Last of Detroit rape kits recovered in ’09 to be tested

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Investigators at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office are processing the last of the more than 11,000 rape kits found in an abandoned Detroit police facility nearly a decade ago.

Just over 600 kits remain from a batch of rape kits discovered at an abandoned Detroit police facility in 2009.

An evidence collection kit.

As a result of the processing of previous kits, 273 cases are being investigated, 130 rapists have been convicted and 818 serial sex offenders have been identified, according to the prosecutor’s office. The tests have also revealed that the rapists have committed rapes and other crimes in 40 states.

Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, said the remaining 614 kits have been shipped to Bode Cellmark Forensics and Sorenson Forensics, two out-of-state labs, for testing. The results will be given to the Michigan State Police lab for a final review, Miller said.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said she is glad the testing is almost done, and investigators are using the kits that have been tested to try to solve cases.

“We’re happy the last batch is going to get tested but we have a lot more work,” Worthy said. “It may seem like a very long time, but this is a very long process.”

Worthy credits agencies such as the Michigan Women’s Foundation, which spearheaded fundraising with other groups, for finding the money to get the kits tested.

For Rochester businesswoman Tiffany Piggee-Taylor, a sexual assault survivor, it’s good news that more rapists might be identified.

Me Beauty Detroit's Tiffany Piggee-Taylor in Rochester, Michigan on March 9, 2018.

Although the man Piggee-Taylor says raped her in 2003 remains at large, she is happy that justice could be near for other victims.

“It raises awareness and it shines a light in a dark place,” Piggee-Taylor said. “We can’t continue as a society and as a culture and a nation to ignore these issues. We cannot continue to pretend this doesn’t happen.”

Piggee-Taylor, 41, said she was sexually assaulted after being drugged and followed home by a co-worker in Georgia. Her attacker was never charged although, she says, he gave a written statement implicating himself.

Piggee-Taylor has raised funds for programs supporting sexual assault survivors and has been a strong advocate for programs like A Joyful Heart Foundation, calling for changes in laws to help end the backlog of untested rape kits sitting in labs across the country.

Piggee-Taylor said she also is excited that a documentary on the handling of rape kits, “I Am Evidence,” produced by A Joyful Heart, will be broadcast next month on HBO and screened throughout the United States, including an advanced screening March 21 in Ann Arbor at Graduate Rackham International.

“The film ... is a recognition of the gross negligence on the part of local city government all over the country,” she said. “It’s a powerful movie. Prosecutors didn’t know law enforcement agencies were stockpiling rape kits.”

Worthy has been cited as a leader in the movement to get rape kits tested quickly and to call attention to the problem around the nation.

A few years ago, Worthy got help from the Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by Hollywood actress Mariska Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson on the police drama series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Hargitay, the co-producer of "I Am Evidence," has been a huge voice in calling for state laws to end the backlog of rape kits. The actress and activist attended a news conference with Worthy in 2014.

“To me, the rape kit backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how we regard these crimes in our society,” Hargitay said in a statement about the documentary. “Testing rape kits sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence: you matter. What happened to you matters. Your case matters.”

Besides Detroit, other cities and states are grappling with a backlog of unprocessed rape kits.

Recently, North Carolina reported 15,000 rape kits in the state had yet to be tested, said Ilse Knecht, Joyful Heart’s director of policy and advocacy.

Nationwide, more than 200,000 rape kits are untested, said Knecht, who added that the foundation has a “bold and ambitious” campaign to pass legislation in every state to require that old kits be tested and to enact policies to prevent future backlogs.

Michigan is further along in reforming kit testing procedures than other states, she said.

“It’s a lot of work that needs to be done to still understand the scope of the problem (and) to get closer to transparency across the country,” Knecht said. “That’s part of what we’re working through legislation to do ... to get every state to have inventory so that you can know what the extent of the problem is and then you can take the next steps to address it.”

Locally, testing a kit led last year to the conviction of Detroit resident Anthony Thornton, 46, for the rape of a woman he met at a Detroit homeless shelter in April 2010. DNA matched Thornton to the rape.

Nearly a year after the 2010 assault, authorities say Thornton struck again on March 8, 2011, inside a Detroit residence, where he allegedly raped a woman who came to the home where Thornton was to visit a friend. That rape kit sat untested for years until it was processed and showed a DNA match with Thornton.

In the 2010 case, Thornton was convicted of unlawful imprisonment and first-degree criminal sexual conduct and sentenced in June 2017 to 15-30 years in prison.

Thornton met his victim April 20, 2010, at a Detroit homeless shelter. The woman accompanied Thornton and two other men to a vacant house to drink and smoke but was raped when she attempted to leave the abandoned house.

“When victim attempted to leave, Thornton and the other men held her down and took turns raping her,” according to prosecutor statements made during a hearing for Thornton.

A rape kit gathered from the victim, but it was not processed until March 2015, according to the prosecutor’s office.

Thornton is due in court April 5 for a hearing to determine if he is competent to stand trial for the 2011 assault. He is charged with unlawful imprisonment, first-degree criminal sexual conduct and third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

The Detroit Crime Commission, a private nonprofit that works with law enforcement agencies, has played a big role in getting Wayne County’s rape kits tested, Miller said. She said they were able to keep the costs of testing the kits low and help facilitate the delivery of them to the labs.

“It’s an honor to act as the fiduciary for the WCPO Rape Task Force, in our role as negotiator and facilitator,” said Ellis Stafford, deputy director of the commission. “We take our role very seriously because we know, at the end of the day, there’s a victim somewhere waiting for their overdue justice.”

(313) 222-2027