Reporting Sexual Assault: Rural Centre County Presents Additional Challenges
This is the first in a three-part series about reporting sexual assault in Centre County.
Millheim isn’t much more than a waypoint between State College and Lewisburg, located in rural Penns Valley. Recently, though, it’s been attracting newcomers interested in a low-cost, low-stress lifestyle.
One of those new arrivals was Rebecca Fetterolf.
“I purchased a really big old home in Millheim, because I think Millheim in general is kind of reviving itself with new businesses and lots of new people moving there," said Fetterolf. "I was pretty excited to be fixing a really prominent house in town.”
Then, one night last November, Fetterolf went to a bar to wait for a friend. She says over the course of two hours, she had four drinks. The next nine hours are completely gone from her memory, according to Fetterolf.
“Because I was going in there to meet somebody, he eventually came looking for me, and found me passed out in my bathtub,” she said.
Fetterolf says she’d been drugged and raped. She knew her alleged assailant, and even had her friend confront him, where, she says, he confessed to assaulting her.
Fetterolf considered going to the nearest hospital, in State College, half an hour away. She considered reaching out to the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, but their offices are also in State College and Bellefonte.
Challenges of dealing with the State Police
Fetterolf did nothing for a week, until she was ready to report to the State Police — which she knew from personal experience would mean waiting, because“it’s never taken less than an hour to get a state police officer to my house," she said.
The State Police barracks closest to Millheim currently has 21 troopers. Like most State Police outfits across the state, they are significantly understaffed. Corporal Thomas Stock says the department’s one female trooper has recently been promoted and reassigned, and beyond that, they don’t have an officer specifically assigned to handle sexual assault.
“We like to be well-rounded, so everybody takes as much training in all the different fields as they can,” said Stock.
That’s true of many police departments in rural areas, according to Kim Menard, a Penn State professor who researches rural sexual assault. A former police officer herself, Menard says small departments covering large geographic areas are often under-equipped to handle specialized cases.
“Unfortunately, what ends up happening is they just don’t have the skill set," said Menard. "They don’t have the knowledge to know that, for instance, most sexual assaults are committed by acquaintances. They don’t have the knowledge about how to properly interview, about how the victim may respond.”
That was Fetterolf’s experience. In each meeting with the state police, she says she felt like the one on trial.
Fetterolf says the trooper assigned to her case would say, “Why did you do this? Why did you do that?"
"Why did you put yourself in this situation, really is what it came down to," said Fetterolf. "To the point that I actually had to stop the conversation and explain to the trooper that it was not her place to tell me what I should or should not have done.”
The state police does not comment on ongoing investigations, which this is. But when asked about the challenges of investigating sexual assaults more generally, Corporal Stock focused on the false rape reports he says they receive.
“I mean, there are times where we investigate sexual assaults, and it ends up being that the individual that reported it lied to us about it," said Stock. "It’s hard at that point because basically, you know, these people are going to have to face the consequences for lying to us and face charges.”
National studies estimate only 2 to 10 percent of rape allegations are false.
Stock said the other challenge is managing expectations in a Law and Order: SVU world.
“When the victims come in here, they want the person arrested right away," said Stock. "But that’s not the way it works. We need to make sure when we go to arrest this individual that we are going to be able to put this individual away.”
Fetterolf was one of those victims who wanted the person arrested right away. She says she knew who did it, and the State Police told her that they had enough to move forward with an investigation. Which they have done, much more slowly and with much less information provided than she would like.
Moving on — and away
Fetterolf has found ways to stay busy, like organizing community events in Millheim about sexual assault. This has prompted an outpouring of support — but also, some pretty serious criticisms. Some support the accused. But others just think Fetterolf is bringing undue attention to Millheim’s dirty laundry.
“Any community where people know each other, there’s tremendous backlash," said Menard. "So, if you allege that someone assaulted you, well, that could be your boss’ daughter or son, so the ramifications become huge.”
In Fetterolf’s case, the community ramifications have often felt more real than the legal ramifications. Almost a year after the alleged assault, the police investigation is still ongoing and no one has been arrested.There’s only been one real consequence so far for the events of that night.
“I’m selling my house because I can’t live amongst a community that harasses me daily," Fetterolf said. "You know, just two weeks ago, someone knocked a window out of my house.”
Rebecca Fetterolf, once so proud to be fixing up a prominent house, has packed up and left town.