By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department “really weren’t up with society” — with both Bratton and Baca lacking the “CSI mentality” that values modern science, Cooley believes. Bratton, he says, “looked at it as a very difficult logistical problem to go through all the cases, analyze them and prioritize them.”
Since the controversy erupted, LAPD detectives have counted a total of 9,911 sexual-assault cases in the freezers. Of those, 4,718 were previously tested and 5,193 were not tested. Of the untested cases, 403 were “stranger rapes,” in which DNA testing could have netted a solid suspect by now; 1,184 were “cleared by arrest,” making DNA tests unnecessary; and 1,796 were rejected by D.A. Cooley, usually because of a hard-to-prosecute ”he said, she said” situation or because the victim refused to cooperate. Now, with 200 rape cases left for so long that they are too old to prosecute, and an unknown number of crimes lurking in the other long-frozen rape kits, it seems doubtful L.A. will ever match the science-based crime-fighting of New York City.
Not far from City Hall is the police evidence facility known as Piper Technical Center, where the backlog of DNA evidence sits frozen inside several huge big-rig-sized freezer containers, some of them located inside a large warehouse, and some placed outside, in a secured open-air parking lot where supercooling cables run into the giant boxes.
Recently, teams of LAPD cops donned thick ski parkas and entered the huge outdoor evidence freezers — the only way to physically eyeball the forgotten old sexual-assault DNA. What the bundled-up detectives found was almost unbelievable. It took 10 days for the 50 cops to count every rape kit, nearly 10,000 of them, representing women, children and even a few men, who withstood an often unpleasant procedure to help police gather DNA evidence from their own bodies — only to have that semen, saliva, skin and other human detritus piled in freezer containers.
“They looked like they were spending the weekend in Big Bear,” recalls Janet Johnstone, the senior property officer who supervised the colossal count by the 50 officers.
The LAPD team wasn’t the only one playing this kind of basic catch-up recently. The political firestorm in L.A. City Hall was so intense that, three blocks up the street in the L.A. County Hall of Administration, the five powerful politicians who make up the County Board of Supervisors began demanding to know whether rape kits held by the Sheriff’s Department are similarly piling up in freezers controlled by Sheriff Baca.
Mimicking what City Hall had done, a group of neophyte sheriff’s deputies bundled up and went inside the Sheriff’s Department freezers — and found the same massive pileups.
A lot of the untested rape kits discovered by the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department will turn out to be nothing. That’s because many of them represent not rapes, but angry girlfriends mad at their boyfriends, prostitutes upset about getting shorted by a john, and all the other odd reasons women and men call the cops and go through rape-evidence collection when, in fact, no rape has occurred. There have been many such noncases in L.A.
There are also thousands of so-called acquaintance rapes, often “he said, she said” situations in which authorities know the identity of the alleged attacker, so that testing his DNA would be largely pointless. So the cops stick all the evidence on a shelf.
But that’s not what has so many people incredibly angry at Bratton and, to a lesser degree, Baca. They’re furious about discoveries like 403 so-called “stranger rapes” left untested on the LAPD shelves, and found in recent weeks by the parka-clad detectives. These are crimes in which the identity of the attacker is unknown and no suspect has been arrested — situations in which DNA testing could be the key. Critics say horrific tragedy is hidden in those rape kits, and the cops knew it, or should have known it.
“Rape is only second to murder,” says Jeri Elster, trying to put into words why rape survivors like herself are watching the DNA-testing controversy in L.A. so closely. “I have often shared publicly that I have to live with it, and it is more of a life sentence than murder can be.”
Similar to what is unfolding at LAPD, Sheriff’s Commander Earl Shields says Baca’s department was surprised to find 815 rape kits involving “stranger rape” whose evidence was left untested. Baca and his top brass admit they really don’t know why 815 batches of evidence went ignored. “We aren’t investigating the hows and whys of this — just the best way to fix the issue and get them all tested,” Shields says — a candid admission that the problem is far too big to completely untangle.
At a press conference in February, the LAPD announced that the city freezers contain evidence samples from 9,911 sexual-assault cases, 4,718 of which have been tested, leaving 5,193 still untested.
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