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Federal rape investigation rocks Montana city

As she tends her inn on the bank of Montana's Clark Fork River, Meg Estey says she welcomes the federal government's investigation of 80 reported rapes in three years in the college town she calls home.

"I have never in my life felt concerned about my safety in Missoula," said Estey, an innkeeper at Goldsmith's Bed and Breakfast. "This is alarming, knowing this is going on in your community. To know the book is being opened and evaluated is a good thing in our minds."

The Justice Department disclosed the number of sexual assault complaints Tuesday. The review is the latest in a string of sexual assault reports that have dominated local headlines in Missoula, population 67,000, since December.

Until last week, attention focused on 11 reported rapes in 18 months involving college students at the University of Montana and a series of allegations against players on its football team. The events led to an investigation commissioned by the university and to campus forums, a new code of conduct for athletes and the requirement that all students take online tutorials on sexual assault.

The Justice Department said it is examining whether gender discrimination affected investigations and prosecution of sexual assaults by the university's Office of Public Safety, the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney's Office.

"Late last year, the [Justice Department] became aware of serious concerns that alleged sexual assaults of women, including but not limited to students at the University of Montana, were not being investigated in a prompt and adequate fashion," said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division.

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said he thought federal investigators were overreaching.

"We don't investigate the reports; we review the investigation that's been done by law enforcement, and we decide whether there is sufficient evidence to file charges," Van Valkenburg said in an interview. "We do a good job. We're not changing anything, and we don't have anything to apologize for."

Missoula Mayor John Engen said city agencies would work with the Justice Department.

"I've pledged the city of Missoula's cooperation in ensuring the investigation is thorough and complete," Engen said at a news conference Tuesday in Missoula. "I have tremendous faith in the men and women of the Missoula Police Department and no knowledge of any failures on our part to investigate sexual assaults against women."

Each year, about 2 million people visit Missoula, with half of those spending the night, said Barbara Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula, the area's convention and visitor's bureau.

"This community is very unusual in Montana," Neilan said in a telephone interview. "It's a very liberal, all-encompassing community of all types of people."

Students walking to class last week amid swirling snowflakes near the campus' landmark clock tower said the rape investigations shattered their sense of safety.

"When things like this happen, it kind of bursts your bubble," said Maddy Miller, 20, a sophomore majoring in social work. "Coming from Cincinnati, I thought it would be 100 percent safer here."

Miller said she now shies away from running at night on a trail that parallels the Clark Fork River.

The state's oldest university, with about 16,000 students, retained retired Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to investigate the rape allegations.

In a five-page report released Jan. 31, Barz recommended that all university personnel receive training on how to report and respond to sexual-assault allegations.

"The UM has a problem of sexual assault on and off campus and needs to take steps to address it to ensure the safety of all students," she said in the report.

In March, the university announced it wouldn't renew the contracts of Athletic Director Jim O'Day and head football coach Robin Pflugrad, who led the team to an 11-3 record last season.