ST. ALBANS — Left in the wake of last week’s investigation, arrest and arraignment of state Sen. Norm McAllister — and the continuing media coverage — are the three women who McAllister is alleged to have sexually abused.
That experience, said Northwest Unit for Special Investigation victim’s advocate Kelly Woodward, can be overwhelming for victims.
“Everything happens really fast,” said Woodward. “Especially in the McAllister case.”
When the woman referred to as Victim #1 went to police on Monday, May 4, and reported she was being propositioned for sex by McAllister in exchange for rent money for her son, detectives went right to work.
By 6 p.m. that day, police had a wire warrant from a judge to record phone calls made to McAllister.
Detective Sergeant Benjamin Katz, of Vermont State Police, said that in general, wire warrants are an effective way to corroborate a story.
“In terms of building a strong case, in my mind, this is one of the best ways to do this,” said Katz. “It’s basically – if possible – getting both sides of the story. If the two are the same, there’s not much more evidence you need to make an arrest.”
Calling one’s alleged abuser and having the wherewithal to get that person to make admissions, said Woodward and Katz, is very difficult.
“People are afraid,” said Woodward. “It’s very scary to call your attacker.”
“Not everyone is able to do it,” said Katz. “It’s very stressful for people.”
Detectives help victims through the process however, and court documents say that the two women who made wiretapped calls to McAllister were given key phrases to use and coached to speak in clear, explicit terms.
Ultimately, said Woodward, the wiretapped calls can actually be empowering for victims.
“The power that victims can gain from them, when there’s an admission or an apology … sometimes I think that really helps a victim in the path to recovery,” said Woodward.
Due to McAllister’s affirming responses to these wiretapped conversations with Victim #1 and Victim #2, Vermont State Police had evidence enough to arrest McAllister outside the Vermont Statehouse on Thursday, May 7, during a Senate recess.
When asked about the safety of the victims for the three days of investigation prior to the arrest, Woodward said a number of precautions were taken.
“Our detectives [are] highly trained, and one thing they talk about at all times is victim safety,” said Woodward. Court documents show that wiretapped calls to McAllister were made from the Vermont State Police barracks in St. Albans, Victim #1’s residence – which was in another town from McAllister’s property – and from Victim #2’s place of work.
If there’s a risk to victims during the investigation process, Woodward said staying at the local Voices Against Violence shelter and taking out a relief against abuse order are options. Voices and NUSI also help make safety plans for victims if needed.
“A lot of the time,” Woodward added, “the majority of the investigation goes on before the defendant ever knows what’s going on.”
Once an alleged perpetrator is arrested, Woodward said victims are referred to any services they may need, including legal aid, general assistance, transitional housing, Section 8 vouchers and other resources. She added that Voices Against Violence, which is directed by Kris Lukens in Franklin County, provides whatever victims may need.
“Voices Against Violence has really stepped up to the plate,” said Woodward.
These resources are especially important for victims – in the McAllister case – an alleged abuser who has financial power over them in terms of rent payments. According to Lukens, this is common.
“Whether they’re being sexually exploited or battered, we see victims come to us [that are] afraid that if they do leave, they’re going to lose everything,” said Lukens. “Those kind of tactics are used all the time and it keeps them in that situation.”
She added, “I think we’re seeing that more and more. There’s just more people living in poverty.”
There is also the added challenge, especially in the current case, of victims’ alleged attacker and his alleged deeds being covered heavily by media.
“It makes it more difficult because everyone is talking about it,” said Lukens. She added that often victim-blaming that takes place, too, especially in a case like McAllister’s that involves a state senator.
“It can happen to anyone,” said Lukens of sexual victimization. “Predators aren’t just people you don’t know.”
Woodward said that the media coverage is something she warns victims of in any high-profile case, and advises them to protect them however they need to.
“It’s individual for each victim,” she added.
“For adults, even if they don’t print your name, people may figure it out,” said Woodward. “It’s going to be embarrassing and it’s going to be shameful and it’s going to be hard for you.”
But, added Woodward, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. “Eventually, it will die down.”
As McAllister’s case proceeds and his alleged victims handle the outcome, Woodward said her office, Voices and a number of other resources are provided for the victims, though most of it is voluntary aid.
Woodward couldn’t confirm, for instance, if Victim #2 was still living on McAllister’s property. McAllister, who was charged with three counts of sexual assault and three counts of prohibited acts at Franklin County Superior Court on Friday, was issued a no-contact order as part of his conditions of release. There was no limit as to how close or far he could be from his alleged victims, which means he would not be barred from being on the same property as the women.
“I don’t know,” Woodward said of the current living situation. “These are adult women – I don’t have control over them or what they do.”
Woodward, speaking of any further assistance the women may need, added, “I always leave the door open.”
Katz said as the case plays out, the victims need to be respected by the media and the public.
“They’re going through a very difficult and traumatic time,” he said. “It’s very important that their privacy be respected.”
The Messenger, along with a number of other media outlets, was accidentally provided with the victims’ information by the Franklin County Superior Court in the McAllister case. The Messenger chose not to contact any of the victims.
Lukens agreed the women’s confidentiality should be respected, and went further to say the McAllister case should be taken as an opportunity not to try to identify his alleged victims, but to ask why sexual exploitation happens in the Franklin County.
“[I ask people] to really focus on the bigger picture of how this happens in our community, and why it happens,” said Lukens.