An Idaho officer was charged with rape, died by suicide. Now the victim is suing

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic details of a sexual assault account.

An Idaho woman who was incarcerated at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center has sued the state’s prison system over allegations it “grossly failed” to protect her from a former correction officer who admitted he sexually assaulted her in November 2021.

The lawsuit accused Idaho Department of Correction Food Service Officer Derek Stettler of sexually battering the 37-year-old woman after he backed her into a bathroom corner and forced her to “perform oral sex” on him, according to the 11-page complaint. In an interview with Idaho State Police, Stettler said he sexually assaulted the woman, according to records.

“I know all about (the Prison Rape Elimination Act) and all that. I really f****d up,” Stettler said in an August 2022 interview with state police. “I know there is no consent, it does not exist, and even if they want it and signed a contract, (it) is still a no.”

Under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, individuals who are incarcerated within state prisons or county jails cannot consent to sexual contact, so any form is considered sexual abuse.

It wasn’t until November 2022, after an investigation by Idaho State Police, that numerous felonies were filed against Stettler: three counts of sexual contact with an adult inmate and one count of rape, online court records showed.

Police reports filed by Idaho State Police, and obtained by the Idaho Statesman, detailed a monthslong investigation into the accusations against Stettler — with several people telling law enforcement that he wasn’t the only employee accused of inappropriate sexual conduct.

A month after the Bannock County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office brought the felonies against the 42-year-old, Stettler killed himself in December 2022. The woman filed the lawsuit against the Idaho Department of Correction, the women’s prison and Stettler’s estate nearly a year later.

“While IDOC officials may have limited control over which inmates are assigned to them at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center,” Meridian-based attorney Susan Mimura wrote in the lawsuit, “they have absolute control over which employees they elect to hire and to place in the facility with the inmates.”

At least 2 others accused of sexual contact

The lawsuit was also filed against correctional officer Jessica Urban for failing to report the allegations. In the state police reports, Urban said she witnessed Stettler acting inappropriately with the woman after Urban told him to stop and spending time with the victim alone. Other prisoners reported to Urban that they were uncomfortable with Stettler, she said.

“Despite the information known or reasonably should have been known at the time, Jessica Urban failed to report the inappropriate conduct in a timely manner,” the lawsuit said, accusing her of violating federal law and the agency’s policies.

In the state police reports, Urban said that while she didn’t immediately report the allegations, by August 2021 she had reached her “breaking point” and had started documenting Stettler’s interactions. She added that she also told her supervisors but felt as if she was the “only one” who cared about Stettler’s actions, the reports said.

“She expressed that her concerns were going nowhere,” one report said. “She felt they completely blew it off.”

Urban, who remains employed by IDOC, declined to comment to the Statesman for this story.

At least two other employees were accused of having sexual contact with women incarcerated at the prison, according to the police reports, one of whom was accused of covering for Stettler while he assaulted the plaintiff — with Stettler then doing the same for him.

Both of those men left the agency last year, but it’s unclear why. A spokesperson for the state’s prison system declined to comment, citing an exemption in Idaho’s Public Records Act for personnel records and providing only the date the men left their jobs. Neither has been charged with a crime.

“We have zero tolerance for sexual abuse and harassment, and all reports are investigated,” IDOC spokesperson Sanda Kuzeta-Cerimagic told the Statesman. “These investigations are important to uncover wrongdoing and/or exonerate individuals who are wrongly accused.”

‘It felt like rape’: Police reports detail assault

From May to October 2022, investigators with Idaho State Police looked into the allegations against Stettler, and interviewed several employees and women at the prison after IDOC asked for the investigation.

In an interview with police, the woman who sued said she’d known Stettler since 2015, when she was in prison on a different charge, according to the reports. But it was when she was back at the East Idaho prison in August 2021 that things “started to escalate,” the reports stated.

The woman, who worked in the prison’s kitchen under Stettler’s supervision, told state police that she felt “obligated” to do whatever Stettler wanted because of his position within the department, the reports said. She added that she didn’t know whether Stettler would retaliate against her if she resisted but that the “not knowing scared” her, given that IDOC employees had the power.

One day in November 2021, the woman said in state police reports that she was replacing toilet paper in the employee bathroom when Stettler followed her. She told police that Stettler unbuttoned his pants, pulled out his penis and told her to come over. She said she responded, “Are you … kidding me?” but performed oral sex on him.

Asked in her interview with law enforcement what her feelings were afterward, she replied that “it felt like rape.” She said after that incident, Stettler would come up behind her and “feel her up,” and she would tell him that she didn’t want him touching her. By March 2022, the woman said, someone had informed superiors about Stettler’s actions because he was “being weird” when they worked together in the kitchen, according to the reports.

She was transferred to the South Idaho Correctional Institution near Boise that same month. According to the reports and IDOC, Stettler was placed on suspension sometime after the woman’s transfer and left the department in May 2022 — when state police began their investigation.

Kuzeta-Cerimagic declined to say whether Stettler was fired or resigned from the department.

IDOC says it added staff presence and cameras

During their investigation, state police obtained several letters Stettler had sent the women, including one in which he’d ejaculated and wrote, “I left you something,” according to the reports. State police as part of their investigation took DNA samples of the inside of Stettler’s mouth, though it’s unknown whether they matched the DNA to the letter before he died.

Stettler and several others incarcerated at the Pocatello facility told police during the investigation that there were areas in the kitchen that were “blind spots” for the security cameras. The reports said Stettler admitted in an interview with police that he’d told the woman not to do anything “unless they were in those blind spots.”

Following the investigation, IDOC — with the help of a $33,000 federal grant — purchased and added cameras to address coverage issues at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center and the Idaho State Correctional Institution, according to the department and an annual PREA report. The cameras were added in November 2022.

Kuzeta-Cerimagic said in an email that prison officials also increased staff presence and the number of random checks in the kitchen. They’ve also continued to re-educate staff on how to “identify red flags and provide appropriate guidance and resources to residents,” she said.

“When wrongdoing is uncovered, we take a particular interest in learning how to prevent a recurrence of similar behavior in the future,” Kuzeta-Cerimagic said, adding that a review by the department “highlighted some areas for enhanced monitoring and security.”