After a nationwide uproar in recent years over the tens of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in police evidence rooms, California passed legislation requiring law enforcement agencies across the state to audit the backlog of kits in their possession.
The Bakersfield Police Department took the process one step further. It created a cold case unit for sexual assault cases in an attempt to develop new leads and hopefully solve some of the crimes.
In November 2018, Det. Santos Luevano was assigned to the unit and has combed through 437 case files connected with untested rape kits collected prior to 2017 that were in department evidence rooms. (Since 2017, the department tests every rape kit it collects.)
From the 437 untested kits, Luevano identified 18 cases to be sent for testing.
So far his work has yielded five hits on a nationwide DNA database and an arrest in a 2013 case in which a 19-year-old victim was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a stranger as she walked home from the Valley Plaza Mall.
"The unfortunate reality was technology and resources were such that we weren’t able to test every kit," said Sgt. Sean Morphis, who oversees the Special Victims Unit in the police department's investigations division, explaining why kits went untested. "We had to get approval from the DA’s office and crime lab before anything could be submitted."
Success with cold cases
The formation of the sexual assault cold case unit was modeled on the department's cold case homicide unit created in 2017. Cold case homicides used to be handled by detectives who also worked current cases. But because there's an immediacy to collecting and preserving evidence in new homicide cases, cold cases often took a back seat, Morphis said.
So the department dedicated two detectives solely to cold case homicides and saw some success. The most high-profile case solved so far was identification of Prentice Foreman as the man who raped and killed 19-year-old Dawn Koons in 1979. In July, Foreman was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.
"We decided maybe we can mirror that process and see if we can have some success in (sexual assault) cases as well," Morphis said.
Both Morphis and Luevano described the 18 kits that were sent for testing as cases that involved especially heinous crimes or that just stood out as obvious ones that should have been tested.
One of the kits Luevano sent to the Kern Regional Crime Laboratory in April came back positive for a hit in the nationwide Combined DNA Index system, a database of DNA samples from crime scenes and convicted offenders. It led police to a suspect, and on Aug. 30, BPD arrested Christopher Hansbrough, 36, for alleged attempted rape and forced oral copulation.
The case involved a 19-year-old victim who told police back in 2013 that she was walking home from Valley Plaza Mall at night when a white Kia Sportage pulled up behind her, driving slowly. A man she didn't know exited the vehicle, grabbed her from behind and forced her into the car, the report said. She told police the man tried to take off her pants but was unable to so he forced her to perform oral sex. Afterward, she was thrown from the vehicle, the report said.
After his arrest, court documents said Hansbrough told detectives it was impossible he committed the crime because he lived out of state at the time. But police said DNA evidence collected from the victim matched with his.
Morphis said he couldn't reveal details of the other 17 cases or comment on investigative leads as the investigations are ongoing.
The other 419 untested rape kits fall into the following categories:
In 111 cases, the victim declined prosecution.
In 165, the allegations could not be substantiated. In most cases, the victim and suspect knew each other and other evidence would be needed for prosecution.
In 111 cases, the kits were not needed for prosecution because perhaps the suspect took a plea deal or was found guilty without needing DNA evidence.
In 32 cases, the kits were categorized as "other." Most were courtesy cases where the DNA was collected here on behalf of an agency located elsewhere.
During the course of reporting this story, BPD announced it would send all 419 kits for testing, whereas it previously planned to continue storing them untested.
"The Kern Regional Crime Lab saw benefit in testing all kits including those cases that may not have potential for new criminal charges, to further future investigations," wrote Sgt. Nathan McCauley in an email. "Those kits will now begin to be sent over for testing." The department will send up to 10 a month for testing, which is the limit the crime lab will allow, until all have been tested, McCauley said.
“We are constantly reviewing 'best practices' from local, state and federal levels and make adjustments accordingly,” said BPD Chief Lyle Martin on Friday.
A powerful tool
The Kern County Sheriff's Office has about 500 backlogged rape kits, according to spokeswoman Angela Monroe.
"Those numbers do include some that are already adjudicated cases," she said, "but still all need to be tested." Ten a month are sent to the crime lab for processing, she said.
There's several reasons the decision to test all the older, untested kits is a good move, according to Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national nonprofit that aims to end the backlog of rape kits through awareness and policy reform.
"It's just a powerful tool all around," Knecht said of the rape kits and DNA testing.
For one thing, the federal government now recommends all backlogged kits be tested as a best practice she said, pointing to a National Institute of Justice report from 2017.
Also, entering DNA from a reported crime into the national database increases the possibility of matching it with another DNA sample. Knecht cited a case recently in Arizona where a woman reported being raped by a stranger. When DNA evidence from her attack was entered into the database, it matched with DNA from a rape kit in which a woman had reported being raped by an acquaintance. The police then had a suspect, since one of the victims knew her attacker.
"You don’t get the case-to-case matches if you don’t put the DNA in the database," Knecht said.
She also pointed to the state of Delaware, where a statewide effort to clear previously untested rape kits led police to a man responsible for seven rapes over five years.
"And sometimes, testing exonerates someone," Knecht said. "It’s just a powerful tool all around."