How One Discovery Uncovered Over 200 Serial Rapists

Photographed by Danny Kim.
Update: Dozens of cities around the country have spent millions of dollars to find and test rape kits that had been neglected by law enforcement. From Detroit to Memphis to Green Bay, WI, rape cases have gone unsolved, and evidence collected through invasive, hours-long exams goes unanalyzed. On Thursday, USA Today published the results of a massive investigation into more than a thousand law-enforcement agencies that found tens of thousands of untested kits — and there could be hundreds of thousands more. In May, we interviewed one of those journalists, who spent five years working with a colleague to expose the backlog problem in their hometown of Cleveland that ultimately led to the identification of hundreds of serial rapists. This week's news shows just how much work still has to be done. This article was originally published on May 27, 2015. "Rape kit" is the common term for a set of tests that gather evidence after a sexual assault, usually from the survivor's clothes and body. The process can be traumatic — it involves a series of often-invasive procedures that need to be conducted in the immediate aftermath of the crime. The evidence from these kits, however, is a big part of how we identify and arrest rapists. Which is why it's especially tragic that, all too often, those kits are just sitting around in police stations, untouched. Two reporters for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Rachel Dissell and Leila Atassi, spent five years investigating how their city investigated rape cases. One of the things they found was that, just in Cleveland, there were over 4,000 rape kits that had never been tested. Their reporting, and the outcry it inspired, led to a new law in Ohio that requires every kit to be tested. Since then, those tests have prompted more than 2,000 renewed investigations and have identified more than 200 serial rapists. We talked to Dissell about her work, about what the tests found, and about what happens next.
Your reporting actually led to a change in the law in Ohio. What's happened since?
"The law that requires all rape kits to be tested was just passed in December, and it took effect in March. All old kits have to be sent in for, along with the new ones. But, before that law passed, Cleveland and a number of other cities in Ohio were voluntarily starting to send the older ones [for testing]. So Cleveland, as of last year, had tested more than 4,000 kits. "The testing has been ramping up since 2012 — and the first indictment was in March of 2013. Since then, there have been over 300 indictments in cases just based on these older rape kits. When I say ‘older,’ I mean from 1993 up until about 2009." Is there one particular case you remember?
"There was a guy named Elias Acevedo who was linked to a 1993 rape. His name was mentioned as a suspect at the time, but the case didn’t go forward. Because the rape kit was now tested, the case was reinvestigated. When investigators spoke to the victim, she said she thought he'd gone on to commit other crimes. "Turns out — and he later pled guilty to this and is now in prison for life — that he kidnapped and raped two women, both of whom he killed. One of them was an unsolved homicide, and the other one was a missing-person case that had been going on for decades. So, they both got resolved...based on police going back to reinvestigate one of these old reports linked to a rape kit."
Part of the tragedy is the fact that, had Acevedo been arrested after that first assault, those other two women might still be alive. Is that often the case?
"So, we had one guy, his name was Nathan Ford. He started raping prostitutes, sex workers, drug addicts — he would corner women in alleys. Some of these women would try to report things to the police; they gave very good descriptions of him. The police never caught him until...some very early evidence testing [was done, and] they caught him on a couple of cases. But, by the time they caught him, he had gone on to rape a college student...a schoolteacher in her home, and an elementary school student. So, he escalated his crimes to other folks. "With the most current round of rape kit testing, they’ve already found 14, 15 more cases that he committed that they didn’t even know he committed before. We didn’t know how prolific some of these people were because we didn’t follow the trail, connect the dots, until the testing."
Is there anything you feel like people who are interested in investigating this in their own cities can take away from your work?
"All this reporting is focusing on rape kits; it’s focusing on the forensic evidence and what we can do to test it. But, what I think is really important is not to look at this as a situation where we make cities count the kits, we make cities test the kits, we make cities reinvestigate the cases, and then we think we’re all done. "We really can’t move on, because if we don’t change the way the system is set up, if we don’t change the way the cases are investigated from the moment they’re reported, then there will be some other type of backlog that we’ll be reporting on or hearing about 10 years from now. I think what we need to do is take this information, take what we’re learning from these 20 or 30 years' worth of cases, and look at it for what it is. It’s a bunch of clues. And, it’s a lot of opportunities we missed, and how we can not miss them in the future, and know what we did wrong, and fix it so that the same things aren’t happening every day."

These stories are just from Cleveland, but it's a national problem. Are there any cities that are handling it better?
"New York had taken a little bit of a different approach from the rest of the country. Long before anybody else, back in 2000, they basically said ‘Hey, let’s take anything we have in our evidence room, and just test it.’ So, at that point, they tested a bunch of cases and made some indictments and arrests, but not quite as many as we’re seeing in cities like Cleveland and Detroit and Memphis. "But, I wondered, Why, after New York did this, and saw good results, did nobody else say, ‘Hey, let’s do what New York did'? No department that I can see really stepped up and said, ‘Let me follow that model, and test a bunch of kits.’ Instead, they just kind of left them sitting there... I think, in a lot of cases, they just didn’t really realize the power of what they had sitting in their evidence rooms."

How does it feel to know that your reporting made such an impact?
"We have to be real careful. Nobody can take absolute credit for something happening. So many things have to happen for something to get better, and change takes a lot of people. "It takes someone sharing an idea with you and giving you information. It takes someone acting on information after you write about it. We can’t take credit at all. I think the best thing we can say is that we did our job as reporters and asked a lot of questions and wrote a lot of stories. And, those sparked a conversation, and the conversation that happened sparked action by people that changed laws. So, that took a lot of people. It wasn’t just us."

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