The bite marks and bruises were still fresh on Abby Honold’s body when she learned that the man who’d raped her had been released from jail. Panicked, she called the investigator on the case. When he told her that charges wouldn’t be filed, she considered going home and killing herself — afraid her attacker would do it first.
The 19-year-old University of Minnesota junior did everything a rape victim was supposed to do. After she escaped, she immediately called 911. She went to a hospital for an exam. She reported everything that happened to her to the police. She agonized as she asked herself: How could there be no charges?
What she didn’t know was that there had been more than 1,000 sex assaults reported since 2010 to the Aurora Center, the school’s rape prevention and victim advocacy department, according to a Star Tribune review of the center’s reports. Yet, according to the Aurora Center’s director, Katie Eichele, the total number of rapists who had been prosecuted was zero.
Honold would spend the next year battling in hopes that her rapist would be held accountable. But even with the help of an attorney and a campus cop who took up the investigation after charges weren’t filed, her search for justice would prove traumatic.
‘Please let me go’
Honold was relaxing at a chilly outdoor football tailgate party in November 2014 when a friend introduced her to Daniel Drill-Mellum. She grew up in Bloomington as the eldest of six kids, with dreams of being a schoolteacher. Drill-Mellum was 22, a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, and a management student active in politics who’d interned with the offices of Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken.
Drill-Mellum noticed her drink was empty.
“You’re out of booze,” she recalled Drill-Mellum telling her. He asked her to come with him to his place to get more.
His apartment was just across the street. A mutual friend had told her that Drill-Mellum was gay, so Honold thought she had nothing to fear. But shortly after they were inside, she knew something was wrong. He went from room to room to make sure no one else was inside the apartment. He took a shot glass already filled with vodka and thrust it toward her. She blacked out. She awoke to him ripping her clothes off. She begged him to let her go back to the tailgate party. He threw her down and violently raped her.
She tried to get away, told him how badly she wanted to get back to her friends. But he grabbed her and raped her again.
She remembers his calm, detached demeanor during the rape. He got angry only when he saw her crying. After about 40 minutes, he let her go.
She called 911. Paramedics arrived. Police arrested Drill-Mellum and brought him to a station, where he told the investigator assigned to the case, Sgt. Tom Stiller, that the sex was consensual.
Stiller went to the hospital to interview Honold.
“I was begging him to let me leave,” she says she told Stiller. “I was saying ‘please, please, please, let me go.’ ”
A nurse conducted a sexual assault exam, forcing Honold to relive the details of the attack.
“What did you smell?”
Honold remembered the scent of his sheets as he held her down.
“What did you taste?”
That triggered a vivid memory of Drill-Mellum shoving his fingers down her throat. For the first time, Honold realized that he had ripped open a part of her mouth.
The nurse told Stiller that the injuries were some of the worst she had ever seen.
Even though Honold said Stiller told her the case likely wouldn’t go anywhere, with all of the evidence she went home that night believing Drill-Mellum would be charged.
The next day Honold got a Facebook message from a roommate of Drill-Mellum’s who also was a member of his fraternity.
“It would just mean a lot to hear your side of the story before you follow through with anything,” he wrote.
She called him and told him about the rapes. The conversation lasted about 5 minutes.
Fearful, Honold spent the next two days checking to make sure Drill-Mellum was still in jail. She was teaching preschool when she got an automated call from the county telling her that he had been released. Stiller called a few minutes later, and told her why Drill-Mellum would not be charged.
There was a tape of her saying the sex was consensual, Honold recalled Stiller telling her.
“That’s not possible,” Honold told him. “I would never say that.”
Forced to see him again
That night, Honold wrote a blog post.
“Do not trust the police if your rapist is a rich white boy who can afford an expensive lawyer,” she warned.
She named Drill-Mellum as her rapist, and asked anyone reading to send their stories to her so she could publish them. Responses soon came in. First there was the student who accused Drill-Mellum of raping her two weeks before Honold. She would learn about another student who accused Drill-Mellum of raping her in the summer of 2014, and another student who accused him of raping her in the laundry room of his frat house the week before he raped Honold.
Honold went to the campus sex assault center for help, where an advocate filed a restraining order against Drill-Mellum on her behalf.
Drill-Mellum’s attorney responded to the blog post by sending Honold a letter threatening to sue if she didn’t take the post down.
Honold realized that she needed a lawyer. She found Amy Isenor, a lawyer for Civil Society, a nonprofit that provides free legal advocacy for rape victims. Isenor helped Honold file a complaint with the U’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office, which launched an investigation. She got her first bit of good news in January, when the office told her Drill-Mellum was being expelled after finding him responsible for sexual assault.
But that comfort didn’t last long. Drill-Mellum appealed, which meant for the first time, she’d have to see him again for a hearing.
Back at school, Honold heard other students gossiping about the crazy girl who cried rape. Panic attacks forced her to drop out. The prospect of running into Drill-Mellum paralyzed her with fear. She would cry any time she needed to leave her apartment by herself. She couldn’t stop thinking about killing herself. She checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, where she was diagnosed with PTSD.
In March 2015, the U cut a deal with Drill-Mellum: Instead of going through with the hearing, he agreed to a suspension and ban from campus until 2025. Honold hoped she wouldn’t have to see him again.
Then Drill-Mellum appealed the restraining order, setting up a court hearing in April 2015.
Honold took anxiety medications to calm her nerves, but she still shook as she entered the courtroom. She kept her eyes down, careful not to look at Drill-Mellum. She broke down crying the moment she heard his voice, the first time since the rapes.
Then, she recalled momentarily looking up during the hearing and seeing him stare and smirk at her.
Though the judge continued the restraining order, when she went home that night, she couldn’t get that smirk out of her head. She again felt terrorized and considered suicide.
Isenor felt that there was only one option left to help her client.
Caught on tape
Kevin Randolph’s phone rang as he was reviewing cases. It was Isenor, wanting him to look into a rape.
About five years earlier, Randolph, a veteran of the U’s police department, made it his mission to specialize in investigating campus rape. He saw a need when the federal government began demanding that colleges respond more forcefully to allegations of sexual assault.
But the job frustrated Randolph. He’d worked more than 50 cases, but not a single one had resulted in charges. Too often he found the rape reports boiled down to he-said, she-said accusations that involved too much alcohol and too little evidence. Sometimes, it was difficult even for Randolph to determine who was telling the truth, let alone convince a jury of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Eichele of the Aurora Center is also frustrated with what she sees as a culture of victim-blaming on campus.
“These attitudes are embedded to those that are accountable for enforcing the laws and policies,” she said. “Law and policy is only as good as the people who enforce it.”
When Isenor called, Randolph didn’t think there was anything he could do for her. The rape happened off campus, which made it the Minneapolis Police Department’s case, and they’d closed it. Still, Isenor persuaded him to make a few calls.
The campus sex assault center couldn’t tell him anything about Honold due to confidentiality rules. But the center did tell Randolph that several women had come to report that Drill-Mellum had victimized them. None was willing to talk with police.
He read through Stiller’s report with the MPD and learned about a woman Stiller had spoken with who accused Drill-Mellum of raping her in high school. (The MPD declined to make Stiller available for comment.)
Randolph couldn’t understand why Drill-Mellum hadn’t been charged. Then an MPD officer told him there was a recording in which Honold said the sex was consensual.
“Sorry,” Randolph told Isenor. “There’s nothing I can do.”
But, through the U’s investigation, Isenor had obtained a copy of the recording. It was actually a video, she told Randolph, and it showed that there has been a terrible misunderstanding. If he watched it he would understand what really happened.
She e-mailed the video to him. Randolph watched as two of Drill-Mellum’s fraternity brothers, both of them his roommates, put an unsuspecting Honold on speakerphone and made a video recording of themselves as they spoke with her.
Honold was clearly shaken. Twice she told the fraternity member who first contacted her that Drill-Mellum had raped her.
“OK,” he said. “And then he, now, did you guys have consensual sex?”
Randolph, watching the tape, heard the fraternity member mumble the word “consensual.”
“Yeah,” she told him.
“You did?” he asked
“Yeah,” she said again.
Honold went on to tell the fraternity member that Drill-Mellum gagged her, then described that she had several injuries because the rape was so violent.
“What he did, obviously from what you explained, is terrible,” the fraternity member told her, “but I do want you to think about what the consequences [are] with him and his future. …”
When the tape ended, Randolph seethed. He believed that Honold had told the truth about the rape, and that Drill-Mellum’s fraternity brothers had helped set a rapist free.
“That flipped my switch,” he said. “And when you flip my switch, I’m not going to stop until you’re sitting in front of a judge.”
Neither of Drill-Mellum’s fraternity roommates responded to multiple requests by the Star Tribune to comment. They were not criminally charged in connection with the case.
Randolph reopened the investigation in April, but the prosecutor told him he’d need new evidence to bring charges. The next month, Randolph met with Isenor and Honold, who told him she thought the roommate had asked if she and Drill-Mellum had “actual sex” — not “consensual sex.”
Randolph got a search warrant for the file from the U’s investigation, and learned that the mother of another university student contacted the school and accused Drill-Mellum of raping her daughter during a 2014 Halloween party, one week before he raped Honold. Randolph called the mother, but she said her daughter was still too terrified to talk with police.
Randolph submitted the new information to the Hennepin County attorney’s office for charges in early August. But it wasn’t enough. The prosecutor wanted a second victim on record.
By then both Randolph and Honold had been told about at least a half-dozen other potential victims, most of whom had not reported their experience to the police.
Hopelessness, then hope
Honold returned to school that fall to try to resume a normal life, but her PTSD made her question whether she could ever be a teacher. She would get sick when she saw pictures on social media of Drill-Mellum hanging around campus. She still felt dogged by the gossip that she was lying.
“It felt hopeless,” she said. “I knew how violent [the rape] was, so it was so confusing to me that people would think I wanted that.”
There was nothing more Randolph could do. The case went cold.
Until Halloween, nearly a year after Honold was raped, when Randolph’s phone rang.
The student who accused Drill-Mellum of raping her in the summer of 2014 had just seen him at a Halloween party at his fraternity house. Furious, she called the student who had said Drill-Mellum raped her on Halloween 2014 — the same woman who was too afraid to come forward. They called Randolph, who sensed an opportunity to get enough evidence to bring charges. He asked them to go on the record.
“I know you’re upset because he’s controlling your life, he is walking around free after what he did to you,” he recalled telling them. “You have the power to change that. You have the power to take control over his life if you come in.”
About two weeks later, both students gave statements. Now Randolph had three victims on record. In December, the county attorney agreed to prosecute. To Randolph, justice was finally edging closer.
A tip and arrest
Honold’s phone rang on Christmas Eve.
“I have a Christmas present for you,” Randolph told her.
He told her that he had arrested Drill-Mellum at the Minneapolis airport that night.
She began sobbing.
“Is it wrong for me to feel good about this?” she asked him.
“No,” he replied. “This guy almost got away with ruining your life and the lives of so many others.”
Randolph had gotten a tip that Drill-Mellum, who was living in Australia at the time, planned to fly into Minneapolis on Christmas Eve for his sister’s wedding. After the plane taxied to the gate, Randolph and two other cops boarded. To make sure they had the right guy, they printed out a photo from Drill-Mellum’s Facebook page with him standing next to Gov. Dayton.
“Is this you?” an officer asked Drill-Mellum.
“Yes,” he replied.
Randolph and the other officers led Drill-Mellum off the plane in handcuffs.
After initially fighting the charges, Drill-Mellum entered a sex offender treatment program in May. He decided to plead guilty and appeared for sentencing in August.
Honold and the victim from Halloween 2014 looked on as Drill-Mellum finally admitted to raping them. They watched deputies handcuff him and lead him away to serve a six-year prison sentence. He will have to register as a predatory sex offender for the rest of his life.
In a statement, Drill-Mellum’s attorney, Debbie Lang, said he was “truly remorseful for his actions.”
“Dan and his family pray for healing for the women, their families and everyone affected by this situation,” Lang said.
After the hearing, Honold’s family and friends gathered around and took turns hugging her.
Then she saw Randolph. The two hadn’t spoken since Drill-Mellum’s Christmas Eve arrest. Without saying a word, they embraced and broke down in tears.
“Thank you,” she told him, “for not giving up.”