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Robbins sexual assault victim seeks answers about 1991 attack

For 22 years she rarely spoke of the chilling attack, even as it changed so much about her life.

The multisport athlete was 14 and on her way home from basketball practice on a fall evening when she was grabbed from behind, dragged from the road and sexually assaulted. She quit all sports — never playing again. She never learned to swim because of haunting memories of being held down in water during the attack.

She felt ashamed and increasingly edgy as the years passed and she never heard from police about suspects, evidence or anything to do with an investigation.

"I was always fighting. Maybe because I was angry," she said. "Why it happened to me — that was a big question."

But the woman — who is now 36 — never really gave up hope. So four months ago, when she heard that Cook County sheriff's police found untested rape kits in Robbins, she broke decades of silence and called to ask if hers might be among them.

The answers were complex and heartbreaking.

In fact, state police had tested her rape kit — containing potential DNA evidence collected from the victim and the scene — and notified Robbins about two months after the 1991 attack that an unidentified DNA sample had been found. It was a promising lead that meant detectives could potentially link a suspect to the crime.

But Robbins police never did anything with the lab results, not at the time and not later. There was little in the case file — just a two-page incident report — to suggest significant effort was ever made to find her attacker, sheriff's officials say.

And in a tragic footnote, though the profile was matched in May to a suspect in the national DNA database, the statute of limitations had passed, thwarting authorities for the time being.

Sheriff's officials, convinced this is not the only rape case that was not properly investigated in the struggling south suburban town, have broadened and ramped up their probe in Robbins to find out if there were other tested rape kits that were simply shelved and ignored.

They know there were other forgotten victims. One of them inspired the 1991 victim to reach out to the sheriff's office and share her story.

"I want to be able to be heard," she said. "Even if nothing else comes out of it."

'Our worst fears'

The sheriff's office stepped up its presence in Robbins in January in the wake of several problems, including the resignation of the police chief after a DUI arrest. A month later investigators discovered an evidence room with 51 untested rape kits.

They held a highly publicized town hall meeting to announce they would test the kits. At the meeting, they heard more complaints about lawlessness around town — including rampant burglary rings. One resident even offered up the name of her own family member as a suspect.

Robbins has since installed a new police command staff that is working closely with Sheriff Tom Dart's office, promising a renewed commitment to investigating crimes in the tiny suburb.

Certainly, the troubles in the Robbins Police Department are not unique. Dart's office took over nearby Ford Heights police operations in 2008 after the suburb could no longer afford to police the streets. It recently began providing support to Dixmoor when the village ran into staffing issues.

All of the towns share a weak tax base that affects civic functions, from schools to police.

The 1991 victim and her mother, during an interview with the Tribune, said they recall giving one interview to Robbins police within a day of the attack. They also went to the police station to see a sketch artist, but they say they never saw a sketch after that day.

Sheriff's investigators have found only the rape kit — in a disorganized evidence room — and the two-page incident report documenting the assault in the Robbins records. They had to contact the Illinois state crime lab for the original rape kit test results. Biological slides that the state police returned to Robbins were not found in the department, officials said.

Seasoned investigators in the Chicago area contacted about the case said although Robbins did not initially have the name of a suspect, they would have expected to find more on the case: the state lab results, a supplemental report from detectives regarding follow-up interviews and a copy of the sketch. An inventory from a neighborhood canvass and photos from the crime scene would not be unusual to find either, they said.

Dart aide Cara Smith, who is overseeing the overall Robbins review, said she had an uneasy feeling the first time she went into the evidence room in January. There were dozens of untested rape kits. Random guns were next to bags of clothes. Vials of blood rested on shelves next to stray gym shoes, all of it leaving her to wonder whether investigations were done on any cases.

After poking into the 1991 case, she was convinced they were not.

"Her case proved our worst fears," Smith said. "They weren't working the cases. ... This case is a violent rape of a 14-year-old, of a teenager coming home from basketball practice. … If they are not looking at (this) case, which kind of case will they work?"

The sheriff's office said the detective assigned to the 1991 rape case told investigators in a recent interview that he had no recollection of it. The officer was convicted in 2000 of federal extortion charges for taking money from a drug dealer in an unrelated case, Smith said.

Sharmili Majmudar, executive director of Rape Victims Advocates in Chicago, called the situation tragic and a painful reminder of how important it is for law enforcement to take all rape reports seriously and to act quickly — no matter the circumstances and regardless of whether a rape kit exists.

"The rape kit is simply a tool and hopefully is a tool that yields useful evidence, which it did in this case," Majmudar said. "But a tool is only as good as it is used. I think too often we do an injustice to victims if that is the sole piece that we focus on. It's about having a thorough and timely investigation (and) prosecution of the crime as well."

So far, an audit by the sheriff's office has found 132 rape kits that were analyzed dating to 1986. Officials are checking to see how many investigations were conducted. Of that number, there are 52 in which the statute of limitations has not expired. Those have been given higher priority.

Officials have also met recently with advocates and experts in criminal sexual assault cases to see if there are other options for older cases in which criminal charges now seem unlikely.

"Maybe we look at civil remedies," Dart said. "I am compelled to think there is a way for victims to understand there is some justice to be found. If you happen to be in a town that is either ragingly incompetent or impoverished, it doesn't mean you've given up all your rights. … When you are horrifically assaulted and almost murdered, we do not as a society say that is acceptable."

Speaking up

As the family waited for word from police about the 1991 attack, the teen soldiered through high school, trying as best she could not to think about what happened but never working through it.

"I blew it off," she explained. "Like it wasn't me."

She was close to her grandmother, who is now deceased, and remains so with her mother. Today she works, sometimes two jobs, and is eager to complete her bachelor's degree. She is 11/2 years from finishing but struggling to pay tuition.

During a recent interview in her home, she still cannot say much about that 1991 evening before halting, leaving silence and tears slowly rolling down her smooth face.

"It'll never go away," she said. "I always wanted him to get caught. It was hard for me. I was young to go through that."

Rosa Pickett, a 52-year-old family friend sitting next to her, reached out and put her arm around the woman, offering a reassuring hug.

Pickett also was sexually assaulted in Robbins as a teen.

She reached out to Dart — directly — about her 1977 assault, which happened as she was walking to her sister's birthday party. Pickett said her attacker choked her with a belt and assaulted her.

Pickett, who agreed to have her name published, said that she was treated at a hospital and that police took a report — but she never heard from detectives. When she learned Dart's office had found the old rape kits, she went to the sheriff's town hall meeting and stopped him afterward to personally ask about her case.

"I didn't want to be forgotten," she said.

But investigators could find only a contact card that lists Pickett's name, the crime classification (rape) and the date of the attack. This leaves them with little to go on.

"That made me feel like the village walked all over me," Pickett said of the missing record.

Pickett, though, has concluded that just telling her story has power — it might encourage other women whose cases can still be cleared to come forward. She told her story in the Sun-Times and posted a note on Facebook to other victims, asking them to reach out.

"I did not want this to die down," Pickett said. "I have lived with this too long. The women need to speak up for themselves."

Her story encouraged the woman who was attacked in 1991 to also call the sheriff. She reached out to Pickett first to see what she thought.

"She told me, 'Just see, just see what's gonna come of it,'" the woman said.

Pickett gave the woman the phone number for Smith, Dart's aide.

Solvable case

Smith got a phone call April 4 while driving to a Sheriff's Department event and pulled to the side of the road to listen to the woman's story. She heard a timid voice on the other end of the line, describing a horrific crime.

She immediately scrolled through the rape kit inventory list she had saved on her phone, found the case and saw the kit had been analyzed. Theoretically, this meant it was a case that had been investigated — yet here was the victim, calling to see if anyone ever did anything.

"I felt sick to my stomach," Smith said.

Sheriff's detectives immediately turned to the decades-old case, working off the two-page report. They have talked to Robbins police officers named in the document. They have reinterviewed the firefighter who transported the teen to the hospital. They tried to figure out who the sketch artist was.

The kit was re-analyzed by a private lab, and technicians were able to isolate yet another profile. In late May, the profile was matched to a suspect, whose DNA had been entered into the system in 2005 after his felony conviction for a nonsexual crime. He has served his sentence on those charges, officials said.

But so far state's attorney's and sheriff's officials have failed to find a way around the statute of limitations issue. Today, the case would have no statute of limitations based on changes to the law. But, because of the laws at the time of the attack, the clock had run out on criminal sexual assault and attempted murder charges by 1996, Smith said.

It was not an easy case to solve. But officials say it deserved an effort.

"This was a solvable case in a town that has the basic funding for a competent police department," Dart said. "Was there a concerted effort by the town of Robbins to say we don't care about these people? No. The stark facts (are) they have no money, and with that you get minimum wage police officers who come and go and have their own issues with criminal activities. Is it difficult to imagine they are having trouble following through on cases? Not really."

asweeney@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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