In 2012, the Akron Police Department heeded a call from the Ohio Attorney General's Office to empty its evidence rooms of 1,822 sexual assault kits, or rape kits.

At no charge, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation tested each kit, which contained DNA swabbed from victims or crime scenes in cold cases from 20 years earlier — before the development of reliable DNA technology.

The results, which started to return two months later, have since buried local law enforcement with new leads on old cases and not enough detectives to follow up on them. Testing this batch of 1,822 rape kits has given Akron police the names of suspects in 498 cold cases and genetic profiles in another 349, which might be cross-referenced with crimes elsewhere in America.

The DNA evidence also links 160 offenders to 392 cases. That means there are 160 serial rapists or repeat sex offenders — some still out on the street and others behind bars, paying for only some of their crimes.

The testing of old DNA evidence has brought about a couple notable cases in Akron: Efrem Johnson got 28 years for raping and beating a woman in 2000 and Nathan Ford, a former Lake County probation officer serving 136 years in jail for 15 sex crimes in Cleveland, is facing another rape charge from 2003.

But these are just two examples among 1,822 unsolved sex crimes. Now, local police are racing against a 20-year statute of limitations, investigating old leads with new evidence. But the effort — housed in Akron's Crimes Against Persons unit — is woefully understaffed.

“You're looking at it,” Detective Bertina King said of everyone in the Akron Police Department who investigates cold cases of rape and sexual battery, among other sex crimes. It's just her, for now.

Clock is ticking

King's job is monumental.

Victims have moved. They're hard to find or reluctant to recall what they endured 19 years earlier, let alone face their attacker today. And every year that passes represents another batch of sex crimes that may never be solved.

For example, the 92 cold cases from 1998, which are the oldest, turn 20 soon, after which old statute of limitations laws bar prosecutors from touching them, with a few exceptions.

The statute of limitations for new sex crimes increased to 25 years with the passage of a 2015 law. House Democrats Tavia Galonski of Akron and Kent Smith of Euclid introduced a bill in May to altogether eliminate the deadline to prosecute sexual assault cases.

In the meantime, King said issuing a warrant based on the new DNA evidence, even if it's for “John Doe,” has the effect of pausing the statute of limitations, buying investigators more time. But there's “nowhere else to pull from” to help King investigate, said Akron Police Department's law enforcement planner, Carol McCullough.

Hope on the horizon

So McCullough and King are applying for a $991,582 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to build Akron's first unit solely dedicated to DNA sex crimes. The team would include three investigators, a victim's advocate, a secretary and a prosecutor.

“We're doing everything we can to address this delayed justice, because that's what it is,” deputy mayor for Public Safety Charles Brown said of the heinous and unsolved crimes.

And, as the legal maxim goes, “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Building a team

The nearly $1 million federal grant would fund the six-member team for three years. There's no requirement to match the effort with local funds.

King, McCullough and Brown asked City Council on Monday for permission to send in the grant application. Council will likely vote on the matter at the next meeting June 18.

King, a 26-year veteran, has been with the Akron Police Department longer than the oldest of the unsolved cases on her desk. The cases, each sealed and under investigation, stretch from 1998 to 2016.

She said that, with help, she and the team of investigators could track down hard-to-find victims who are needed to build cases and give testimony. Often, though, they find it difficult to retell their assaults or face their attackers.

That's why King is one of the few officers in Ohio trained in interviewing those who live through and bury traumatic experiences. If the funding goes through, King will extend the training to the new team and other officers who investigate sensitive crimes.

The new team would be multidisciplinary and multi-agency, pulling in experienced officers with help from the Summit County Prosecutor's Office and Victim Assistance Program, which supports victims from the crime scene to the courtroom to the trauma that follows.

The police department has changed how it handled the rape kits, which might help other investigators solve far-away crimes. The kits are now carefully tracked and, per state law, submitted for testing at no cost to Akron within 30 days of being entered into evidence. The results, which once took 45 days, now take about 15 days, creating a never-ending backlog of work for King.

“They're coming back every day,” she said.

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.