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IOWA CITY — A report of sexual assault at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at the University of Iowa that spawned widespread protests earlier this fall now is at the center of a lawsuit seeking enough money to “satisfactorily punish defendants and provide future deterrence to others.”
In the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Johnson County District Court, UI student Makena Solberg — who names herself in the filing — reports being sexually assaulted by two members of the fraternity, which goes by FIJI, on Sept. 4 into Sept. 5, 2020.
Identifying in her suit the defendants as FIJI “members, directors or officers” Carson Steffen and Jacob Meloan, Solberg said she became unexpectedly ill during an “official and sanctioned Iowa FIJI fraternity event” at the house at 303 Ellis Ave. in Iowa City.
She sought help from Steffen, who offered her water and said she could come into his room to get it, according to the suit, which reported her illness “progressed quickly.” Stumbling as she followed, Solberg said he closed the door once they were in his room.
“Defendants Steffen and Meloan planned and conspired to lure plaintiff into one of their bedrooms at the residence and isolate her from her friend with whom she had come to the residence,” according to the lawsuit.
Solberg accused the defendants of engaging in sexual activity without her consent and while she was “in an intoxicated, physically impaired, and physically vulnerable state.” She said the men filmed or photographed the behavior and then shared the images among their fraternity brothers and a wider public, using “an app or group chat established and used for official Iowa FIJI communications among its members.”
Solberg said she initially left the house with no memory of an assault; and learned of it after her friends saw the circulating images and told her about them, the lawsuit said.
“Other members of Iowa FIJI, including but not limited to officers of Iowa FIJI, instructed those who had received the video or photographs to delete the material and to not report the incident, but instead to maintain silence and solidarity on the matter,” according to the court document.
Solberg reported the allegations to police, who investigated, according to separate court documents showing they executed a search warrant for the FIJI house and the two suspects. Those police documents align with much of the allegations in the suit.
Iowa City police have not filed any charges against the men. Spokesman Lee Hermiston on Tuesday told The Gazette the investigation remains active.
The lack of action after more than a year incited protests this semester that drew thousands to the fraternity house, the Pentacrest and the UI president’s house. Although most of the protests were peaceful, the first night brought widespread vandalism of the FIJI house, including overturned cars, spray paint and broken windows.
Solberg’s lawsuit identifies the two defendants as UI students. Both were listed in the UI directory earlier this semester, but were not Tuesday.
In addition to the two fraternity brothers, the lawsuit also names as defendants Mu Deuteron, the corporate entity under which FIJI operates; and the Phi Gamma Delta Educational Foundation, a nonprofit based in Kentucky. The suit accused them of — among other things — hindering the police investigation.
FIJI’s governing bodies should be held accountable for failing to supervise members and protect guests at the house, and for “directing their deletion to hide the acts, and instructing solidarity in silence to its members,” according to the lawsuit.
UI administrators since August 2020 have had repeated interactions with FIJI about violations, although none of the records provided to The Gazette involved allegations of sexual assault. Rather, the fraternity was sanctioned last fall for violating COVID-19 restrictions by holding impermissible gatherings — including in September 2020, at the time of the alleged assault.
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