SRJC rape case highlights all-too-common scenario
Published: Sunday, April 15, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 16, 2012 at 8:11 a.m.
Marco Antonio DeAnda-Vargas and a 23-year-old woman met at a dance class at Santa Rosa Junior College, police said. On the evening of March 15, they walked together after class to the closed Quinn Swim Center building. He somehow had a key, and they went inside to get out of the cold.
What's alleged to have happened next is an all too common scenario, according to police and advocates for victims of sexual assault.
DeAnda-Vargas, 31, is accused of raping his classmate. He denies the charges, according to the Sonoma County Public Defender's Office, and told police the encounter was consensual.
The allegations, which will get their first public airing at an April 25 court hearing, underscore one of the fundamental realities about rape in Sonoma County.
It's rarely a stranger who jumps out of the bushes.
Rape more often involves a trusted person who crosses a serious line. And it's often one person's word against another's.
“The thought never enters your mind that something like this is going to happen,” said Chris Castillo, executive director of Verity, a nonprofit that operates the county's rape crisis center. “But it does.”
Sexual assaults, a broader term that includes rape as well as other unwanted sexual contact, have dropped sharply in Sonoma County over the past eight years along with an overall decline in crime.
Still, more than twice a week someone reports a rape somewhere in Sonoma County. There were 123 forcible rapes reported in the county's nine cities and unincorporated areas in 2010, down from 206 in 2004.
The numbers likely understate the scope of the problem. As many as 54 percent of sexual assaults aren't reported to law enforcement, according to a U.S. Justice Department study.
Local advocates are holding events throughout April to raise awareness of sexual violence's enduring presence in all communities.
At Sonoma State University, student volunteers asked passing students to help hang multicolored T-shirts on clotheslines last week in Salazar Quad. The shirts featured messages from students who have experienced sexual violence.
“Yes, you did change my life! No, I will not let you ruin my life,” one student wrote with red and green markers.
The two-day event kicked off a month of efforts including rallies, marches and demonstrations to recognize the prevalence of sexual violence.
Nearly 40 percent of rapists were considered a friend or acquaintance by their victims at the time of the crime, according to the Justice Department's 2005 National Crime Victimization Study.
“People think — he's a good guy, no one's going to believe me,” said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. John Snetsinger, who runs the department's sex crimes unit.
Caitlin, a 21-year-old SSU senior who spoke on condition her last name was not published, knew something horrible had taken place when her brother's friend slipped into her bedroom and had sex with her when she was a junior at a Northern California high school.
But it took her four years to call it rape.
They both had been drinking that night at separate parties. He was a year younger than her but much stronger.
She remembered thoughts racing through her mind when he quietly opened the door and walked into her room: What is he doing? I'm sleeping. Why is he here?
“‘What do you need?'” she remembered saying. “He kept consoling me, ‘Don't think about it.'”
He took off his clothes. She thought about whether she could get past him and run for the door. She asked him to leave.
He took off her clothes. He made her perform oral sex. Then he had sex with her.
“I remember thinking, ‘If I just don't fight, it I'll survive,'” she said.
She told her close girlfriends who characterized it as a “bad hookup.”
The realization of why she still felt sick about what happened hit her like a truck last year during a SSU humanities class discussion on sexual assault.
“I had this epiphany, ‘Oh, my God, I was raped,'” she said.
About 60 people call Verity's rape crisis hot line each week — a clear sign that the scope of the problem is significant, Castillo said.
Many people are calling about events that took place weeks, months and often years in the past, Castillo said.
Mitch Gutierrez, 21, an SSU senior majoring in criminal justice, began volunteering with Verity because he was shocked at how prevalent sexual assault was among his classmates.
“Rape and sexual assault — from what I've seen and what I've heard — it's normalized in college culture,” Gutierrez said.
He's watched guys bringing drink after drink to girls. He's heard guys say they get girls drunk so they'll be willing to fool around.
Gutierrez said he knows two girls who dropped out after being sexually assaulted. He also knows a male student who was taken advantage of by a female student when he was passed out from drinking at a party.
“It's affected them tremendously and had lasting effects on their lives,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez and a fellow volunteer drove Tuesday to Sonoma Valley High School to talk with students about sexual assault and harassment.
“In high school, I didn't think that sexual assault happened around me at all,” Gutierrez said. “It wasn't really until I got into Sonoma State and into the party scene that I noticed that a lot of this is happening and a lot of people aren't reporting it.”
Santa Rosa police took 73 reports of sexual assault in 2011, Snetsinger said. Those cases resulted in 43 arrests.
Most cases boil down to consent, Snetsinger said. There often are no witnesses beyond the accuser and the accused. Physical evidence may show only that sex occurred, he said.
“It's not an easy case because consent is the issue — who is more believable?” Snetsinger said.
A relative, lover, an authority figure, a new friend — there's no precise profile for perpetrators, except that many are known by the victim, Castillo said.
“The rare one is that someone goes in your window at night and does that to you,” Castillo said. “Although it's happened.”
More than two years ago, an unknown masked and gloved man attacked and sexually assaulted an SRJC teacher who was working in a theater arts building during a college break.
The Nov. 10, 2009, attack left the campus reeling. Campus police posted fliers with the sketchy outline of a man's face across campus.
A prime suspect never was identified and the man never was found. Snetsinger said his detectives ran out of leads.
The case was a shocking aberration on a generally safe campus, SRJC Police Chief Joseph Palla said.
Years can go by without reported rapes, Palla said. One forcible sexual crime was reported in 2008 and none in 2010, according to the college's online crime statistics.
SRJC police also still are investigating how DeAnda-Vargas obtained a key to the swim center. Palla said the man must have stolen or found one.
“He was not issued a key, and he was not authorized to possess any keys,” Palla said.
County Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said her office will argue no rape occurred. DeAnda-Vargas pleaded not guilty March 28 to charges of rape, sodomy and forced sexual penetration.
He is being held on $300,000 bail at the Sonoma County Jail. He can't be released because of an immigration hold, jail records show.
The legal case, like so many others, will hinge on consent, Snetsinger said. Only two people know what really happened.
“She was very comfortable going to a secluded place to talk and that trust was violated,” he said.
If convicted, DeAnda-Vargas could be sent to prison, expelled from SRJC and deported.
Next week, SRJC police and staff will give tips on safety at a workshop planned in response to the alleged rape. Wednesday's workshop will be 3:30 to 5 p.m. at the Newman Auditorium in Santa Rosa.
Verity's 24-hour rape crisis hot line is 545-7273.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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