A Shiprock man was sentenced this week by a Durango federal court for aggravated sexual assault near Towaoc in July.
Merle Denezpi was sentenced Monday to serve 30 years in prison and 10 years on supervised release by U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Blackburn. A federal jury found Denezpi guilty of the crime after a weeklong trial in Durango in March. He was indicted by a federal grand jury in June 2018.
According to court documents and facts presented during trial and at sentencing, Denezpi used physical force and death threats to sexually assault the victim. After the assault, he threatened the victim’s life if she reported the assault.
Denezpi fled from the scene by jumping out a second-story window when he saw police approaching the residence. He then hid underneath a bush for roughly 13 hours.
According to prosecutors, Denezpi said the sex was consensual.
A Sexual Assault Nurse Exam showed significant bruising and injuries to the victim. In addition, an FBI test revealed Denezpi’s DNA was present on the victim.
At trial and sentencing, Denezpi admitted under oath that he lied to federal agents when apprehended.
“Our office is committed to vigorously prosecuting crimes committed on the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation,” said U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn. “Mr. Denezpi wrongly believed that he could commit a violent assault, silence the victim with threats, and lie his way out of accountability. Thanks to the work of our prosecutors and law enforcement partners, he was proven wrong.”
The case was investigated by Bureau of Indian Affairs, with the assistance of its victim witness specialist. The defendant was prosecuted by assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeff Graves and Tim Neff.
According to a 2016 National Institute of Justice study, Native American women suffer violence at a higher rate than non-Native women. Study results show that 84.3 percent of Native American and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, compared with 71 percent of Caucasian women.
In September, the Department of Justice awarded $113 million in grants to tribes to improve public safety in Indian Country.
The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has been awarded a $1.6 million. Of that amount, $898,918 is for public safety and community policing and $748,013 was awarded to the tribe for justice systems and alcohol and substance abuse.
In addition, the Department of Justice is in the process of allocating up to $133 million in a first-ever set aside program to serve victims of crime in Native American and Alaska Native communities. The awards are intended to help tribes develop, expand and improve services to victims of crime by providing funding, programming and technical assistance. Recipients will be announced in the near future.
Victims of domestic violence can call a local hotline at 970-565-2100 for help.