In a small Illinois town, a history of failed, ignored rape investigations and hundreds of untested rape kits

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Rosa Pickett was 17 when she was raped in her hometown of Robbins, Il. on September 3, 1977.

She was walking to a party at night in the nearly all-black village of Robbins located in the Cook County region that also contains the mecca of Chicago. After being rescued by a stranger who found her in a ditch, he took her home. Her mother barely recognized Pickett’s face, which was swollen from receiving repeated punches during her assault.

Mother and daughter, eager to report the crime in a timely manner that might lead to a conviction, went to the hospital so that medical workers could administer a rape kit, a police-approved means of collecting evidence in the aftermath of a violent sex crime.

Pickett’s rape kit remains lost after 36 years. Her assailant was never found. From her perspective, Picket was sexually assaulted, reported her crime, and the Robbins police did nothing.

Lost rape kits: A prevalent problem

This is not an isolated incident. A 2013 investigation launched by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has uncovered that at least 203 rape kits have been collected in the tiny locale of Robbins since the mid-’70s, but were never used to properly investigate sexual assaults.

Because of a 2010 law passed in the state of Illinois requiring police to account for unprocessed rape kits, Cook County began the task of tracking down what happened to kits collected at hospitals, or that were sent in from police departments, but did not result in convictions or seemed otherwise unaccounted for.

In January 2013, the previous mayor of Robbins, Irene Brody, who just stepped down this year, invited these authorities to review how sexual assault evidence in her town was housed. According to the Sheriff’s Office, Robbins had an alarmingly high number of rape kits that were unaccounted for at 44. Additionally, no rape convictions related to these kits had come out of the town.

Among shelves filled with evidence gathered at the scenes of sexual assaults — shreds of torn clothing, stained paper bags, and vials of blood — 51 unsubmitted rape kits were discovered jammed onto a massive basement rack.

One hundred and fifty additional kits were unearthed that had been submitted to a central state agency for analysis and returned to local Robbins police, but then were never subsequently “worked” — meaning the police never followed up on the evidence in an attempt to identify suspects.

Addressing police failures

In February 2013, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office held a town hall meeting to invite Robbins residents to discuss this and other issues stemming from poor policing. Officers stood accused of not responding to emergency calls, and failing to solve robberies. Rape victims were also asked to come forward to be matched with the rape kits that had been discovered. Prosecutors were going to make an effort to reopen cases.

It was at this meeting that Rosa Pickett first stepped forward.

Now Pickett is working with the Sheriff’s Office to be the face of its efforts to work all the kits to potentially bring about convictions, or at least some measure of justice for sexual assault victims whose cases were forgotten.

In Pickett’s case, the negligence was so great that her rape kit is gone. After sorting through disorganized file cabinets and stacks of boxes, Cook County Sheriff’s Office officials were only able to find a single typed card documenting her rape 36 years ago. Perhaps the rape kit — probably contained in a small box that became stamped with labels and scrawled with handwritten numbers after phases of use — was confused with refuse in the rubble of the police storage area.

Yet, in addition to misplaced rape kits, unused kits lead to additional levels of injustice that can rarely be compensated for due to the passage of time.

Passage of time creates greater injustices

Had police used Pickett’s kit when it was collected, it may have helped them determine who raped and beat her in 1977. Even if Pickett’s kit had been found in 2013, the crime was so long ago, the DNA evidence it contained would not have been as effective as evidence 36 years later.

Many issues related to lost time — such as kit contents being completely used during a first analysis, with no opportunity to acquire new samples closer to events — make the negative effects of letting so much time pass even greater.

Today, vast databases containing DNA that has been collected from criminals now assist in processing rape kits, but these did not exist when Pickett was assaulted. For other victims, these databases offer hope.

In the case of another Robbins victim who has stepped forward, her rape kit has already identified a suspect through DNA evidence, decades after she was sexually assaulted.

Pickett is an older woman, who survived a drug addiction acquired after her assault to become a successful mother. This victim, a younger woman, prefers to remain anonymous.

The violent rape she endured at the age of 14 in 1991 still evokes sobbing when she tries to recount her story. Still, after courageously stepping forward, her kit was found and worked by Cook County Sheriff’s Office officials this year as part of the current audit. And the DNA from her kit matched a suspect in the system.

But, because her rape kit sat unworked on a basement shelf in Robbins for 22 years, her attacker might go unprosecuted. In this victim’s case, the statute of limitations has run out.