Perpetrators at large

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department only solved 3 percent of its sexual assault cases in 2016

Illustration by sarah hansel

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the May 17, 2018, issue.

The widow lay sleeping in her bed on the morning of her 79th birthday when her attacker entered the room. She awoke to a stranger removing her covers. She screamed and fought what came next, but the coward was too strong. He raped her and fled. The police response was swift and resolute.

The victim provided police with a description of a man that an officer recognized from her beat, said Citrus Heights police Sgt. Chad Morris, a department spokesman. Within a day, the suspect was in custody: His name was Dustin Todd Smith. He lived just around the corner from the victim and was the subject of complaints of stalking and harassment, Morris said. DNA evidence later corroborated what Smith confessed to detectives: He was the woman's attacker. He had been watching her for at least a decade.

“This was just basic detective work,” Morris told SN&R on Tuesday. “Everything pretty much just came together all at once.”

On May 4, following a jury trial and conviction, the 31-year-old Smith was sentenced to two years in state prison for the sexual assault he committed in the fall of 2017. This is as swiftly as justice can move. In most sexual assault cases, it never arrives at all.

Since last month's arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the 72-year-old ex-cop suspected of being the East Area Rapist or Golden State Killer, the importance of DNA in solving violent crimes has attracted the kind of urgency that comes when California's coldest case finally thaws.

At this moment, state lawmakers are weighing two bills to improve the testing and accounting of what are known as rape kits, which are collected when sexual assault victims consent to having their bodies scoured for genetic clues that could identify their attackers. If lawmakers don't act on the bills soon, they could end up languishing for at least another year.

“We just don't want to wait another legislative session,” said Natasha Simone Alexenko, a survivor who had to wait nearly 10 years for her rape kit to be tested. “It's been long enough.”

Most rape survivors are accustomed to waiting. In Sacramento County, nearly 700 rape kits have yet to be tested, according to new figures obtained by SN&R. Most of them are from sexual assaults that occurred between 2008 and 2010.

It took dogged police work, painstaking genetic testing and more than four decades for authorities to arrive at DeAngelo's door. Yet, his headline-making arrest has obscured—rather than underlined—a sobering paradox: In Sacramento County, most rapists go free.

Of the 10 California counties with the largest populations, Sacramento is among the worst at solving rapes through arrest, according to the state's Criminal Justice Statistics Center. In 2016, the most recent year for which the center has updated statistics, 369 rapes were reported to law enforcement agencies in Sacramento County. Arrests were made in only 26.8 percent of cases.

Only two big counties had lower clearance rates in 2016—Riverside at 25.8 percent and Santa Clara at 20.8 percent.

Alameda County cops cleared the most cases, making arrests in 53.5 percent of their rape investigations. In Alameda's case, clearance rates began improving around the time that the county began testing more rape kits. About four years ago, Alameda County was sitting on approximately 1,900 untested rape kits. As of today, all have been sent for testing, with one batch left to be processed, said Teresa Drenick of the DA's office.

Much of the blame for Sacramento County's dismal clearance record rests with its largest law enforcement agency: In 2016, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department solved fewer than 3 percent of its rape cases. That is not a typo. Of the 172 cases of forcible rape that the Sheriff's Department investigated in the unincorporated county and the city of Rancho Cordova, only five resulted in arrests.

Every other local law enforcement agency tasked with investigating sexual assaults had better results. In Citrus Heights, where DeAngelo and Smith were apprehended, 31.6 percent of reported sexual assaults resulted in arrests in 2016. Galt police resolved 37.5 percent of the eight assaults they investigated, while Sacramento police cleared 43.2 percent of their 88 cases. Elk Grove police made arrests in 64.7 percent of reported rapes. Statistically speaking, Folsom police fared the best, clearing seven of nine reported rapes, equal to 77.8 percent.

Detective-Sgt. James Fuller oversees the Elk Grove Police Department's family services unit, a specialized detail responsible for solving acts of domestic and family violence, as well as sexual assaults.

Fuller said the “overwhelming” percentage of rapes that his specially-trained unit probes are committed by family members or people known to the victims. It's a crushingly sad statistic, “but it also demystifies the [myth] that it's someone waiting in the bushes,” Fuller noted. “For the most part, our crimes are not who-done-it.”

The fact that most attackers are known to their victims doesn't necessarily make these crimes easier to solve, however. The veteran investigator said the close ties play a role in sexual assaults being “vastly underreported.” And Fuller said the biggest challenge to his calling is not a lack of evidence or a delay in testing rape kits—it's the societal and cultural stigma that continues, even in 2018, to haunt rape survivors.

“We still live in a society that puts so much blame or judgment on the victim,” he said.

Illustration by Sarah Hansel

It's unclear why the Sheriff's Department solved few rapes in 2016. A department official didn't respond to numerous requests for comment. A public records request seeking additional information about the department's handling of sexual assault cases is pending.

Reported rapes have actually fallen in Sacramento County from a 50-year high of 534 assaults in 1992 to a low of 307 assaults in 2013. Reported assaults have increased in the years since, but remain well below where they were a decade ago. As the number of reported assaults has fluctuated, so has the clearance rate, though neither figure seems directly correlated to the other. For instance, there aren’t more open cases in years when more rapes are reported. If anything, the opposite often happens.

Sacramento County law enforcement officials had the most success arresting suspected rapists in 1988, when they cleared 58.9 percent of the 433 assaults reported to them. Clearance rates have fallen sharply since the recession, bottoming out at 21.6 percent in 2014 and improving little since then, even as the number of reported assaults also dropped.

When you consider that a clearance only means an arrest was made—and not that a suspect was formally charged with or convicted of a crime—the low clearance rates for sexual assault appear even more dismal. Fuller said sexual assaults are one of the toughest crimes to get a conviction in, partly because survivors are wary of being re-traumatized through a lengthy judicial process.

Advocates and lawmakers believe that testing genetic evidence recovered from sexual assault survivors will help put away more rapists.

“When we're testing rape kits, we're definitely finding more offenders,” said Ilse Knecht, the director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, a survivor advocacy organization created by Law & Order: Special Victims' Unit star Mariska Hargitay. “It does help.”

According to the RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, rape kits are one critical part of a post-assault forensic exam. These exams can last hours and typically involve personal questions about a victim's sexual background and the attack itself, followed by an intensive physical exam. The kit contains blood and urine samples, body swabs, torn pieces of the perpetrator's clothing, stray hairs or other evidence is sealed for analysis.

California doesn't know how many of these rape kits are collecting dust, unexamined, but they easily number in the thousands. Assembly Bill 3118 would convene the first full accounting of untested rape kits around the state. A companion measure, Senate Bill 1449, would require testing of all new rape kits within three months of their receipt.

The proposals have broad support, but could stall out if they don't advance before the current legislative session ends. Knecht says it would be a shame if that happens.

“We collect this evidence. And then it literally … sits on a shelf,” she said.

All totaled, 685 rape kits await analysis in Sacramento County, according to figures provided by the DA's office. The office is one of the few in the state to directly manage a local crime lab.

Milo Fitch retired from the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department in 2014, and said he was sometimes frustrated with the crime lab's slow handling of rape kits when he was the bureau commander of the centralized investigations division in 2011. Fitch said he once recommended that the Sheriff's Department contract with an outside crime lab to speed up testing, “because it was just not getting done.”

It used to be the crime lab's practice to only analyze rape kits if either a law enforcement agency or prosecutor requested such an analysis, Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Michael Blazina explained in an email. If no request was made, the kit would be returned to the agency without being tested. That changed in 2013. Now the lab tests every kit that comes into its possession and is making headway in reducing the backlog.

“The laboratory has been in the process, for several years now, of re-requesting unanalyzed kits and working them,” Blazina wrote. “A special team within the laboratory's DNA unit was created to complete the analysis of previously untested kits.”

There are 457 unprocessed kits that the DA's office has to retrieve from local law enforcement agencies, Blazina said. All of the kits contain evidence from sexual assaults that occurred in 2008 or 2010. On top of that, there are another 214 unprocessed kits from 2008 that the DA's office has in its possession but has yet to order testing on.

Each of the 1,616 rape kits that were collected between 2011 and last year have been tested, the DA's office says. Through May of this year, another 111 sexual assaults have resulted in rape kits being collected. Fourteen of those await testing.

Alameda County has cleared its backlog, in part, by doing the sort of outsourcing Fitch once requested. Unlike Sacramento County, the local crime lab in Alameda County is run by the Oakland Police Department. That lab handled the backlog that originated within the city, but most of the untested kits were sent to Bode's Lab in West Virginia, Drenick said.

“Part A was clearing the backlog, and Part B was making sure the backlog doesn't accumulate again,” Drenick said.

The pending legislation would accomplish the latter part, she added.

Blazina said the bills won't have much impact on what the DA's office is doing here.

“As for legislation, it does not change the fact we are dedicated to processing all rape kits that come to our lab,” he wrote.