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Local victims say prosecutors failed them and violated rights; DA’s Office says progress is being made

Several victims say the court system insufficiently served them. An error cost one family thousands of dollars in potential restitution.

The exterior of the Laramie County Governmental Complex is pictured Thursday, Feb. 29 in Cheyenne. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Loren Burton and her family took up the front bench row of Cheyenne’s district court room. Burton was sitting to the right of her teenage daughter. The mother rubbed her daughter’s back, providing comfort and sharing strength. Then trial sentencing began.

Throughout summer 2020, Burton’s daughter was sexually assaulted by a then-18-year-old Cheyenne man. She was 12 at the time. Burton learned of it later in the year, and the crime was reported in late 2020. Following years of evidence gathering and an investigation, a criminal complaint was opened in early 2023. The man, Collin Spurrier, pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual abuse of a minor in June that year.

Burton, her daughter and the rest of her family attended Spurrier’s sentencing in November. They sat as far away from the Spurrier family as possible. Not only did Burton hope to witness a lengthy sentence handed down, she had requested financial restitution from the court and Spurrier. Over the past three years, Burton’s daughter had received medical care due to a medical condition she developed as a result of her abuse.

Burton said she and her family have paid $27,000 over the past few years for doctor’s bills and medical treatment. She asked the court to provide this sum in her restitution.

“I am not aware of any documentation in support of the $27,000,” said Laramie County District Court Judge Peter Froelicher during the hearing, per a transcript of the sentencing Cap City News obtained.

The prosecuting attorney, Monique Meese, said she did not have any documentation to support Burton’s restitution request. She was also not aware of any documentation sent to the Wyoming Department of Probation and Parole, which is also involved in the restitution process.

“As far as restitution is concerned, I believe in accordance with the law — and I have to apply the law — the only evidentiary support I have is the $1,792.80 for the restitution from the Victim Services,” Froelicher stated later during sentencing. “And it’s not that I don’t believe that there have been other effects on the victim and other costs to the victim, I just don’t have the evidentiary support for that, so I cannot order it.”

Burton was struck by the judge’s decision. She thought she had done everything right. She sent multiple emails to a Probation & Parole agent, who is responsible for composing a presentence report that the court uses to determine eligibility for restitution. Burton’s messages contain documents detailing medical receipts, hospital visit dates and letters from neurologists detailing her daughter’s condition.

“I emailed my restitution information with my impact statements to Probation & Parole in the same email,” said Burton, who shared the email correspondences between her and Laramie County officials with Cap City News. “How did they get my victim impact statements but not get the documentation for the restitution? … I think that’s important for the community to know — that they make errors that continue to affect victims and their families.”

Loren Burton sits on a sofa inside her home Friday, March 1 in Cheyenne. (Stew Dyer/Cap City News)

However, the DOC isn’t responsible for providing direction or paperwork to victims who want to request restitution, according to Stephanie Kiger, public information officer with the department. This procedure is completed between the victim and their prosecuting attorney. Burton was never informed of that, she said.

Aside from the judge’s decision, Burton is dismayed about the lack of communication she and her family received from the Laramie County court system. Her family was never assigned a victim witness coordinator, which is assigned by the District Attorney’s Office. Nobody in the county judicial system educated her about the Wyoming Victim’s Bill of Rights.

Burton’s experience isn’t an isolated incident. In October, Cap City News reported on victims who received little to no communication from their assigned victim witness coordinator with the DA’s Office. In one instance, a family acted on their grievances and mounted a protest.

Others have personally complained to the Wyoming Division of Victim’s Services — which provides funding to the DA’s Office and grants restitution to victims of certain crimes — about lack of communication from county prosecuting officers. In particular, victims have been left in the dark about cases taken up by the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office, which has been led by Sylvia Hackl since January 2023.

Cara Chambers, director of DVS, told Cap City News in an interview she was personally involved in at least five complaints her department received.

Chambers said victim witness coordinators fail to inform victims about their rights, there must be repercussions. The state’s Victims Bill of Rights applies to local law enforcement and county prosecutors, but there is no legal recourse for violations.

“That is always the comment I’ve made, like there are no teeth,” Chambers said. “It doesn’t incur liability on the part of the agency that failed to [serve its victims].”

A special counsel

When a case involving victims reaches the Laramie County DA’s Office, the office assigns one of its two victim witness coordinators to the case. One of the employees is then responsible for communicating with victims about pertinent case updates and upcoming court dates as well as helping them complete forms for a victim impact statement and restitution request. The victim coordinator will also attend hearings in person with the victims they’re serving, the office said.

Normally, a county DA’s Office would pick up a felony sexual assault case. However, that’s not what happened.

DA Hackl told Cap City News in a phone interview that she received the Spurrier case during her first full week as district attorney in January 2023. As soon as a conflict of interest was established, Hackl recused herself from Burton’s case, the DA told Cap City News. Other county attorneys were then asked if they could take over the case. Meese voluntarily took over.

Meese declined to comment for this story.

Hackl said she was aware Meese’s office doesn’t employ a victim witness coordinator. She believed Meese had been fulfilling the responsibilities of a typical coordinator, such as updating Burton about court dates and filling out paperwork for a victim impact statement.

Still, Burton received less support and resources than victims whose cases lay in the hands of the DA. Without a proper witness advocate by her side, she couldn’t easily receive regular updates about upcoming court dates, the whereabouts of the offender and how to compose and submit a victim impact statement or restitution request. These services are outlined in the Wyoming Victims Bill of Rights.

The gap in communication is ultimately what led to Burton losing out on restitution. In the court system, the prosecuting agency’s clerk of court is responsible for filing restitution requests to the judge, according to Stephanie Kiger, public information officer with the Wyoming Department of Corrections.

Normally, a witness coordinator is the person who assists victims in drafting an impact statement. Aside from those guidelines, Burton received no help writing her letter.

“I think the victim advocacy failed us,” Burton said. “Now that we’re almost two months or two and a half months passed, the only thing I can say is there’s no such thing as closure. You just want to move forward.”

Burton learned about the Division of Victims Services through the victim’s witness coordinator with the Cheyenne Police Department. She applied and received restitution from DVS, but it’s only a fraction of what she originally requested from the court. Victims who qualify for compensation from DVS can receive up to $15,000 from the agency per crime, according to Chambers. Burton is receiving funds to cover her daughter’s therapy visits, which is separate from the $27,000 she and her family have spent on hospital services.

Loren Burton leafs through piles of medical documents from her daughter’s many doctor visits on Friday, March 1 inside her home in Cheyenne. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

The protest

Though Burton’s experience is unique — as she was assigned representation outside of the DA’s office — other victims have spoken about similarly poor communication with county staff.

In September, two Wyoming families spoke with Cap City News about their experience receiving victim advocacy from the DA’s Office. Two of those individuals were parents Kelsea and Refugio Cerenil, whose daughter, Phoenix, was killed by her boyfriend, Charles Karn, in June.

Kelsea Cerenil, who lives in Laramie, seldom received updates on court dates from her witness coordinator, she told Cap City News in a recent follow-up interview. When Cerenil reached out to the office, she never received a response. Whenever she did receive any updates from her coordinator, it was always at the last minute, she said. Her witness advocate didn’t sit with her and her husband during court hearings.

The Laramie resident recalls an incident where she was trying to collect info about an upcoming court date. She tried calling the DA’s Office, the courthouse and her witness coordinator for an answer. She couldn’t get one.

“We live in Laramie, so if we have to go to court, we have to go to Cheyenne,” Cerenil said. “We have to schedule that with work. We have to schedule that with our kids. But they knew all of this stuff, and they weren’t notifying us at all. So it seems like they were trying to keep us out of the courtroom.”

Refugio and Kelsea Cerenil stand together wearing shirts displaying a photo of their daughter, Phoenix, who was killed in 2023. (Photo courtesy of Kelsea Cerenil)

The Cerenils’ frustration came to a head on Oct. 13. The two parents, as well as 15 others, united outside the Laramie County courthouse in protest. Cerenil said her goal was to capture the attention of the media and the DA’s Office to shed light on her circumstances. Her other motive was to schedule a meeting, which she attempted to set up without success, with Hackl to discuss her family’s lack of communication.

The Cerenils’ case eventually came to a close in late October, when Phoenix’s killer received a life sentence. However, their experience has tainted their perception and trust of the court system. She said she believes the prosecuting office’s insufficient communication violates the Wyoming Victims Bill of Rights.

“Victims have certain rights — like they’re to be notified of court dates, or to be notified of changes,” Cerenil said, “but we weren’t being notified.”

In Wyoming, victims are afforded certain rights, such as knowing the current status of a defendant, receiving restitution from offenders, being provided protection and safety and being made aware of court and trial cases. 

Cerenil said her advocate never educated her about the Victim’s Bill of Rights. The Laramie resident only learned about it through personal research. Cerenil was also in contact with the SAFE Project, a domestic violence service organization in Laramie, and learned much of what she knows now about the judicial process and victims’ rights through them.

Behind the scenes

Behind the scenes, the DA’s office had been reckoning with several issues that resulted from poor communication.

Prior to Hackl’s tenure as district attorney, the office was a “black hole of communication” under former DA Leigh Anne Manlove, according to Chambers, the DVS director. These problems persisted into Hackl’s term starting in January 2023. At that point in time, the staff members in the victim witness roles were Manlove appointees. Hackl acknowledged to Cap City News that she was having communication issues with her staff throughout the year.

“While we were having some issues, we were doing our best,” Hackl said. “We’re moving forward to be the best we can be.”

City/County Building (Lisa Hushbeck/Cap City News)

One issue that has carried over from Manlove’s administration is the DA Office’s reduced funding. Every two years, staff members from the office apply for contract funding with DVS. Manlove applied for and received funding through DVS, but her administration used these resources incorrectly, Chambers said. The mishandling of funds has resulted in the DA’s Office receiving less grant funds over the past several fiscal years.

One of Manlove’s victim’s witness coordinators, who was still employed in the DA’s Office when Hackl joined, failed to submit required contract documentation to DVS in a timely manner. This resulted in the contract being delayed five months, leaving the DA’s Office unfunded from July 1 to Nov. 27, according to Chambers.

Another concern Chambers had with the DA’s Office was whether victims were being informed about the Victim’s Bill of Rights.

“There are requirements of law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices when it comes to making sure victims are aware of their rights in the criminal justice system,” Chambers said — though, as she previously stated, coordinators aren’t necessarily punished for failing to do their jobs. “And that was what we had concerns about.”

By summer 2023, Chambers had heard five complaints regarding communication with the DA’s Office on top of not receiving the signed contract for funding. She requested to meet with Hackl in August to figure out what was going on. She eventually learned that for some time, the office was employing only one witness coordinator, who had not been communicating with Hackl about any of Chambers’ concerns. Furthermore, Hackl was not aware of the late contract submission prior to her meeting with Chambers.

The DVS director expressed her concerns to Hackl, who she said was receptive to her comments. The DA’s Office has seen change over the past six months. Hackl told Cap City News she hired two new victim witness coordinators, one in September and the other in December. The prior two coordinators are no longer with the department, she said.

Beyond funding and communication with DVS, Hackl said she and her department are looking to receive mentorship from DVS and training from other victim service programs around the state.

‘Righting the ship’

Though the DVS director feels optimistic about the direction the county is taking to correct missteps, victims such as Burton feel unseen and wonder what went wrong in their cases. Her daughter, she said, has a “life sentence,” referring to the ongoing medical and emotional trauma she will have to endure.

Despite Burton’s and Cerenil’s unease about their experience with the county, Chambers is optimistic. The message she wants to relay to the public is that Laramie County’s DA’s Office is undergoing positive change.

“It does take a minute to right the ship,” Chambers said. “We’re finally to a point where the division is very encouraged by the changes that Ms. Hackl has made.”