After a four-day trial and just two hours of jury deliberation, Christopher Tarpey was found guilty of first-degree sexual assault for raping a 24-year-old Jackson woman on July 23, 2020, two months after she moved to town.
The case was tried in the Ninth Judicial District Court in Jackson by a 12-person jury and made public via an audio live-broadcast on the Wyoming Judicial Branch website. Due to COVID-19 concerns, in-person attendance was limited. But the public could tune in to listen to the trial.
Few sexual assault cases in Jackson make it through to trial, but due to the first-degree charge and the strength of the evidence, the state did not offer the defendant a plea deal and moved forward with the criminal trial. During the testimony, listeners heard graphic accounts and had a taste of the resort town’s party culture.
Teton County and Prosecuting attorney Erin Weisman and Chief Deputy Prosecutor Clay Kainer argued the case, based largely on the victim’s testimony, initial police report and sexual assault examination.
“This case is about what Christopher Tarpey the defendant did to [the victim]. What he did to her and what he said to her that morning after the assault in a text,” Weisman said in opening remarks. “The defendant forced her to have sex with him.”
Tarpey, 31, pleaded not guilty to the charge in March. The former bartender was fired from his position at Moe’s Original Barbeque in Jackson after the victim’s allegations were made public, Tarpey said at trial. He denied many of the allegations when he took the stand, and his legal team, led by Dick Mulligan, called the verdict disappointing.
Two threads of text messages — one before Tarpey went to the victim’s house, and one the following morning after he left — provided the core evidence in the case. Screenshots of the text threads, which the victim read aloud from the stand, were shown in court.
Because only audio was provided to the public and the media, the exact phrasing of the texts was difficult to follow.
From their first texts, it’s clear the two wanted to hang out, but there was confusion about where. The victim sent her address to Tarpey several times.
She said in court that the topic of sex had not come up that day when the pair were with friends at Encounter Hat Shop, Miller Park and the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. At each of these locations there was drinking, and at the time the messages were sent, around 2 a.m. July 23, 2020, both were intoxicated, according to their court testimony.
Before Tarpey came over, the woman sent a message: “Hahahahaha I don’t want to have sex, but we can watch a movie.”
In court she testified that she wanted to set a clear expectation after flirtation earlier in the day.
After more back and forth texts about bringing weed and watching a movie, Tarpey wrote a key message: “You better be naked when I come in.”
On the witness stand, Tarpey said he meant it as a joke. But prosecutors framed that text as the first indication of aggression. In her testimony the victim said she “didn’t take it seriously.”
She texted back “lol naked.”
When Tarpey eventually arrived at her house, the details of what ensued vary greatly between the two accounts.
Warning: The following account includes graphic details. The victim’s explicit texts were key to the case. We want readers to understand the specifics of what the jury wrestled with in coming to this conviction. — Ed.
From the victim’s perspective, which prosecutors were trying to prove, Tarpey was confident and controlling from the onset. She said she led him to her bedroom, but all she wanted to do was watch a movie and smoke weed, which she had outlined in her text to him. On the stand, she described how she shared a home with five roommates and how the common areas were rarely used. Once in her room, she said, Tarpey undressed himself and forcefully removed her clothing, then asked her to perform oral sex on him. Then he hit her right cheek with his open palm twice and told her to “take it, bitch,” as he forced himself on her.
Tarpey was stronger and bigger than the victim, who weighed 113 pounds at the time. She asked him to put on a condom, but he refused, saying he would finish inside her.
The victim testified that she was terrified, and that she continued to have sex with Tarpey so that he wouldn’t hit her again.
Those details were corroborated by the victim’s initial report to police on July 26, which was taken over the phone by Jackson police Lt. Russ Ruschill.
Reports are typically made in person at the police station, but the victim said she was nervous to go there, and Ruschill wanted her to feel in control. He used his body camera to record audio from the emotional call, which was played as evidence during the trial.
When Tarpey told his side of the story, it was a consensual encounter.
There was nowhere to sit other than on the bed, he said in testimony. Eventually they started kissing and fondling, and “one thing led to another.” They undressed together, he said, and he didn’t force her into any position. He described a sexual encounter that was full of jokes and laughter. He said she never told him to stop.
Ultimately the question the jury was asked to answer was whether the sex that took place that night was consensual or not. In his instructions to jurors, presiding district Judge Timothy Day explained consent must be given voluntarily, not under threat of violence, and that submission alone does not constitute consent.
Much of the damning evidence in the case came from a second string of texts, which were exchanged the morning the pair separated.
In the messages the woman laid out a series of allegations: First, “You need to understand that I said in writing and out loud I do not want to have sex with you. I wanted to get high and watch a movie.”
The text thread continued: “I asked you to stop fingering me multiple times. I literally was giving you head so that you wouldn’t f--k me or hit me in the face again … I was uncomfortable and not in control.”
In response, Tarpey texted: “So sorry.”
Then, “That’s not who I am, I promise … I was really drunk.”
The prosecution noted repeatedly the lack of any sort of rebuttal or denial of the allegations in Tarpey’s text response.
In testimony Tarpey maintained he was “shocked” and confused by the messages, which he was reading and responding to while at work.
Tarpey didn’t have to testify but he agreed to after hearing the victim’s testimony. When he was directly questioned by his attorney, Mulligan, he denied nearly every one of the victim’s claims.
Mulligan ended his line of questioning by asking Tarpey about his arrest, which came while he was visiting family in South Carolina. The defendant recounted how he went to care for his father, who was battling cancer. On Dec. 25, 2020, Christmas Day, Tarpey’s father died. Just four days later the defendant was taken into custody at the Charleston County detention center under a felony arrest warrant.
Recounting that narrative in the courtroom late Thursday, Tarpey paused for nearly a minute to stifle tears. Then, Mulligan yielded the floor and the prosecution took over for its cross examination.
Prosecutor Kainer was forceful and quick in his questioning, but the defendant didn’t yield.
“Mr. Tarpey, are you left-handed?”
“What hand did you hit [the victim] with?
“I did not hit [the victim].”
The state pushed Tarpey on several allegations, ending questions with “didn’t you?” but the defendant simply responded with “I did not.”
At that point the prosecution had already brought two expert witnesses forward to testify on the victim’s behalf. The first was Matt Gray, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Wyoming, who explained common misconceptions surrounding sexual assault.
“The general public is not well-informed about sexual assault and trauma, likely because many experiences aren’t shared,” he said, explaining that sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime.
People assume the victim would scream, fight or run, but freezing up is a completely normal response, the professor said. He blamed such assumptions largely on media portrayals of sexual assault which often lead to “rape myths,” and “victim blaming.”
The day after the trial ended, Weisman commended the victim’s bravery.
“She came forward, she reported the sexual assault, she did what so many victims are not able to do,” Weisman said, “which is to report the assault, and then stay in it for the long haul.”
The other state witness was a certified sexual assault nurse examiner who administered a rape examination on the victim four days after the assault.
In court the nurse showed notes from her examination, including several injuries she noted. First, there was bruising on the back of the victim’s thighs, a detail that aligned with her description of Tarpey holding her legs down while she straddled him. There was bruising on her face, where she said Tarpey hit her twice with the palm of his hand. There was also a scab on her ear, where Tarpey allegedly bit her.
All of this was entered into evidence for the jury.
In closing arguments the defense did its best to counter both state witnesses. First, Mulligan summarized the professor’s testimony as “anything can be a normal reaction to a sexual assault.” In the original testimony, the professor said, “I wouldn’t go that far.”
Mulligan also challenged the nurse — and the broader sexual assault examination process — by stating that the nurse was working with a “confirmation bias.”
As a matter of practice, nurses ask patients to recount their assault in order to best tailor the examination.
Mulligan questioned why the nurse hadn’t asked the victim about the day leading up to her assault. By only focusing on the actual incident, Mulligan argued the nurse took a “myopic view.”
During the trial both the prosecution and the defense took its witnesses through a detailed account of the day leading up the assault, including one instance in which both did a line of cocaine. The defense questioned the victim’s credibility, arguing she lied to Ruschill about her employment and drug history during the phone report. Ultimately it’s unclear how much bearing those details had on the jury’s decision, as they focused on the question of consent.
On Monday afternoon the 12-person jury, made up of 10 men, mostly white, and two women, assessed the facts of the case and found Tarpey guilty of first-degree sexual assault, what’s commonly called rape.
Following the verdict, most jurors declined to comment, but one told the News&Guide he felt sick to his stomach, both with the details of the case and responsibility of conferring guilt.
“It definitely weighed on all of us a lot,” said another juror who had lost sleep thinking about the trial. At just 19, that juror was barely eligible to serve on a jury and said he never expected to be chosen.
But despite his discomfort “condemning” Tarpey, he was confident the jury made the right call, citing instructions from Judge Day that outlined the nature of the law and made it clear which actions from Tarpey warranted a guilty verdict.
When Clerk of District Court Anne Sutton read the verdict aloud, Tarpey hung his head in his hands, emotional in a courtroom video feed provided to the News&Guide exclusively for the verdict.
Due to a technical error, the audio cut out shortly after Sutton announced the adjudication, but in a call with the News&Guide she said there was no further explanation of the jury’s decision. Prompted by the defense, she asked each juror to confirm their vote, which they did.
Tarpey was put in handcuffs by a sheriff’s deputy and remanded to custody in Teton County Jail. His sentence will be set by Judge Day at a later date, following a monthslong presentence investigation report. First-degree sexual assault carries a sentencing range of a mandatory minimum of not less than 5 years and not more than 50.
The victim and her family were advised not to comment to the News&Guide before sentencing, according to a family friend familiar with the case.
“I hope [this conviction] sends a message to victims and the community that you can speak up, and people will hear you and you will be believed,” Weisman said.
This article has been updated to correct the sentencing range for first-degree sexual assault. — Eds.