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CMU alleged rape case going to trial, after long legal battle

Central Michigan University could see the state's largest cut if they don't keep tuition increases under a 7.1% cap.
Central Michigan University could see the state's largest cut if they don't keep tuition increases under a 7.1% cap.

Emma Dale was a freshman reporter, covering the student government beat at Central Michigan University in 2016, when she got wind of a story:  the student body president, Ian Elliott, was abruptly resigning.

“That’s kind of weird,” Dale remembers thinking. “It was always something we talked about in the newsroom. And following that, he left the university. Then flash forward a year later, and he was being arraigned on sexual assault charges,” she says.

Dale and the student paper, Central Michigan Life, followed the case as it went through the typical legal process: a preliminary hearing, where a judge ruled there was enough evidence to send the case to trial.

But then, just weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin in May 2017, the interim county prosecutor, Bob Holmes, suddenly dropped all charges against Elliott.

Dale says she assumed maybe the case just hadn’t been that strong. “Wow, there was really not anything there; that’s interesting,” she thought.

Then, this past summer, Dale and the paper got an email from the woman at the center of this case: Rachel Wilson. She wanted to talk.

An alleged assault

A few months later, in October 2018, Central Michigan Life published Wilson’s story:how she went to meet some friends at a bar one night in 2016, and started chatting with Elliott. She had one beer and ordered a second, but, as she told the paper, this one tasted weird. She drank half, left the rest. Then, she started feeling “weird.”

“Based on their interviews with her, police suspect Wilson was drugged that night,” the article says. “Unfortunately, they would never be able to prove it. The SANE nurse who administered Wilson’s rape kit the following day told her that any date rape drug would no longer be in her system, especially because Wilson had vomited several times.”

As the evening wore on, Wilson got in a cab with Elliott, and drove back to his house. She told the paper she was so out of it, she had to lay down on the grass outside his house. She says Elliot told her to get up and brought her inside. Wilson says she then began violently vomiting, repeatedly, until she blacked out. When she came to, she says she was laying on Elliott’s bed. She says he started kissing her, and she pulled back.

“As he laid on top of her, her body went still,” the article says. “She later told officers she didn’t know what to do as she became increasingly scared of him. The man on her weighed almost 250 pounds and stood six feet tall.”

Wilson told reporters that even after she’d said no, Elliott physically pressured her into performing oral sex. She says it became clear he was going to rape her.

“Wilson told police, university investigators and court officials that she never consented to sex with him – and that she was afraid. She wasn’t on birth control. Her mind raced – how could she protect herself from an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease?” “’Condom,’” Wilson gasped. “He insisted he was ‘good at pulling out.’ He argued. He left briefly to get a condom from a roommate. She laid still as he pushed himself inside of her. Wilson stared at the ceiling. She felt his hands gripping her thighs, pinning her to the mattress. The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner who treated Wilson the following day documented the hand-shaped bruises on the inside of her thighs. She wished for it to end.”

A legal odyssey

Wilson told Central Michigan Life she spoke with a counselor the next day, and took a rape kit exam. Police investigated the case and the Isabella County Prosecutor at the time, Risa Hunt-Scully, pressed charges against Elliott in January 2017.

After a preliminary hearing, a district judge ruled there was enough evidence against Elliott to move to trial. But by then the original prosecutor, Hunt-Scully, had left the job, and an interim prosecutor, Bob Holmes, abruptly dropped all charges against Elliott in April 2017 – a month before the trial was scheduled to begin.

“As I understand it from the attorneys in our department, it’s extremely unusual to dismiss a case when a judge has determined there’s sufficient evidence to hold a trial,” says Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Holmes himself did not immediately return Michigan Radio’s request for comment. But the assistant prosecuting attorney who handled Rachel Wilson’s case, Larry King, says he personally felt it “should have proceeded forward… Had the decision been in my lap, we would have had a jury trial on this case.”

“You know, the explanation [Holmes gave me] was very common,” King adds. “He was concerned both about the strength of the evidence in the case, and to be honest, he was concerned about Rachel as a witness.”

King says he doesn’t want to speculate as to why Holmes had his doubts. But King says he was instructed to call Wilson and tell her the charges against Ian Elliott were being dropped.

“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” King says.

Wilson then asked to meet with Holmes directly. She later told Central Michigan Life that Holmes told her he was dropping her case “for your own good” and questioned her behavior the night of the alleged assault. “Why didn’t you run?” Wilson recalls Holmes asking.

(Larry King, the former assistant prosecuting attorney, went on to run for county prosecutor himself that year as a Democrat. Holmes, meanwhile, ran as a Republican, but was defeated in the primary by fellow Republican David Barberi – who, of all things, was one of Ian Elliott’s defense attorneys.

Barberi ultimately beat King in the general election and is now the Isabella County Prosecutor. His office did not return a request for comment.)

A second chance at charges

Once Wilson’s story was published in October 2018, the community started paying closer attention, says Emma Dale. She’s now the paper’s editor-in-chief.

The president at CMU sent out a campus-wide letter. The case “brought up a conversation [on campus] that we weren’t having before,” Dale says.

“Just the way some of the prosecutors in Isabella County treated [Rachel Wilson,] some of the things they said to her, the way they handled the case – you want to say it’s surprising, but in a small town like Mount Pleasant, and Isabella County, it’s really not surprising.”

Then, on October 31 2018, the state stepped in: then-Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced his office was taking on Wilson’s case, and refiled charges against Elliott.

Michigan Radio reached out to Elliott’s defense attorney, Joe Barberi, for an interview Thursday.

Barberi declined, but emailed the following statement:

"I do appreciate you reaching out to me to discuss Mr. Elliott's case, because it's the first time that anybody from local or state-wide media has requested to hear anything about the other side of the story. Unfortunately, from the Code of Professional Responsibility for attorneys, I am limited in what I can say. That said, obviously, my client, Ian Elliott, maintains his innocence of any criminal wrongdoing as a result of his involvement with the Complainant on August 31 and September 1, 2016. I would encourage you to review all the pleadings and attachments, including revised reports, and thoroughly note the differences between older reports and revisions by the Attorney General's Office. This case needs to be tried in a court of law and not through public and social media. Both my client and I look forward to having a jury of my client's peers determine the involvement with him and the Complainant was consensual and not criminal."

After Democrat Dana Nessel was elected state attorney general in November, she decided to continue with Wilson’s case, says spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney. She says state prosecutors originally got involved at Rachel Wilson’s request.

“This young woman had tremendous courage, in really what was a dire situation,” Rossman-McKinney says.

Finally, this week, Rachel Wilson and Ian Elliott found themselves back in court, where once again a judge would decide whether there was enough evidence to send the case to trial. Except this time, the prosecutor was from the attorney general’s office. And they had identified additional witnesses: three women who also wanted to testify against Elliott. While the judge ruled that two of the women’s testimony wouldn’t be allowed, he did allow one of them to testify.

“They [the prosecution] start going through these other people whose testimony they wanted to bring, and one of them, I’ll call her Witness 10, she lives down in Texas,” says Eric Baerren, a reporter for the Morning Sunwho’s been covering the case. “And talks about how she was basically victimized in a very similar way by this Ian Elliott guy…basically the exact same description that Rachel Wilson gave.”

Emma Dale, the student paper’s editor-in-chief, says it was a dramatic couple of days.

“It was really interesting as a reporter to see that these testimonies from these witnesses, there’s very similar things within all of them, like the verbiage that the defendant used,” Dale says. “How he was, I guess, for example, like with every girl he had talked with, it was kind of ‘Well why did you come here if you didn’t want to have sex with me?’”

“And the drugging, there’s different instances of after they take a drink from him, they don’t feel normal anymore,” Dale says of the witness testimony this week. “The pattern of him texting them [after the alleged assaults] ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t think I did anything wrong, I’m not this person, my mom just died,’ just definitely shows that it’s a repetitive offender.”

Barberi, the defense attorney, argued that the witnesses weren’t credible, says reporter Eric Baerren. “He was like, ‘You were naked on the bed, you said it wasn’t within your boundaries but you were naked on his bed, and you were kissing; there are pictures of you kissing him down in the living room at the party.’ The insinuation was like, obviously, maybe you’re going to consent to this because you were kissing him. It was like, all the old white guy defenses.”  

Baerren says at the end of the hearing, all of the witnesses – Rachel Wilson, Witness 10, and the additional two women – were brought into the courtroom as District Court Chief Judge Eric Janes read his decision.

“These three women who showed up basically to support Rachel Wilson, and these are women who like, two of them live up in the northern part of the state…and then Witness 10 flew up from Texas…so these women who’ve never met each other before this, they’re sitting together and holding hands. And Rachel Wilson is sitting up in the seat ahead of them in the gallery.

“And so [the judge] reads that he’s binding this case over to circuit court. And they all stand up, and Rachel Wilson and Witness 10 are like, crying and hugging each other. It was a powerful, powerful moment. I have a hard time putting it into words, what it was like, watching these two embrace.”

On March 1st, the Michigan Attorney General's office issued a press release announcing the office was a filing a second set of sexual assault charges against Elliott. 

"LANSING – Charges were filed today in Isabella County District Court against Ian Elliott, the former Central Michigan University student and student government association president already bound over for trial on two counts of Criminal Sexual Conduct (3rd degree) and one count of assault with intent to commit penetration. The charge of CSC (Criminal Sexual Conduct) third degree (oral penetration) was made against Elliott as he awaits trial on similar charges. The victim in this latest case testified as a witness to similar acts in the preliminary exam of Elliott’s first case. The Office of Attorney General Dana Nessel found sufficient evidence to charge Elliott in the second case. The charges against Elliott were sworn to today before Magistrate Sandra Straus of the Isabella County Court. Elliott was given a $30,000 bond and is expected to be arraigned Monday, March 4."

This article originally misspelled the last name of David and Joe Barberi. A correction has been made.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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