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Sheriff's Office working to bring justice to Robbins rape victims

Friday, May 27, 2016
Daily Southtown
by Zak Koeske

(Gary Middendorf, Daily Southtown)

Zak KoeskeDaily Southtown

In the months after she reported being raped to the Robbins Police Department in 2007, the woman and her fiance would regularly call for updates on the investigation and get the same response: the police were still investigating.

She knew her alleged attacker — an older man she considered a friend — and had given police his name, and gone straight to the hospital where nurses administered a rape kit to preserve physical evidence.

Robbins police brought the man in for questioning and he was released without being charged. They needed only to obtain a DNA sample from the man, who lived just a couple blocks from the station, and send it to the state crime lab to confirm it matched the sample taken from the woman, but that was never done.

"We would call every two or three months," said the now 49-year-old woman. "Even when we moved [out of state], we called every five or six months."

The woman said she lived in constant fear, knowing her alleged attacker was still walking the streets. She had difficulty sleeping through the night, barraged by nightmares in which she relived the alleged attack. She became distrustful of law enforcement, and people in general.

"I moved because I just couldn't handle not being or feeling safe because I didn't know where he was," she said. "I didn't know if he was mad at me because I went to the police. I didn't trust him. I didn't know what was going on."

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart worked with Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, and the Illinois State Police to craft a bill that would institute checks and balances on the handling of rape investigations by local police departments.

(Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

When she returned to Robbins, as she did every so often to visit her mother or siblings who still live in the area, she insisted on being with a family member at all times, and didn't stray far from her mother's house.

Years passed, and the woman had all but given up hope that her alleged attacker would ever be prosecuted.

Then last year, she got a call.

It was Sgt. Jim Davis, a veteran detective with the Cook County Sheriff's Office. He told her that he and a partner, Detective Judith Powe, were looking into rapes that for years had gone uninvestigated in Robbins.

"We're going to go after this guy," she said he told her. "The people who let you down before don't have anything to do with this.

"We got you."

"I was so grateful that they got in touch with me," the woman said. "I was relieved that someone was finally listening, that someone was doing something about something that was just swept under the rug."

Davis has contacted many sexual assault victims in the past year, since he and Powe were assigned to work more or less exclusively on the backlog of rape cases in Robbins.

A sheriff's police inspection of the south suburban department's evidence room in January 2013 found 176 rape kits dating back to 1986 that the department had neglected to fully investigate.

Some had never been submitted to the state crime lab for testing. Others, like the woman's, had been submitted for testing, but were not worked thereafter.

"Honestly, I think it was incompetence," Sheriff Tom Dart said of Robbins' failure to investigate decades' worth of rapes. "There's no other way to explain it.

"If we had found four or five cases over the course of 10 years, that would have been more suspicious than just this mass disregard of these cases. It shows it was more institutional, not case-specific; just across the board."

'Horrific' toll of unsolved Robbins rape cases

The Sheriff's Office began assisting the cash-strapped department in the wake of the discovery, and ultimately identified 43 rape cases that could still be pursued. The rest had already exceeded their statutes of limitation.

In May 2015, Davis and Powe, who both have ample experience investigating sexual assault cases, were assigned to pursue the viable Robbins rape cases full-time.

"I just wanted the victims of these cases to have the highest confidence level that we are not just taking them seriously, but a certain element of it that we feel you deserve it," Dart said. "I just felt, given everything that happened here, it's what we owed people."

The detectives started with the cases whose statutes of limitation were near expiration and have worked backward. In one year's time, working out of a makeshift office at Oak Forest Hospital, they've gotten through 31 of the cold cases, and are in the process of investigating six others. Forty percent of the cases have involved juvenile victims.

"We're going to be here until it's done," said Dart, who has not specified an end date for the inquiry, and eventually plans to have his detectives follow up on all 176 of the kits, even if charges can't be filed against the alleged perpetrators.

"As we found out, there are some serial rapists involved here and it might be beneficial for us to at least give some type of analysis to the cases," he explained.

Davis and Powe said they approach each of the victims' cases as if it were a family member. They created a color-coded chart that hangs high on the wall of their office with the names and pictures of the victims and the status of each investigation.

Each of the cases is different, depending on where the detectives pick it up.

Robbins sexual assault victim seeks answers about 1991 attack

In some cases, they were left only a victim's name and a hospital report, with no corresponding police report that detailed the alleged sexual assault. In others, the rape kit had already been tested and the DNA matched to a known individual.

"We had to figure out, how do we move forward without all the information in front of us, without knowing where the victim is?" Powe said. "Because normally the victim would just come in and talk to you.

"It was just work backward, really. It was not to get overwhelmed by your 40-something cases. You really had to pace yourself and figure out a plan of how to attack each case."

Once Davis and Powe began corralling all of the existing records for each case and locating the victims, the investigations fell into place.

"A sexual assault is a sexual assault," said Powe, who had attended voluntary training sessions on investigating sexual assaults prior to receiving this assignment. "You know how to do that because you've done that before."

Their game plan in each case is to approach the victim in person, explain how they got involved in the case and tell them that they are starting over with the investigation.

"We don't give them false hope," Powe said. "We're going to try to do whatever we can and we're going to keep you updated on the process; and it's up to them if they want to go forward."

It's important to act compassionately toward the victims, who may be traumatized or may have lost trust in the police, so they feel as comfortable as possible, they said.

"It's awkward for us and it's awkward for them," Powe said. "And you really just have to go into it and talk to them just like you're my friend and I'm talking to my friend, and something bad happened to you and let's just talk. It doesn't have to be so formal, so uptight like, 'We're the police.'"

Davis said he tries to make a personal connection with victims, to put them at ease and let them know, "We're going to be here for you. We're not leaving."

It helps that the partners, who had worked together before teaming up for these cold case rapes, have the rapport of an old married couple.

Bill inspired by Robbins 'travesty' would create sexual assault investigation oversight

"A lot of them get comfortable because they see we're comfortable," Powe said. "They're watching our interaction and they probably think, 'These two are a comedy,' us bickering back and forth."

The most difficult part, the detectives said, is asking victims to dredge up painful memories of their assault.

"You just opened up a wound, so it's like it happened yesterday," Powe said. "Because now they have to remember everything, so now it's fresh again for them."

"And they all seem to break down at the same part," Davis added. "Where it gets to where the act occurred. That's the hardest."

Thus far, their investigations have resulted in five arrests. Another 14 of the cases have been closed "by exception," meaning that the perpetrator has been identified, but is dead; was already charged with a lesser offense and cannot be retried; the statute of limitations expired; or the victim declined to pursue criminal charges.

A dozen of the cases have been "filed," meaning the detectives investigated them, but were unable to identify a suspect — either because they could not locate the victim, the victim could not recall the incident or the victim was uncooperative.

In only one case was a living suspect identified who could not be charged because the statute of limitations had expired. That man, who was implicated in two rapes, is still on the streets.

"We believed at the time we could charge it, and through careful review with the State's Attorney's Office and then with our office, it was determined that the statute expired," said Davis, who tries to keep tabs on the man's whereabouts every few months. "I remember where I was at [when I got the bad news]. It was just like such a kick."

The woman in the 2007 case was one of the fortunate victims whose alleged attacker, identified as 78-year-old George Henderson, has been arrested and charged with criminal sexual assault. Henderson, who was living in a senior citizens home when sheriff's detectives picked him up in October, is out on bond while awaiting trial, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Sophia Ansari said.

His alleged victim said she's finally able to get a good night's rest, knowing he's being held accountable, but that the thought of him still makes her uneasy.

"I don't even want to see him," she said. "I saw the photo when they asked me to identify him, and I was still petrified."

She remains bitter toward the Robbins Police Department, but said she's grateful for the work the sheriff's detectives have done for her, and for other women in her situation.

She encouraged rape victims always to report assaults to authorities, even if they are concerned about not being believed or taken seriously.

"Don't lose faith in law enforcement just because there's a couple bad apples out there," she said. "That's what I want these young ladies to know. It'll eventually get done. I just hope it doesn't take as long as it did for me.

"Tell. Just tell what happened. Open your mouth."

Zkoeske@tribpub.com



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