Rape charges dropped against Duluth caregiver

21 July 2023

DULUTH Charges have been dropped against a caregiver who was accused of raping a vulnerable adult at knifepoint earlier this year.

The St. Louis County Attorney’s Office in late June dismissed the criminal complaint against Martin Jermaine Billue Sr., citing “the interest of justice.”

Billue, 51, had been charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping and second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon for allegedly brandishing the knife while sexually assaulting the 70-year-old woman with mobility issues.

The defendant had been working for startup company Papa Inc., which connects elderly and disabled clients with “Papa Pals” independent contractors who are able to accept jobs that involve providing companionship while helping with household tasks and shopping.

“After charges were brought, law enforcement’s investigation continued, and exculpatory information was discovered, which weakened the strength of the state’s case to the point of it no longer being viable to sustain criminal litigation,” prosecutor Alexander Saumer told the News Tribune.

Exculpatory evidence refers to information that tends to exonerate or otherwise prove favorable to the defense at trial. Saumer did not elaborate on the new evidence that was received.

The case, nonetheless, has played a role in a wave of scrutiny on Papa, a rapidly growing gig economy platform for eldercare services that is perhaps most akin to Uber’s role in the taxi industry.

A recent Bloomberg Businessweek investigation found dozens of complaints involving allegations of sexual harassment and assault by both clients and contractors, and the case also was cited in a letter to Papa from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, chairman of the Special Committee on Aging.

“Although the criminal charges were recently dismissed, court documents make clear that a serious breach of professional and ethical standards nonetheless took place,” Casey said of the Duluth case.

Alleged victim said suspect ignored pleas to stop

Court documents indicate the woman reported the alleged assault to police on Feb. 2, three days after the incident, explaining that the delay was because she was afraid she could lose her housing if found to be unable to live on her own.

The alleged victim told investigators that her social worker had helped her arrange additional care services through Papa, but was initially hesitant to allow Billue into her East Hillside house as she has had stalking issues with men in the past and believed a woman was supposed to assist her.

She told police that Billue assisted her with some household tasks and took her shopping, but she found it odd that he was not wearing a name tag, changed clothes at one point and did not assist with carrying her bags.

The woman, who uses a walker or wheelchair, said she asked Billue to put away clothes in a spare bedroom when he called for her. According to the complaint, she found him with his genitals exposed and holding a knife in his hand.

She went on to tell officers that Billue forcibly ripped off her clothes and raped her, ignoring her pleas to stop as she experienced pain. Before leaving, he allegedly took a shower and told the victim to call Papa and request that he be sent to her residence again.

Officers said she was still wearing torn pants and noted she was able to provide a detailed description of Billue, including unique tattoos on his body. Police reports say she was brought to a hospital for a sexual assault exam, with staff noting bruising on her legs indicative of an assault.

Billue told police sex was not ‘against her will’

Billue, when interviewed by police, said the woman’s story “was false unless she might have changed her mind. A transcript indicates an investigator asked if she “wanted it at first but changed her mind in the middle of it,” to which the suspect responded: “That’s the only explanation there could be.”

Police described Billue as “cryptic,” repeatedly dodging questions about what exactly had occurred on Jan. 30, though he never denied engaging in sexual intercourse with the woman.

“Billue stated he did nothing to her against her will,” a police report notes. “Billue stated he was never under the impression she was unhappy until now.”

Billue admitted placing a knife on his belt at one point, but denied that he ever threatened her. He claimed the client had asked him to take photographs of some knives and other antiques that she wanted to list for sale; the alleged victim denied that and told investigators she suspected he wanted to steal items of value.

The interview transcript indicates Billue also told officers several times that the alleged victim had contacted him after that day and had wanted him to return to continue providing at-home caregiver services.

The woman also denied that claim, according to the police reports. Billue stated he had deleted her messages from his phone as he did not want his significant other to see them; the client showed officers her phone, which did not list any calls to the suspect.

The police reports indicate officers were preparing to analyze phone records from both parties; those results were not included in the reports that have been filed in court.

Joy Beitzel, an attorney at the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, is representing the woman in a harassment restraining order case against Billue. She said she could not comment on the specifics of the case but noted civil matters have a much lower legal burden than criminal prosecutions.

“I’ve had cases where parties successfully get a protective order when they did not receive what they were looking for from the criminal justice system in terms of prosecution,” Beitzel said.

“I’ve also heard prosecutors tell survivors, when they’re either dismissing a case or declining to charge a case, that their decision isn’t to say they don’t believe the survivor. It’s just that they believe there are enough facts in the case to create a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury, so they use their discretion to not push it to trial.”

Company changes practices amid scrutiny

Papa founder and CEO Andrew Parker has since “had several conversations with the member and has offered her all the help and support we can,” a spokesperson told the News Tribune.

The company added that it has “fundamentally reviewed and revamped our screening process to immediately begin going above and beyond the industry standard” after its previous background check vendor failed to flag a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction that should have prevented Billue from ever being hired.

Billue, who also had several drug convictions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was fired by the company upon his arrest.

Bloomberg in May reported that it reviewed more than 1,200 confidential reports logged by the company over four years and found an array of complaints. An unsafe work environment was cited in 18% of sampled complaints, sexual harassment in 8% and theft in 5% of cases.

Casey’s July 13 letter, which cited both the News Tribune and Bloomberg stories, asked Parker to address “troubling allegations about the company’s clients receiving inadequate care and being subject to abuse.”

“With the increasing demand for home care services to enable older adults and people with disabilities to live at home, service providers must ensure they are offering their clients the opportunity to live safely,” the senator wrote. “Similarly, care workers deserve to be treated with dignity. The allegations of abuse by both Papa care workers and clients, as well as the lack of training and oversight to prevent and address future problems, raise deep concerns.”

Papa last week announced new trust and safety measures, with company officials saying they are “engaged in discussions with Sen. Casey’s staff and are fully cooperating to gather requested materials, answer all of their questions and organize a meeting.”

The spokesperson indicated there have been more than 1.6 million visits conducted through the platform, with only 0.1% resulting in a member-reported safety complaint. The statement added that visits are monitored through real-time geolocation technology and a team “investigate(s) each and every concern raised to us.”

“Complaints are not something we hide,” the statement said. “We are fully transparent with our clients, as required by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) regulations. Papa sends any and all complaints to the affiliated plan within 24 hours, and then re-reports upon resolution of the incident.”


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