This story begins in Downtown Jacksonville, with a young woman reporting a rape in the early morning hours of May 25, 2001. It ends 14 years and more than 300 miles away with that same woman — we’ll call her Sarah* — furiously wiping away tears in the living room of the modest home she shares with her husband and young daughter.
Sarah’s alleged rapist is a free man. In spite of being twice identified with DNA evidence, unless the State Attorney’s Office reverses its decision to drop the case, he will not be charged with assaulting her.
And then there is matter of the delay: He was first identified with DNA evidence from the crime scene in 2008, and again with DNA from Sarah’s rape kit in 2011. Sarah was not contacted by JSO until 2014.
Sarah was 20 years old when she climbed off a Greyhound bus from Fort Lauderdale in the wee morning hours of May 25, 2001. She tried calling friends to pick her up at the bus station Downtown, but no one would, so she set out on foot for her Westside home 13 miles away.
She hadn’t gone far when a man offered to accompany her, claiming to know a shortcut.
“He was nice and nothing seemed out of the ordinary,” she says, later lamenting,
“I was stupid.”
Sarah says she didn’t sense danger until he pushed her into the shadows, held a knife to her neck and told her to pull her pants down, threatening to cut her throat if she screamed or resisted. She says all she could do was pray and cry as he raped her.
“Then after he was done, he told me to pull my pants up and walk away. And I did.”
Sarah reported the rape to the first person she encountered, a homeless man who summoned the police. She gave a statement, provided a rape kit and went home with her parents, who were “heartbroken.” She says the
detective who arrived at her doorstep to follow up was skeptical and accusatory.
“[He said], ‘If we find this guy and he tells us you traded him sex for drugs or alcohol, we’re going to take you to jail,’” says Sarah, adding that there were no drugs or alcohol found in her system that night. “ … I told him I was furious and to do what he had to do and, if they wanted to, close the case.”
This was before public outcry against police treating rape victims like suspects, when threatening a terrified young victim to “scare the truth out” may have been considered acceptable procedure. In an email, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Officer Melissa J. Bujeda wrote that a detective who suspects a victim of lying may inform them that filing a false police report is a criminal offense.
“We believe that every allegation of sexual assault should be taken seriously and survivors need to be believed and have their cases taken seriously,” says Rebecca O’Connor, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) vice-president of public policy.
Eventually, Sarah says, the nightmares went away. She had moved on with her life as a military wife and mother when JSO contacted her last year. Last month, Folio Weekly asked Sarah if she knew the man was identified years before she was contacted.
After a moment of stunned silence, she said, “I didn’t know that. To know now it’s, like, wow. It’s, like, a big wow.”
JSO says it did not inform Sarah of the DNA matches for six and three years, respectively, because the investigation was suspended. (Sarah authorized Folio Weekly to reveal her identity to law enforcement for purposes of seeking comment.)
However, Officer Bujeda admitted, “Notification of a potential DNA match in a case could, and in most cases would, be an investigative lead that would require the detective to contact the victim within a reasonable amount of time to follow up.”
But in the same email, Officer Bujeda wrote that “given the totality of the circumstances,” neglecting to contact Sarah did not violate department policy. She further noted that JSO has made many policy changes since 2001.
Sarah was the second woman to contact Folio Weekly with a story of justice delayed following the July 8 publication of “Don’t Call It a Backlog.” On Aug. 3, one woman, who declined to be interviewed, wrote in an email:
“JSO was correct stating the rape kits weren’t backlogged.
I was raped August 2002, my kit was submitted in 2003, a match was received in 2010, I was notified two weeks ago. That’s not backlog, that’s laziness. JSO doesn’t need funding or more officers, they just need to do their job. No reason it should take five years. To contact a victim [sic].”
In a subsequent email, she wrote, “While I hope it is not true, I believe I am not the minority and, of the 30-plus with DNA matches, we are probably all old cases which have been sitting in JSO’s inbox with a match. The only reason JSO is now declaring they have matches is to appear like they are doing their jobs and to receive approval for the grant. Meanwhile, we weren’t worth the effort.”
Last year, JSO endeavored to make things right for Sarah. Detective D.L. Crews was reassigned to the case, diligently tracked her down (her name changed when she got married), gathered evidence, including interviews with Sarah and her alleged rapist, and submitted the case to the SAO.
Temporarily, at least, it seemed that justice would prevail.
A phone call on Oct. 2, 2014, shattered that expectation.
Sarah says Assistant State Attorney Theresa Simak, supervisor of the special assault division, oscillated between being sympathetic and rude as she told her that they weren’t going to try the case because they could not guarantee conviction.
“[She] said, ‘No, we don’t have, you know, we don’t have enough to take it to court because it’s your word against his because all he has to say is you traded him sex for drugs and alcohol,’” Sarah says.
Communicating through email, SAO Director of Communications Jackelyn Barnard denied that Simak said that they were dropping the case because they might lose. (In spite of requests, Simak was not made available to provide comment.)
“ASA Simak told the victim that we could not proceed with this case because we could not prove it was not consensual,” Barnard writes.
It’s not clear how this differs from Sarah’s understanding of their position, as being unable to prove an element of a case is essentially synonymous with being unable to win.
Victims’ advocates do not believe that a claim of consent should be enough to avoid rape charges.
O’Connor says, “Many, many rape cases are hinged on he-said, she-said and evaluating specifically consent.”
When a victim’s account differs from that of the accused’s, the outcome depends on whose version the fact-finder believes.
Although 13 years had passed when she was re-interviewed, Sarah’s account remained the same; she says Det. Crews even remarked upon this. (JSO did not allow Folio Weekly to speak with Crews.) Sarah chose her alleged attacker’s picture out of a photo lineup but, through no fault of her own, the lineup might not hold up in court because, she says, the alleged perpetrator was the only one who looked old enough to have committed the crime.
When JSO interviewed her alleged attacker** last year, he denied ever having sex with a white woman. He later changed his story, saying he had consensual sex with one white woman, but not Sarah. Given that his DNA was in her rape kit, this could be used against him if, during trial, he denied having had intercourse with her.
And he has an extensive criminal record that, per the SAO’s Disposition Statement, includes “Possession of Cocaine (x2), Uttering, Sale of Cocaine (x2), Possession with Intent to Sell Cannabis, Grand Theft, and several misdemeanors including Maintaining a Place for Prostitution and Soliciting for Prostitution.” The same statement notes that Sarah seems credible and “has no criminal history.”
Some question whether Sarah’s story is indicative of a systemic problem with local law enforcement.
As Folio Weekly previously reported, Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports that Duval County has one of the highest rates of forcible sexual offenses in the state (93.9/100,000 in 2014), and such offenses have nearly doubled since 2005’s rate of 51.4/100,000. According to the SAO’s recent application for a $2 million grant to handle the untested rape kits, there are “3,916 unsolved or suspended sexual assault cases in Jacksonville alone.”
Former prosecutor Wes White, currently a candidate for State Attorney, said, “I think it’s symptomatic of a larger problem and that problem is that women are not valued as they should be … I would say it’s a problem that goes from the State Attorney’s Office to the Sheriff’s Office and even to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.”
It’s impossible to know how many of these cases are like Sarah’s. Rape victim shield laws, which protect survivors by making it a crime to reveal their identities, also allow law enforcement to cloak sexual assault investigations in secrecy.
Today, Sarah is trying to move on with her life again, coping with the reemergence of the nightmares that haunted her after the attack, and trying not to let her anger cause her to lash out at her husband. She’s lost hope in justice for herself but hopes her story inspires changes that could help others like her.
“I gave up on believing, believing that justice can be served for victims. It didn’t happen for me, so I want to see it happen for others.”