Justice Sought in Rape Scandal

ROBBINS, Ill. – The rape evidence was stored in the police department’s musty basement: brown paper shopping bags, stuffed with sneakers, bras and underpants, jammed on metal shelves. Scattered blood vials and swabs covered with dust and mold – an inventory amassed over more than 25 years.

Cara Smith, a Cook County sheriff’s aide, knew something was terribly wrong the moment she saw the jumble, which included 176 rape kits dating back to 1986.

Many of these crimes had long been forgotten by everyone except the victims.

Smith began digging into the cases and ultimately came to a disturbing conclusion: In most of the reported rapes, Robbins police had seemingly conducted little or no follow-up despite having crime lab results.

And in nearly a third of the cases, police hadn’t even submitted physical evidence for analysis.

Those findings posed one daunting question: Is there any way to right the wrongs that, in some cases, go back a generation?

The answer will come from the Cook County sheriff’s office, where Smith and investigators have devoted much of the year to reviewing the cases, poring over records, interviewing victims, trying to put together puzzles even when key pieces are missing.

Davis also said he believed many rape investigations were dropped because of insufficient evidence

Sheriff’s investigators now have police reports in just 45 rape cases and have interviewed about 10 victims so far. Smith says tracking them down has been very difficult.

One of the few to shed her anonymity is Rosa Pickett.

She approached Dart after the town meeting and said she’d been raped in 1977 – her case was older than those being reviewed.

But she still wanted answers, and asked him: “Why aren’t you looking into mine?”

Her assault, she says, occurred Sept. 3, 1977, when she was 17: She was heading to her sister’s birthday party when a man grabbed her from behind, choked her with a belt until she temporarily lost consciousness, pummeled her face and raped her. At the hospital, she spoke with a Robbins police officer, who photographed her bruises.

Pickett later described her attacker and was confident of an arrest. “I just knew they’re not going to let me down because of the way he beat me,” she says.

Pickett, now a 53-year-old grandmother, says she never heard from police again.

The rape, she adds, all but destroyed her.

A decade later, while using drugs, she says, something incredible happened: She encountered her attacker at a gathering at a friend’s house. She rushed to tell police, who she says informed her it was too late.

Pickett, who says she’s been drug free for 20 years, remains angry.

There is no rape kit or police report documenting Pickett’s assault.

But this spring, Smith searched a police department file cabinet and found a 3-by-5 card notification card with Pickett’s name and date of her assault.

There was evidence in another brutal rape – a 14-year-old assaulted in 1991 – a case that Smith says epitomizes the wider injustices in this investigation.

The girl was walking home after basketball practice when she was grabbed. As she struggled with her attacker; they fell over a guard rail into a creek where the man pushed her face into the water, trying to drown her. She survived by playing dead.

The state crime lab found potential DNA evidence, Smith says, and told Robbins police, but there’s no indication they pursued that lead. Two detectives assigned to the case were later imprisoned for taking bribes from a drug dealer, crimes unrelated to the rape.

This spring, the victim, now a 36-year-old mother, contacted Smith, who had a private lab re-analyze the evidence. Within 24 hours, she says, there was a match to a suspect in a national DNA database who’d served 14 years for armed robbery. Investigators put a flag on his file to alert them if he was arrested.

When the man was charged with domestic battery in Nebraska this fall, sheriff’s investigators drove there. During questioning, Smith says, he acknowledged a sexual encounter in Robbins around that time, claimed the girl was perhaps 16 and said when she screamed, “You’re raping me,” he ran away. He refused to say more.

It’s too late to prosecute, one more frustration to Smith.

Despite the many setbacks, Smith remains hopeful there will be prosecutions when the case review is completed.

But, she concedes, “any success we’ll have will pale in comparison to the harm done to the community.”

Early on, Sheriff Dart consulted with lawyers, judges and others hoping to find a legal way around the statute of limitations that would allow old cases to be prosecuted.

For now, Dart says he can only express regrets and tell victims: “I’m sorry as a society we let you down.”