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Investigating ‘The Mess': Chasing Predators

Massive remedial effort seeks justice for victims in neglected and overlooked cold cases

By , Special to the Daily Memphian Published: August 05, 2020 4:00 AM CT

This article was produced in partnership with the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, a nonprofit newsroom specializing in investigative and explanatory journalism.

She fell asleep that night as “Judge Joe Brown” blared from her bedroom television, waking hours later to a light drizzle on her window — and the outline of an intruder standing at the foot of her bed. 

IN THIS SERIES

PART 1 : A determined victim’s own investigation of her violent attack decades ago leads to outrage over police missteps and the discovery of mountains of destroyed evidence — but no suspect.

PART 2 : Aging sexual assault victims contend MPD’s failure to investigate their cases has doubled their trauma; now city of Memphis fights their lawsuits

“I tried to get up and get to the front door, but he started fighting me — pushing me back down with his fist,” the 28-year-old victim told investigators following her March 30, 2001, rape in Memphis’ Binghampton neighborhood. 

“We fought for a minute and the licks started getting harder and harder,” she said, explaining how the intruder tied her up and assaulted her before vanishing. 

As days passed, and then weeks and years, it seemed he would never be found. 

But as a 15-year statute of limitations inched ever closer, the uncertainty evaporated in a flash on Jan. 26, 2012, when a distant FBI super-computer spit out a DNA match. 

Her attacker was Tony Sea, a muscled ex-convict long suspected of a series of rapes in Memphis. 

Sea was among the first snared by a cold case task force set into motion three years before the Memphis Police Department’s 2013 admission that thousands of rape kits —critical evidence collected from victims — had gone untested for years, according to an investigation by The Institute for Public Service Reporting.

Though the kit from the 2001 rape was quickly tested, other kits tying Sea to additional attacks sat untested on shelves for years. 

That long-ignored evidence, and dramatically improved DNA testing methods, helped link Sea to four rapes — and a 40-year prison sentence. Such evidence has since been used to identify and convict 78 others. 

It’s been used to identify 22 serial rapists — convicting nine so far, including Sea. 

It’s led to more than 300 indictments — many of them “John Does” in which criminal charges are filed against the DNA profiles of still-unidentified suspects in a race against a 15-year statute of limitation in place for the most severe sexual assaults before a 2014 law change revised time limits for prosecuting rape in Tennessee. 

“It’s bittersweet,” said District Attorney Amy Weirich, who witnessed firsthand the anger expressed by many when MPD announced in 2013 it was holding thousands of untested rape kits, the product of decades of limited technology, controversial policy decisions and — in many cases outright mistakes and indifference — that allowed numbers of rapists to escape justice. 

“You wish that nobody in our community ever had to experience some of the horrific crimes that these women and men have experienced in their lifetime. But, yes, (it’s good) to be able to finally bring closure to them, to finally be able to bring these offenders to justice, because we know that they don’t just do it one time. We know that they continue to victimize vulnerable members of our community and other communities.”

The Institute found the remedial actions came too late for many: suspects died before they were identified or the statute of limitations expired on their cases. And, significantly, victims died before their attackers could be prosecuted. 

Four suspects have been acquitted at trial including Bridges Randle, a former Memphis patrol officer who’d been accused in the rape of a crime victim who’d called police for help back in June 2000. 

But for Deborah Clubb, executive director of Memphis Area Women’s Council, the push for justice for long-forgotten victims has been rewarding. 

“It’s very, very satisfying to see these men put away for, you know, double-digit number of years. It’s been also horrifying to see in the background of so many of them repeated episodes of domestic violence in particular, and then also the rape cases,” she said. 

Clubb is a member of the Sexual Assault Kit Task Force first organized in 2013 by then-Mayor AC Wharton that’s helped raise $15 million so far to conduct DNA testing of the backlog, investigate cold cases and promote policy reform and public awareness to prevent future backlogs. 

The partnership of police, prosecutors, victims’ advocates and community leaders boasts a range of accomplishments: The entire 12,164 kits in the backlog have been submitted for testing (though police have since found about 400 additional untested kits). Police have opened a $1 million climate-controlled evidence room for rape kit storage. And new kits now are tested within 96 hours. 

“Another important outcome of this task force work and our community’s response to this, for me, is that we are talking about rape,” Clubb said. “We are talking about how our younger people, our teens and college-age people need help understanding … healthy relationships.”

PURSUING JOHN DOE 

Key to those achievements was the formation of MPD’s 15-member Cold Case DNA Unit tasked with locating old rape kits among the chaos of the police agency’s evidence storage, shipping them for testing and then re-investigating cases when crime lab scientists find matches. It was a massive undertaking begun long before the backlog was acknowledged publicly in 2013 following a TV news report. 

So far, the DNA Unit has reopened more than 5,300 separate criminal investigations. 

Records show those arrested include Michael D. Love, 46, who is believed to have raped more than a dozen women between 2007 and 2015 and is serving six life sentences; John Eskridge, 56, convicted 16 years after two violent assaults in 2001; and Thomas Maupin, 70, who raped a woman in an alley in 2001 and was finally caught after a DNA profile was developed from false teeth he left behind at the crime scene. Maupin was also indicted in June for the 2001 murders of two women.

Another of the DNA Unit’s early targets was David Hugo Johnson, a petty criminal who’d been in and out of trouble after dropping out of Memphis’ Hillcrest High School in 1993. 

Twenty years ago, he got away with rape — or so it seemed. 

It was the early on Feb. 14, 2000 — Valentine’s Day — when a 33-year-old woman woke to the thuds of Johnson climbing through her bedroom window in Whitehaven. 

“I turned over and I saw the guy in the window,” the woman later reported. “I (reached) to turn the light on and he said turn it back off ’cause he had a gun.”

In fact, Johnson had a knife. He cut off the woman’s clothes and raped her. 

Detectives investigating the case didn’t test her rape kit. Such inaction remains a haunting component in numbers of these cases. MPD has offered a variety of explanations. For one, the state crime lab run by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation lacked access until 2002 to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a massive national database of DNA profiles that is used to match suspects to crimes. 

“There was no database to send it to,” said retired sex crimes supervisor Wilton Cleveland. “So, I think a lot of times when you look at these old kits, people get really enraged that these things were untested. And don’t get me wrong — there’s some that were untested, right? For whatever reason. But everybody bears responsibility to some extent. But it was such a new thing for law enforcement. And law enforcement takes a while to change sometimes.”

Even now, it’s often difficult to piece together reasons police did not test. For example, detectives quickly tested a couple of kits connected to serial rapist Tony Sea but waited years to test others, and available records don’t explain how police finally got the first CODIS hit in that case in 2012.

By some accounts, detectives at times cut corners, shutting down investigations prematurely or failing to investigate solid leads, according to The Institute’s investigation. 

With no prospect of a suspect, detectives deactivated the Johnson investigation. 

He became one of dozens of unknown John Doe rapists roaming the Memphis streets. 


Rape kit backlog grows with discovery of new old kits


More than 12 years would pass before interest in the case rekindled. As officers sifted through shelves of untested kits MPD had collected through the years — what would later be revealed to the public in 2013 as Memphis’ backlog of 12,164 unprocessed kits — the one containing Johnson’s DNA was found and sent to the crime lab in July 2012. 

By the following January, crime lab scientists had found DNA and developed a profile. 

Still, there was no suspect profile to match it against. Police had nothing. 

In the DNA Unit’s early days, they were losing numbers of cases to the statute of limitations, a barrier proscribed in state law that limits the amount of time prosecutors have to file charges. According to Sexual Assault Kit Task Force reports, the statute of limitations expired in 692 of 3,761 investigations the unit had undertaken as of April, 2019. 

“I mean, it was just crushing,” said former MPD Lt. Cody Wilkerson, who headed the DNA unit from 2013 to 2015. “I tried to look at all my victims as they were family members. If it was a young victim I’d say, you know, I want to treat this case like this victim was my daughter or my niece. Or my sister. My mother, my grandmother. And some of those cases were just horrendous. You know, you could make a movie of the week out of them. 

“And (when the statute expired) there was just absolutely nothing you could do about it.” 

Prosecutors and police developed a strategy: kits closest to that limit received a higher priority. A special priority was given to those involving Class A and B felonies — the most serious crimes. 

In the case of Johnson, because he was armed, his crime constituted aggravated rape. In 2000, when it occurred, that offense, a Class A felony, carried a 15-year statute of limitations. 

A SOLVED CASE – BUT MORE QUESTIONS 

On Feb. 12, 2015, two days before the statute would expire, Assistant District Attorney E. Cavett Ostner went before the grand jury and obtained a so-called John Doe indictment, filing a charge of aggravated rape, not against Johnson, but a DNA profile. 

Reduced to writing, that profile appears as a code of dozens of numbers and letters that starts with the designation “D8S1179 and ends with “Amelogenin: X,Y.’’, running across three lines of the indictment. 

“We needed to stop that clock from running,” said Weirich, whose office has brought scores of similar indictments while prosecuting the rape kit backlog. It’s a new twist to an old legal maneuver that’s been around for years. Prosecutors at times indict suspects by available identifiers, such as street aliases, biding time until they uncover more complete identities or legal names. 

“It’s enough information to then eventually learn their identity so that you can put handcuffs on him, issue a warrant and bring them into justice,” Weirich said. 

As it turns out, Johnson, a former Memphian, was serving a seven-year prison term in Oklahoma for burglary. Oklahoma Department of Corrections policy required a DNA sample be obtained prior to Johnson’s December 2015 release. The sample was then uploaded into CODIS. Because CODIS continually searches for matches it eventually made the connection.

By January 2016 prosecutors had re-indicted Johnson — this time by name. Police finally caught up with him on Aug. 15, 2016 in Memphis, where he’d returned and was working as a truck driver. He was convicted in October 2018 and is serving 25 years in prison. 

***

SURVIVORS

***

SERIAL RAPISTS 

Before CODIS — before sophisticated computer databanks could link together disparate crimes — detecting a serial rapist often was especially challenging. 

Retired detective Cleveland said investigators typically dealt only with the crime at hand. Lacking a database for comparison, there was little “forward thinking,” he said. As a result, there often was little interest in testing rape kits. 

“I don’t think they had the mindset of people being serial rapists,” Cleveland said. “My personal opinion? All rapists are serial rapists. Every single one. Whether they got caught the first time or they wait 10, 15 years — or they never rape again. I mean, the mindset of being a rapist is the mindset of being a rapist.”

Still, evidence is inconclusive on just how prevalent serial rapists actually are. More than half of a sample of sexual assaults studied among Cleveland’s massive rape kit backlog were tied to serial offenders, according to researchers at Case Western Reserve University. Serial offenders tend to have a more prolific and violent history; they were more likely to threaten victims with weapons, too, the researchers found.

But identifying any rapist often is complicated by the fact that many rapes go unreported. Part of that involves the lack of trust many female victims have because of victim blaming and mistreatment from male-dominated police forces.

“As an investigator, you’ve got to be much more patient to work with victims who are reluctant to participate in the criminal justice system. They don’t trust us,” said Joanne Archambault, who worked for years as a San Diego police sergeant and now serves as executive director of End Violence Against Women International, a nonprofit agency that provides sexual assault investigation training and consultation. 

“Forty years later. I’m here to tell you, these cases are treated differently because these victims are women. And we don’t trust women.”

That vicious cycle may have played a role in the long inability to corral a prolific serial rapist eventually identified by MPD’s DNA Unit as Michael D. Love. An obscure warehouse worker, he’d led a double life for years cruising the streets of Memphis where he preyed on isolated women — stranded motorists he plucked randomly from roadways and others he’d met on social media, some with arrest histories. 

He’d filed for bankruptcy with $101 in his Bank of America savings account around the time of his first known attack in 2007, when, at 34, he floated between Memphis and rural Horn Lake, Mississippi. Criminal records show a single misdemeanor conviction in Shelby County for patronizing prostitution in 1999. 

Between 2007 and 2015 he struck over and over — an estimated 15 attacks — abducting women from the street or during arranged rendezvous. He drove them to darkened coves or uninhabited industrial areas and raped them. 

“This is a guy that we need to make a priority and that we need to get off the streets,” retired DNA Unit supervisor Wilkerson recalled of the Love case. “When they start having two rapes, then responsible for three rapes, responsible for six, for 10, you know, for 20 rapes, those guys just start taking priority. So, it’s a very motivating, driving force to keep you working on that case.” 

Yet, like so many other cases, there was nothing to go on at first. 

The first big break came in June 2015 as Love attempted another attack. He spotted a stranded woman whose car had broken down along Shelby Drive, offering to take her to a nearby gas station. Instead, he drove to a dead-end street and began ripping off her clothes. 

But this time he failed. She fought him off. He fled. In the scuffle, she dropped her cell phone and keys. 

A police search of the scene recovered both items along with the first major clue — Love left his fingerprint on the phone’s screen. 

By September, Love was in custody. When detectives got a warrant and uploaded the suspect’s DNA profile into CODIS the magnitude of the case emerged — the database linked him to repeated rapes over the previous eight years. 

“They started connecting to each other,” Wilkerson said. As detectives pulled files they started “seeing all the similarities between all these cases,” he said. 

Tried in federal court, Love was convicted last year on six charges of kidnapping for the purpose of engaging in sexual assault, and ordered to serve concurrent sentences. 

Still, the Love prosecution almost didn’t happen. A couple of the victims’ rape kits weren’t tested until more than two years after the fact. This was long after MPD had gained access to CODIS. And, by Wilkerson’s account, it was difficult getting officers to focus on the case even after all the DNA matches rolled in — in part because of the arrest histories of some of the victims and a belief that some were involved in prostitution. 

“The general mentality is that, well, she’s a prostitute. She shouldn’t have been out there selling her body. Whatever happened to her, it’s her own fault,” Wilkerson said. Such thinking often gave rapists a pass, he said. 

“They go after the weak and the vulnerable. And that includes prostitutes, drug addicts, homeless, (and) people with diminished mental capacities. And a lot of their cases, you know, are overlooked and neglected.” 

Wilkerson said incompetence and indifference once was rampant in MPD’s Sex Crimes Bureau. So much so, he testified recently on behalf of rape victims suing the city in Circuit Court for allegedly failing to test rape kits and neglecting investigations.

Over stints in the bureau between 2009 and 2012 and again from 2013 until 2015 he said he witnessed repeated incidents of detectives closing cases prematurely and moving electronic files “off into cyberspace even after getting a CODIS hit.” 

“We could have created another category for another statistic (for cases when) the rape kit should have been sent in but wasn’t,” he said in an interview. 

He said MPD kept meticulous statistics in various categories while investigating the backlog, such as the victim declined to participate (the Sexual Assault Kit Task Force reported a total of 289 such incidents in its April 2019 report, the last time such statistics were reported); prosecution was declined for lack of evidence (300); or the statute of limitations had expired (692). 

“We gave all the legitimate reasons for why these rape kits weren’t tested, but there was another equally as large of a category. And that was this kit should have been tested, but it wasn’t. And that was a failure on the investigator. And it was a failure on the supervisor. And it was a failure of the system,” Wilkerson said. 

He said he argued MPD should track that number to learn from its mistakes but was overruled. 

“No one wanted to know that number.” 

He points to the case of Sammie Grant, a violent serial offender who raped a woman in a home invasion in 2006 and went on to attack at least twice more after detectives failed to test the rape kit. 

Wilkerson said there were times when investigators were disinterested. 

“They don’t want to be sex crime detectives. They hate being sex crimes detectives. They hate dealing with victims,” he said “So, they do the absolute bare minimum. And sometimes they don’t even do the bare minimum. And that’s where, you know, when I would use the words criminally negligent. The police department, in my opinion, was criminally negligent in handling cases.” 

Amid ongoing litigation filed by rape victims who claim MPD neglected their cases, commanders at the agency would not agree to an interview. The department indicated in an email issued in answer to a limited set of written questions that it has enacted needed reforms.

“We have one of the largest DNA units in the country, and as far as I’m concerned, one of the best,” MPD Deputy Chief Mike Shearin told a City Council committee recently as he described his officers’ aggressive pursuit of cold cases. “...We have lots of folks working on this every day - some of the best and the brightest the Memphis Police Department has to offer.''

FINISHING THE WORK 

One huge setback in prosecuting the backlog involved Bridges Randle, a former MPD patrol officer accused of a work-related 2000 rape. He was found not guilty two years ago following an emotional, roller coaster trial. 

A 23-year-old woman had reported on June 24, 2000 she was raped at gunpoint in her home by an unknown officer after she’d called police on a boyfriend who’d vandalized her car with a baseball bat. Her rape kit wasn’t submitted for testing until 2013. It led investigators to Randle, who by then was living in Atlanta under the name Ajamu Banjoko and working for the Boys and Girls Clubs. 

It was the second job-related rape allegation against Randle. He was indicted in 2002 for the alleged July 18, 2001 rape of a 19-year-old woman who said Randle assaulted her after she’d called police for help following a domestic disturbance. DNA testing at the time matched Randle. He was charged with rape, but received one year of probation after pleading guilty to official oppression in a deal with then-District Attorney Bill Gibbons’ office. 

Randle was acquitted of the cold case rape in a March 2018 trial when defense attorney Leslie Ballin argued his client engaged in consensual sex with the victim. 

“Any time you bring before a jury today a crime that occurred 20 years ago, it’s not an easy case to make,” Weirich said. 

“It might seem to be a slam-dunk case, but there’s no such thing. There is no such thing as a slam-dunk case in this building, because we’re dealing with people. We’re dealing with real life. We’re dealing with a lot of a lot of unknowns. And we’re going to fight like hell. We’re going to do everything we can in that courtroom. But at the end of the day, it’s up to those 12 members of the community.” 

The Randle case is something of an outlier. Among 83 cases adjudicated so far, prosecutors have 79 convictions — a 95 percent conviction rate. 

But prosecuting old cases is a double-edge sword: It often poses hardships on defendants, too, with the fading of memories and the death of witnesses. “These prosecutions put a defendant at an extreme disadvantage,” celebrated Ohio defense attorney Russell Bensing wrote on his online blog.

Officials expect the backlog investigations to continue for several years. One complicating factor involves advancements in DNA testing. Authorities plan to resubmit some kits in which previous testing found no DNA, said Task Force member Clubb. They have also recently located a few hundred more kits. 

And despite their bittersweet dynamic, the prosecutions of these long-elusive sex offenders — many now middle-aged or older — remains a monumental achievement, supporters contend. 

“They’re going away to prison for basically the rest of their lives,” Weirich said. 

“And that would have never happened, but for the discovery by MPD of these untested kits and the commitment of many people in this community to get them tested — get them all tested … . And then start building cases from that evidence.” 

 

Karen Pulfer Focht is a freelance photojournalist who has won numerous awards in her career, many for in-depth projects about children and families in Memphis. Her work is regularly published in newspapers and magazines around the world. 

Topics

Memphis Police Department rape kit testing Tony Sea Institute of Public Service Reporting Amy Weirich Bridges Randle Deborah Clubb Memphis Area Women's Council Sexual Assault Kit Task Force AC Wharton Cold Case DNA Unit Michael D. Love John Eskridge Thomas Maupin David Hugo Johnson
Marc Perrusquia

Marc Perrusquia

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and  political reporting. Follow the Institute on Facebook or Twitter @psr_memphis.


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