rape

He materialized in the dark. One minute she was alone, feeding quarters into a coin machine at a deserted, self-service car wash just blocks from her home, the next minute he was beside her, his face buried in a wadded rag. "I was in a fight," came the muffled plea. "Can you drive me to the hospital?"

Helena Lazaro, a cherubic teen standing just over 5 feet tall, took in his flannel shirt and black jeans — around 30, she thought, maybe a trucker. His sandy hair was cut in a redneck's mullet and, oddly, she would notice, in one of his eyes there glistened a drop of blood.

"Oh, sure," she said, fighting panic, thinking she would just try to scoot into her car and shoot away.

But suddenly he was behind her, holding a knife to her throat, and the rape of Helena Lazaro began.

For more than 13 years, her ordeal, in a sketchy outlying area of Los Angeles, remained not only unsolved but also largely uninvestigated — one of America's hundreds of thousands of scandalously backlogged rape cases awaiting forensic analysis. A predator was on the loose and the authorities seemed indifferent, unwilling, or unable to use modern tools familiar even to the casual viewer of CSI.

But last December, Lazaro got surprising news. Long thought lost or destroyed, her rape kit — hospital swabs of semen and saliva, along with hair, nail clippings, and other potential evidence of a sexual assault — had yielded a DNA profile that matched a suspect: a 45-year-old long-haul trucker, who was in prison. Roughly 13 years after her attack, Lazaro's rape kit had finally been tested.

That was the good news.

The bad news, which can now be pieced together, was that after sexually assaulting Lazaro in 1996, the man had gone on to rape his wife at knifepoint in Indiana — as well as an Ohio woman under strikingly similar circumstances to Lazaro's. Following the attack on his wife, his unique genetic profile had been entered into the national database known as CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, that was online by the late 1990s and now contains more than 7 million offender profiles. But because Lazaro's rape kit was never tested, no match was made a tragic error in a chaotic, inefficient system that would lead to at least one more rape.

"We can prevent rapes of women," says Representative Carolyn Maloney, the New York congresswoman pressing for more resources for DNA testing. "We have the science. We just need the will."

In the Lazaro case, the shocking conclusion was that had it not been for sloppiness, human error, systemic failure, or a combination of the three (a sequence being repeated across the country), the Ohio rape in 1998 could have been prevented. And it took the authorities more than three years after the rapist's third assault to make the forensic connection and arrest him. Linking that crime back to Lazaro's would take another eight years.

Were other women around the country victimized by the same predator in the interim? "I wouldn't put anything past him," says the Indiana sheriff's deputy who arrested the man for raping his wife. The arresting officer in the Ohio rape agrees. "I don't doubt it," says Detective Michelle Brettin of the Fairfield Police. "But will we ever find them?"

The 13-year delay in acting on Lazaro's rape and the tragic consequences it had for at least one other victim dramatize, as few other cases do, the perils of a dysfunctional system that, despite the great leaps in forensic science, has long treated sexual crimes with degrees of ambiguity, suspicion, and hostility, often shaming the victims in the process.

"Most rapes are perpetrated by serial rapists," says Dr. David Lisak, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies the subject. The average rapist, he says, attacks multiple victims: One study suggested seven, another 11.

"For one woman to be believed, someone else has to be raped," says Kaethe Morris Hoffer, legal director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, a leading support group for rape survivors.

For almost a decade, the backlog in testing and processing rape kits has been a national disgrace, fueling outrage among rape survivors and women's-rights groups and prompting remedial efforts in Congress and the states. Law enforcement has had the science to match the DNA of victims to perpetrators since 1989. The realities of crime-fighting, of course, are complex. In 2007 there were 248,200 rapes and sexual assaults, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. Demands for DNA testing, a shortage of technologists, limited budgets, and the roughly $1,500 cost of collecting and processing each rape kit conspired to create the backlog over many years.

None of which quite explains why hundreds of thousands of rape kits — including Helena Lazaro's — were among the forensic evidence from 542,000 criminal cases that the National Institute of Justice found lying unprocessed in police storage lockers and labs around the country as of 2003. Since then, efforts to cut the backlog have borne some fruit, but Congress estimates that more than 180,000 rape kits remain untested nationwide.

Meanwhile, a new National Institute of Justice report released in June cautioned that signs of progress were deceptive. More cases were being processed, but backlogs were rising because of the fast-growing demand for DNA testing.

"What other crimes would be disregarded like this?" asks Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, the nation's oldest rape clinic, serving some 1,000 new victims a year. "How could you close a case and never open the evidence?"

"Most victims," she adds, "have no idea their kits are not being opened."

lab

The night of August 5,1996, had started off well for Helena Lazaro, the eldest daughter of an Argentine X-ray repairman and a nurse who had fled Castro's Cuba. Helena attended Catholic schools until, she says, "I rebelled," transferred to Downey High, and adopted a nose ring and a tattoo. She had a sweet, round face, curly brown hair, and green eyes flecked with rust. She wrote poetry and wanted to become a writer. But that summer before her senior year, she was working the carnival games at Knott's Berry Farm.

Earlier in the evening she had gone on a blind date in Santa Monica with a cute software programmer she had met online. "I like nerdy guys," says Lazaro. She was wearing a navy-blue turtleneck and a floor-length floral skirt she had gotten for her 17th birthday six days before. After dinner she'd left in her cherished new white-over-black Rabbit convertible, another birthday gift, and decided, blocks from home, to wash it yet again.

The car wash in a strip mall on Telegraph Road was deserted when she pulled in after dark. She was getting the hose when he suddenly appeared, faceless, the rag shrouding his features, startling her with his plea for help.

"Immediately the bells went off," Lazaro recalls. "Oh, sure," she said, feigning calm. "Let me put my mats in the car."

She started to dart into the driver's seat, planning a quick getaway. But he met her at the door and slid into the backseat behind her, an arm around her neck and a knife at her throat. "Be calm," he warned. "Don't say anything."

He directed her to drive out of the car wash into the maze of dark suburban streets where he slipped into the seat beside her. They passed a liquor market with a police car outside. She thought of leaping the curb and staging a crash. As if reading her mind, he pressed the knife sharply against her and she drove on.

She begged him not to hurt her. He told her to take down her hair. Then he said words that chilled her. "You can't tell anybody what's going to happen."

She cried that she had a boyfriend, that she had been raped before — anything she could think of. He reached down and began fondling her, one minute telling her how pretty she was, then calling her ugly and threatening to disfigure her.

She noticed the blood in his eye and tried to convince him to go to a hospital. Instead, he directed her into a depot of parked trailer trucks. In a darkened bay, he told her to get out of the car and take off her clothes. She said she was wearing a tampon. He told her to remove it. He made her fellate him, and then pulled her down on his lap and assaulted her again. Then he draped her naked over the hood of the car and attacked her yet again.

Back in the car he demanded her cash and driver's license. Then, relenting, he returned $20, saying, "I don't want to take all your money." He began talking about his wife, how furious he was with her.

"I tried to get him to confide in me, see me as a person," Lazaro recalls.

He forced oral sex from her repeatedly, each time apologizing, "I'm sorry, I won't make you do that again." Then he directed her to drive to some railroad tracks. "We sat there for the longest time," she remembers. "That's where I think he was planning to kill me."

With no train coming, he ordered her to drive again, this time to a freeway underpass near a shoddy motel where he threatened her again into silence, saying he would know if she reported him. "I have a police scanner," he said. "I'll kill your family." He had her driver's license, so she had every reason to believe him.

Then a prostitute trolling for clients near the motel spotted them and ambled over, knocking on the car window and asking, "Hey, you guys want to party?"

Lazaro struggled to signal her terror. "I tried to motion with my eyes," she recalls, to no avail. The woman wandered off.

But Lazaro's attacker wasn't through. "That bitch made me horny," he said, compelling oral sex yet again. Then he slipped out of the car, stepped into the shadows, and disappeared.

A federal survey last year painted a sorry picture of the state of scientific awareness among the nation's crime-fighters. The report, prepared for the National Institute of Justice, found that of 150,070 unsolved rapes over the past five years, 27,595 (or more than 18 percent) produced forensic evidence that was never sent to a lab. What's more, nearly half of the police agencies surveyed said they were under the impression that they were not to submit such evidence without an identified suspect — the very purpose of seeking DNA matches. Astonishingly, the report noted, "Some law enforcement agencies are still not fully aware that forensic evidence can be used as an investigative tool and not just during the prosecution phase."

After years of scattered newspaper exposés around the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) threw a powerful spotlight on the backlog problem last year with a report, "Testing Justice," that documented shocking negligence in Los Angeles City and County.

Pressing the L.A. Police Department and Sheriff's Department to search their storage spaces and crime labs, HRW found a staggering backlog of 12,669 untested rape kits. Other cities were equally bad or worse. As far back as 2002, the scandal-plagued Houston crime lab was found to have run up a backlog of 19,500 untested rape kits, at which point a new lab director, Irma Rios, was promptly appointed. Rios subsequently began a series of reforms, including the use of robotic testers, that has cut the number to 4,000, with the goal of processing the remainder within a year. In Detroit, some 10,500 rape kits, unopened and untested and dating back to the mid-'90s, were discovered at the discredited crime lab there, with thousands more in surrounding Wayne County.

But that's not all. Police in Denver and other cities around the country threw out biological evidence for nearly 6,000 murder and rape cases, deeming them unactionable or outdated, although such evidence might have proved vital in making arrests. And now Illinois is the latest target of HRW, which found that of 7,974 rape kits booked into police storage from 1995 to 2009, only 20 percent could be confirmed as having been tested (this after disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich falsely pronounced the state backlog-free in 2005). But there's really no fathoming the debacle, says Sara Tofte, HRW's researcher and author of the report, since of the 264 Illinois law-enforcement agencies queried for information, only one-third responded with complete data. What's more, an Illinois audit in 2009 found that $6 million in state funds allocated for forensics went elsewhere, with Jonathon Monken, the director of the state police, claiming this happened under Blagojevich's orders. In a stunning move in July, current Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed the Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act, the first law in the nation requiring the police to test all rape kits within 10 days of their collection.

So problems can be fixed. In 1999, when the New York Police Department discovered nearly 17,000 untested rape kits, New York City's then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioner, Howard Safir, contracted with three outside labs that by 2003 had eliminated the backlog. And in 2007, the city opened a $290 million Forensic Biology Laboratory at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner that performs more DNA testing than any lab in the country, including the FBI's. By promptly testing every rape kit, New York has achieved a 70 percent arrest rate, three times the national average.

"New York is the best in the country," says HRW's Tofte. If there's any problem, she adds, it's that the city is setting too high a bar for others. "They're so good, it almost looks unattainable."

Simply throwing money at the problem has not proved successful. Over the years, the Justice Department has provided in excess of $330 million to help labs reduce backlogs, but the funds were often squandered, says Representative Carolyn Maloney, the New York Democrat. To help stop this, Maloney's sponsoring a remedial bill that would compensate localities according to their success rates. "As they decrease their backlog by 1 percent, they get 1 percent more funding," she says. "DNA never forgets. It can't be intimidated. It convicts — and exonerates."

Congress has heeded the outcry as well. In 2004 it passed the Debbie Smith Act, which provides funding for DNA testing. The act is named for a 36-year-old Virginia woman who was raped in 1989. Her rape kit went untested for six years, when it was finally processed and matched to her attacker — in prison for a separate offense.

Suddenly alone after her attacker fled, Lazaro drove off in shock. She couldn't go home, she thought foggily. She was afraid to call the police. What if he was listening to a scanner as he had threatened? Then she began screaming.

But when she spotted a parked police cruiser, she pulled over. "I need help," she blurted. "I've just been raped."

At Whittier Hospital Medical Center, she endured a painful rectal exam and the rape-kit swabs. When a counselor tried to comfort her, saying, "It's not your fault," Lazaro erupted. "Of course it's not!"

They couldn't reach her parents. Finally, by sunup, her father arrived. His first words, Lazaro remembers, were: "This is really expensive. We need to get out of here."

The police wanted her to help them make a sketch of the suspect. But Lazaro, still terrified, refused. He had her driver's license, after all, and could easily trace her.

Too terrified to leave the house, she called the police every few weeks. They had no news.

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After abandoning Helena Lazaro, her tormentor, Charles Samuel Courtney Jr., made his way back to Indiana, where he had a wife and a young son with a rare bone disease. He would soon rape again.

Less than six weeks later, on September 14, 1996, Franklin County Deputy Sheriff Loren D. Baker responded to a call from a grocery pay phone in Lakeview, just west of the Ohio line. A witness was reporting a rape. The victim: Mary Jane Courtney. Sheriff Baker interviewed Mary, who said that her husband, Charles, had been gone most of the week trucking. When he came home, she told him the marriage was over. He "locked the door and started yelling at her and calling her names," Baker reported. "If he could not have her, nobody would."

"Charles Courtney then revealed a knife, held it to her throat, pulled her from the couch, and pushed her down the hall to the rear bedroom," Baker's account continued. "Mary said the whole time he threatened to kill her and at one point held the knife to his own throat. Mary stated that while in the bedroom, he pushed her onto the bed and laid the knife on the nightstand, pulled her pants off and told her to take off her shirt. While holding his hand on her mouth to keep her from screaming, he had sex with her."

Courtney was arrested and charged with a Class A felony that could have put him behind bars for 30 years. But on October 10, 1997, his legal defender and the prosecutor — unaware of Lazaro's rape in California or the rape kit waiting to be tested — reached a deal, agreed to by Mary. If Courtney would plead guilty, the charge would be reduced to sexual battery, a Class C felony, in this instance carrying four years, with two years of the term suspended. Under Indiana's system, each day in prison on good behavior earns a day off the sentence, so Courtney could be freed in a year—sooner, counting time already served. He ultimately served only five months.

One month after his release, shortly after midnight on April 21, 1998 — 18 months after raping his wife and less than two years after raping Lazaro — Courtney, by then living in the Cincinnati, Ohio, suburb of Hamilton, was stalking new prey. This time he abducted Amberly Lakes, a 21-year-old clerical worker, in the parking lot of a Thriftway in nearby Fairfield. Once again he had a knife, threatening to "slit" her, according to the complaint later taken by Detective Michelle Brettin. Courtney forced Lakes to drive to a deserted location, where he raped her repeatedly. Once again he took his victim's driver's license and money, told her he knew where she lived, and promised that he'd find her if she went to the police. Then, once again, he disappeared.

As before, the victim submitted to a rape kit. And once more, it would yield her attacker's DNA. Only this time, authorities had the makings of a match, since Courtney's DNA had been taken in prison in Indiana. It was too late to help Lazaro (although the knowledge might have eased her nightmares), but had Courtney's DNA been matched to Lazaro's rape kit when he went to jail, it could have flagged Courtney as a serial rapist and kept him behind bars instead of out on the street within months. And it would certainly have spared Amberly Lakes.

"I would say so," confirms Lakes, now 34. "Almost every detail that happened to [Lazaro] happened to me." And it may well have happened to others. "He was a trucker driving across the United States," says Lakes. "I honestly feel there are more women out there."

But as it was, the DNA profile taken from Courtney after his attack on his wife would not be matched against Lakes' rape kit for more than three-and-a-half years, until November 2001. When it was, he was arrested, as it matched the DNA in Lakes' kit. Now he faced up to 50 years. But once again, a deal was struck. In 2002 he pleaded guilty to rape, kidnapping, and intimidation and was sentenced to 25 years.

Courtney's public defender in the Lakes case, Richard Koehler, said recently he'd had no idea about Lazaro's rape at the time of his defense. And Lazaro still didn't know her attacker was sitting in prison, though over the years she'd repeatedly called the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. As she approached her 28th birthday in July 2007, she stepped up her inquiries, believing that the statute of limitations on a minor's rape extended 10 years from the victim's 18th birthday. The authorities said her rape kit appeared to have been destroyed. Why the case languished still remains unexplained.

Desperate for some kind of resolution, Lazaro reached out to a friend who worked with feminist social-service agency Peace Over Violence. The friend, Abigail Sims, was shocked. "The stranger-rape of a minor? This is a no-brainer." Sims had a colleague call the Sheriff's office, and suddenly the case was alive again. Miraculously, Lazaro's rape kit was found and tested and the DNA results uploaded to CODIS. It matched Courtney's DNA profile. Early this year, armed with Lazaro's case, deputies traveled to Ohio to build a new case against Courtney, currently eligible for release in 16 years.

After Lazaro told her story — for the first time publicly — to Marie Claire, the Los Angeles Superior Court issued an extradition warrant for Courtney on April 30, to face charges in Lazaro's rape 14 years earlier. Ohio correction officials and Diana Martinez, the L.A. prosecutor in charge of the victim impact program, could not say how long the process might take. Lazaro, meanwhile, has paid a heavy price for her trauma and the years of inaction. Now 31 and living with a boyfriend on the outskirts of L.A., she is on disability, having recently left her job as an associate producer at MTV to deal with anxiety and depression that she attributes to her suffering over the rape and the terrible uncertainty over whether her attacker would ever be found.

But with a sort of end in sight, Lazaro is slowly coming to grips with her nightmares and speaking out to help other victims. "Silence is not the answer," she says. "If you can't tell your story because it's too scary, then it's one more thing he did to you."

Ralph Blumenthal was an investigative reporter and foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of five nonfiction books.

Join Human Rights Watch and Marie Claire in a campaign to pass the Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009, which will require all states to test and track rape kits. Click here to send a letter to Congress.

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