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August 10, 2010

The Dangerous Rise in Untested Rape Kits

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Rape Kit Backlog report researched by Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles.

Photo Credit: Patricia Williams

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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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