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‘No justice in Minnesota’: Duluth case highlights faults in state sexual assault laws

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TRIGGER WARNING: This story includes a description of sexual assault. The names of the women involved have been changed to protect their identities.

DULUTH, MN-- On a cold night in February 2017, "Amy" got home and found a predator was waiting for her.

"I pretty much walked into it, into my own home. He was there, in the living room," she said.

Charles Armajo claimed to be a medicine man.

He had already done a healing ceremony on Amy's roommate, who quickly left the home afterwards.

Amy said he then started pressuring her to do a ceremony.

"He said 'I need to do a ceremony on you. I had a dream that I needed to protect you on your journey. I need to do this'."

Dreams carry a lot of weight in Native culture.

A member of a local tribe, Amy said it made her think he was real and could help her.

"I was thinking this was the chance to do that, to get that healing," Amy said.

Amy's other roommate "Jane" said she had a bad feeling. She decided to sit in on the ceremony.

"Something doesn't feel right. I do not feel comfortable going through with this ceremony. I don't feel comfortable leaving you alone," said Jane, recalling that night.

Amy said Armajo had her shower so she'd be clean for the ceremony.

She expected to be covered but when she laid down, he took off her towel.

"I said, 'why do I have to be naked?' and he said 'it's the Dine beauty ceremony. You can look it up.' So I thought it was legitimate but I realized very quickly that it was not when he started touching me in sexual ways that I didn't want," Amy said.

Sitting in the room watching, Jane said she spoke up when Armajo touched Amy intimately.

"First of all I was uncomfortable but I could also tell that she was uncomfortable and at some point I was like, 'Amy you don't have to go through with this'," said Jane.

"I just started bawling and wanted to be covered and my friend in the room grabbed a robe and covered me and he kept saying 'we're not done. we're not done'," said Amy.

She said Armajo pressured her to continue the ceremony and to have sex with him. Jane again spoke up, telling him to leave.

Eventually, they say Armajo left the house.

"We were like, what the heck just happened?" said Jane.

It wasn't until later, when Amy spoke to tribal elders, she understood Armajo was a fraud and what happened wasn't a real ceremony, but a crime.

It hadn't just happened to her. Amy and Jane's other roommate who took part in a ceremony said he also assaulted her.

Amy decided to report her assault to Duluth Police.

According to their report, the officer initially decided the assault didn't meet the requirements to press charges.

Amy said the investigator referenced the state statute on clergy sexual assault.

Statute 609.345 says a person is guilty of 4th degree criminal sexual conduct if, among other things, "the actor is or purports to be a member of the clergy, the complainant is not married to the actor, and the sexual contact occurred during the course of a meeting in which the complainant sought or received religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort from the actor in private".

Amy said it took pressure from tribal and legal advocates for Duluth Police to move forward with charges.

"I don't think if I hadn't had the tenacity and the connections, that this would have gone anywhere," she said.

The St. Louis County Attorney's Office took over the case. It ended up going to a grand jury, which indicted Armajo on three counts for his assault on Amy and her roommate.

Amy thought justice was coming until Armajo's lawyer filed for dismissal.

It all came down to the words in the statute "in private" and because Jane had been in the room the lawyer argued the ceremony was not private.

"Most sexual assault are like, oh, there's no witness so we can't do it and I am like, literally the perfect witness," said Jane. "We were literally in the privacy of our own home."

6th District Court Judge David Johnson didn't agree.

In his ruling, he wrote, "Although there is no question that Defendant took advantage of his purported position, the Court cannot find that the incident between [Amy] and Defendant occurred in private. The Court agrees with the State that the incident did not occur in public in a traditional sense, but because [Amy]'s roommate was present for the entire event the Court cannot find it occurred in private as contemplated by the Statute."

Johnson dismissed the charge that would have held Armajo accountable for Amy's assault.

"I'm just still trying to wrap my head around it because it doesn't logically make sense to me because criminal sexual conduct by clergy should be illegal whether it's in private or not," said Amy. "You can't get more private than your personal home."

Wanting to leave it behind her, Amy's other roommate dropped her charges. Armajo was off the hook.

"So it's done. No justice in Minnesota for this man."

According to the Department of Justice, Indigenous women are more likely to face violence and sexual assault than any other racial group in the nation.

Amy's fight to be taken seriously in the legal system is a very familiar tale for Nicole Matthews, the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition.

"When you have cases like this, what it does is it sends a really strong message about whose lives are important and about who gets justice and who has access to justice," said Matthews.

She said that system isn't designed to get justice for everyone.

"They were built on the habits of white supremacy and they were built on systems that were not necessarily created for all people."

Amy is now working to find her own justice.

She filed a complaint against DPD in 2018, asking the department to ensure officers receive cultural sensitivity and sexual assault training.

The department declined to be interviewed for this story but issued a statement that said, "This case was very unique. When the victim-survivor originally reported the incident, our staff listened and looked to see how the facts of this case met the elements of a crime as defined by Minnesota State Statues. After researching the State Statutes, a second interview with the victim was conducted and we worked with a representative from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to determine that this situation could fit within the statutes. Once this was determined, our officers then advocated for prosecution on behalf of the victim-survivor and worked with the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office to bring this case all the way to a grand jury indictment. The Duluth Police Department takes sexual assault cases very seriously. In most cases, we learn more about the situation, and how to advocate for the victim-survivor by having multiple interviews. Each interview provides more information than the first. We have a long history of working with the community to improve our victim-centered response to sexual assaults, and we are very proud of the work that we do to bring justice to victims.”

Amy is also counting on the state legislature to get justice for future victims.

Lawmakers are currently considering a bill to to update Minnesota's sexual assault statutes.

State Senator Jen McEwen, who represents Duluth, said she supports the effort to modernize the state's sex assault laws.

The current bill does not include a clarification of the statute about clergy assault, but McEwen said it's crucial the state government has a better relationship with area tribes and incorporates cultural understanding into our laws.

"When we don't do that, our laws are reflecting a very antiquated and colonialist attitude that again, doesn't serve us as a people, as a community today," said McEwen.

Nichole Carter, the Assistant St. Louis County Attorney who prosecuted Amy's case, and Judge Johnson, who dismissed it, both declined to be interviewed for this story.

According to court records, Armajo had been arrested as far back as 2006, accused of sexual assault by a woman who said he posed as a dance instructor.

Eight months after Amy said he assaulted her in 2017, Armajo had moved to Wyoming and gotten married.

He was found guilty of sexually assaulting his 15-year-old stepdaughter during a fake hunting ceremony.

He is currently serving a 10 year sentence and is a registered sex offender.

For Amy, it's been four years of time, effort, and tears.

She said speaking out now is her way of healing, while pushing for change.

"It's absolutely worth it. Even though my case was dismissed, this still all was absolutely worth it."

**If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, get help for free here.

Bonney Bowman

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