In December 2015, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office embarked on a $1 million project to test 1,500 rape evidence kits that had been sitting on its shelves for as long as 40 years.
The initiative came on the heels of both state and nationwide efforts to test DNA in years-old rape cases. Similar efforts in other cities have led to dozens and even hundreds of arrests, giving victims long denied a chance at justice the opportunity to face their attackers in court.
As of March, nearly 1,000 rape kits had been tested, producing 140 DNA matches to suspects in a national crime database. The testing created dozens of new leads in unsolved cases yet many have since been closed and PBSO deputies have failed to make a single arrest.
A Palm Beach Post review of more than 1,200 pages of police reports also shows that deputies did not attempt to contact the victim or suspect in at least half the 82 cases with new leads. In 11 of those cases, investigators said the statute of limitations had expired, but in the vast majority, they made no such claim.
Several suspects in those cases went on to get arrested in other rapes while the kits containing their DNA collected dust. This includes a man who later was charged in the rapes of at least five women in Palm Beach County and a man accused of raping a woman who used a wheelchair just weeks before DNA from a 2012 kit linked him to the rape of a woman from Belle Glade.
Detectives declared 62 of the 82 cases with new leads inactive without ever contacting a suspect. That includes three men Post reporters easily found at their homes.
Detectives said they didn’t contact victims because in the days and hours following the alleged attacks, the victims had been either “uncooperative” or had signed paperwork declining to press charges. But in sexual assault cases, which hinge on a victim’s cooperation, advocates, prosecutors, defense attorneys and survivors themselves say using the victims’ decisions at the height of their trauma is wrong.
“You can’t assume the person’s frame of mind the night of the attack is the same five or 10 years later,” said Sharon Daugherty, outreach coordinator for Palm Beach County’s victims’ services center. “Their heads are spinning. They’re so traumatized they don’t know what to do.”
PBSO officials declined to answer The Post’s specific questions about why there have been no arrests and why so many cases remain inactive. In a written statement, approved by Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, officials said “there are good reasons” for detectives not to contact victims.
“These reasons have everything to do with our ability to move forward and prosecute their particular case,” Capt. Steven Strivelli wrote. “We at PBSO, Special Victims Unit, are being very careful not to unnecessarily re-victimize a sexual battery victim/survivor when there simply isn’t a good reason to, as some victims and their families become quite emotional upon contact from a detective.”
Strivelli said the department is still investigating “a number of cases.” The Post’s review showed 20 cases marked “active,” including one case that was closed but then reopened after the newspaper’s review began. The cases remain open even though in most cases the DNA matches were made a year ago or longer, the records show.
Detectives in some cases made no attempts to follow up on new leads until The Post requested the reports. In the most extreme case, detectives reopened the case nearly two years after PBSO received the DNA report from the crime laboratory.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, whose office is responsible for prosecuting the crimes, said bringing rapists to justice is one of his top priorities. But he declined to comment on the sheriff’s lack of arrests and failure to follow up on new leads.
“Our experience with PBSO has been that they’re a very professional organization that does great work,” Aronberg said. “As far as this issue, I don’t want to get involved with the inner workings of the agency.”
A ride, a cheeseburger and trauma
Just after midnight on the day before Thanksgiving six years ago, a woman standing outside Bobby’s Market on Third Street in Belle Glade accepted a ride home from a man in a gray Ford Focus.
The man introduced himself simply as “Isaac.” He let her stop at a McDonald’s drive-thru to order a cheeseburger and oatmeal. Then, she told police, the man drove her to a field near the Belle Glade Marina, got in the backseat with her and raped her.
Like women across the country who report rape, the Belle Glade woman in 2012 agreed to let hospital workers conduct an extensive physical exam to collect evidence from her body that might identify her attacker. But PBSO did not test that evidence until 2016, as part of its initiative to process backlogged rape kits.
In March 2017, detectives received a break in the case: The DNA evidence collected from her body matched Isaac Johnson, a man already in the national database of violent offenders. Moreover, it wasn’t too late to prosecute the case.
Yet detectives never attempted to inform the woman of the DNA match and to see whether she wanted to move forward with prosecution, a police report shows. Sgt. Mike Sclafani closed the case without any follow-up, writing, “This case will remain inactivated, as the victim was not cooperative.”
PBSO detectives had stopped checking on the case in 2012 after she, like many victims, stopped communicating. Before that, she was interviewed separately by a nurse and a deputy, who questioned why she didn’t scream, run away or fight off her attacker. The deputy noted in his report that she was yawning, looked bored and her clothes did not appear disheveled.
“He’s four times my size,” the woman told the deputy. “I couldn’t do anything.”
How is your TV dressed?
Such questions, said attorney Takisha Richardson, who until recently prosecuted rape cases as head of the Special Victims Unit of the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, are inappropriate in sexual assault cases and a sign of problems with “rape culture” across the nation.
Richardson, who now represents sexual assault victims in civil litigation for Cohen, Milstein, Sellers and Toll, remembered how she and other prosecutors illuminated prospective rape case jurors to the problem. She asked jurors to imagine they had gone home and found their television had been stolen.
Would an officer arriving at the scene ask them how the television was dressed? Would they ask whether the juror was sure he or she really didn’t want the thief to steal it?
“No, they would just start off by believing them,” Richardson said. “If someone snatched your purse and you could provide a description of who took it, law enforcement would be on the lookout. But when someone violates another person’s body, oftentimes we don’t put a value on that.”
Richardson said a few PBSO detectives assigned to tackling backlogged cases, including Sclafani, were among the best. But even she said a previous lack of cooperation should not stop deputies from attempting to contact victims when new leads arise.
“That’s not OK,” said Richardson. “You make the attempt no matter what.”
Woman in a wheelchair
The report also shows no indication PBSO attempted to contact Johnson, who just three weeks before the break in the Belle Glade woman’s case had been arrested on sexual battery charges.
A paralyzed woman told West Palm Beach police Johnson dragged her out of her wheelchair and raped her at the dead end of 20th Street just before 11 p.m. When the woman tried to scream, Johnson choked her and hit her head with his fists and a piece of wood, she told police.
Police photographed her injuries. Two witnesses said they heard someone yell: “Help! I don’t want to be raped.”
Johnson told police the woman was a prostitute and the sex was consensual. He said he heard the woman say “no” but thought it was because he hadn’t paid her yet and she wanted the money first.
The woman refused to get a rape kit examination, and Aronberg’s office declined to press charges.
“Although there was probable cause to make an arrest, the evidence cannot prove all legally required elements of the crime alleged and is insufficient to support a criminal prosecution,” Assistant State Attorney Lindsay Bruno wrote.
After someone is sexually assaulted, she or he has the option to go to a hospital or health facility for a free “rape kit” examination. It can include a test for sexually transmitted diseases, a pregnancy test and the collection of DNA evidence left behind by the perpetrator.
Evidence collection can be invasive. It involves getting poked and prodded in the same places where the person was violated. The examiner may collect biological samples, including blood, semen, urine and hair.
The evidence is placed into a box called a “rape kit” that is turned over to law enforcement if the victim chooses to report the rape to police. A crime laboratory can test the biological samples for DNA, which can be searched for possible matches against an FBI database of violent offenders called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.
Yet police agencies and crime laboratories across the country have allowed hundreds of thousands of rape kits to go untested for decades, denying justice to countless survivors while letting many accused rapists walk free.
Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation’s End The Backlog program, which aims to pass rape kit reform in all 50 states, said for decades the criminal justice system has “failed to take sexual assault cases seriously.” Sexual assault cases are not prioritized in funding, training, labs or prosecution, she said.
Kits went untested
An audit of Florida’s backlog published in January 2017 found more than 13,000 untested rape kits, including 1,800 in Palm Beach County dating to the 1970s. The audit was a driving force behind the Legislature’s enactment in March 2017 of a law requiring police to submit rape kits for testing within 30 days and crime labs to test them within 120.
The backlog in Florida built up in part because, until three years ago, PBSO and other law enforcement agencies had a practice of not testing rape kits unless they knew who the alleged attackers were and could get samples of their DNA to test against, several sources said. However, PBSO denies it ever had such a practice.
In fact, said Cecelia Crouse, who retired in May as PBSO’s crime lab director, PBSO had a policy since 1994 to test all rape kits.
Since 2010, Crouse said, nearly 30 percent of DNA reports from rape kits analyzed in the lab were in cases in which no suspect had been identified.
She did not address the backlog of untested rape kits.
While the Legislature discussed the bill in late 2015 and public support for it mounted, Bradshaw set aside $1 million to eliminate the agency’s backlog, Crouse said. The cost per kit, reports show, was at least $645.
Taking issue with this story after its publication Wednesday online, Crouse added: “The PBSO initiative team has spent thousands of hours locating, researching, evaluating, testing and reporting on the status of the (sexual assault) cases involved … for the purpose of showing good faith effort to address the past and move forward into the future.”
As of March, 994 kits had been tested, roughly a third of which contained useable DNA samples, PBSO records obtained by The Post show. PBSO searched those samples against CODIS and found 140 matches.
New lead, no follow-up
Although the cases were sometimes decades old, most contained supplemental reports from the past two years detailing the actions PBSO took after learning of the matches.
The supplements often listed the name and birth date of the suspect. All the victims’ names were redacted from public view, a requirement of state law.
In several cases, the DNA matches were of little value to PBSO because they matched men already known to deputies, including many who said the sex was consensual, and several men PBSO arrested at the time. In others, the victim or the suspect had died.
The Post identified 62 cases in which a DNA match created a new lead because the DNA matched a previously unknown suspect or one who had not claimed consensual sex with the alleged victim. PBSO stated in the reports that the statute of limitations expired in 11 of them.
Of the 62 cases, PBSO did not attempt to contact the victim in 40 and did not speak to any suspects.
In four cases, detectives followed up with the victims only after The Post began its review, even though records show PBSO had received reports from the crime lab roughly a year to two years earlier. One case status was changed to “active” only after The Post requested its supplemental report.
The most common reason PBSO cited for not following up on cases was that the victim had indicated years earlier, around the time of her rape report, that she did not want to participate in a criminal investigation, either by signing a “refusal to prosecute” form or losing touch with investigators.
Another reason cited by PBSO: The victim’s description of the suspect did not match the physical appearance of the person linked to the DNA. PBSO wrote in a few cases, for example, that the DNA identified a black suspect but the victim had described a Hispanic suspect, or vice versa.
“Absurd is the word to describe it,” said Daugherty, the victims’ advocate. Daugherty’s father sexually abused her for years as a child, she said, before she finally decided to press charges against him when she was an adult. “DNA or not, due process is vital to a victim’s recovery.”
Kat Duesterhaus, a volunteer for Palm Beach County’s victims’ services center, said in an interview with The Post that she was gang-raped in California at a party when she was 14. The first person she told about it, she said, blamed her because of the clothes she was wearing. After that, she didn’t want to discuss it with anyone, including police.
In the years following what she called the scariest moment of her life, Duesterhaus went through phases of promiscuity and cutting her hair and wearing baggy clothes. She became addicted to drugs and homeless. It took four years for her to talk about it.
“It’s not something you want to talk about again, and there’s often a backlash when you do talk about it,” Duesterhaus, now 32, said. “It’s difficult enough saying it in private, let alone to a police officer.”
While kit sits, suspects active
At about 4 a.m. in May 2008, a woman told a PBSO deputy she got in the car with a man in West Palm Beach on Dixie Highway and Florida Avenue. She said they were “having a good time” until he drove her to the remote end of 95th Avenue off of Lantana Road, where he beat and raped her.
The deputy wrote he was “unable to obtain much information as the woman was extremely belligerent,” noting in the report she appeared to be under the influence of a “narcotic substance.” A detective later wrote that the woman was “well known by road patrol units as a drug user.”
When the deputy pressed her for more details about the incident, she replied, “You can look in my pants to find it.”
When PBSO tested the woman’s kit nine years later, the DNA matched Colin Thompson. In the two years after the May 2008 incident, Thompson would be charged in five other rapes in Palm Beach County and investigated in several others, police records show. In each, Thompson offered the women drugs, got them into his car and drove to a secluded area, where he raped, choked and threatened to kill them, the women told police.
Thompson in 2011 pleaded guilty to sexual battery without force and attempted sexual battery in two cases from 2008 and 2009. He was sentenced to a year and a day in jail for each and released in 2011 after nine months, Florida Department of Corrections records show.
But Thompson died in 2015, and PBSO never attempted to inform the woman from the 2008 rape on 95th Avenue. Since public records don’t reveal her name, The Post couldn’t contact her.
Thompson is one of several suspects who got arrested for other rapes and violent crimes against women while rape kits containing their DNA sat on PBSO shelves.
The Post searched court records for 40 suspects whose names and birth dates were identified in cases with new leads and found at least a quarter of them had since been arrested in other sexual assaults. At least four were convicted, two in cases involving minors. Nearly half would be arrested for one or more other violent crime against women, such as domestic battery.
Dredging up bad memories
Although PBSO closed most cases without contacting anyone, in some cases detectives did reach victims. Some indicated they wanted to press charges, while others expressed frustration with the process or a desire to move on.
In one case, a 31-year-old woman, who was just 14 when she reported being raped 17 years ago, asked the detective who showed up on her doorstep last year “why I was at her house bringing this back up.”
She had a husband and daughter now, the woman explained. She told the detective to leave and not contact her again.
In another pair of cases, the same man’s DNA was linked to separate rape reports in 2009 and 2012. The woman in the 2009 case, who now lives in Virginia, initially told detectives she wanted to cooperate but stopped returning their calls.
The 2012 victim, who now lives in Houston County, Ga., also said she wanted to cooperate. But no PBSO detectives would make the eight-hour drive to see if the woman would pick the suspect out of a photo lineup.
They asked Houston County Sheriff’s deputies to do it. Officials there refused, saying it would cost too much to send an investigator to a trial in Palm Beach County if it came to that.
The PBSO detective texted the woman to see if she would come to Palm Beach County for an interview. She said she would call the next day but never did. Two months later, the woman’s mother told the detective her daughter no longer wanted to prosecute.
One way to help persuade women to talk would be to include a victims’ advocate when police reach out, several advocates said.
“You have to be very careful to take a trauma-informed approach,” Duesterhaus said.
The Joyful Heart Foundation study found that although some participants favored notifying victims only when their cases could progress with an arrest and prosecution, the majority “widely supported an approach that offers survivors the choice about whether and when to receive information about their cases.”
Though victims’ advocate Knecht has not personally studied PBSO’s case files, she said detectives should perhaps consider why so many victims do not cooperate with police.
“Many victims don’t come back to police because of how police treated them,” Knecht said. “Those are the people who are going to reject the system. They’re going to walk away.”
Miami-Dade tested all rape kits
Julie Weil, a rape survivor and advocate, said it is important for victims’ own healing to know their kits have been tested, even if their cases can no longer be prosecuted.
“If I don’t hear anything, I’m going to assume the cops didn’t find anything,” Weil said. “To find out your kit has been tested is huge.”
In 2002, Weil was getting into her van with her two kids outside a church in Miami when a man abducted them at knifepoint. He drove them to the Everglades, where he repeatedly beat and raped Weil while her 3-year-old and 8-month-old were in the van with them.
After a monthslong investigation, police in Miami found and arrested Weil’s attacker, who had been connected to several other rapes, including one in Virginia. Weil maintained that the only reason police found him is the Miami-Dade Police Department had a policy of testing all rape kits right away.
Miami-Dade was one of the first police agencies in Florida, if not the first, to test all rape kits. The main reason: To put the accused rapist’s DNA into the criminal database, even if it was not there already, should he be accused again.
Studies repeatedly have shown that a high percentage of rapes are committed by a small percentage of “serial rapists.” In a 2016 study, Case Western Reserve University researchers analyzed 243 rape kits from Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and found half were linked to serial offenders. Among them, 26 percent had been arrested on a prior sexual assault charge and 60 percent were arrested later in different sexual assault cases.
“A rapist is a rapist,” said Weil. “If you put those kits on a shelf and don’t test them, you’re going to miss a whole bunch of people who will go on to rape someone else.”
Suspects never contacted
Even when PBSO followed up with victims after years of inaction, detectives never spoke to the suspects.
Police typically do not interview rape suspects until after the victims confirm they want to move forward with prosecution, said Richardson, the former prosecutor. Otherwise, she said, suspects may assert their right to an attorney, in which case police can no longer bring them in for questioning without a lawyer present.
But only two cases reached the point where PBSO attempted to contact a suspect, reports show, and both attempts were unsuccessful.
In several cases, the victim told PBSO she wanted to reopen the case because of a DNA match but lost interest after deputies told her she would need to be reinterviewed, meet with a police sketch artist or pick the suspect out of a photo lineup.
Although Richardson said even a confession from a suspect does not guarantee a conviction from a jury, Daugherty and other advocates say police could try to talk to them or, if nothing else, put them on notice. If they’re guilty, they may think twice before raping again.
‘Do you mind if I go get my wife?’
The Post tracked down three men identified by PBSO as matches to DNA in backlogged rape kits. None said detectives contacted them about the match.
One of the suspects said he knew a woman had accused him of sexual assault nearly 20 years earlier, but he said it was a consensual encounter with a prostitute that ended badly. Another denied having any knowledge of a rape allegation against him, even though records from the time show he told investigators he had consensual sex with the woman.
And, from his home on the second floor of a Lake Worth duplex, Luis DeJesus stared at a pair of Post reporters in apparent disbelief when he heard that his DNA had been a match to a March 2000 case, in which a clubgoer told deputies she believed she was drugged then raped by a man in the backseat of a car.
Sclafani wrote in December 2017 that PBSO would need an additional DNA sample from DeJesus to confirm if the rape kit sample was indeed a match, but DeJesus said PBSO never contacted him.
“Do you mind if I go get my wife?” DeJesus asked the reporters.
Moments later, DeJesus and Gloria Rodriguez stepped outside and sat facing each other on a pair of patio chairs on their deck, where DeJesus described his life at the time as a haze of partying and club-hopping, including the same club where the woman said she met the man who raped her.
DeJesus and Rodriguez had been broken up at the time, a product of a “woman problem,” Rodriguez said. But Rodriguez also described DeJesus as a gentleman, raised as the only boy among several sisters. DeJesus said he remembered nothing about the alleged attack and knew of no rape accusations against him.
“All my sex is consensual,” he said.
DeJesus said what’s most frustrating is that his DNA was linked to a rape allegation unbeknownst to him. Deputies knew how to find him, he said. He believes local law enforcement has had samples of his DNA since he was 16, meaning an immediate test of the woman’s kit would have produced a hit.
“If they could have come to me I could’ve told them straight up, this is how it happened, this is what I did, this is what I didn’t do,” DeJesus said. “Now how am I supposed to even remember that night?”
Arrests coming soon?
PBSO investigators did not track down DeJesus but they indicated in the statement to The Post that they are taking action in other cases and starting a hotline.
“Some of these cases, I predict, will result in a positive outcome for the victims and the community,” Strivelli said,
in June, responding to an email from The Post presenting the newspaper’s findings.
Late Friday, two days after The Post story appeared online, PBSO said six open cases are nearly ready to be referred to prosecutors and one already has been referred and is awaiting an arrest warrant.
Even those who represent people accused of sexual assault say making contact with victims when a new lead arises is more than a courtesy. West Palm Beach defense attorney Jason Weiss said just the name of the suspect could empower a victim to expose a potential predator hiding in plain sight.
“If they (police) identify a person, then yes, they should say something,” Weiss said. “What if it turns out that it’s someone they (the victims) know or have come across later in life?”
Weiss added that victims’ testimony can be used as evidence in a later case with the same suspect if it helps establish a pattern.
This holds true in the case of Carlton Knowles, who in November 2017 was accused of raping a homeless woman at knifepoint in the woods across the street from a Goodwill store in Tallahassee. He was charged in February with sexual battery with a deadly weapon, pleaded not guilty and is in jail awaiting his day in court.
Twenty-three years earlier, a different woman, who was homeless, told police she had been raped by a man at knifepoint while spending the night in a women’s restroom at John Prince Park in Lake Worth. She told a PBSO deputy that before raping her the man put a paring knife to her neck and said “If you scream, I’ll cut your throat.”
The woman agreed to get a rape exam. She told a detective she wanted the man arrested but was afraid he might come after her again. The detective asked her to contact him the next day so she could identify the man in a photo lineup, but the woman never responded, and the detective couldn’t find her at the park.
In April 2017, seven months before the alleged Tallahassee rape, PBSO tested the DNA from the homeless woman’s 1994 rape kit. It matched Knowles, who had been included in the photo lineup decades earlier.
Yet PBSO chose not to contact the woman or Knowles about the DNA match, Sclafani wrote in the report, because the statute of limitations had expired and because the woman didn’t cooperate in 1994.
“The victim has remained uncooperative as she failed to make contact with the investigating detective,” Sclafani wrote in April 2017. “This case will remain inactive.”
What is a rape kit?
A container, also called a Sexual Assault Evidence Kit, that includes swabs for collecting DNA evidence, sample bottles and labels to package specimens collected during a sexual assault exam. The exam also can include a test for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. A crime lab can test the samples, which can be searched for possible DNA matches for comparison to an FBI database of violent offenders.
Why are they testing them now?
In the face of public pressure from victim’s advocates in 2015, Florida enacted a law requiring the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct a one-time audit of untested rape kits across the state. The FDLE found at least 13,435 untested rape kits with 279 law enforcement agencies. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, with one of the largest backlogs, announced in late 2015 it would spend nearly $1 million to have an outside lab test the kits.
Why didn’t they test them before?
Among the reasons cited by PBSO: Some kits were from nonreporting victims who took the exam only to obtain other services; some changed their minds and no longer wanted to prosecute; prosecutors declined to pursue some cases; and suspects pleaded guilty or no contest rendered the testing unnecessary.
Where has it worked?
Deputies in Volusia County cleared a backlog of 200 untested kits and have made two arrests. This spring alone in Jacksonville authorities arrested three men in separate cases involving five victims. In Ohio, the testing of nearly 14,000 previously shelved kits resulted in 656 indictments. From 10,000 kits in Detroit, 130 serial rapists have been convicted.
Do rape survivors deserve to know about a match?
In many cases, PBSO does not contact survivors and Florida does not require it. But some states give survivors the legal right to be notified. In Oregon, survivors can request information on the location, testing date and results of their kits. Washington passed a law establishing a statewide tracking system with a portal for survivors to anonymously access information about their kits. In Utah, law enforcement agencies are required to tell survivors if they do not plan to analyze the DNA from their kits.
Rape ‘helpline’ now open
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office announced via Twitter Thursday that its “sexual assault notification helpline” is now active. Victims of sexual assault who reported it in Palm Beach County before July 2016 can get information on the status of their evidence by calling 561-688-4127.