There’s a storage box with the word “Serial” scribbled across it sitting in a new office on the sixth floor of the Akron Police Department.

Inside are unsolved cases tied to a couple dozen predators who committed three or more sex offenses between 1993 and 2012.

Akron police didn’t see the patterns of crime emerge when they happened because investigators — like many of their counterparts in cities and towns across the U.S. — failed to submit many rape kits for DNA testing.

In some cases, police thought DNA would be useless since the men who the women accused had admitted they had sex, but said it was consensual. Investigators never considered DNA could link those men to similar sex assault reports by other women, too.

Other times, investigators didn’t test the kits because they doubted the victims — mostly women — were telling the truth.

Last week, three Akron detectives — working alongside the Victim Assistance Program of Summit County, the Rape Crisis Center of Medina and Summit Counties and a Summit County assistant prosecutor — launched a new, full-time unit devoted solely to closing these old serial sexual assault cases.

They will also reinvestigate more than 1,000 other sexual assaults that ended in dead ends after investigators failed to submit rape kits for DNA testing.

The group is called the Akron Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (ASAKI) and it’s being paid for with a three-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department.

It’s a daunting, complicated undertaking and one the ASAKI group wants the public to know about because it’s not just about fighting crime, it’s about making amends and changing the culture of how Akron treats the victims of sexual assault.

Wake-up call

Serial killer Anthony Sowell changed how law enforcement across Ohio handles rape cases.

In 2009, police found the remains of 11 women in Sowell’s house and on his property in one of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods.

The Plain Dealer investigated and discovered that Sowell — a registered sex offender — slipped through law enforcement's cracks many times and continued to kill because of problems with the way Cleveland and area police departments handled rape cases and treated victims.

Recent changes to Ohio law require enforcement agencies to submit new rape kits for DNA testing within 30 days of an assault report.

But that doesn't affect when or how they clean up their backlog of mishandled rape kits.

Could another serial killer be lurking in the Akron rape kits tested years after a sexual assault?

It’s unlikely because so few Akron homicides have a sexual component, said Lt. David Whiddon, who oversees ASAKI.

But police wonder what other crimes could have been prevented if investigators had handled reports of sexual assaults differently.

In all, Akron police — working off a separate grant in 2012 — submitted 1,822 untested rape kits for DNA testing to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification.

Of those, 847 came back with a hit to CODIS, a federal DNA index that tracks DNA from crime scenes and from criminals.

Some of the DNA samples came back with a suspect's name attached and others did not, matching only another anonymous DNA sample submitted in another case anywhere from Akron to Alaska.

It was a valuable trove of crime-fighting information, but it languished.

Until now, only one Akron police detective — Bertina King — worked on the cases, and she was doing it part-time alongside investigations into other violent crimes.

Even if King focused all her time on the backlog, a workflow analysis showed it still would have taken her 42 years to reinvestigate all the cases.

“The need to quickly respond to these cases that have experienced delayed justice is important not only because the victims in these cases deserve better, but also because the number of sexual predators that continue to walk the streets are a threat to current public safety,” Akron police said in a 2018 narrative about their testing system.

Carol McCullough, a grant writer with no previous law enforcement experience, researched and wrote the proposal with King last year that landed federal dollars to launch ASAKI.

“Budget cuts and reduced staffing may have contributed to the overall problem,” they wrote, “but a culture of victim-blaming beliefs and behaviors, a lack of training and understanding of trauma and systemic complacency and a desire for expedience all contributed to, if not created, the previously unsubmitted sexual assault kit crisis we now face.”

New team forms

The three Akron police officers in the new ASAKI unit weren’t assigned. They each applied to work there.

“I wanted to make a difference, to help,” said ASAKI Detective Paul Siegferth Jr., who most recently worked as an Akron police narcotics detective but also spent years working as part of a federal task force.

He joins Detective Crystal Bowen-Carter, whose work with juveniles often involved investigating child sex abuse, and Detective Patrick Armstead, a former K-9 officer with a degree in psychology who is described as a tech whiz by his colleagues.

In February, they all went through Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview training (FETI), which teaches police to interview victims with empathy and how to gain more information.

In addition, ASAKI aims to wrap victims in services as their cases are reinvestigated.

“We call them survivors instead of victims,” Jasmine Jones of the rape crisis center said, adding that a woman’s families or close friends are also survivors because they have been affected, too.

Answers emerging

DNA from rape kits that were tested years after the fact have already yielded results in Akron.

Efrem Johnson, serving a life sentence for a 2010 murder, was sentenced to an additional 28 years in 2016 after DNA connected him to the unsolved rape and beating of a woman.

And Nathan Ford, a former Lake County probation officer already convicted in Cuyahoga County of 15 sex crimes, faces a rape charge from an Akron assault in 2003.

It likely will take several years for the new unit to work through all the cases, police said, but detectives are anxious to make those connections.

The phone line to the new ASAKI office — 330-375-2228 — was installed Tuesday afternoon as the ASAKI group met with a Beacon Journal reporter who will follow their efforts this year.

ASAKI detectives have started prioritizing the 1,822 cases, putting those connected to serial offenders and those whose cases are close to the statute of limitation as first priorities.

Then they will start reaching out to victims — discreetly.

ASAKI also encourages victims to reach out to them, particularly if they’ve moved several times since they were assaulted.

“Attackers count on victims not saying anything,” said King, who will still devote part of her time to ASAKI. She said rape is one of the least reported crimes because victims fear being judged.

ASAKI aims to change that.