A shocking case in Alaska has highlighted a loophole in sexual assault statutes nationwide. Now the survivor of the attack is sharing her story for the very first time.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The last thing Lauren remembered thinking was that she was going to die.
The man who’d offered her a lift a few minutes before at a busy Anchorage gas station was suddenly on top of her, his hands around her throat.
“I just remember trying to say something and I couldn’t get it out,” she recalled through tears. “I was trying to breathe and I couldn’t take one breath.”
She thought of her family. She thought of her mom, who was living up at one of the Alaska Native villages farther north. She thought of her brothers and sisters, of her little niece and nephews. She would never get to see any of them again.
“Right before I blacked out,” she said, “I just remember thinking, This is it.”
When Lauren woke up, he was zipping up his pants. The man who just moments ago had told her he was going to kill her was asking if she needed something to wipe her face.
“I was confused,” she said, “and when I stand up and I look in the reflection in the car, I see that he came all over my face.”
The man wasn’t really going to kill her, he tried to explain; he just needed her to think he was in order to fulfill his sexual fantasy. He let her grab her backpack from his truck and then he drove away, leaving her shell-shocked and alone in the lunchtime summer sun.
“I remember being just so shocked that he was brave enough to do this in the middle of the day. He was on his way to work,” Lauren said.
“The look in his eyes,” she recalled. “No soul. No nothing.”
The Aug. 8, 2017, attack on Lauren, whom BuzzFeed News agreed to identify with only her first name, horrified Alaskans when it made the local news. But the more shocking part — the part that would cause a political and legal firestorm — would come more than 12 months later.
Lauren’s attacker, a 33-year-old married father named Justin Schneider, has admitted that he had forced himself on Lauren. He admitted that he did it to satisfy his sexual desires. He admitted that he masturbated onto her. He admitted that he ejaculated on her face. But he was not charged with sexual assault. As a first-time offender, he accepted a deal to plead guilty to just a single count of second-degree assault, and he walked out of the courtroom a free man. “I would just like to emphasize how grateful I am for this process,” Schneider, who declined to speak with BuzzFeed News, told the court. He’d been working on himself, he said. “I’m very eager to continue that journey.”
The case soon became a viral sensation as media and celebrities railed online against the injustice of Schneider’s light sentence. In one meme shared 47,000 times on Facebook, he was called “the face of white privilege” who had a sexual assault charge “dropped.”
But the reality was much more complicated. The prosecutors didn’t drop the sexual assault charge. They never brought one in the first place — because, they said, the law would not allow them to.
In Alaska, sexual assault has a very narrow definition: It has to involve either “knowingly touching, directly or through clothing, the victim’s genitals, anus, or female breast,” or knowingly causing the victim to touch either the defendant’s, or the victim’s own, genitals. So because Schneider touched only his own genitals but didn’t touch Lauren’s or force her to touch his, his actions didn’t qualify as sexual assault.
“While the facts of this case were particularly disturbing, Mr. Schneider’s offensive physical contact with bodily fluid such as semen is not categorized as a sex crime under Alaska law,” said John Skidmore, then director of the Criminal Division at the Alaska Department of Law, in a subsequent review of the case.
In the aftermath of Lauren’s case, Alaska lawmakers last month voted to close what has been dubbed the “Schneider loophole.”
But out of 54 US states and territories, 44 of these jurisdictions, including Alaska, do not have a legislated definition of sexual contact that explicitly mentions contact with semen, according to research by BuzzFeed News and AEquitas, a DC-based nonprofit group of former specialized prosecutors who focus on issues of gender-based violence and human trafficking. In Delaware, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Texas, to name just a few, Schneider might still slip through the same loophole.
Jennifer Long, who runs AEquitas, said unwanted contact with ejaculate is a “humiliating” and “egregious” form of sexual assault.
“There is a past and in some ways present tendency to minimize contact or penetration that doesn’t meet the most stereotypical elements of assault: gunpoint, violence, penetration, ejaculation, injuries everywhere,” she said. “But that’s not necessary in order to be a crime of sexual violence.
“Just because a penis or vagina hasn’t physically touched someone but ejaculate has, it doesn’t lessen the crime or its impact on the victim,” she said.
Schneider’s crime had a profound impact on Lauren. In the months after her brutal assault, and then again amid the media circus sparked by his sentencing, she chose to remain silent. But last month, Lauren made the decision to sit down with BuzzFeed News.
“Now that I’ve had time to process it all,” she said, “I’ve felt it is time for people to hear my side of the story.”
Lauren is now 27 years old. A wave of long, dark hair sweeps down the side of the gray zip-up hoodie she’s wearing when we meet in a windowless room at her lawyers’ office in downtown Anchorage. She occasionally pulls the sleeves of her sweater over her hands to fiddle with the cuffs as she talks. She’s carrying a cracked iPhone and a plastic bag full of junk food: Reese’s Pieces and two bottles of a yellow energy drink. She radiates exhaustion.
Lauren’s lawyer Jim Davis had helped set up the interview, saying he felt she had reached “a more stabilized place” in her recovery and was ready to talk. But on the appointed day, she was extremely fragile and hesitant. “I wish you were here,” she texted her girlfriend. “I’m nervous.
After a short pep talk, her lawyer introduced her only as Jane — as in Jane Doe, which is the way she’s identified in legal documents. She is guarded at first, but after 15 or so minutes, she decides to lower the gate. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Lauren.”
Her voice cracking as she sniffed back tears, and while stopping at several moments during the interview to compose herself, she began recounting the worst day of her life.
Lauren spent her first eight or so years in Anchorage, a city of roughly 300,000 people — the largest in Alaska — framed by the icy, muddy waters of the Cook Inlet to the west and, to the east, by a ring of glorious, snowcapped mountains that seem to jut up from nowhere. “I think when a lot of people come to Alaska, they’re just taken aback by how beautiful it is,” she said. “Especially up in the villages,” the vast, remote areas where she had moved in second grade, “where I’m from, there’s no trees anywhere. It’s just all tundra.”
Moving to her mother’s small Native village had been a big shock for a city kid. “It was very — almost like a culture shock for me because of how small it was,” she said. “I was used to being able to go to the mall and different high school pools, and at the village there’s one high school and no malls at all.”
Her grandmother lives in one of the Native American reservations down in the Lower 48, as Alaskans like to call the mainland states, along with lots of her cousins. “They would ask if I lived in an igloo,” she said of the people she met down south, “or if I rode dog sleds to school.”
Drawn back to Alaska’s big city as an adult, Lauren made a home for herself once again in Anchorage, where she still has family.
It was a visit to her uncle that brought her to the Spenard neighborhood on Aug. 8, 2017, but as it turned out, he wasn’t home, so she walked to a nearby gas station. She was cursing her luck, having just missed the bus back across town, when a white Toyota SUV pulled up.
“He says, ‘Hey, what’s your name again?’” Lauren recalled. “And I said, ‘Do we know each other?’ And he says, ‘I’m Dan.’”
The man was tall — over 6 feet 2 inches, she believed — and had a short, scruffy beard in the same reddish color as his hair. He was wearing a long-sleeved red shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His shirt was neatly tucked into his blue jeans. He looked smart, like he was heading to work.
She couldn’t remember if she knew him or not, but he was offering her a lift. She was reluctant at first, but he seemed friendly and she needed to get across town. Plus, she didn’t want to seem ungrateful. “Against my better judgment,” she said, “I got in.”
Rick Allen, who was Anchorage district attorney at the time of Lauren’s case, said that in Alaska, where distances are long and conditions can be harsh, picking up strangers is no big deal: “If someone approaches you and says, ‘Hey, can you take me 2 miles down the road?’ and you’re going that way, you just do that stuff.”
The man asked Lauren if they could make a brief stop so he could pick something up from his other car. She agreed, and he pulled onto a short, unpaved side street in a quiet residential area, where tall trees and leafy scrub provided plenty of cover.
He asked Lauren to get out while he loaded the SUV. “When I get to the back of the car, he tackles me down to the ground, and I remember just getting so scared,” she recalled through tears. “He just totally blindsided me.”
The man told her he’d kill her if she screamed. She promised not to. “Then he looks at me in my eyes and he says, ‘Let me kill you anyways,’” she recalled, tears streaming down her cheeks. “And then he starts choking me.”
When she regained consciousness, Lauren realized she’d lost her flip-flops in the struggle. Barefoot and extremely shaken, she moved to the side of the path, suddenly worried he was going to run her over.
But amid the terror, she displayed remarkable composure. When he gave her the cloth to wipe what police later called “a huge splotch of ejaculate,” she was careful not to wipe it all away, so there would be some left for police to test. She also remembered to ask for her bag, which had her cellphone inside. Then, as Schneider drove away, “I just remember thinking to myself, Get his license plate, get his license plate.” The moment his car rounded the bend, she reached into her bag, called 911, and blurted out the plate number.
At the hospital, a detective showed Lauren six photos of different men. She had no trouble picking him out.
“I just remember those eyes…those eyes,” she said. “You don’t forget the face of someone who you thought was going to kill you.”
Women in Alaska are in more danger of being murdered by a man than women in any other state. A 2016 study by the Violence Policy Center found the rate was nearly three times the national average. And one-third of Alaskan adult women have experienced sexual violence, according to a 2015 survey from the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center.
The statistics are even worse for indigenous women like Lauren. Murder is the third leading cause of death among Alaska Native women, according to Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. On some reservations, women are 10 times more likely to be killed than in other counties. Almost half of them have endured rape, physical violence, or stalking, the federal government found in 2012. One in three Native women will be raped in their lifetime.
The problem is not confined to reservations or Alaska Native villages. The Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board, has found records of 31 indigenous women or girls who had gone missing or were murdered in Anchorage between 1975 and 2018. Only Seattle and Albuquerque, two cities with roughly double the population of Anchorage, had more cases.
“In terms of sexual assault and violence against women, unfortunately that’s a problem all over Alaska,” said Allen, the former Anchorage district attorney. “That’s a problem in rural Alaska, it’s a problem in urban Alaska, and it’s just something that we are all ashamed of and want to try to improve.”
Janel Gagnon, a volunteer with No More Mat-Su, an anti–domestic violence group operating in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley outside of Anchorage, moved to the state three years ago from Portland, Oregon, but was born in California. Before moving north, she had three big fears: cold weather, bears, and moose. “I’ve come to love the cold, I’ve never seen a bear, and I’ve only seen a handful of moose,” she said. “But do you know what I’m afraid of now? I’m really afraid of the people.
“Those statistics mean you have a lot of perpetrators walking around, and they must be perpetrators we all know,” she said. “Why aren’t we talking about them? Because then we’d have to talk about people that live next door.”
Following his assault on Lauren, Justin Schneider drove himself to his job at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, one of the busiest cargo airports in the world, where he worked as an air traffic controller. When he finished later that night, he drove the 30 minutes home to Eagle River to be with his wife and two children.
He was arrested the next day.
Lauren felt relief when she heard the news. Part of her had feared he would somehow find her and “finish off the job.”
But she was particularly shocked to learn what her attacker did for a living. “My first thought was this guy’s pretty much in charge of people in the air — this psychopath,” she said. “Obviously there’s something in his head that gets off on the act of killing, and it just blew my mind that he was in charge of all those lives in the air. It was just insane.”
Just a week after her attack, Lauren testified in front of a grand jury. Schneider was indicted on three felony charges: kidnapping, along with assault in the second and third degree. The kidnapping charge alone carried a sentence of up to 99 years in prison.
But he also faced a misdemeanor charge for what’s known as first-degree harassment. This, it turned out, was the only charge prosecutors felt they could bring against him for masturbating and ejaculating on Lauren’s face.
Under Alaska law, a person is guilty of first-degree harassment if they subject another to “offensive physical contact … with human or animal blood, mucus, saliva, semen, urine, vomitus, or feces.” As written, the law covers the act of being hit with ejaculate, but not of being masturbated on. (The statute, like many similar laws across the country, is primarily designed to protect prison guards from inmates hurling cups of bodily fluids at them from their cells. Some of these statutes explicitly limit the scope of victims to law enforcement officers and emergency responders.) Essentially, then, Alaska’s law regarded what Schneider did as equivalent to spitting in someone’s face.
Andrew Grannik, the then–assistant district attorney in Anchorage who handled the case, was not willing to speak about it, according to a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Law. But Grannik’s former boss, Allen, told BuzzFeed News he recalled Grannik coming to him to discuss the case.
“I think I might have even grabbed my statute book and said, ‘Surely that’s a sex offense. I mean, that has to be a sex offense, right?’” said Allen. “And he says, ‘No, Rick, I’ve looked at it every which way and it’s not a sex offense.’ And I went through the statutes with him and he was right.”
The prosecutors were at a loss.
“I’m a lawyer who’s been doing this kind of work for 20 years,” said Allen, “but I had never been faced with this kind of fact scenario before. None of us had.”
Cases like Lauren’s are rare but not unheard of. In 2005, three male college students at the University of Connecticut watched porn together, then took turns masturbating and ejaculating onto a woman student who was sleeping on the futon in one of their dorm rooms. The incident prompted Connecticut to change its laws so as to criminalize this conduct as a sexual assault.
In 2013, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Colorado Boulder was arrested after breaking into a woman student’s dorm room and masturbating over her as she slept. He ended up having to plead guilty only to invasion of privacy and one count of second-degree burglary — for the theft of her underpants.
At the time of Lauren’s assault, only nine states — Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin — had legislated definitions of “sexual contact” or “sexual acts” that explicitly included ejaculating onto another person. In Pennsylvania, it’s listed as the separate offense of indecent assault, while in Oregon, semen is classified as a relevant “dangerous substance” and forms part of the misdemeanor offense of third-degree sexual abuse.
But even in these states, lawmakers can’t seem to legislate fully against the scope of human aggression. In 2014, a Minnesota man was caught repeatedly ejaculating into his unsuspecting colleague’s coffee and on her desk over a period of six months. “I knew it. I have drank his semen,” the victim told police. “I just thought it was spoiled cream.” The man’s sexual assault charges were later dropped in favor of a misdemeanor count of engaging in lewd or indecent behavior. Prosecutors determined that Minnesota’s sexual assault laws only covered cases in which seminal fluid touched a victim’s clothing or body directly. Because the man’s semen had entered the woman’s coffee before she consumed it, this indirect contact wasn’t sexual assault.
In most states where contact with ejaculate isn’t expressly defined as “sexual contact,” thus allowing prosecutors to pursue sexual assault charges, these assaults are likely to be prosecuted under indecent exposure laws, which are usually misdemeanor offenses with much lower penalties.
Otherwise, in many states, it’s up to judges to determine whether the existing laws can be interpreted in such a way as to classify such contact as sexual in nature. So prosecutors may choose to take on cases that don’t quite fit the definition, and hope for a judge who is willing to interpret the statutes broadly.
But, as recent events in Colorado demonstrate, that approach can backfire.
A 2002 case in that state, People v. Vinson, established the precedent that it was possible to make sexual contact with another person’s intimate body parts through bodily fluids. In that case, a man ejaculated onto his stepdaughter’s jeans-covered buttocks while he thought she was napping in her bed. Although he argued he never physically touched her, the Court of Appeals of Colorado disagreed.
But last year, the same court reached a different decision in a particularly disturbing case. Senon Louis Ramirez had been convicted by a jury in 2016 of asking his 4-year-old foster daughter and her 6-year-old sister to approach him, masturbating into their hands, and then making them drink the semen. The act only came to light years later when the younger daughter told her new adoptive family what had happened. However, because she testified that Ramirez hadn’t made her touch his “private parts,” as the young girl called them, and that he hadn’t touched hers, the Court of Appeals threw out his conviction and 20-year jail sentence.
The relevant Colorado statute defined “sexual contact” as “the knowing touching of the victim’s intimate parts by the actor, or of the actor’s intimate parts by the victim” or the clothing covering these “intimate parts.” According to the two-person majority of appeals judges, Vinson had only established the precedent that semen could be used to touch these intimate parts, which in that case were the stepdaughter’s buttocks. But because the Colorado law defined “intimate parts” as “the external genitalia or the perineum or the anus or the buttocks or the pubes or the breast of any person,” Ramirez was not guilty of sexual assault under the law as it was written because he had ejaculated into the children’s hands.
“What he’s done to these little kids will traumatize them for the rest of their lives,” said Dave Young, the Adams County district attorney who prosecuted the case, “and now he has a misdemeanor conviction for indecent exposure, so certainly the crime he committed doesn’t fit the punishment that he got.”
The Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, which lobbies Colorado lawmakers on criminal justice issues, called for an urgent change to the state’s laws. Colorado General Assembly Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet introduced a bill in January to expand the definition of sexual contact to include the knowing ejaculation of seminal fluid on any part of a victim. It was passed and signed by the governor in April, and that legal loophole is now closed.
“I think that since it’s been identified in enough states,” Michaelson Jenet told BuzzFeed News, “that each state should take a hard look at their laws and make sure they can prosecute a crime of this heinous sexual nature in the way that it should be prosecuted.”
Anchorage’s assistant district attorney Andrew Grannik had a decision to make.
He felt he was unable to prosecute Schneider for sexual assault, but he was also uncertain about his chances of convicting Schneider on the felony kidnapping charge. Lauren had entered and exited his car willingly, and the DA’s office wasn’t sure whether it could argue she had been “restrained” or moved against her will, as the law required. “Kidnapping under Alaska state law is very difficult to prove,” said Allen, the former Anchorage district attorney who was Grannik’s boss. “You have to have a pretty narrow set of facts and circumstances to be able to prove it.”
That left them with the felony second-degree assault charge for the strangulation and the misdemeanor harassment charge. Because Schneider had no previous convictions, the most he could get would be two years in prison.
Under the terms of the deal, Schneider would have to plead guilty only to the felony assault charge. In exchange, the state would drop the kidnapping and harassment charges. Prosecutors would pursue the maximum sentence of two years on the assault charge, with one year suspended.
But Schneider would also have to agree to sex-offender probation conditions for three years, despite the absence of any sex-offender charge. This included undergoing treatment, as well as potentially being willing to sit for polygraph and psychological tests and potentially being banned from possessing pornography, among other conditions.
“Who would you rather have living next to you?” Allen asked in defending Grannik’s decision. “The guy who just did the two years on this and was right back out on the street? Or somebody who did one year and has another year hanging over his head and is required to jump through all these hoops and do counseling and go through sex-offender screening? I think when he made that analysis from a public safety perspective, that’s the decision that he made.”
But as part of his release on bail following several weeks in jail upon his initial arrest, Schneider had also spent the last year at his parents’ home four hours away in Homer, Alaska, wearing an ankle monitor for which his family laid out roughly $5,000. Under Alaskan law, Schneider’s time under house arrest could be credited toward his sentence. This meant that instead of heading to prison for a year, he would walk out of the sentencing hearing a free man.
“Had he been a poor guy from the east side of Anchorage” — someone whose family couldn’t spare the $5,000 — Allen said, “he probably would have spent his whole year in a hard bed in a jail somewhere.”
Davis, Lauren’s lawyer with the Northern Justice Project, a private law firm defending the civil rights of low- and middle-income Alaskans, railed against the plea deal and said he believed Schneider could have been convicted of kidnapping before a jury. But Davis also said he suspected race was a factor. “I know for a fact if the victim was Ivanka Trump, the guy would not have had the kidnapping charge just dismissed outright,” he said.
“Had you had a progressive woman DA or a DA that was a person of color that gave a shit about stuff like this,” he added, “you could have pushed on the kidnapping charge and got a deal, got either a deal where the guy went to jail or got a prison sentence where the guy went to jail.”
On Sept. 19, 2018, Schneider and his attorney appeared alongside Grannik before Superior Court Judge Michael Corey in downtown Anchorage to plead guilty under the terms of the deal.
Lauren was nowhere to be seen.
Grannik told the court his office had “tried to call” her but had received a “caller not available” message. Corey did not halt the hearing to ask prosecutors to try harder to reach Lauren. Instead, he determined that they had met their requirement to exercise “due diligence” in inviting the victim to attend.
Grannik spoke at length about the harm that had resulted from Schneider’s “extremely dangerous” conduct. But the suffering that Grannik focused on was not that of Lauren but, rather, of Schneider himself. “This gentleman destroyed his life. That’s what he did. He had an American dream kind of life and he decided to destroy it,” said Grannik in court, explaining that as a result of the case, Schneider had lost his job as an air traffic controller, and that amounted to “basically life punishment.”
Then, to explain that any future offenses Schneider might commit would not be met with a plea deal, Grannik said something that would haunt both him and the case in the months ahead. “I will like the gentleman to be on notice that this is his one pass,” he said.
“It’s not really a pass,” Grannik said, immediately trying to correct himself, “but given the conduct, one might consider that it is.”
Schneider’s lawyer, Mike Moberly, then told the court his client “very early on empathized” with the victim, saying this boded well for his prospects of rehabilitation.
This was the only time Lauren was mentioned.
Corey at first appeared uncomfortable with the sentence before him. But he deferred to the prosecutor, saying he had never known Grannik to be a pushover. “He is a zealous advocate of the interests of the state and the community,” Corey said, “and I think it speaks volumes that an individual such as Mr. Grannik is advocating for the acceptance of what at first blush would really quite strike me as way too light a sentence.”
He acknowledged that the sentence favored Schneider’s rehabilitation over deterrence or community condemnation of the crime, but he agreed that rehabilitation was a worthy goal, so he accepted the plea deal.
“I would consider, quite frankly, this result an outlier,” he said. “You don’t come across this fact pattern, this set of circumstances, very often at all.”
As if somehow anticipating the storm that was to come, Corey told his courtroom, “I think those that would learn about what is transpiring here today would find this result breathtaking.”
“That,” he later told BuzzFeed News, “may have been the understatement of the year.”
Lauren learned about the plea deal the next day from a story in the newspaper. A few hours later, she got an email about the restitution Schneider would have to pay her.
“That just blew my mind. Why would they send me an email the day after and not the day before, talking about the sentencing and everything?” she said. “Because if they’d sent me an email, I would’ve been on the phone. I would’ve been there.”
She said she’d changed her phone number in the months before, and amid the mess that her life had devolved into, she had forgotten to tell the DA’s office. But it had already used her email to contact her about Schneider’s bail hearings, she said, and she’d waited months for the office to email her about his sentencing hearing.
“I think someone picked up the phone and dialed my old number and that was it,” she said. “And to me that’s just sad and pisses me off.”
After being contacted by BuzzFeed News with Lauren’s allegations, Paul J. Miovas, the Criminal Division director at the Alaska Department of Law, reviewed the state’s files and said officials tried two phone numbers, once each. But he confirmed that no one at the DA’s office had tried to email her before the hearing in which Schneider changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced. “It was ultimately through that email address,” he said, “that the office was able to reach the victim in the days following the change of plea.” He declined to respond to further questions on whether the DA’s office should’ve done more to try to reach her.
Allen, the former Anchorage DA, said he wasn’t aware until after the case was over that Lauren hadn’t been involved in the sentencing hearing. “In hindsight, probably the Anchorage Police Department should’ve been asked to hit the streets and try to find her,” he told BuzzFeed News. “That probably should have happened. In future cases, I’m sure there will be more of those efforts.”
Still, both he and Corey, the judge, said they didn’t believe her presence in the court would have changed the sentence.
“If she had been there, it would’ve been a much more emotional event,” Corey told BuzzFeed News. “It would have heightened the awareness of the reality of the effect of these actions, these crimes on a person, but I don’t think it would’ve changed the outcome. It would’ve changed the emotion in the room, but it wouldn’t have changed the outcome.”
Corey also defended his decision not to push prosecutors to locate Lauren. “The trouble with this is if you force the prosecutor’s hand in that regard, they may well have to divulge that the victim is not cooperative or can’t be found,” said Corey, “which of course leads the defendant to say, ‘Well, in that case I’m not pleading to anything,’ and he walks.”
But however the lawyers might justify it, Schneider’s free pass left Lauren feeling bereft, powerless, and robbed of justice. “My thought was just, Another white guy getting off and it’s unfair. I’m going to have to live with this shit for the rest of my life,” she said through tears, “while he’s not having any consequences whatsoever.”
She believes Grannik could have done more to try to punish her attacker. “If you think he’s a sexual predator, then what better than for him to be in jail? Why drop the more serious charge?” she asked. “I just think that’s their excuse for doing it the way they did.”
Lauren had to stop going on Facebook after Schneider’s sentencing because friends of hers would share media reports about the case — without realizing she was his victim. She had read some of the online comments and was horrified by one that accused her of making up the story to get revenge. It made her terrified of what people might say about her if she ever came forward.
But she also found support in an unlikely pair of strangers: siblings Elizabeth and Isaac Williams. Both had been shocked to read about the sentencing online. “I remember being dumbfounded. I thought there must be something I’m missing,” said Elizabeth, a 25-year-old Anchorage social worker. “That night I literally couldn’t sleep.”
Grannik’s comment in court about Schneider receiving a “pass” echoed in their minds. “I was just so shocked and horrified that someone would say that about a case that impacted the victim so much,” said Isaac, a 23-year-old engineer for a local hospital. So together the siblings resolved to form an anti–sexual violence activist group. They called it No More Free Passes.
“On Wednesday there was the sentencing,” said Elizabeth. “We started the Facebook group on the Thursday. By Saturday we had our first meeting and 50 people showed up. That is a huge number in Alaska terms.”
The siblings blamed the Schneider outcome on a failure of law and a failure of the legal system. In the short term, they focused their ire on Corey, the judge, who happened to be up for a retention vote in the midterm elections in November.
Although he had said he was as hamstrung by the law as the prosecutors were, the Williams siblings argued Corey should have delayed the hearing until Lauren was notified and rejected Schneider’s plea deal on the basis that the suspended sentence and credit for his house arrest were too lenient. “Yes, the laws were crappy,” said Elizabeth, “but even within those crappy laws, there was more that Judge Corey could’ve done.”
As the case gained more national attention, No More Free Passes gained more supporters. On Election Day, people shared selfies online with “I Voted” stickers, proudly proclaiming they’d voted to oust Corey. Later that night, he became the first judge in Alaska history to be removed from the bench by voters.
Corey, who is now back working as a civil litigation lawyer in Anchorage, still has strong feelings about the case, some of them personal. “There was a tremendous injustice done initially to the victim,” he said, “and secondarily to me and my family.”
Corey blames widespread misunderstanding of the underlying facts. “Once you start saying that this person committed a sexual assault — which, according to the statutes, they hadn’t — and then you say, ‘Well, the judge did all this in the face of the sexual assault,’ well, you can’t get that toothpaste back in the tube,” he said. “You just can’t do it, because people are so outraged. And the easiest target of their outrage was me, and the timing was immediately before the retention election, so it was essentially just a perfect storm.”
He blamed Elizabeth Williams for not appreciating the legal framework he says he was operating in — and for using him to “become politically relevant.”
“She got her trophy. I hope she’s proud of herself,” he said. “But what are we going to do? Every time a judge follows an unpopular law, we’re going to kick them out?”
Elizabeth Williams laughed at the suggestion that she had exploited the scandal. “I’m a social worker and I make, like, $50,000 a year. I didn’t get anything from this,” she said. “In fact, I lost a lot of friends. I lost my new job because of this. I got people threatening to rape me in my inbox. I got absolutely nothing from this.”
After their success taking on Corey, No More Free Passes began pushing the governor’s office to launch a review of the Department of Law and all Alaskan district attorneys’ handling of sexual assault cases. But it also lobbied and met with lawmakers and worked with former prosecutors and defense attorneys to craft new legislation that would close the Schneider loophole once and for all. “Once we started looking,” said Isaac, “we realized that basically this exact same loophole exists all over the country.”
House Bill 14 was introduced into the Alaska Legislature in February. The bill expands the definition of sexual contact to include “knowingly causing the victim to come into contact with semen.” It also makes strangling someone to the point of unconsciousness first-degree assault, as well as an aggravating factor in sentencing, and it stipulates a defendant can’t receive credit for time on house arrest or in treatment if convicted of a sex offense. Finally, it dictates that prosecutors must confer with sex offenders’ victims to determine, and subsequently notify the court, whether the victim is happy with any plea agreement.
After the bill passed the state House in April, all 20 Alaskan senators unanimously voted on May 8 for the bill to become law. Matthew N. Shuckerow, press secretary for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, told BuzzFeed News, “While a date has not yet been chosen, Gov. Dunleavy looks forward to signing this legislation in the near future.”
State Sen. Peter Micciche, a Republican who was one of the bill’s bipartisan sponsors, said in a statement that it would remove “every aspect of the Schneider loophole.”
“If this bill were in place two years ago, Justin Schneider would be in prison today,” Micciche said, “and the victim would have known that Alaskans will not tolerate free passes to violent sexual predators.”
Although he still maintains that prosecutors could have brought charges against Schneider, Jim Davis, Lauren’s attorney, is also relieved the bill passed. “I think it’s important to close the loophole so the next DA next year or two years from now doesn’t have the same excuse,” he said.
Allen, the former Anchorage DA, acknowledges the system let Lauren down. “She was the victim of such a horrible crime, such a horrible act, and then the fact that the law did not allow her perpetrator to be fully held accountable is insult to injury,” he said. “I feel terrible about that, and I think anybody who has had anything to do with this case feels the same way.”
But he said he hopes she knows that — because of her courage in speaking up — laws in Alaska have improved.
“This may be bigger than even Alaska,” he added. “Other states may pick up on this and make similar law changes, because I’m confident that this loophole that exists here exists in many, many other states, if not most states. So this could lead to change that could benefit people all around the country.”
Lauren’s life has mostly been on hold since the attack. She stopped studying and working and has focused on rebuilding herself. She had dreams of becoming a massage therapist and had briefly studied it down in the Lower 48. “Ever since I was younger, my mom would make me rub her back and rub her feet,” she said. “I’ve always been told I’m good with my hands.” Ever so slowly, she’s toying with the idea of going back to school.
She befriended Elizabeth Williams after the DA got in touch to let her know that No More Free Passes had set up a GoFundMe to assist her. It was Elizabeth who put her in touch with Jim Davis and his law firm, which has been representing her pro bono. Together, they filed a civil lawsuit against Schneider in November seeking damages for assault. “It ain’t going to make him go to jail or make you feel great at the end of the day,” Davis said he told Lauren, “but it will do something more than us just saying, ‘Oh well, we’re powerless. I guess he got away with one.’”
Through his lawyer, Schneider declined to speak with BuzzFeed News for this story. In his response to the civil suit, filed in December, he denied that he had tricked Lauren to convince her to enter his car or that she became unconscious during the assault. He did, though, admit to “tackling, strangling, and ejaculating” on her. He also admitted that his “extreme and outrageous conduct” had caused Lauren “severe physical injury and emotional distress.” They settled the case on May 17 under confidential terms.
Lauren hasn’t yet sought professional counseling to help in her recovery — she said she finds it hard to open up to strangers — but said her girlfriend has acted as a de facto “personal therapist.” (Lauren said she doesn’t identify with a particular sexuality but, rather, as a “lover.”) They met years ago but reconnected in January 2018 and have been together ever since. “She’s amazing,” Lauren said. “She’s been by my side since day one.”
Focusing on other positives, like the legal changes her case has sparked, has also helped. “I’m just glad it’s changing now,” she said, “and for the next person it happens to, they don’t have to go through their predator getting off like that.”
After coming face-to-face with death, she’s slowly making a plan for the rest of her life.
It’s a simple plan, but it’s a start.
“Just trying to be a happy me, because that’s been hard,” she said with a sigh. “Just trying to be the best person I can be and live the best life that I can.” ●