere of the big stadium, all the people cheering. I loved it,” she said. “And it is now ruined for me.”
Ruined because during her sophomore year at the University of Montana, Belnap told police she was gang raped by four players from the university’s football team. At the time, Belnap said she was in a relationship with someone, and therefore she wasn’t interested in having sex with anyone else.
On the night of the alleged incident in December 2010, Belnap said she was celebrating the end of finals with drinking games at an off-campus party.
“I was wearing jeans and a jacket,” that night, she told “Nightline.” “So my clothes couldn't have been provoking anyone. I never once walked in there saying, ‘Hi, this is the first night that I've met you. Now please have sex with me.’”
She said she took eight to 11 shots of 99-proof alcohol within an hour.
“And the next thing I know, I'm in a bedroom going in and out. I don't remember bits and pieces until I had a penis in my face,” she said.
Belnap said she pushed the first player away, but he forced himself on her, followed by three additional football players.
“I just remember the crotch being in my face and I said, ‘I don’t want to,’ and I pushed him away,” she said. “He grabbed me by the jaw and after that I blacked out.”
Hours after the incident, Belnap said she went to the hospital, and she still had a blood alcohol level of nearly three times the legal limit. But after sharing her story with the police, Belnap said she left the station “feeling like it was 100 percent my fault.”
“They made it seem like it was alcohol,” she said. “That it was my fault, that I had drank too much, and if I wouldn't have drank too much, it wouldn't have happened.”
But Belnap argues, “It wasn't alcohol that crossed that line. Alcohol didn't stick a penis in my face. It was the people that did that.”
After their investigation, Missoula detectives and prosecutors determined “there was not probable cause to file criminal charges against anyone involved in the incident,” according to police records.
Investigators pointed to a crucial part of Belnap’s testimony that they say worked against her. On the question of consent, Belnap told police that the men “would have likely believed it was consensual sex.”
Belnap had also stated she was so intoxicated she did not resist them. What’s more, all four Grizzly players involved in the alleged incident and two additional witnesses told police that they thought the sex was consensual. Prosecutors considered those insurmountable hurdles in her case, even though she also told police that she was afraid to fight back. No charges were filed.
“I was scared because these boys were a lot bigger than me,” she said. “And being drunk, it didn't matter how hard I would have fought.”
While Montana law states a victim is incapable of giving consent if he or she is “mentally defective or incapacitated,” the definition of “incapacitation” is murky and the Missoula County attorney say that despite being extremely drunk, Belnap was not legally incapacitated.
“The cops and prosecutors said, ‘Well, if she'd been out cold, yeah, you'd have a case. But because she was in and out of consciousness, she could have given consent,’” Krakauer said. “That's horses***. … That is ridiculous. She could not give consent.”
When asked about her reaction to no charges being filed, Belnap said she felt like she was told “case closed.”
After Belnap hit a dead end with police and prosecutors, she turned to the university for help and received some results. One of the alleged rapists was expelled, one agreed to leave campus, but two had already left school before the university took action.
In addition to Belnap, Krakauer also profiled Allison Huguet. She was raped by University of Montana’s star Grizzlies running back Beau Donaldson. He was her close childhood friend.
“This is somebody who I looked at as a protector, somebody who I thought would have protected me from anything,” Huguet said.
She had left Montana for college, but returned home to Missoula for a party at Donaldson’s house in September 2010. Huguet said she and everyone else at the party were drinking, and she was not in any condition to drive. So at around 2 a.m., she decided to crash on the couch.
“And I woke up to a lot of pain, and a lot of pressure, and the sound of somebody moaning, and quickly realized it was Beau,” Huguet said. “I just shut my eyes and laid there, and that wasn't, I don't even think a decision, I consciously made.
“And I waited until he was done,” she continued. “And he got up, and he partially pulled up my pants, and literally picked up a blanket, threw it on me, and then pulled up his pants, and walked away.”
Huguet said she then waited silently until Donaldson was out of earshot and then she snuck out of the house barefoot. Once outside, she called her mother for help.
“I remember telling her that Beau had raped me, and then I realized that he was chasing me, and so I just kept running and pushing him off of me,” Huguet said. “And [my mother] just kept telling me to run.”
Huguet said Donaldson begged her to come back into the house and not tell anyone what happened. When he finally let her go, Huguet said what had happened to her started to sink in.
“It was such a state of shock that I don’t think there was a whole lot going on besides trying to get help,” Huguet said. “I just needed to get away from him and to somebody that was going to get me to a safe place.”
She went to the hospital and had a rape kit exam. But, at first, she didn’t want to go to the police.
“I just didn't think that was something that was going to be possible for me to do,” she said. “I didn't think that I was strong enough. … I knew that going forward with that would be a huge ordeal, and him playing for the Griz maximized it by a hundred.”
But Huguet says she knew that if she ever decided to go to the police with her story, she would need a confession from Donaldson. So Huguet invited Donaldson over to her mother’s house and hid an audio recorder between the couch cushions. While recording, Huguet pressed him to apologize and confess to what happened that night, and Donaldson eventually admitted to taking advantage of her.
“The only reason I even felt comfortable sleeping there is … I’ve known you since the first-grade,” Huguet is heard saying on the recording.
“I know, that’s not me,” Donaldson is heard responding. “I can’t blame it on alcohol, because that’s not right. It’s something that I did and I f****** up.
“I just about killed myself that night,” he continued. “I was curled up on my couch in the carport with my f****** handgun in my hand. You have no idea.”
On the recording, Huguet made Donaldson promise to get help and, in return, she told him she wouldn't call the police. But more than a year after the incident, Huguet said she was still plagued by nightmares and anxiety.
“I started acting crazy, and my mind feeling crazy,” Huguet said. “I wanted to pay people to hurt him. I wanted to slash his tires in his car, and this isn't, that's not my normal character.”
And she said she also knew that Donaldson wasn’t getting the help he had promised to seek, so she finally went to the police. They arrested Donaldson, who confessed during their interrogation.
Huguet says she fought for nearly a year to move her case against Beau Donaldson through the criminal justice system. In the process, she stumbled on another startling claim: A woman named Hillary McLaughlin came forward to say Donaldson had allegedly sexually assaulted her in 2008, but she never reported it to police.
“It kills me, because I could have possibly prevented what Allison went through, and that brings a lot of guilt,” McLaughlin told “Nightline.” “Her life could have been so different … if I would have been able to have the courage to say, ‘This person was wrong, and this person tried to hurt me, and … something needs to be done.’”
McLaughlin agreed to tell her story in court on Huguet’s behalf.
“That was huge,” Huguet said. “Because the likelihood of a judge enforcing a longer punishment is much greater when you have not only one woman saying this, you have two … and [it] gives me a lot more credibility.”
In September 2012, Donaldson pleaded guilty to rape and was ultimately sentenced to 10 years in prison. He will be up for parole this July.
“Most of us girls know not to walk in an alleyway at nighttime. We know not to do that by ourselves already because we already have to do that to protect ourselves,” Huguet said. “[But] Beau is a rapist. That's what a rapist looks like.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a federal investigation into the University of Montana, the local police and prosecutors. The investigation determined that there was a pattern in how local authorities handled rape cases. The Justice Department found that between January 2008 and May 2012, of the 85 total rape cases police sent to prosecutors, only 14 ever resulted in charges.
They found that the Missoula County attorney declined to prosecute nearly every case where “the assault was facilitated” by drugs or alcohol”… “even when the assailant had confessed.”
The Missoula County attorney at the time strongly disputed the DOJ findings and defended their record, saying their rape prosecution stats were on par with some other major cities.
In the wake of the DOJ investigation, Missoula police and the country attorney made changes, even going beyond what the federal Justice Department was requiring of them to change. They formed a special victims unit with dedicated police officers and prosecutors who employ an improved approach to sexual assault cases, especially those involving drugs and alcohol.
As for the University of Montana, the athletic department created a new Code of Conduct that directly addresses sexual assault, as well as a host of other changes.
“Missoula is a much safer place for women now than it was when I first started looking at it in 2012,” Krakauer said.
For Krakauer, the most important outcome of shining a spotlight on Missoula, he said, is that his book helps give victims a voice.
“The rapist's greatest weapon that they use against victims is silence,” he said. “One of the things I noticed in this book, in its aftermath is that more and more women are seeing their strength in numbers.”
Belnap, whose alleged rapists were never prosecuted, said, “I'm sick of being silent. And I feel like I can be a voice for so many people who don't have that chance to be that voice for themselves.”