DULUTH, Minn. (WCCO) — The law is finally catching up to men who got away with sex crimes in Minnesota years ago.
At least three suspects pleaded guilty after investigators examined untested rape kits. WCCO’s Jennifer Mayerle explains why it could still take years to catch offenders who escaped justice.
Duluth police went from having the highest number of untested sexual assault kits in the state to being the only department to submit their backlog to the BCA for testing.
“Behind every one of those sex kits is an individual. We kind of alone and tried to figure out how to right the ship,” Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said.
A federal grant allowed the department to assemble a team: a program coordinator, victim advocate and designated investigator. They prioritized hundreds of kits that went unchecked from 1993 to 2015.
“Even these kits that were delayed in their testing, they still held viable evidence to offer investigators to work from,” program coordinator Mary Faulkner said.
The 418 kits with known victims went to the BCA for testing over a couple years. Of those, 203 had viable DNA to be uploaded to a database maintained by the FBI. So far, they’ve discovered 116 matches linked to suspects and crime scenes.
“This is the beginning, not the end. We had to get the kits tested. Now that they’re tested, the real work happens. Now we have the ability with this evidence to hold them accountable for a crime that perhaps happened many, many years ago,” Tusken said.
It starts with victim notification.
“For some of these cases, it’s been 20 years. We want to limit the amount of retraumatization that’s taking place,” victim advocate Samantha Madsen said.
If a victim wants to participate, investigator John Barrett starts digging into the case.
“Now you have a starting point. So you’re like how did that DNA get there, does this victim know this person, is it consensual partner DNA, where was the DNA found,” Barrett said.
Barrett has referred 20 cases to the county attorney’s office for prosecution. Three men pleaded guilty.
In at least one of those cases, the suspect’s DNA was in the system before the rape and he has convictions for burglary and domestic assault after it.
“It’s kind of alarming when you sit back and think about it,” reporter Jennifer Mayerle said to Chief Tusken.
“It is. It absolutely is. That’s part of that response when you see it, while good moving forward, could we have done or helped someone not be victimized as a result of acting sooner,” Tusken said.
“There is no question that there is an enormous amount of justice that has yet to be done,” Assistant St. Louis County Prosecutor Nate Stumme said.
On top of the guilty pleas, Stumme has declined seven cases.
“Time is not a prosecutors friend, the more time that passes, witnesses move on, they disappear,” Stumme said.
Ten other cases are currently going through the court. Stumme expects many more as more victims get notified and their cases get reinvestigated.
“This is a long haul project but there will be an end to it,” Stumme said.
It’s expected to take a few more years to wrap up all the Duluth cases. Kits from the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office are first in line with a state grant. That’s another 495 untested kits. In all, there are roughly 3,000 kits across Minnesota that still need to be submitted.
The Betty Skye Line was developed by PAVSA to connect victim-survivors to an advocate that can help them navigate through the criminal justice process. If you believe you have an untested kit with Duluth Police and haven’t been contacted yet, you call the Betty Skye Line at 218-730-5449 or firstname.lastname@example.org.