Where police failed rape victims

They pressured victims. They didn’t interview suspects. Then they destroyed rape kits. Experts said the police department in this college town used ‘disturbing’ practices.

Play video: 4-year-old girl ‘absolutely robbed’ of justice

Detective Maggie McDowell read the patrol officers’ report: A man entered a woman’s apartment through a window while she was sleeping. He punched her repeatedly and threatened to kill her if she didn’t stop screaming. Then, he cut a hole in the crotch of her pants and raped her.

Bruised and bleeding, the woman was taken to a hospital for a rape exam. A doctor told officers he observed a cut deep in the woman’s vagina.

Officers documented that the woman said she knew her attacker, and they photographed the inside of her apartment, including a bent window screen where she said the man gained entry.

McDowell seemed uniquely suited to understand the woman’s trauma.

At 18, McDowell said, she was raped — a crime she said she never reported. “Everything the victims tell me today is what I felt,” the detective once told a local magazine writer.

A woman sitting at a desk in an office
Detective Maggie McDowell: The sex crimes investigator said she was a rape survivor. Edward Biamonte

McDowell wanted victims to know they could trust police and see them as approachable because “we really do care.”

But after reading the report of the 2009 attack, the Springfield, Missouri, detective did little investigative work, according to the case file. She didn’t send the woman’s rape kit to a lab to be tested, nor did she follow up with another person the victim said was in the home at the time of the rape. And, according to the case file, she made no attempt to interview the suspect.

Instead, on the same day McDowell was assigned to the case she did two things: She contacted a rehabilitation center where the victim was taken after her rape exam and noted that the staff could not confirm whether she was a patient. Then McDowell sent a letter to the woman telling her she needed to make herself available for an interview or her case would not be investigated further.

Typically, the letters McDowell sent gave victims 10 business days to respond.

When the woman didn’t get in touch, McDowell wrote that the victim was “uncooperative” and ended the investigation five weeks after she reported being raped.

The untested rape kit sat in an evidence room for a little over two years, then was destroyed at McDowell’s request — even though there was no time limit on prosecuting the offense listed in the file: forcible rape.

The case was not an anomaly.

A CNN investigation found that McDowell and other Springfield detectives had a practice of pressuring victims to cooperate and rushing cases to a close.

Reporters reviewed nearly 200 investigations in which Springfield police destroyed rape kits since 2010. In at least 108, the kits were destroyed before the statutes of limitations expired or when there was no time limit to prosecute the crimes. Seventy-five percent of those kits were destroyed without police submitting the evidence to a lab to be tested.

The analysis was part of a nationwide review of records tied to the destruction of rape kits. Seasoned sex crime investigators, police trainers and lawyers examined case files for CNN, including about 40 from Springfield.

The department stood out for the variety and volume of investigative shortcomings that led to rape kit destruction and how quickly the agency trashed the evidence after cases were closed. Dozens of untested kits were destroyed in a year or less after victims reported being assaulted.

How rape cases went wrong

Police files show flawed investigations led to the trashing of evidence
CASE #12-0021201

Child: Uncle ‘touched me with his pee pee’

They’ve got potential evidence they never tested. It’s absurd.

CASE #09-0031623

Attacker cut crotch out of victim’s pants

The police had the suspect’s identity. He should have been interviewed.

CASE #11-0043192

Victim used meth, signed waiver on day of rape

He denies [sex]. Testing the rape kit could have made all the difference in showing whether he was lying.

CASE #10-0027437

Intoxicated woman reports rape; kit trashed in open case

Is it possible that she was also drugged? Her shorts were inside out. This suggests something happened.

CASE #10-0033551

Teen runaway reports rape

That’s what the rape kit is for — corroboration. But they didn’t test it.

CASE #09-0030707

Rapist returns, urinates on door

There’s no investigation. The detective is like, ‘She doesn’t call, we close the case. My day just got a lot easier.’

The agency’s approach was “old-fashioned” and “horrendous,” said retired Sergeant Joanne Archambault, former head of the San Diego Police Department’s sex crimes unit.

“You’re not serious about solving rape cases if you destroy rape kits before the statute of limitations.”

Anything can happen during that time, she said. New evidence can emerge or victims reluctant to work with police can later decide to re-engage.

Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams did not address CNN’s overall findings about the department’s destruction of rape kits. Read his November 6 letter responding to CNN here. But in a 2017 interview, he said it was up to individual officers to decide how long to maintain evidence in sexual assault cases.

He also defended McDowell, who retired in late 2014 and refused repeated requests for an interview. She handled many of the department’s sex crimes investigations for 14 years, Williams said, and “did a fantastic job.” He repeated what she’d recently told him.

“She said, ‘Chief, as you recall, you would never have a more passionate and tenacious, empathetic investigator than I was when I was assigned to the [sex crimes] unit as a survivor.’”

A police officer standing at a podium
Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams says the department has long struggled with the city’s volume of reported sex crimes. Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/News-Leader/USA Today Network

CNN found that the evidence destruction in Springfield followed incomplete investigations. In dozens of cases, records show, detectives did not attempt to contact witnesses and known suspects, didn’t have rape kits tested or stopped working cases within days or weeks of being assigned to investigate.

Reporters also discovered 15 cases in which police improperly discarded rape kits after defendants were convicted. Missouri law requires that evidence leading to a conviction be preserved by the investigating law enforcement agency so that it can be tested or re-tested in the event of appeals.

Post-conviction testing of evidence in rape kits has played a role in overturning at least 195 convictions since 1992, according to a CNN analysis of data provided by The National Registry of Exonerations.

“It’s disturbing,” Sean O’Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor, said of Springfield’s post-conviction trashing of kits.

O’Brien, a former chief public defender, was one of two legal experts who reviewed the cases and confirmed CNN’s finding that the disposal violated state law. But, he said, Missouri’s retention law carries no requirement to notify convicts or their attorneys — and there’s no penalty for those who destroy the evidence.

It’s the convicts and the victims, he said, “who experience the consequences.”

Springfield is a college town of 167,000 in southwest Missouri, not far from the Ozark Mountains. It promotes itself as the “Birthplace of Route 66” and is home to the first Bass Pro Shop, a mega tourist attraction.

Paul Williams became chief of police in the state’s third largest city in 2010. He said the department has long struggled to keep up with the volume of reported sex crimes. Last year, police recorded 352 rapes and attempted rapes, a jump of about 20% from the previous year.

Law enforcement professionals who have overseen sex crimes units said a detective working violent felonies should handle fewer than 100 cases a year. McDowell, who was not the only detective working those crimes in Springfield, shouldered 124 to 164 sexual assault cases a year between 2009 and 2014, according to Williams. (The department did not provide numbers for 2012.) In 2015, Springfield’s primary sex crimes detective carried a load of 208 sexual assault cases, Williams said.

Because of the heavy caseloads, Williams said, detectives were encouraged to determine whether an investigation was “going anywhere” within 30 days.

“I know 30 days sounds quick, but back then that was a necessary evil — to spend investigative time on cases that the victim was cooperative, and we thought there was some benefit of prosecuting.”

The 10-day letter used by McDowell and others, the chief said, is a department-sanctioned tactic intended to spur victims to work with investigators. Though there are no written guidelines on use of those letters, the chief said, they should be sent only as a last resort, after detectives have exhausted all other means to reach victims.

McDowell and at least one other investigator did not always use the letter that way. McDowell investigated 57 cases between 2006 and 2013 in which rape kits were destroyed before the statutes of limitations expired. She sent the letters in about 20% of those cases, six on the same day she was assigned to investigate.

The chief declined to discuss several examples of McDowell’s work but defended her handling of the 2009 case involving the woman who reported that her assailant cut out the crotch of her pants. The victim never got back in touch with investigators, Williams said, and it was reasonable for McDowell to authorize destruction of the kit after two years.

A flag with the words Springfield on it flies next to the United States flag
Springfield is a city of 167,000 in southwest Missouri, near the Ozark Mountains. CNN

Another officer, Corporal Rod Noble, who is still on the force, also used the 10-day letter. He sent it in almost one-third of the 28 cases he investigated between 2008 and 2012 in which kits were destroyed before the statutes of limitations expired.

Noble, who did not respond to requests for an interview, sent the letter as early as five days, and on average 17 days, after being assigned to a case — including one in which a victim repeatedly said she needed more time.

That woman reported being raped in 2010 by her ex-husband — who she still lived with — and told a patrol officer she was going to get a restraining order and relocate with her children. Asked if she wanted to press charges, she said she “needed time to consider the results of her decision to prosecute,” the records show.

Noble got the case and, in what he indicated was his first conversation with the woman, she told him “she wished to have more time.” According to the case file, he emphasized “the importance of a timely investigation” and noted that the woman would try to give him a decision in six days.

When he did not hear from her, he called and left a message. Six days later, he mailed her the 10-day letter. She did not respond, and he ended the case six weeks after she reported being assaulted.

Two years later, her untested kit was authorized to be destroyed. It sat on a shelf about another two years, then was disposed. Based on the offense listed in the case file, there was no time limit to prosecute.

In police vernacular, it’s called “trauma-informed protocol.”

But in layman’s terms, it’s training designed to help sex crime investigators understand what a rape victim goes through.

After an attack, a victim might feel afraid, intimidated and reluctant to work with police. Avoidance and withdrawal are common symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

But a victim who reports an assault and then begins to retreat from an investigation may cooperate if given time and support. Victims should not be asked to make complex, pivotal decisions about their cases right away.

Springfield detectives, experts said, failed to follow trauma-informed practices, such as working at a pace comfortable for the victim and refraining from discussing prosecution with victims before investigations are complete.

“It’s easy to discourage rape victims from working with us,” said Tom Tremblay, a former Vermont police chief who trains officers in best practices in sex crimes investigations.

The Springfield case files he reviewed showed, “a real lack of trauma-informed approaches,” he said.

“Victims have lost control of the most personal decision we make — who we choose to be intimate with. They want some control back…. When we send them a letter saying, ‘Yeah, do this or else,’… (it) sounds very demanding, it sounds very much like what they may have experienced with the offender.”

Springfield police asked victims soon after they reported their rapes whether they would pursue prosecution of their attackers and provided a form for them to sign.

Sexual assault victims should never be given these so-called prosecution waivers, experts said.

McDowell gave one to a woman on the day she reported her rape.

In that 2011 case, the victim said a man “went crazy and raped her” after they had done meth together, according to the investigative file.

The suspect admitted injecting the woman with drugs but denied sexual contact, records show. His assertion could have been challenged by analyzing the woman’s rape kit to see if it contained his semen or DNA. But that never happened.

McDowell “explained the whole investigative process and court process” to the woman, according to the detective’s notes, and the woman decided “to put this incident behind her.”

The woman signed the waiver just hours after she said she had taken drugs, records show.

If she ever changed her mind and wanted to pursue charges, police would be hard pressed to make a case: The kit was destroyed, at McDowell’s request, less than six months later.

Guidelines issued as far back as 2005 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police say officers should not introduce any forms for a victim to sign declining an investigation.

The association’s president, Louis Dekmar, said he was surprised to learn a department was still using waivers years after the group recommended against it. Police should not discuss prosecution with a victim before a thorough investigation demonstrates that charges are possible, said Dekmar, a police chief in Georgia. And whether someone is charged is a prosecutor’s decision — not a victim’s.

“You don’t do that in other crimes — call folks up and ask, ‘Are you going to prosecute?’” he said. “There’s a presumption at the time people report that police are going to do their job and investigate.”

A thorough investigation includes testing all evidence. Until recently, that was not the practice in Springfield.

Chief Williams said his agency typically did not submit kits for analysis unless a prosecutor agreed to file charges in a case.

But testing kits, experts said, could give a prosecutor precisely the corroborating evidence needed to take a case to court.

Testing can confirm abuse, identify a suspect or connect a suspect to other crimes. By uploading test results to the national DNA database system known as CODIS, police have a chance to compare them to more than 17 million profiles taken from crime scenes, convicted offenders, detainees and arrestees.

An aerial photo of a park and a soccer field and the red roofs of two buildings.
A mother told police her 4-year-old daughter was possibly assaulted somewhere in this park in Springfield. The girl talked about a bathroom “with the red roof.” CNN

In 2014, Springfield police trashed a 4-year-old’s rape kit and the shorts she wore the day of her alleged assault without ever testing the evidence. The girl’s mother said she saw a wet spot on her daughter’s shorts that might have contained bodily fluid left behind by the girl’s alleged abuser.

Police had taken the case to a prosecutor, who declined to file charges. The attorney explained her decision in writing: “Unfortunately, no corroborating evidence.”

“That’s shocking,” said Nicole Gorovsky, a former Missouri prosecutor who reviewed this case and others for CNN. “No corroborating evidence? Yeah, because you didn’t test it. If the suspect’s DNA is on the victim anywhere near her genitals, game over for the suspect.”

The prosecutor should have directed police to get the kit and shorts analyzed, Gorovsky said. The investigator, Chelsea Taylor, did not respond to CNN’s attempts to reach her.

The Greene County assistant prosecutor who declined the case, Ami Miller, is now an assistant US attorney in Missouri. CNN’s request to interview her was declined by the office, citing a policy that prohibits her from speaking about cases she reviewed elsewhere. Her former boss, Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson, said the evidence “could have been sent off” for testing.

At the time the case was reported, the statute of limitations for prosecuting child sexual abuse was, minimally, 30 years after a minor victim turned 18. Patterson acknowledged the long statute of limitations.

“It might have been useful” to maintain the kit, he said.

Documents also show prosecutors in his office checked a box that said “release/destroy the evidence” when declining to bring charges in at least seven cases in which kits were destroyed before the statutes of limitations expired. Three of those kits were not tested.

Patterson said prosecutors made that choice when they believed rape kits were not going to help prove a case. As an example, he pointed to instances in which suspects claimed sex was consensual.

But testing kits in those cases could recover a DNA profile that matches an unidentified attacker in another rape. In other words, one victim’s known rapist may be another victim’s unidentified rapist. Testing could also link that suspect to other crime scenes where DNA was found.

Chief Williams told CNN his department began submitting all kits to a lab for analysis in 2014 and preserves that evidence. Data and documents show the agency destroyed two untested kits in 2015. He said he was unaware of that destruction.

In August, Missouri enacted a law requiring police to submit rape kits to labs within 14 days of receiving the evidence. Though many sex crimes have no statutes of limitations, lawmakers decided to require that rape kits be kept for 30 years in cases that have not been adjudicated.

When a rape investigation stalls but police believe the crime can still be solved, they have an option: leave the case open. That allows them to suspend cases without ending them, in anticipation that new information may surface while the statutes of limitations are still running.

Springfield police appropriately set aside investigations this way, experts said. Yet the department later destroyed the rape kits while the reported crimes still could have been prosecuted.

“I was appalled by what I saw in Springfield’s cases — little to no investigation, blatant disregard for victims, a true lack of understanding of trauma,” said Carol Tracy, a Philadelphia attorney who has partnered with that city’s police for more than 15 years to evaluate their sex crimes cases. “And there is no excuse for destroying rape kits in open investigations.”

The side of a black-and-white Springfield police cruiser
Experts say patrol officers who responded to reports of sexual assault did a good job turning up leads. Investigators, however, then failed to follow up. CNN

Patrol officers who responded to initial reports sometimes did a good job turning up leads, experts observed. They helped identify witnesses and pieced together the possible identities of suspects.

But investigators who were then assigned to the cases did not follow up on that information.

Tremblay noted a case in which McDowell didn’t pursue the suspect even though responding officers had provided his possible name and address. They also had interviewed a witness and others who lived in the vicinity of the crime scene.

The woman told police she knew her attacker only by a nickname, “Mo.” She said he followed her into an apartment, deadbolted the door and raped her. She was able to text a roommate, asking for help.

Patrol officers interviewed the roommate, who also knew the man only as Mo. The roommate said he responded to the victim’s texts, the officer noted, because he had “a bad feeling.” He found the apartment door locked but eventually was able to get the door open, he told officers, and saw Mo naked and the victim naked and crying.

Hours after the woman reported her rape, she said her attacker returned to her apartment, cursed her and urinated on her door. An officer responded, took photographs and collected a sample of the urine.

The next day, McDowell received the case. She made two phone calls to the victim and sent her a 10-day letter. When the woman didn’t respond, the detective ended the case less than one month after the victim reported being raped, records show.

The kit — never tested — was destroyed in 2011, a little more than two years after the reported rape and before the statute of limitations expired.

In the last line of her report, McDowell noted the suspect’s possible birth date and Social Security number.

Also in the case file is a copy of another form letter the department routinely used to inform victims that an investigation was over.

“Due to your failure to cooperate,” it reads, “your case is now cleared and no further action will be taken on this matter.”

CNN’s Majlie de Puy Kamp contributed to this story.