Alleged sexual assaults in Alpena stir protests over punishments

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Event organizers Brett Heise and Brittany Szatkowski lead a group of about 60 demonstrators from Alpena City Hall on October 20.  They protested the light sentence of local athlete Tommy Hein, who got 90 days in jail after pleading guilty to felonious assault in a case where a local woman was allegedly raped by three local athletes.

Alpena — For two years this northern Michigan town has awaited the resolution of a 2016 sexual assault case that slogged through the courts.

Two teenagers had told police they were drugged and raped during raucous parties that overflowed with alcohol, drugs and sex.

The alleged assailants were three high school and former high school athletes whom residents described as “good kids.”

One victim’s family was already upset by the prosecutor’s decision not to charge one of the accused, Shane Dawson. Then, last month, a second man was allowed to plead guilty to a reduced charge.

Police mug shot of Tommy Hein, who was sentenced to 90 days in jail for felonious assault in a rape case in Alpena.

Tommy Hein, 19, was given 90 days in jail and will serve the time on weekends so it doesn’t interfere with his college classes. Nick Skaluba, 21, will be tried in February in Alpena County Circuit Court.

Residents were irate. About 80 people last month held a march and rally in downtown Alpena.

Among the demonstrators was one victim’s mother. She said prosecutors had asked her not to discuss the case, but after Hein’s sentencing she broke her silence to The Detroit News.

“We’re totally getting screwed,” she said. “It’s like she’s getting raped all over again.”

The News doesn't identify victims of sexual assault without their consent.

Police mug shot of Nick Skaluba, who is awaiting trial for two counts of drugging girls and two counts of criminal sexual misconduct.

Avance Devers, one victim’s friend, said the sentence made her feel embarrassed to be from Alpena.

“How Alpena is handling this is downright sickening,” she said.  

Alpena County Prosecutor Ed Black wouldn’t discuss the sentence. But he told a victim he needed to make a plea deal to get Hein to testify against Skaluba, who is accused of doing the drugging, the victim’s mother said.

A review of hundreds of pages of court records and court hearing transcripts shows why Hein’s testimony is critical in what is essentially a circumstantial case.

No drugs were found in the victims or the home where the parties were held, according to court testimony. No one saw Skaluba spike the victims’ drinks.

The prosecution is further hampered by conflicting accounts of the victims and witnesses, whose memories are clouded by drugs or alcohol or both, according to their testimony.

When Circuit Judge George Metz allowed the case to be bound over from District Court last year, he was blunt in describing the lack of direct evidence of drugging.

“I don’t necessarily disagree with (the defense) that the evidence in that regard is fairly weak,” he said. “The People would have some challenges to show some of the elements (of drugging).”

Speaking briefly to the paper, Black acknowledged the uphill battle he is facing.

“It’s a difficult case. That’s all I can tell you,” he said.

Parties stir accusations

The sordid story began in a home in downtown Alpena, a blue-collar town on Thunder Bay where employers include cement and wall panel plants.

When Dawson’s parents drove to California on a one-week vacation in July 2016, he held parties every night, according to trial testimony. The brick home, which is in a neighborhood of spacious houses, sits behind a hulking Episcopal church.

Dawson, Skaluba and Hein knew each other from hockey, playing together in high school or a local league.

At the time, Dawson was an Alpena Township firefighter, Hein had just finished his junior year of high school and Skaluba had enrolled, but never attended, Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, according to public records.

The trio invited other hockey players and women to the parties, telling them to bring their friends. Of the 23 people who attended, 15 were women, according to a written list Dawson gave police.

Awaking in a strange bed

On the morning after one party, a 19-year-old college student was confused when she awoke in a strange bed, she testified during a court hearing last year.

She was in the Dawson home. Next to her was a sleeping Skaluba, whom she had known from high school.

She said she was relieved she was still dressed, suggesting the two hadn’t had sex. It wasn’t until she got home that she realized she was no longer wearing underwear.

Not knowing how they ended up in bed, she asked Skaluba if they had sex. He assured her they hadn’t because he had “blacked out.”

After Skaluba drove the woman home, he told Dawson the two had, indeed, engaged in sex, Dawson testified at the hearing. Dawson said he was surprised. He asked Skaluba how he was able to do it.

“I gave her some stuff,” said Skaluba, referring to Xanax, according to Dawson's testimony.

The woman had arrived at the party with four friends around 9:30 p.m.

She and a friend were in the basement when Skaluba poured her two shots from a half-gallon bottle of Popov vodka, she testified. Then, in the kitchen, she had two more shots.

That’s the last thing she remembered before waking up beside Skaluba.

One of the victim’s friends, who also had several shots in the kitchen, later told the victim she also couldn’t remember anything after the drinks.

“We took a few shots up there (kitchen) and from that point on I literally have zero memory,” the victim said. “I’m not even exaggerating. Like I have zero memory.”

Allegation of assault

One night after the alleged sexual assault, a group of teens attended another party at Dawson’s home.

One of the girls invited by Skaluba was a 16-year-old he had met at a get-together earlier that month, she testified at the hearing last year. He told her she could stay the night.

When she arrived around 9 or 10, the well-mannered Skaluba, ever attentive, brought her bag to an upstairs bedroom.

During the party, the girl said she was the constant focus of attention of Skaluba, Hein and Dawson. The men kept trying to pull her away from the party to the porch, basement or upstairs bedrooms.

Skaluba also made sure she always had a drink in her hand, she said. He gave her a rum and Coke and two or three vodka and orange juices.

Skaluba was mixing the drinks in the kitchen, Dawson testified. In Skaluba’s pocket was a plastic bag with five Xanax pills, which he had bought before the party, Dawson said.

“I thought he was just being nice,” Dawson said.

The girl said she felt buzzed after the first drink, which normally didn’t happen when she drank alcohol.

During his questioning of the victim during the hearing, one of Skaluba’s lawyers suggested her condition may have been influenced by marijuana she had smoked before the party.

Between 11 p.m. and midnight, a friend helped bring the girl upstairs, where she lay on a bed and became sick, throwing up into a trash can.

Dawson, who was on the bed with her, groped her, she testified. She told him he wasn’t good enough for her.

Dawson said he never touched her, that he sat on the bed watching back-to-back episodes of "South Park."

Skaluba then walked into the room, scooped up the girl and carried her out, Dawson said.

“(He) picked her up like you’d carry a bride,” he said.

Skaluba told the girl he had saved her from Dawson, she testified.

The girl said she then slipped in and out of consciousness.

One time she awoke fully clothed, lying between Skaluba and Hein, with the two men fondling her.

The next time she awoke, she said, she was naked with Skaluba and Hein having sex with her.

Demonstrators gather on steps of Alpena City Hall in October to protest light sentencing in rape cases and to support rape victims.

Justice delayed?

After the two teens told police about the alleged assaults, it took two years for Hein to be sentenced.

During his sentencing in October, the 16-year-old victim complained about the length of the investigation.

She told the court she had spent her entire senior year attending the same high school as Hein. Then she spent the following year seeing him around their small town.

“I don’t think that was acceptable,” she said. “Is justice too much to ask?”

The straight-A student made excuses not to go to school, said her mother.

When asked why the investigation took so long, the prosecutor said authorities were hampered by witnesses reluctant to talk to the police.

“There were a lot of children at a party. Some want to tell the story, and some don’t want to tell the story. I’ll leave it at that,” Black said.

None of the party participants contacted by The News, including the two victims, wished to comment.

Punishment questioned

After receiving a warrant for bed sheets from his home, Dawson immediately cooperated with police, according to court records. He gave them a written statement implicating Skaluba in the alleged drugging and raping of the two teens.

Dawson was subsequently charged with furnishing alcohol to minors. His punishment was deferred.

He has since enlisted with the U.S. Air Force, according to military records.

Skaluba’s attorney, Dan White, said he was astounded Dawson was never charged, or even questioned, about his alleged fondling of the girl.

“So none of the officers asked you about it?” he asked Dawson during the hearing. “He (Black) never once mentioned that one of the witnesses said you assaulted her? Don’t you find that odd?”

Black, who has said there was no plea deal with Dawson, declined to discuss his treatment of the athlete.

As for Hein, he was originally charged with two counts of criminal sexual conduct, gross indecency and indecent exposure. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of felonious assault.

He was sentenced under the state Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, which allows the offense to be removed from his record when he completes his three-year probation.

He attends Alpena Community College, which is located next to the Alpena County Jail, where he spends weekends.

Before Hein’s sentencing, the prosecutor’s office said it had thoroughly discussed the punishment with the victim and she was OK with it.

But the victim’s mother criticized Black for meeting her daughter without her knowledge. The girl had gone to the prosecutor’s office after school.

“He had total disregard for me and my husband,” she said. “He brainwashed her. It’s nothing like I’ve seen before. There’s something wrong here.”

Black defended his dealings with the victim, who is now 18.

“She’s an adult,” he said.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell