By Ashley Fantz, CNN Investigates
Thursday, November 29, 2018
Fayetteville, North Carolina
She’ll never forget that phone call and the way the police officer stumbled trying to get the words out:
We’re sorry, she recalls him saying, but we destroyed your rape kit.
It took her a moment to digest what she’d heard. It was late 2015, and she had seen the news a few weeks earlier: The Fayetteville police chief was on TV announcing that the department had regrettably destroyed hundreds of rape kits.
Now the officer on the phone was making an offer she couldn’t quite believe.
Would you like the department to reinvestigate your rape? Would you like for us to try again?
In a matter of seconds, his words yanked her back eight years. She was in an apartment. Naked. Four men shouted commands at one another: do this to her, do that. She was drunk, out of it. Terrified.
The next day, February 26, 2007, she told a Fayetteville patrol officer that she had been gang raped. She submitted to a forensic examination of her body. The nurse asked her to describe every detail, every place the men forced themselves, she said, so her body could be positioned for closer inspection.
The exam felt to her like a second violation. But she endured it because she believed her rape kit — and the DNA it could possibly hold – would help police in their investigation.
Learning that her kit had been destroyed was jarring, said the woman, who will be referred to only by the pseudonym Christine because CNN does not typically identify victims of sexual assault and she asked that her name be withheld. But over the years she’d grown resigned to the idea that police had gotten nowhere with her case.
“I was furious,” she said. “I counted on the police to do what they were supposed to do — to investigate what happened to me and to test that evidence.
“Instead, they treated it like trash. They treated me like trash.”
Christine’s rape kit was among 333 that the Fayetteville police trashed between roughly 1997 and 2009, according to an audit of the destruction conducted by Lieutenant John Somerindyke.
The kits were destroyed even though North Carolina has no statute of limitations on rape. That means authorities could bring assailants to justice at any time, but evidence that might have facilitated those prosecutions was thrown away.
At the time, detectives had the authority to order the disposal of rape kits in their cases, Somerindyke said, and they were discarded for one reason: “We were just clearing space in the evidence room.”
Somerindyke discovered the destruction in early 2015. As the head of a new cold case squad, he was reviewing old rape files.
“Almost every case I was coming across was workable … so I figured, ‘Hey, let’s get the evidence and test the evidence.’”
But time and again, he discovered that the kits that corresponded with the cases he was reading had been destroyed.
Somerindyke estimates that about 85% of the destroyed kits were never tested, but he did not keep an exact count. In failing to analyze the evidence, police forfeited the chance to recover DNA the kits might have contained. That material could have been used to identify unknown suspects or link them to other crimes.
Police stopped trashing rape kits in late 2009, Somerindyke said, before North Carolina enacted a law prohibiting the destruction of biological evidence in unsolved rape cases.
But the destruction of kits continued across the country. A CNN investigation found that since 2010 law enforcement agencies have destroyed hundreds of rape kits before the statutes of limitations expired or when there was no time limit on prosecution. Evidence was trashed as recently as 2016, the year reporters requested the information.
Christine’s case is just one example of how that practice can scar a victim and handicap the search for justice.
Fayetteville police refused to provide CNN with case files tied to the 333 kits it destroyed. But Somerindyke read documents from those investigations to a reporter. Many cases were poorly investigated. Leads were not followed and suspects and witnesses were not pursued. Investigators indicated that rapes did not occur when, in Somerindyke’s estimation, they likely did.
And rape kits were destroyed in open investigations — at least 55 times, he said.
A lack of training — including in how a traumatized victim may behave — led investigators to mishandle cases, Somerindyke said. But those failings existed because the department fostered a culture that didn’t take rape seriously.
“The priority was homicides. After that, it was business robberies and aggravated assaults. The emphasis wasn’t placed on rapes,” he said. Detectives were working rape cases “probably like we work a crackhead that got robbed in the projects at 2 in the morning.”
Somerindyke believed the way to right the department’s wrongs was to tell victims their kits had been destroyed, offer to reopen their cases and, this time, properly investigate.
Detectives, at his direction, started making calls.
When Detective John Benazzi reached Christine and offered to reopen her case, she was working to become a mental health counselor.
She was in college at the time of the assault and tried hard to tamp down her trauma and grief in order to graduate.
“That was the one thing I felt I could control,” she said.
“Everything else was out of control.”
But over the years, the assault shadowed her. She was riddled with anxiety when she would leave her home, afraid she might run into one of her attackers. Her Christian faith steadied her. But she wanted to avoid the notice of men, so she asked God to make her ugly.
She bought a gun.
Eventually, she said, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and underwent therapy. That helped relieve her incessant urge to check and recheck the locks on the windows and doors of her house. With time, she could sleep through the night again. She could trust people. She fell in love, got engaged.
Christine worried that reopening her case could retraumatize her and undo all that progress. But she believed the department was sincerely remorseful and wanted to make good.
“I guess I was hopeful,” she said. “There was some hope of prosecution or justice. … I held on to that.”
At Benazzi’s request, Christine went to the Fayetteville police station in November 2015 to give another interview about that night in 2007. She also recounted it for CNN.
It was February 24. Christine went with her roommate and other girlfriends to local bars. They met a group of guys, and they drank together. Christine recognized a few of the men. They were members of the Army, she thought, based at Fayetteville’s Fort Bragg. Christine talked to one man who seemed like a good guy; she believed someone she knew had dated him.
Her roommate overheard another man make derogatory comments about Christine, who was intoxicated. Christine said she was going home with the guy she was talking with. Her roommate urged her not to, but Christine refused to listen.
She went with him to an apartment.
The two began to take their clothes off and kiss, but then he left the room. When he returned, he had three friends with him. Christine recognized them from the bar.
“I didn’t consent to have three, four men have their way with me,” she told CNN. “That’s not what I consented to.
“I told them no. I told them that’s not what I wanted. And they didn’t honor that, or respect that or — or stop.”
One acted as the ringleader, she said, directing the others on what to do and whose turn it was.
“And I remember him saying at one point, ‘She likes it.’ I had my head in the pillow and I was crying. So they couldn’t see that, no, I didn’t like it. But they were too busy trying to get off.
“I was dying inside. I was screaming inside for help,” she said. They “were all much stronger, much bigger than me. I’m in a location I don’t know. I don’t know how to get home. I was fearful that if I made a noise or fought back that something worse would happen. So I just laid there and took it until it was over. Which felt like a lifetime.”
At some point, Christine fell asleep. The next morning she woke to find the man with whom she’d left the bar lying next to her.
“I’m thinking, ‘Was that a nightmare?’ It just seemed so horrifying what happened,” she said.
“He’s lying there like everything was normal and OK. And I didn’t know where I was. I was terrified. I didn’t have any words. I didn’t say anything to him. I think I just asked him to take me home.”
Her roommate, who’d been at the bar with her, was not home. Christine cried and slept for hours. She was afraid to go to police, ashamed. When her roommate returned, Christine told her what happened. (CNN reached the roommate, who declined to be interviewed.)
“She’s the one that really encouraged me to go to the hospital to get a rape kit done,” Christine said.
At the hospital the next day, a Fayetteville patrol officer spoke with Christine and took her kit into evidence.
Christine’s case was given to Detective Danielle Hart to investigate. Several days after reporting her assault, Christine went to the police station for an interview with the detective. It was not recorded.
Police would not provide CNN with a copy of Christine’s case file. Christine, however, shared the copy she obtained.
Hart’s entire investigation is documented on a single sheet of paper. Christine’s account of the night is contained in a single paragraph.
Christine began “a sexual endeavor” with one man, Hart wrote, and “while they were engaging in sex, three other individuals came into the room.”
The detective’s notes and Christine’s initial statement to a patrol officer reflect that Christine provided the first and last names of two men and the first name of a third.
“They would take turns with her,” Hart wrote, “but she does not know who was doing what to her.”
According to the file, Hart made a quick assessment of the merits of the case: “After hearing the night’s events,” Hart stated in her report, “I explained to (Christine) this incident was not a crime.”
Hart reached that conclusion based on her reading of the law, which she believed required Christine to have verbally or physically resisted the men or to have been mentally or physically incapacitated. Being drunk, she believed, was not enough to consider Christine incapable of giving consent.
The detective wrote that she read the law to Christine.
“I retrieved my crimes book and read her the elements necessary for 1st and 2nd Degree Rape.” Hart wrote. “She advised she understood.
“She asked if I could speak with the subjects about the incident. I explained I would attempt to speak with them but I was not sure when I would be able to go to their residence.”
Hart never tried to interview the men.
Sometime after Christine left the police station, the detective closed the case by labeling the reported rape “unfounded,” a police term that means no crime was attempted or occurred.
The following month, on April 23, 2007, Hart authorized the destruction of Christine’s untested rape kit, according to police documents.
The kit sat in the evidence room for a year until, records show, it was destroyed on April 21, 2008.
Christine was not informed of any of this.
All she knew, when she walked out of the police station, was how she felt: as if she wasn’t believed.
“She told me at the end, ‘See, what happened to you wasn’t rape,’” Christine told CNN. “I thought, if the police department — if this detective — doesn’t believe me, who is going to believe me? And, I mean, I have to live with that. Those words still stick with me.”
Shortly thereafter, Christine said she gave up hope that her rape would be investigated.
“I had to find a way to bury it for myself.”
Hart’s decision to label Christine’s case unfounded and authorize destruction of her rape kit was based on an incorrect interpretation of North Carolina law, according to several legal experts interviewed by CNN.
Under the law, a victim does not have to physically or verbally resist her attackers, and being significantly intoxicated could mean the victim is not mentally or physically capable of giving consent, experts said.
A Fayetteville prosecutor, Alicia Marks, criticized Hart’s decision to interpret the law on her own and close the case without interviewing the suspects and conducting a thorough investigation.
Such an investigation would have included going to the bars to identify witnesses and obtaining surveillance video and other potential evidence that might establish Christine’s level of intoxication.
“I’ve had cases where … the suspects are interviewed and say, ‘Oh, this person was totally wasted.’ Sometimes the suspect will give you lack of capacity from their own statement because they think that voluntary intoxication … should be a defense,” said Marks.
Paul Callan, a CNN legal analyst who worked as a prosecutor in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, agreed that Hart mishandled the investigation and misread the law. He noted that Christine acknowledged consuming a large amount of alcohol.
“Given Christine’s statement, the case cried out for further investigation to see if her story could be corroborated,” Callan said.
In a pair of interviews with CNN, Hart repeatedly defended her handling of the case. As she had with Christine, she retrieved a book of North Carolina law from her shelf and read aloud to a reporter the language for first- and second-degree rape, which is the same today as it was in 2007.
She repeated that Christine did not resist verbally or physically and said that “being really drunk” did not make it a sex crime.
“She was awake and aware of what was going on. If she had passed out — and (was) unaware of what was going on — then I probably would have gone further with the investigation. But she said she was awake. She was just intoxicated.”
The patrol officer’s report noted that Christine did not “remember telling them to stop.” In interviews with CNN, Christine said she told Hart that she resisted her attackers by telling them “no” and that she blacked out several times during the assault. Hart’s report does not document any such statements being made.
When told that legal experts disagreed with her reading of the law, the detective dismissed their positions.
“That’s their opinion,” said Hart, who now works as an investigator for the Fayetteville public defender’s office. “And I’m glad for them.”
When informed that experts also believed she should have conducted a more thorough investigation, Hart said she handled the case as she had been trained.
“I don’t believe that I ever was malicious in my investigations,” she said. “I followed the law to what I was taught, and to the best of my ability. If I did something wrong — then I hope somebody can correct it.”
At the end of the interview, asked if she had any regrets, she acknowledged for the first time that she could have done more investigative work, such as interviewing Christine’s friends and roommate — and the suspects.
“I could’ve gone further with the investigation, I guess,” Hart said.
Detective Benazzi knew opening the case so many years later would be difficult. With the untested rape kit gone, he felt there was only one course of action: Try to interview the suspects.
He explained that to Christine.
“I told her I was going to try,” he said. “I really wanted to get her some type of justice. Do I wish what happened — how this was handled before — wasn’t handled that way? Yes. But today is today. And all I can do is try my best.”
Christine told Benazzi she believed two of the men — the ones whose first and last names she had given to Hart — were still in the military.
Though Christine knew only the first name of the third man, she gave the detective what she believed was his phone number. Benazzi linked the number to a man whose home address matched the address of the reported crime scene.
The fourth man was never identified. Had Christine’s rape kit been tested, it’s possible that his DNA profile could have been recovered, which may have helped lead police to him. Testing the evidence might have also helped support or discount whether she had sexual contact that night.
Benazzi reached out to criminal investigators at Fort Bragg. They said the men were based at different military installations around the country, police records show.
Military investigators at the three installations attempted to interview the men, first showing them photographs of Christine from 2007 that she provided to Benazzi. Each invoked his right to remain silent, according to a Fayetteville police document.
CNN is not naming the men because they were not charged. A reporter reached one, who declined to comment; CNN was unable to reach the other two.
Two months after Christine agreed to have her case reinvestigated, the military informed Fayetteville police that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge the men, according to documents.
The military closed the case. US Army Criminal Investigations Command spokesman Chris Grey told CNN it would reopen the investigation if new, credible information emerges.
Fayetteville police also closed the case, promising to reinvestigate if there are developments.
Christine was prepared for that ending. But she felt a small sense of satisfaction knowing that the men were confronted.
“I wanted them to know that I know, that even all these years later … what they did was … wrong.”
Still, Christine is angry. The destruction of rape kits, she said, sends a clear message:
“You don’t matter, what happened to you doesn’t matter. And it sends a message to perpetrators, ‘Go ahead and keep doing this. You’re going to get away with it.’”