Apr 21, 2017

Albuquerque, N.M. "Rape Kit" Crisis Deepens

Diane Gibson (Courtesy)

New Mexico State Auditor: Albuquerque's "Rape Kit" Crisis Deepens

By Kent Paterson/Correspondent
Special to the Digie Zone Network

ALBUQUERQUE -- The city's inventory of untested sexual assault evidence kits containing DNA is worsening. That's the message New Mexico State Auditor Tim Keller delivered to the Albuquerque City Council this week at the elected body's regular meeting.

Keller said he made the appearance to update both city councilors and the general public on a statewide special audit his office performed on the criminal evidence sets commonly called rape kits.

"Our early indications are that the backlog is growing.. the numbers matter and they're getting bigger," Keller said. According to the state auditor, who is running for mayor of Albuquerque, thousands of rape kits- some gathering the proverbial dust for 30 years or more- remain untested in Albuquerque.

In December 2015, the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) calculated that 5,410 rape kits were sitting untested statewide. In a December 2016 report based on updated information, Keller's office said the untested number had grown to 5,440, with 73 percent of that total, or 3,948, in Albuquerque. The numbers were based on a survey of state law enforcement agencies done by the New Mexico Department of Public Safety (NMDPS); last December's report noted that the survey's figures were self reported and unverified.

OSA Report

Keller later told this reporter that he and his staff personally contributed to the special audit by visiting law enforcement agencies across the state, where they encountered both positive and negative surprises that ranged from Albuquerque's backlog, which proved far thicker than the 1,000 or so untested rape kits he had heard about, to the "excellent procedures" maintained by Farmington officials who had "their ducks in a row."

The City Council Meeting

Albuquerque City Councilor Diane Gibson, who represents a section of the sprawling Northeast Heights, took the lead on the rape kit issue at the April 17 council meeting when she questioned an APD official she invited to the session on the work of the agency's crime lab. Gibson had a basic question: What does the lab do?

Dr. Bill Watson, a molecular biologist serving as the Albuquerque Police Department's (APD) acting crime lab director, gave an overview of ADP's Scientific Evidence Division, which processes crime scene, DNA and other forensic evidence.

"This is great. I understand the scope and range of the testing you do there," Gibson said after listening to Watson.

Saying he came to New Mexico from Tennessee 11 months ago, Watson informed the meeting APD currently has two and a half trained DNA analysts and three trainees. "I would say we are understaffed in DNA," Watson said, "and it affects our ability to do sexual assault, homicide and robbery cases."

"Quite frankly," Watson said, APD must concentrate on "the immediate need" of preparing evidence for homicide cases on the verge of going to court.

After stating that she understood APD is only currently able to process four out of 19 new rape kits, Gibson queried Watson on the barriers preventing kits from being tested. "Of course, the primary need is staff but we have staff we're training," the crime lab director responded.

Watson replaced John Krebsbach, the longtime crime lab director who retired.

Moving along, Gibson probed Watson on the status of 300 rape kits she understood were ready for prosecutions. "These will be the initial ones that go out," with 25 or 30 slated headed out of the lab within the next week thanks to the help of FBI resources, Watson confirmed.

In his city council presentation, Keller agreed that FBI assistance was important to victims of upcoming prosecutions but underscored that New Mexico - and especially Albuquerque -was still far behind the curve.

He said two main rape kit testing initiatives exist: one overseen by the NMDPS and aimed at ending the backlog in two years, and the City of Albuquerque's, which is currently projected to receive $1 million dollars under Mayor Richard Berry's proposed budget plus up to an additional $3 million if a U.S. Department of Justice grant is approved later this fall, a funding possibility Watson cautioned was very "competitive."

In an interview, Connie Monahan, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, a non-profit organization funded by government entities that works with rape crisis centers, service providers and others, said she was skeptical about APD getting the U.S. Department of Justice grant. This was the last chance (2017) for tapping into that pot of money, as the particular grant program expires this year, Monahan said.

Keller estimated that it would take $7 million just to clear up Albuquerque's problem.

"But there's still no plan to end the backlog. I have an answer in Santa Fe and a few good starts in Albuquerque. We need a plan to end the backlog in Albuquerque," he insisted. "Accountability is important. This is a 30-year plus backlog...it's not gonna go away, don't kid yourselves."

In New Mexico, Albuquerque has its own crime lab for rape kit testing while a state lab in Santa Fe handles the job for the remainder of the state's law enforcement agencies.

Perrry takes issue

Present at the city council session, Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry challenged Keller's assertions, questioning the fairness of comparing Albuquerque and its 4,000 kits with the rest of the state and its approximately 1,500 kits. Perry contended that Albuquerque "was not the worst" in the nation in terms of rape kit backlogs, citing bigger cities such as Detroit and New York.

Both Perry and Watson outlined proactive measures underway in New Mexico's biggest city, including pending grant opportunities, FBI assistance and efforts to outsource testing at two private labs. According to Perry, the city needs $3 million to get the job done. "This is a complex problem, and there is a solution to it," he said.

Carefully watching the agenda clock, Albuquerque City Council President Ike Benton then cut off the discussion before two women who accompanied Keller could testify. Thanking Perry for his comments, Benton added that the city council would take Perry's budget number into consideration.

In a phone interview the next day, Keller said he preferred not to get into a budget numbers contest with Perry, and though skeptical, welcomed the Albuquerque city official's lower cost estimate if it proved feasible. "That's great news if he can clear it up for three million. That's outstanding ... we want to get it done," Keller said.

But New Mexico's state auditor reiterated his stance that Albuquerque needs to come up with a plan, adding that so far he had only seen "pilot projects" and any advances until now were "great news but far from ending the backlog."

In contrast, Keller praised the NMDPS for having a plan that includes a timeline and goals. "They are really playing leadership and putting action behind it to end this backlog," he said.

In a separate phone interview, Diane Gibson stressed that APD needs to come up with a written plan and revisit crime lab procedures and training. The important thing is to clear up the backlog, the city councilor said. "I'm not laying blame. I don't care if anyone is at fault. We need to get to this," Gibson said. "Money is not going to solve this problem. What's going to solve this problem, in fact, is looking at making the crime lab more efficient."

Gibson disagreed with the idea of outsourcing testing to private labs out-of-state since it implied expensive costs to bring in lab personnel in the event a case goes to court. According to Monahan, a related concern in outsourcing is making sure that a private lab conforms to state government standards.

Getting away with rape

For Keller, the untested rape kit crisis constitutes a "huge public safety issue" that not only denies justice to victims but reinforces a generalized situation of impunity as well.

"Now (victims) are being told, unfortunately, it will be decades before they can get an answer, and that's not right. That's an unacceptable answer," Keller said. He placed part of the blame on lab and investigative understaffing, but also questioned public policy decisions that revolved around emphasizing new softball fields or Albuquerque Civic Plaza improvements even as critical evidence in violent crimes piled up for years and years. "It calls into question the priorities," Keller contended.

According to the OSA's December 2016 report, New Mexico ranks 48th out of 50 states in the frequency of sexual assaults, placing it near the top of the list. In New Mexico, one in four women and one in every 20 man has experienced an "attempted or completed sexual assault," the report states. Moreover, in 2014, 71 percent of sexual assault charges in state district courts were dismissed, compounded by the dismissal of 50 percent of sexual assault cases.

The report ranked New Mexico as the worst state for untested rape kits in 2015, with 254 untested kits per 100,000 inhabitants.

Connie Monahan, one of the two women who accompanied Keller to the last city council meeting but did not have a chance to speak, was subsequently reached by this reporter at her Albuquerque office.

Every month, Monahan's SANE program sends on average about 20 new rape kits to the APD crime lab and 30 more from metro area counties surrounding Albuquerque the state lab, Monahan said.

The longtime victim advocate said she went to the city council meet in order to "keep the focus" on city officials so they take concerted action to begin resolving a long-standing problem. After the council session, Monahan said she spoke with Watson and an APD commander, telling the pair, "We don't mean to embarrass you but we need a plan."

Monahan sketched out a good part of the history of Albuquerque's rape kit crisis and the salient issues surrounding it.

Voicing a mixture of frustration and optimism, Monahan said she first became aware of the Albuquerque problem in 2006 and unsuccessfully attempted to get NMPDS and APD to collaborate on a joint grant for rape kit testing. Judging the experience as a "fiasco," Monahan said, "that's when you realize than an outsider, a non-profit doesn't have clout."

Eleven years later, Monahan said the current backlog means many rape kits, especially the real old ones, "will never see the light of day," because factors such as victims or victimizers passing on or the statute of limitations might come into play. 

But from Monahan’s standpoint an important value of testing old kits - even if they won't ultimately be used in court - is that evidence could provide a closure for victims and expose criminals like Albuquerque's infamous "Ether Man," Robert Howard Bruce, a former technician for Intel and serial rapist who was linked to crimes in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma, according to press accounts.

Monahan proposed a five-pronged approach with the mission of resolving Albuquerque's rape kit crisis. She advocated a plan with benchmarks encompassing not only APD and the crime lab, but the district attorney's office, SANE and other advocates and service providers as well.

Implemented in stages, the strategy would "make more than a dent" over a five to seven year period, Monahan insisted. The bottom line for SANE's coordinator? "We really need to send a clear signal today to victims of sexual assault," she said. "Please come forward. APD is going to do the right thing."

Gibson, meanwhile, said she was sure the Albuquerque City Council will address the rape kit testing crisis again.

Kent Paterson, author and journalist, is former editor of Frontera NorteSur.