Neglected rape kits require Cook County victims to recount assaults

Robbins leaders promise they have fixed the problems that led to neglect of rape kits.

August 21, 2013

Patrick Smith

WBEZ/Patrick Smith
Earlier this year about 200 uninvestigated rape kits were found in a disorganized evidence locker in the Robbins police station.

The Cook County sheriff’s office wants victims of as many as 201 unsolved rapes in south suburban Robbins to come forward and tell their stories, again.

That’s because Robbins police didn’t properly investigate them the first time.

Earlier this year the Cook County sheriff’s office discovered 201 rape kits - dating back to 1978 - in a disorganized evidence locker in the Robbins police station.

One-hundred-and-fifty of the rape kits had been analyzed by state police, but Robbins police never conducted any further investigation. The other 51 hadn’t even been sent to the state crime lab for testing.

“Nationally the issue of untested rape kits is a big one …. But what we’re talking about here is something more challenging. This department had sent in the kits but then never worked the results,” sheriff spokeswoman Cara Smith said.

Robbins Mayor Tyrone Ward and police Chief Melvin Davis took over in May, about two months after the rape kits were found. At a press conference yesterday they stressed that the neglected rape kits were failures of past administrations, and did not reflect on their leadership.

Davis said he has replaced a quarter of the village’s police department.

After he was hired, Davis said he conducted interviews with all of the officers, and determined that six of the 24 patrol officers weren’t suited for the job. He also brought in new leadership.

“I’ve established a new command staff and we are making sure that all safeguards are in place to make sure this never happens again,” Davis said.

Ward also promised that the underlying issues that led to the rape kits being neglected had been addressed. But he stopped short of promising more resources for the beleaguered police department.

“You shouldn’t work based on your salary, you should work based on your heart,” Ward said.

Right now, the town of about 5,400 residents has two full-time officers - in addition to the command staff - and 24 part timers.

Davis said they are planning to transition three more officers into full-time roles.

The uninvestigated rape kits were discovered in March after a probe by the Cook County sheriff’s office.

The sheriff’s office took over the investigations and now is asking for help solving the sexual assaults the kits are tied to.

Smith said the condition of the kits was so bad that at least seven are water-damaged and unusable. And she said there are police reports for “very few” of the rape kits.

That’s why she pleaded with victims to come forward to help investigators piece together what little information they have.

“We may in some cases need to put together the case from the very beginning,” Smith said.

Smith said the sheriff’s office is pleased with the steps the new Robbins administration has taken. As for the old administration, she said in the six months since the rape kits were discovered she has never heard an explanation for how the kits went ignored.

“In some of these cases we may be left saying [to the victim], we don’t have an explanation for why it happened, but today we believe you and we’ve done everything we could to try and bring justice to you,” Smith said.

The sheriff’’s office and the office of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s are both trying to figure out a way to bring charges in the old sexual assault cases. The statute of limitations has run out on most of them.

“There’s nuances in the law depending on the age of the victim, the age of the crime, if DNA was uploaded, “ Smith said. “So we have to kind of put those pieces together for each one of these, but we are certainly going to have cases where we can’t bring charges, and that’s a crime in and of itself.”

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ reporter. Follow him @pksmid.