Minnesota woman speaks out about sexual assault: 'I wanted to take some control back'
“As far as this entire thing, I have had no choice. I had no choice at my house. I had no choice over the legal aspect of it in the court system,” said Heather McConnell of Pine Island, Minnesota.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Heather McConnell was sexually assaulted by Paul Gustine in front of her house the morning of May 3, 2021. Her children were home at the time.
Gustine pleaded guilty to one of his charges in Goodhue County related to this incident. Afterward, McConnell told the Rochester Post Bulletin that she wanted her story told. She wanted some control back.
She said that since she reported 74-year-old Gustine, she has not felt in control of anything. Not what the news reports. Not what the courts do. Not what people say about the assault.
“For the first few months, I didn’t want to leave my house. I was locking doors while I was home. I kept all the window shades closed,” McConnell said. “When I did go out of the house I would search the street for his car. I was constantly looking behind me.”
McConnell, who has known Gustine since she was 9, said she even went as far as memorizing his license plate so she could be on the lookout for him.
“How am I supposed to teach my children about the whole stranger-danger stuff and when to be hyper vigilant,” she said. “I am so paranoid about everything right now to the point where I don’t want to scare them.”
She said he’d recently started remarking on her body, but it was something she could usually walk away from.
But then Gustine arrived at McConnell’s Pine Island residence after finishing up his bus route for the Pine Island School District that May morning.
While standing in her doorway, he asked her about her business before he began to make comments about her body and he suddenly started grabbing his crotch, prompting McConnell to tell Gustine that she really needed to get her kids ready for the day.
At this point, Gustine grabbed McConnell’s chest. She pushed his hands away.
“Oh, please just let me touch them,” Gustine told McConnell, according to the criminal complaint.
McConnell repeatedly told Gustine “no” and that she was married and didn’t want him to do that.
After being told no, Gustine again grabbed her chest, this time as McConnell’s 9-year-old daughter rounded the corner and asked who Gustine was.
“This is Paul, he lives by Grandma and Papa,” McConnell told her daughter before turning to Gustine and again telling him she needed to get her kids ready.
After hearing this, Gustine continued to grab his crotch before deciding to leave and telling her not to tell anyone about what transpired.
The justice system
Gustine was charged in Goodhue County District Court the day after the sexual assault.
He submitted a plea agreement to the court Oct. 31, 2022, in which he agreed to plead guilty to a gross misdemeanor charge of fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct involving nonconsensual sexual contact. His plea agreement does not contain any negotiated settlement or even a mention of prison or probation for his guilty plea, and doesn't specify whether his other charges — fifth-degree criminal conduct involving lewd exhibition while minors under 16 were present, a gross misdemeanor and a misdemeanor indecent exposure — will be dropped.
One of McConnell's concerns is that Gustine won't be required to register as a predatory offender due to the low level of his charges.
Gustine's last day with the Pine Island School District was the morning of May 3, 2021, according to Pine Island School District Superintendent Tamara Champa. That is the same day as the assault at McConnell's home, but it is unclear whether Gustine's employment had ended before or after the incident.
"The School District did receive a complaint pertaining to Mr. Gustine," Champa wrote in an email to the Post Bulletin. "The School District investigated the report" but no discipline was enacted, she said.
The court proceedings leading to the guilty plea, lasting a year and a half, left McConnell with a sense of powerlessness.
Gustine had waived his right to a speedy trial, McConnell said, and in our justice system, survivors don’t have a say in that.
“It really felt like his lawyers were protecting him, and I have no direct protection,” McConnell said.
Gustine is set to be sentenced Jan. 5, 2023, more than 20 months since his assault on McConnell.
“Victims have rights within the court process, but it is still the criminal justice system,” Heather Kolling, outreach manager with the Hope Coalition, wrote in an email to the Post Bulletin. “Our current system holds that the crime occurs against the state, which can often leave the victim waiting for their opportunity to have a voice.”
So much of the Minnesota court system is dependent on decisions that the perpetrator makes that it can be very frustrating for survivors, Kolling wrote.
“Sexual assault is about power and control, so having the perpetrator still holding some of that power and control can be triggering for survivors navigating through the court system,” she wrote.
McConnell said she’s been a wreck for a week leading up to every court date and a wreck two weeks after. She said she was able to take care of her children but she felt detached from everything.
“That time was taken from me,” she said.
There were a few times that McConnell said she wanted to quit because it was too hard to keep getting court updates without a final resolution. The trauma surrounding the upcoming trial was compounded by the fact that this wasn't the first time she was sexually assaulted, though it was the first time she reported it.
Days before a trial was set for Gustine — and McConnell was set to testify against her assailant — he pleaded guilty.
“As much as I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to go through this, I felt like it was a big slap in the face,” McConnell said. “You went to the last minute, this was over a year and a half. You’ve had how many chances and now you’re going to plead guilty?”
News media portrayal of sexual assaults
The Post Bulletin article about Gustine's guilty plea uses the language “alleged” when referencing his crimes. News articles will often hedge language out of fear of defamation lawsuits or to avoid pointing a finger at an innocent person. Journalists often rely on court documents to provide facts for such stories.
This leads articles to have language in them that aren’t survivor-focused.
“Articles often include victim blaming statements — like if the victim had consumed alcohol, what the victim was wearing, etc. — but rarely focus on the perpetrator’s behavior. One can often see 'Victim was raped' as the highlight versus 'Perpetrator raped victim,'" Kolling wrote.
The use of “allegedly” in news articles sometimes reads as casting doubt on whether the perpetrator committed the act or not, according to Kolling.
“These seemingly subtle language changes are huge for victim-survivors as it shifts the focus from blaming the victim for the assault to the perpetrator,” Kolling wrote. “Rapists are the cause of rapes, not victim behavior.”
Survivors often have no choice when it comes to their trauma being reported for the world to see. Journalists will often attempt to mitigate any possible damage by leaving out identifying details.
In McConnell’s case, that meant not writing that her children were present at her home when Gustine sexually assaulted her. That fact was one of the first things she mentioned when she first spoke to the Post Bulletin.
Not having that control over her own story is what led McConnell to speak out about her case in the hopes that others do too.
“As far as this entire thing, I have had no choice. I had no choice at my house. I had no choice over the legal aspect of it in the court system,” McConnell said. “For me, it boils down to a control thing. I have felt so out of control this entire process that I wanted to take some control back.”
Kolling cautions that reporters should be mindful when contacting sexual assault survivors.
“Not all survivors will want their story told, and telling their stories can have consequences for survivors that I don’t think media always consider,” she wrote. “I have worked with individuals whose acquaintances have figured out they were victims because they recognized their partner as the perpetrator in a news piece.”
Readers will also comment what they think about cases, which can re-victimize survivors even further, according to Kolling.
“This article has been posted a few different times on Facebook and the thing that really gets me is it feels like some people are almost putting an age limit on it,” McConnell said. “He didn’t touch a child, what’s the big deal?”
These barriers to survivors telling their stories means they often only get told with a view from criminal proceedings, which often focus on the rights of the accused.
“For this survivor and many others, identifying themselves as the victim and telling their story about what happened to them can be very powerful and healing,” Kolling wrote. “I hope that more and more media are willing to report on sexual assaults with this victim-centered lens.”
Survivors of sexual assault can call the Day One Crisis line at 1-866-223-1111 or 612-399-9995 or find a local advocate on the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault directory .