10 years in, Detroit rape kit crisis vanquished
It was a quiet morning when Elle Travis was walking in her east-side Detroit neighborhood to catch a bus to work. As she passed an elementary school, she leaned over to tie her shoe — then felt a knife against her throat that would pain her for years after.
"You move, (expletive), you die," said Travis, remembering what the man said to her before he dragged her into his van and raped her. "He told me he would rape me every time he saw me."
After he kicked her out of the van and began driving away on that day in December 2008, Travis studied the vehicle, trying to sear in her memory every detail "so I could tell the police and get some help."
Though Travis went to the hospital and spent hours getting her assailant's DNA collected from her body, help didn't come for seven years because her sexual assault kit was abandoned in a Detroit police facility among 11,341 other rape kits. The kits were discovered in the decrepit warehouse in 2009.
Ten years later, thousands of women have been notified that their sexual assault kits were finally tested, which has led to hundreds of investigations and the identification of 824 suspected serial rapists. Altogether, 282 cases have been adjudicated, resulting in 197 convictions.
Investigators continue to build cases from the kits they've had tested. As of Aug. 9: 211 cases are being actively investigated, with 377 awaiting investigation, according to data from the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.
The work, propelled by an interdisciplinary team of law enforcement, prosecutors, crime lab analysts and advocates, has also led to the extradition of criminals in 39 other states and spawned statewide reforms in the tracking of rape kits so they never are forgotten again.
Travis, however, was not among those who found justice. The man charged with assaulting her was acquitted after a four-day jury trial in May 2017, even though a second woman testified against him.
"The whole reason why I fought through that whole process was because I knew he had other victims and I felt like it was my duty to get justice for all of us," Travis said. "When I lost, I really took that hard, I felt like I let us down as victims but let the community down because they had to deal with him."
Despite some setbacks, experts say Detroit has emerged as a national leader in how to work through backlogs of untested rape kits, a failure in urban centers across the country.
Rebecca Campbell, a Michigan State University psychology professor and national expert on sexual assault, pointed to the work of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and her office. They created a designated cold-case unit for sexual assault investigations, prosecutions and "trauma-informed" notifications.
"They have created guidelines and policies and procedures that are a model for other jurisdictions in how to create such a cold-case unit, how to staff it, the investigational techniques that are used by the investigators in that unit; the trauma-informed approach they use in victim notification and the prosecutor's office practice of reviewing every single case, regardless of the forensic DNA results," Campbell said.
"So even if there is no DNA found, the case is still reviewed by a prosecutor to determine if there are other options for a case potentially being prosecuted."
"Detroit," Campbell said, "is literally a national model of how to do this."
The work done over the past decade has produced protocols for future generations, said Worthy, who championed the effort and built an army to raise the funds, and the will, to test the rape kits so that victims could find justice, closure and healing.
"I'm very proud of the work we've done," said Worthy. "For future cities and municipalities that may find themselves in the same situation ... they will look and find there are road maps."
The road maps created as a result of Detroit's backlog include a 2014 state law that sets a timeline when police must pick up a rape kit from wherever it was administered, take it to a laboratory for DNA analysis and pick it up after testing.
It also requires a quarterly audit of kits in the custody of law enforcement agencies and gives survivors access to information about their rape kit.
Michigan was also the first state to create a statewide tracking system of rape kits, similar to how retail packages can be tracked online, Worthy said.
While Michigan was not the first state to complete the rape kit tracking system, Worthy said she knew it could be done after local officials created a 16-month pilot program, with pro-bono work from UPS and funding from Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert.
"If you can track a package that you order on the Internet ... you know if it doesn't arrive on your doorstep, you can look online and find out where it is," Worthy said. "We knew if you could do that, you could certainly track a rape kit through the criminal justice system.
"This was very, very important," Worthy continued. "Because this should never happen again."
Detroit's untested rape kits were discovered Aug. 17, 2009, when Rob Spada, chief of the prosecutor's Special Victims Unit, was working with Detroit and Michigan State police on felony cases involving ballistic evidence. Spada was invited to look at the evidence in a now-defunct annexed warehouse at 5140 Riopelle St., not far from Midtown near East Warren Avenue and Dequindre Street.
The warehouse had broken windows and birds flying inside, Spada recalled. As he and other law enforcement officers were walking past crime evidence, Spada noticed steel shelving with white boxes and asked what was inside. He learned that they were rape kits, then asked a pivotal question.
"Tested or untested?" Spada said. "They said, 'I'm sure they are tested.'"
The group walked on, but Spada stayed behind and began looking inside the boxes and saw that the seal on the kits had not been broken, meaning they had not been tested for DNA evidence — a tool used to link a crime to an individual. Spada estimated 10,000 rape kits sat untested in the building.
"Working in the prosecutor's office for all the years I had, I know how intrusive a rape kit can be for anybody, male or female," he said. "I thought: Those are 10,000 rape kits that people have gone through in extensive forensic examination that have been left untested."
"How crazy could this be?"
Soon after the rape kits were discovered, Campbell agreed to be part of a team of researchers and representatives from law enforcement, prosecution, forensic sciences, forensic nursing, and victim advocacy that worked on addressing the backlog's scope, testing the kits and notifying victims.
Campbell also headed an in-depth study with funding awarded to Wayne County from the National Institutes of Justices to understand how and why the rape kits languished.
Though it was not the primary cause, Campbell said, she was struck during her work at the level of staffing within the Detroit Police Department's sex crimes unit. An examination of other sex crime units in similar urban centers nationally revealed that Detroit was low on every metric.
Campbell also said she and other researchers reviewed more than 1,200 Detroit police reports on sexual assault. Scores of reports were just two pages long — when a thorough investigation should be about "two inches thick — not two pages."
"They took the reports of the survivor and a cover sheet and that was it," said Campbell, an MSU psychology professor and national expert who's worked for 30 years to understand the healing process of women who have been sexually assaulted.
"There was no investigative work," she continued. "What was in those pages was a complete disrespect of a human being, in terms of their dignity, their body, their soul. They were called names, they were referred to as prostitutes and a whole bunch of other terms synonymous with that. And then they just closed the case, and put it aside."
"It was a fundamental devaluing of the citizens of this city," said Campbell, the lead author of the 556-page Detroit Sexual Assault Kit Action Research Project.
The discovery of the abandoned rape kits was the first step in bringing justice to victims behind the kits, women who lived in fear, frustration and pain that their perpetrators had not been caught.
Worthy recalls the exhaustive work that she and her department faced with trying to get the rape kits tested.
"We had these kits with no nexus to any kind of police report. We had these kits but we didn't have any police reports or police jackets attached," she said. "So we first had to do an inventory to see exactly what we had.
"We had to look at the box ... take the personal information off the box, the name of the victim ... where the sexual assault happened, what day it happened and where it happened and we created a spreadsheet and that's when we found out that there were 11,341 of them."
The second hurdle was figuring out how to pay the $1,500 officials were quoted to test each kit, which would have totaled more than $17 million.
Andrew Arena, executive director of the Detroit Crime Commission, was able to negotiate a rate of $490 per kit with the two testing companies, Bode Cellmark Forensics and Sorenson Forensics, cutting the cost by more than a third, said Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for Worthy's office.
The state of Michigan kicked in $4 million to test the kits and several nonprofit and community organizations raised money as well.
Worthy and a coalition of local organizations representing African American women kicked off the African American 490 Challenge of Enough SAID to raise $657,090 in 18 months to pay for testing. Participants included Kim Trent, a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors.
A sexual assault survivor, Trent said getting the rape kits tested is worth celebrating, much more progress is needed to address a societal "rape culture" that blames victims.
"There is still the idea at the heart (of the rape culture) that somehow rape survivors are at fault," said Trent, though she acknowledges progress over the past decade. "People are more comfortable having a conversation" about rape, she said.
Trent, the president of the African American 490 Challenge, said she has seen first-hand the positive impact of getting the kits tested, recalling an encounter she had with a server while dining at a restaurant.
"She talked about how it changed her life," Trent said. "For me, it was satisfying to know."
To work through the backlog, investigators developed a priority list, with cases linked to at-large serial rapists at the top, said Mark Farrah, supervising detective of the Wayne County Prosecutor's Sexual Assault Kit Task Force.
Next on the list: Cases linked to serial rapists who were incarcerated but up for parole followed by cases where the statute of limitations was set to expire.
Another crucial issue the team discussed at length: How to approach victims once their kits had been tested.
"When you go back and tear that Band-Aid off, 10, 15, 20 years later, after the assault had occurred, you are putting that survivor right back in the time when the assault occurred to them," said Farrah. "We immediately involved advocacy, someone they could talk to who understands trauma and can talk with them about issues."
He said officials asked victims if they wanted to take part in the investigation.
"Some wanted to come forward and some flat-out said they wanted to put this in the past," Farrah said. "From the notification standpoint, we have always been thanked and well-received; all survivors were thankful we reached out to them."
Detroit is not alone in its failure to have sexual assault kits tested promptly. Hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested in police and crime lab storage facilities across the nation, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group for sexual assault survivors founded in 2004 by actress Mariska Hargitay.
In the past few years, more than a dozen states have enacted reform laws governing how rape kits are handled.
But officials such as Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for Joyful Heart, said a culture of "severe neglect" persists in some police departments.
"There is a real widespread resistance to taking sexual assaults seriously," said Knecht, director of policy & advocacy for Joyful Heart. "(Sexual assault) has not been prioritized as the violence crime that it is. It is shifting. We are starting to see a bit of a shift."
Mary Wilson has seen the benefits of that shift and the overdue work to process Detroit's rape kits.
Wilson's rapist, 56-year-old Kevan Emerson Clark, was sentenced three years ago to 15-25 years for sexually assaulting her and two others.
Wilson was walking from the store one night in October 1995 in the area of Six Mile and Orleans Street when Clark accosted her.
"He rode up on a bike and grabbed me at knifepoint," said Wilson, who was 32. "For eight hours, he held me in a vacant house."
A month before Clark was sentenced, Wilson told a room full of pastor's wives and others that he she finally felt a sense of justice.
"I can finally have some closure now," she said. "He was never going to stop. I don't have to worry about it anymore. I don't have to look over my shoulder because I know where he is now."
"I'm no longer in that dark room. I'm no longer on that dark shelf."