Your rapist won’t be prosecuted

According to court records, testing rape kits has not yet made justice more attainable for sexual assault survivors

Illustrations by Sarah Hansel

Eddie Ray Jones Jr. was inside of a South Sacramento restaurant when he laid eyes on the woman he would pull into his depraved fantasy.

It was September 10, 2016, and the woman was picking up a to-go order with her 2-year-old granddaughter, according to the Sacramento County district attorney’s office. The woman exited the establishment on Mack Road, returned to her car and eased the toddler into her car seat when Jones approached from behind. The repeat-offender with the alias “Lil Loco” already had misdemeanor convictions for false imprisonment, carrying an illegal switchblade and evading officers, Sacramento Superior Court records show. This time Jones told his victim he had a gun, and made her get behind the wheel of her car.

Over the next hour, Jones made the woman drive while he smoked narcotics in the passenger seat, the DA’s office states in a release. Jones then switched seats with his victim and forced her to perform a sex act. Finally, he took cash from her purse, and stranded the woman and her grandchild on the side of the road as he fled in their car.

In January, a jury found Jones guilty of sexual assault and carjacking offenses, including two separate felony counts of second-degree rape and one count of forced oral copulation, also a felony. According to the DA’s office, Jones, who will be back in court this week, faces 69 years to life in prison.

This is an exceptional case for multiple reasons. Jones fits the “stranger rapist” archetype that feeds most narratives about rape in the media and obscures the truth: Most sexual assaults are perpetrated by known persons or family members—one of the reasons sexual assaults are massively under-reported, say investigators, survivors and their advocates.

The other thing that makes the Jones cases unusual? Statistically, he is one of a handful of rapists to be brought to justice locally this decade, according to a rare audit of Sacramento County’s criminal justice system.

Even with the DA’s crime lab now processing every rape kit it receives, only a small percentage of reported rapes are prosecuted, which is another reason most rape victims never come forward. As California legislators stand on the precipice of passing two new laws intended to account for and test every rape kit in the state, at least in Sacramento, testing rape kits has not yet made justice more attainable for sexual assault survivors.

The big question is why.

The prosecution rests

To learn how many reported sexual assaults in Sacramento County end up before a criminal court judge, SN&R analyzed California Department of Justice data, and reviewed figures obtained from the county DA’s office and superior court.

A pattern emerged from 2010 through 2016: Even though thousands of rape survivors came forward and cooperated with investigators, their cases stalled at each phase of the county’s fragmented criminal justice system—from reports taken to forensic exams performed to arrests made to charges filed. By the end of this journey, only a fraction of rapists were held to account in a court of law.

During the six-year span that SN&R reviewed, only 15 percent of the more than 3,500 documented sexual assaults that authorities investigated were prosecuted. Counterintuitively, the prosecution rate actually fell—to 13.5 percent—after the county began testing all rape kits in 2013.

It’s unknown how many of the prosecutions resulted in actual convictions, but what the figures underline is stark:

“The system is not doing what it’s supposed to do, and it’s not the only system we need,” said Emily Austin, a senior policy and advocacy associate at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, or CalCASA. “The DNA rape kit isn’t going to be the silver bullet.”

It certainly hasn’t been one in Sacramento.

While some figures aren’t yet available for 2017, the ones that are reveal a new low in rape prosecutions. According to the DA’s office, 253 rape kits were analyzed last year. But the superior court shows that prosecutors filed felony rape charges only 32 times—meaning that, at minimum, 87 percent of accused rapists likely got away with their crimes last year. (Not all reported sexual assaults result in a rape kit being collected, though most do.)

The figures aren’t surprising to Ilse Knecht, the director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation. Founded by Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star Mariska Hargitay, the group is focused on ending sexual abuse, as well as partner and child abuse, and sponsored the two rape kit bills advancing through the state house. Nationally, it’s estimated that only 3 percent of rapists are ever incarcerated for their violations.

“We know that the prosecution rate of rapists is low to begin with,” Knecht said. “We don’t really know how to do this.”

Natasha Simone Alexenko learned this firsthand.

Natasha Simone Alexenko advocates for rape survivors.

Photo courtesy of Natasha Simone Alexenko

A long wait for justice

In the early 1990s, Alexenko was a college student living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where a man put a gun to her head outside of her apartment building. The stranger asked if she lived alone. Alexenko answered honestly: She didn’t. The man led her up to the roof of her building and removed her jewelry. Alexenko thought she was being robbed. She said it didn’t occur to her that she was going to be raped until it started happening.

Afterward, the man leveled the gun and told her to count to 10. Then he left.

“I was shocked he didn’t kill me,” Alexenko told SN&R. “I thought … that was the end of me.”

Alexenko raced down to her apartment and banged on the door. Her roommates let her in and called 911. One of her roommates urged her to undergo a sexual assault forensic exam. It was the first time she’d heard of it.

“I didn’t even know about rape kits,” Alexenko said. “Even though I just wanted to take a shower, I knew how important it was to get this rape kit done.”

The process of submitting to a forensic sexual assault examination can be long and triggering, Knecht says. It can take several hours for an exam to be completed, and asks much of a person who just experienced what was likely the most traumatic event of their lives.

Alexenko says her exam was invasive, but told herself she was doing the right thing.

“I thought my rape kit would be tested,” Alexenko said. “I had no doubt.”

A year after her attack, Alexenko says, she received a phone call from an investigator telling her they were closing her case because of a lack of leads. Alexenko blamed herself. If only she could have given authorities a better description of her attacker’s face rather than of his gun, which was seared into her memory. Alexenko spent the next decade in a guilt spiral, self-destructing. She climbed out of it to become a leading voice for survivors, coming to the California State Capitol in May to urge lawmakers to audit their massive backlog of untested rape kits.

“I was afraid it was my fault,” she said. “There was a criminal out there. And I thought that they had exhausted all leads when clearly they hadn’t.”

It wasn’t until almost a decade after her attack that Alexenko learned the truth. Shortly before the statute of limitations was about to expire for the rape, Alexenko was called by a detective saying her kit had just been analyzed and asking if she could testify before a grand jury. Authorities didn’t have a suspect yet, but they wanted her testimony to obtain what’s called a John Doe warrant. In cases where a crime has been committed and DNA evidence of the suspect exists, it’s a legal maneuver prosecutors can use to prevent the case from expiring.

Such a thing wasn’t possible 40 years ago—that is why the East Area Rapist suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, faces 12 murder charges but not 51 counts of forcible rape.

Elk Grove police Detective-Sgt. James Fuller says John Doe warrants are obtained today.

“We do the same out here,” he said.

In Sacramento County, the DA’s crime lab receives a notification from the FBI that unidentified genetic profile in its Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, is about to expire, Fuller explained. That starts a clock that local authorities can sometimes pause.

“Depending on the evidence, we can write a John Doe warrant for an unknown perpetrator,” Fuller said. “It buys us a tremendous amount of time.”

What the John Doe warrant means, Fuller explained, is this: “We have a suspect. We have a perpetrator. We just haven’t put a name to him yet.”

New York police were able to obtain a John Doe warrant for Alexenko’s attacker. On August 6, 2007, exactly 10 years after the rooftop attack on Alexenko, authorities got a DNA match: Victor Rondon, arrested in Las Vegas on a minor charge and extradited to New York on a parole violation.

Unlike most rape cases, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to a long prison term.

Even considering how slowly the wheels of justice moved in her case, Alexenko is hesitant to consider herself anything but fortunate. She was a white college student with a decent relationship with law enforcement at the time of her attack—she fears that’s one reason her case was solved. She says she’s since heard from many survivors who can’t relate to her experience.

“Everyone should receive the same kind of justice, respect and regard that I did,” Alexenko said. “There’s no reason that any single human being shouldn’t be treated like me.”

Fewer assaults, more dead ends

Two weeks after Eddie Ray Jones Jr. ambushed the grandmother outside her car, Sacramento police checked out a tip that a wanted suspect was in the area of Notre Dame Drive and Folsom Boulevard west of Rosemont, according to a police incident summary from September 25, 2016. Responding officers found Jones, who led them on a vehicle pursuit that ended nearly seven miles west, where a California Highway Patrol helicopter found Jones hiding on a rooftop. He was arrested on numerous charges without further incident.

The victim picked Jones out of a lineup after describing to detectives her perpetrator’s distinctive tattoos, a DA’s release states. DNA evidence Jones left on the woman’s shirt was analyzed by the crime lab and matched to Jones. Online court records show Jones’ attorney will ask the court for a new trial on June 29.

Most sexual assault investigations don’t unfold like modern-day thrillers. Most peer into neighborhoods and homes where the victims should have felt safe.

Six-year-old Jadiana died of blunt force trauma while being sexually assaulted by her mom’s partner in 2015. Her killer, 28-year-old Juan Rivera, then drove the little girl’s body to Glenn County and burned it. He pleaded guilty last week to the charges facing him, a DA’s release states.

Andrew Goodrich Young Jr., 58, will die in prison after a Sacramento Superior Court judge last week sentenced him to more than four centuries behind bars for sexually assaulting a family member over a period that spanned the child’s 13th birthday, a DA’s release and online court records show.

Rape isn’t like other crimes, Fuller says. Rather than being a crime of opportunity, it’s often an expression of an abhorrent compulsion.

“What we see is a pathology, especially with sexual assault,” he said. “It’s the way a person thinks and acts.”

Jones was apprehended the same year that the number of reported sexual assaults reached a 50-year high in California. Law enforcement agencies investigated 13,695 rapes in 2016, more than three times the number of assaults recorded in 1966, when only 4,078 victims came forward.

But the sexual assault crime rate is actually lower than it was a half-century ago, because there are more people living in California than there were in the ‘60s. When accounting for population, 34.8 rapes were reported for every 100,000 California residents in 2016. By comparison, the sexual assault crime rate reached a 50-year low just five years ago, in 2013, when 19.5 rapes were reported for every 100,000 California residents.

The rate peaked in 1980, when 57.7 rapes were reported for every 100,000 California residents.

In Sacramento County, reported rapes peaked in 1992 at 534. Reports have since dropped to below 400, but the rapes are proving harder to solve.

New figures obtained by SN&R show the Sacramento Police Department struggling to clear reported rapes in the time since the state’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center last updated its figures in 2016. According to the department’s response to an SN&R public records request, city detectives made arrests in 28 out of the 99 rape cases they investigated last year. Through March of this year, 25 sexual assaults have been investigated, resulting in eight arrests.

A misleading narrative

“Jody” didn’t identify with most rape stories she’d heard in the media. The Sacramento woman, who asked that her real name not be used, says it wasn’t until years after her attack, when she attended a Take Back the Night rally against sexual violence, that she finally heard a story that resonated with her experience. A woman spoke of being raped by someone she had considered a friend. The same thing had happened to Jody.

“It was at that moment that I realized what happened to me was sexual assault,” Jody said.

By then, it was too late to contact authorities, Jody says. The stranger myth she had heard proliferated so many times had prevented her from recognizing that she belonged to an often-marginalized society of sexual assault survivors. With legal justice unattainable, she reached for a different kind. She went into advocacy, seeking out misled survivors like her and creating a rare support group for survivors.

“A lot of the ways I’ve found justice is through my work as an advocate,” she said.

Jody is not the exception.

The inability of authorities to improve outcomes for rape survivors has inspired advocates to look outside the criminal justice system—which the majority of rape survivors spurn anyway. (According to Stop Violence Against Women, nearly 60 percent of rape and sexual assault victims don’t report their victimization to law enforcement.)

Despite efforts to educate investigators and prosecutors, CalCASA’s Austin says, those responsible for pursuing law and justice still work under stubborn misconceptions about how a rape survivor should behave after she or he has been attacked.

With most crimes, officers want to quickly debrief victims while their memories of the events are fresh. For someone who has been sexually assaulted, that process can backfire horribly. A person who experiences a terrible trauma is likely to shut down, Austin says. Their short-term memories short out as their brains attempt to insulate them from feeling the full intensity of what they just experienced. As a result, they may sound unaffected and unsure when speaking to authorities, which authorities mistake for lying or misdirection. As their memories stagger back in waves, authorities may accuse them of changing their stories and doubt what they’re saying.

“As a whole, it’s not a trauma-informed network,” Austin said. “The criminalization of sexual assault … I don’t know that it’s solved the real needs of survivors.”

Prosecutors who are concerned with their win-loss records will look at the conflicting statements and decide they don’t want to try to sort it out in front of a jury, Austin and Knecht say.

“It’s hard for survivors to engage in a system that doesn’t treat them very well,” Knecht reasoned.

Some law enforcement investigators contend that arrest rates are so low because, by the time the rapes are reported, there’s little to no physical evidence. Some survivors recant their stories, they add, making prosecutors reluctant to file charges.

Some within the system are working to change the paradigm that exists between survivors and authorities.

Detective-Sgt. Fuller investigated sexual assaults all through the ‘90s and early 2000s, and now oversees a dedicated unit within the Elk Grove Police Department that investigates sex crimes and family abuse. Fuller says the unit, which was formally established about a year-and-a-half ago, is made up of conscientious investigators with both expertise in the subject and compassion for the survivors.

For Fuller, the biggest challenge to arresting perpetrators isn’t the lack of rape kit testing.

“It’s the societal judgment on victims,” he said. “It’s the only crime, except for maybe domestic violence, that puts the blame on the victim. … That’s really the hurdle.”

Despite his unit’s specialized focus and the assistance of victims’ advocates, whom Fuller said “really hold the hands of victims,” it’s still a challenge to get victims to report. There are other hurdles to solving sexual assault cases, the vast majority of which are perpetrated by people known to the victims, Fuller says. Often the victims are young. Often authorities don’t find out what happened to them until years later.

“When individuals are assaulted as children or teens, it takes them many years for them to feel a place of safety to report something like this,” Fuller explained.

Even with all those obstacles, Elk Grove police have some of the highest clearance rates in the region for solving sexual assaults, more than 60 points higher than the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which only made arrests in 3 percent of the rape cases it investigated in 2016, the most recent year for which figures were available.

Outside the law

Partly due to the entrenched challenges, CalCASA hasn’t prioritized rape kit legislation, Austin said, “because we don’t hear of that as a solution for many survivors.” Austin stresses that the coalition isn’t against testing rape kits—it can be helpful in identifying stranger assailants and serial predators—but that it’s focusing on approaches that prevent gender-based violence, like speaking frankly about consent and listening to survivors articulate what justice looks like to them.

That’s what Jody is trying to do here in Sacramento. She says she was recently describing her job to a retail worker and mentioned her focus on preventing sexual assault. The employee asked her how one accomplishes that.

“Telling people not to have sex with someone who’s unconscious, for one,” Jody answered.

Jody says she saw a flicker in the retail worker’s eyes, who then said that had happened to her.

“Prior to that conversation, she didn’t recognize that what had been done to her was sexual assault,” Jody said.

Austin credits the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective with being a leading agent of empowering survivors to articulate the healing and accountability they want to come through their attacks.

Knecht, who has run focus groups with survivors, says some wanted their day in court while others simply needed to tell their stories to someone who cared and would work to prevent it from happening to someone else.

“What most of them will tell you is it’s about other people—making sure this doesn’t happen to someone else,” she said.

With rape prosecutions so rare, the vast majority of survivors only have each other to keep that promise.