For two years, Ohio has been growing its criminal DNA database using matter stored in thousands of rape kits that sat untested on shelves for years.
The rape kits — some of them collecting dust because the case was resolved without them — now are serving as links in a chain, stringing together the work of serial rapists, or connecting crimes from homicides to burglaries.
Akron appears to be one of the effort’s biggest fans.
Since Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced the Sexual Assault Kit Testing Initiative in December 2011, Akron has submitted more than 1,000 cold cases to the cause.
That makes the Akron Police Department the second-biggest client at the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) in Richfield, where all of the old kits are being tested.
Cleveland has submitted the most kits, with 2,767. Cincinnati is a distant third, with 338.
Last week, as Akron Detective Jim Pasheilich packed another 50 old rape kits into a box marked for the BCI, his boss, Lt. David Whiddon, said with a chuckle: “Don’t they swear every time you come through the door?”
Pasheilich has been making that trip almost weekly, having started with cases that were most at risk of reaching the 20-year statute of limitation for prosecution.
Some of the boxes he packed were from cases that already were solved and the perpetrator already released from prison. But the DNA information might be invaluable to other unsolved crimes.
“The more people in the database, the better,” the detective answered.
To date, the BCI has tested about half of the 5,523 rape kits that 121 law enforcement agencies have submitted. There are thousands of kits waiting to be turned in.
Of those tested, 886 have matched someone already listed in the Combined DNA Index System, more commonly known as CODIS.
Most of the time, those hits don’t lead to a hallelujah moment.
In Akron, for instance, 74 rape kits going back to 1993 have been tested so far. Forty showed no DNA, and 22 yielded DNA profiles for someone yet unknown.
Twelve tests got a hit on CODIS, but of those, one suspect was dead, one was a consensual partner, three already had been arrested for the crime and six matched the suspect the police already had identified.
But here’s what else those rape kits did:
• An unsolved rape in Akron that was already in the database was matched to several rapes and a homicide in Cleveland, thanks to old rape kits turned over by that police department. As a result, Larry McGowan pleaded to the Akron rape case last year and was sentenced to 11 years, and is currently going through Cuyahoga County courts on the other charges, some dating back to 1996.
• In another Akron case, involving a victim who has avoided talking to police about the crime, DNA from the rape kit matched DNA found in four other crimes: two burglaries, a felonious assault and a breaking-and-entering. Because a man already was identified and convicted of one of those crimes, the new DNA evidence is helping police pursue him on the other charges.
Cuyahoga County has also had some highly publicized success cases.
DNA tied the 1993 rape of a 13-year-old girl to the 1996 rape of a 37-year-old woman. Then last year, when Clevelander George Young had to give his DNA upon being imprisoned for firing a gun at a house party, evidence from both rapes matched his DNA profile.
There was also the case of Elias Acevedo Sr., who was convicted of multiple rapes and sentenced to life in prison in December with the help of a 1993 rape kit submitted to BCI as part of the testing initiative.
Over the past two years, Cuyahoga County has generated 76 indictments from their once-shelved rape kits.
Akron’s Pasheilich said one reason there are so many untested kits is because they often aren’t needed to solve the case. There was no perceived need to “bog down” BCI if the suspect was identified and admitted to having sex with the accuser, he said.
Most of the time, the case is a matter of whether there was consent between two people who were at least acquaintances. Rape by stranger remains relatively rare.
But as DNA techniques have improved, there was always the suspicion that those rape kits were an untapped resource.
DeWine became a fan of running every kit through the system when he was a U.S. senator.
“We got federal money and sent it to the states,” he said. “I thought the problem was solved.”
But when he left Congress and became the state’s attorney general, he learned that Ohio stopped the tests after running out of the federal funds.
So DeWine restarted the effort, urging police departments to turn in their old kits for free testing. It costs the state about $435 to test each kit.
Ten scientists have been hired at the Richfield BCI specifically for the initiative, at a cost of about $720,000 a year. Six of them came on board just a month ago, after training that takes nearly six months to complete.
Meanwhile, existing staff at Richfield and the BCI in London in southern Ohio continue to process new rape kits so that current cases aren’t slowed down.
While the initiative already has put a few folks behind bars, DeWine believes the initiative’s success rate is going to start climbing faster.
As the oldest kits are completed and set aside, younger cases are getting their turn. They might yield fresher evidence, better memories, victims who can be found and who might be willing to give testimony, and suspects who already have made it into CODIS.
“Within the next few months, we’ll be hitting a lot more of those Akron cases,” DeWine predicted.
“I couldn’t be happier with how this is working out,” he said.
Statute of limitations
In the meantime, some prosecutors aren’t giving up on the rape cases set to expire.
As the 20-year statute of limitations approaches for Cuyahoga County’s oldest kits, that county’s prosecutor has gotten indictments against unique DNA profiles where the name of the suspect is not known. If the names of those John Does are learned, the statute will be irrelevant since the charge was made in time.
Whiddon said the Akron Police Department doesn’t have any 20-year John Doe cases yet, but is confident Summit County prosecutors would take similar action.
As the potential to solve old cases grows, police say they have a tough job ahead.
Detectives have the sensitive duty of approaching victims who might have moved on from the crime they survived a decade or more ago.
“They may not be overjoyed you’ve solved the case,” Whiddon said. “They might have kids, or don’t want their spouse to know, or they just don’t want to think about it again ... It may not all be open arms and gratitude.”
But every victim should be given the option for closure, Whiddon and Pasheilich said.
Even in the case of the woman who wouldn’t cooperate with police — the one whose DNA has tied a known convict to other crimes — Akron detectives continue to try to reach out to her.
“We know who raped her now,” Pasheilich said.