On a recent Tuesday morning, members of the DNA Cold Case task force in Cleveland, Ohio, gathered for their weekly meeting. The conference room filled with detectives, prosecutors, a crime analyst, several victim advocates—and one journalist. Rachel Dissell is a reporter for The Plain Dealer, one of two who first uncovered and wrote about neglected rape kits at the Cleveland Police Department in 2010. Dissell has been covering the ongoing story ever since.
The meeting started as it usually does with “all hands on deck” cases—the ones running up against the statute of limitations—then moved to other open investigations. Cleveland is not the first city to tackle a rape kit backlog, but it is one of the only municipalities to investigate every case so doggedly. Since 2011, when the city began sending rape kits to the state’s crime lab, almost all of its 4,000 kits have been tested; of these, over 1,600 contained usable DNA. Three hundred and fifty cases have led to grand jury indictments, and as of this month, over 100 rapists have been convicted, some of multiple rapes.
Timothy McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor who created and oversees the rape kit task force, attributed its existence to Dissell and her former reporting partner, Leila Atassi. “Rachel and her partner started this,” McGinty told CJR. “They are really the reason we are where we are.”
It’s an exemplary instance of local reporting, responsive government officials, and public support coming together to make a community safer. Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, calls Dissell’s work an “unusually positive use of investigative reporting.”
The story has reverberated beyond Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. Ohio passed a law in March requiring every police department in the state to submit untested rape kits to the lab by next spring. Going forward, all kits must be tested within 30 days. Cleveland’s story is also contributing to burgeoning national awareness of how many rape kits remain unexamined, and the potential gold mine they represent; once tested, they can solve old and ongoing cases while providing a wealth of data on sexual assault.
One stunning finding that emerged from Cleveland’s investigations is that as many as a third of reported rapes were perpetrated by a serial offender, a much higher proportion than officials anticipated. “I’ve been in this business for 43 years and I thought I knew I something about it,” says McGinty, who guessed about 15% would be attributable to serial offenders. “I was astonished.”
The implications are tremendous. It means that every unsolved case is even more likely to be another rape waiting to happen, and that removing even a single rapist from the street eliminates an ongoing threat.
Shapiro says that one of the most enlightening things about Dissell and Atassi’s reporting was the way it focused attention on the pattern of repeat offenders.
Dissell first began asking questions about rape kits in late 2009, when Ohio was rocked by the gruesome story of 11 bodies found in and around the Cleveland home of Anthony Sowell, a convicted rapist. The story prompted Dissell and Atassi to investigate how sexual assault cases were handled in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland. They filed a public records request, asking for the number of untested rape kits in storage at the Cleveland police department. The answer they got: We don’t know. But the department promised to find out.
Dissell and Atassi stayed on it until they received an estimate of roughly 4,000 untested kits. Once the backlog was made public, things moved steadily forward. Ohio Attorney General Michael DeWine declared that every kit would be tested at the state’s crime lab, secured funding, and increased the lab staff to meet demand.
In November 2012, just as the first results trickled in, McGinty was elected Cuyahoga County prosecutor after campaigning on a promise to rebuild the public’s faith in the criminal justice system. In his recounting, the single Cleveland detective initially tasked with investigating the first batch of rape kits planned to pursue only five out of about 55 cases. McGinty thought that was insane, so he gave them to his own investigators. “We found all 55 [victims],” McGinty says. “One was dead, but we took a picture of her headstone.”
For the first few months, they were literally racing the clock. More than half the city’s rape kits had usable DNA that could be uploaded to CODIS, the federal DNA database, and matched to a suspect. But in 2013, the earliest cases were reaching the 20-year statute of limitations for filing charges. Prosecutors and police sometimes had only hours between when the DNA results came back and when the statute of limitations ran out. Dissell recalls one case in which the detectives waited in a woman’s driveway for her to come home after carpool duty. They needed to get an indictment to the grand jury before the day was out.
One of the cases in that first batch involved Elias Acevedo, a previously convicted sex offender whose DNA was tied to a case in 1993. Acevedo lived on the same block as Ariel Castro, the man who held three women captive in his home for 10 years. Acevedo was arrested in June 2013, a month after the three women escaped Castro’s home and just three days before the statute of limitations ran out.
Acevedo later confessed to raping and killing two women, one of whom had been missing for almost two decades, and to molesting three of his daughters for years. He led police to the body of the 18-year-old woman he’d killed in 1994, near a highway overpass.The statute of limitations has recently been extended in Ohio, one of many impacts of the ongoing investigations in Cleveland.
“In the beginning the goal was very simplistic,” says Dissell. “If there are unsolved cases, why not solve them?” Once the investigations got underway, though, it became clear that there might be unintended consequences. “When you go to someone’s house 20 years after they were raped and knock at the door and say, ‘Hey, I found your rapist,’ you’re going to get a variety of reactions,” Dissell says.
In August 2013, after covering the story incrementally, Dissell and Atassi published a four-part series on the rape kit investigations, called “Reinvestigating Rape.” The series highlighted the higher than expected rate of serial rapists, including a color coded map of attacks by serial offenders, introduced readers to the players investigating the rape kit cases, and walked readers through the process of testing DNA from a rape kit.
It’s the magnitude of the system’s failure, and the resulting tragedy, that gets to Dissell. “I think about the thousands of serial rapists that were somehow able to get away with it because of the deficiencies in our system,” she says. “How were they able to pick the most vulnerable people, the people that either had drug addictions, or mental health issues, or other problems, and prey on those people? They didn’t get caught because we couldn’t deal with creating a system that helps those people, or listens to those people, or believes those people.”
Dissell holds journalists accountable too: “We should be shining a light on how these cases were being handled.”
Untested rape kits piled up in Cleveland and elsewhere for complicated reasons. DNA testing only became available in the late 1990s, and law enforcement didn’t immediately recognize its value. Some law enforcement agencies continue to stand by their earlier decisions not to test a kit if, say, a victim withdraws her complaint. There is also the practice of closing cases if a victim doesn’t press charges within a certain time frame after the alleged attack.
“I’m not saying that excuses the whole of what happened,” says Dissell. “But I think that as a journalist, it’s our job to show people the complexity of it.”
Other reporters are paying attention. Earlier this summer, USA Today conducted a massive investigation to try to determine how many rape kits remain untested nationwide. Over 75 local papers and TV stations in the USA Today Media Network collected data from 1,000 police departments. They found over 70,000 untested rape kits. Steve Reilly, the USA Today reporter who coordinated the project, says that 70,000 is a conservative estimate, as many departments only provided rough numbers.
“A lot of cities right now are just starting to test, and that’s kind of the simple part of the story,” Dissell says, “Once there’s hits, and cases and victims and suspects, then it gets a little bit more intense in terms of the types of stories reporters might want to cover.”
She says this is the kind of story it’s important to follow over time. “In cases like this our job is to really stick with it and see that the problem that has been identified leads to lasting change, not just knee-jerk change.”
Five years after she began, Dissell still writes several stories a week on on some aspect of the rape kit story; she credits her editors for allowing her to stick with it. Atassi has since moved to the City Hall beat for the Northeast Ohio Media Group, The Plain Dealer’s digital counterpart.
Shapiro praised Dissell’s intrepidness and compassion, her skill in demanding accountability from law enforcement while telling victim’s stories sensitively, in driving the story forward instead of finger-wagging.
For Dissell, it’s about the survivors. “It just makes you catch your breath, how much it’s impacting people’s lives.”
One of Acevedo’s daughters thanked Dissell in an email after her father was convicted. She wrote that she had previously reported her father’s crimes but the investigation had never gone anywhere. If not for Dissell’s reporting, the daughter wrote, her father would never have been held accountable.