Samples saved by a Baltimore doctor have been used to solve more than 80 cold cases, but evidence from 1,800 cases remains untested. The state’s new attorney general and some lawmakers are acting to protect this evidence trove from destruction.
by Catherine Rentz, Propublica.com
Two years ago, ProPublica showcased the remarkable tale of a doctor who saved physical evidence from more than 2,000 rape exams starting in the 1970s, years before police began to preserve forensic DNA. Baltimore County police tested just a tiny portion of the samples decades later and solved more than 80 cold cases; they made dozens of arrests and exposed serial rapists, including a man who assaulted at least 25 women and murdered one. The evidence also exonerated an innocent man and gave survivors life-changing closure.
Baltimore County law enforcement could have prioritized testing such a fruitful trove. Instead, it falls through loopholes in laws meant to preserve rape kit evidence and expedite testing.
Though the samples have been tested in fits and starts over the past two decades, those from about 1,800 cases remain untested and off the books.
Now, Maryland’s new attorney general and several other officials are looking for ways to safeguard the collection, incorporate it into yearly inventories and oversee its processing amid growing concerns of its vulnerability.
“I am concerned that evidence from approximately 1,800 sexual assault exams has not yet been processed and am committed to ensuring that this evidence is protected from destruction,” the recently sworn-in Attorney General Anthony Brown wrote in a statement.
Zenita Wickham Hurley, an attorney in Brown’s office who chairs the state committee overseeing Maryland’s untested rape kit inventory, said the group originally advised police to only catalog evidence they had collected. But she said her panel is in discussions with police officials regarding their progress in testing the hospital slides and “the appropriateness of increased state oversight of this evidence.”
She credited ProPublica’s reporting for helping to shed light upon the importance of the trove and said that going forward, the committee will be working to increase transparency and oversight of the testing and setting up legal agreements or legislative amendments to protect the slides.
Shelly Hettleman, a state senator from Baltimore County who has led major legislative efforts involving the preservation and testing of rape case evidence, is working to secure either legislation or a legal agreement with the hospital to make sure none of the remaining slides are destroyed. “I am very interested in making sure those slides have legal protection,” she said.
The law should be clarified either through amendment or regulation to protect the slides, and in the meantime, law enforcement and the hospital should commit to preserving them, said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “The slides are rape kits: They contain evidence collected from the bodies of sexual assault survivors and were retained to help determine who committed a rape. … Any destruction of the slides would be contrary to the spirit of the law and possibly the letter of the law.”
A Baltimore County police spokesperson wrote to ProPublica that once the slides are in their possession, they are handled under “the same investigative guidelines as other Sexual Assault biological evidence.”
Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr., who has authority over the Police Department and just replaced its chief, said: “Our administration remains committed to doing everything we can to ensure victims of sexual assault receive the support they deserve and that law enforcement effectively utilizes every resource at their disposal to deliver justice. While we are proud to say that Baltimore County has made improvements, we know that we still have farther to go and welcome additional state support to expand and improve testing progress. Moving forward, we are focused on making sure Baltimore County’s next police chief makes this critical work a top priority for years to come.”
Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have eliminated their rape kit backlog, according to the national advocacy group Joyful Heart. Maryland’s most recent audit of untested rape kits showed it had about 7,000 (not including slides from the 1,800 hospital cases that are not in the inventory). That would place it near the top in the nation behind California, Texas and North Carolina for untested rape evidence, though many states still have no public inventory.
The Maryland state legislature passed an audit law in 2015 because before that, many police departments refused to count and disclose rape kits. Getting police to comply with the law is still a challenge, Hurley said, despite the evidence being “one of our most critical tools for securing justice for survivors, holding perpetrators accountable and protecting public safety.”
The Baltimore County Police Department also has a long history of destroying rape case evidence. The department used to discard rape kits as early as a year after the exam, citing limited and costly storage space, though officials never put a dollar figure on such storage (a rape kit is the size of a legal envelope, and researchers have found that not testing kits is far more expensive and harmful to public safety). The state legislature mandated a 20-year retention of rape kits in 2017.
Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker had several thousand forensic samples he had saved from over 2,000 exams when he retired in 1997. His two-pronged preservation system of saving multiple glass slides and frozen glass tubes from each exam led to freezers and cabinets full of evidence. Each sample was carefully labeled and documented in logbooks.
The new rape kit system that replaced the doctor’s did not include frozen tubes or retaining the specimens stored at the hospital. Everything would henceforth be sent to the police.
The hospital sent all of the stored frozen tubes over to police headquarters, but it retained the glass slides. The police did not keep the tubes frozen, which the doctor later said would have ruined them. However the forensic lab director at the time said police transferred the frozen tubes to sterile material and stored them at room temperature.
It is unclear what was salvaged from the tubes. The police have been doing their own investigation of what remains from the doctor’s savings and what happened in its own lab decades ago. A Police Department spreadsheet documenting their findings from what the doctor had saved shows only about 50 cases with some vaginal wash material in police storage. Police have not responded to questions about what happened with the rest. Hettleman told ProPublica she did not know of the frozen tubes before our questions.
In 2019, the county police announced a renewed effort to test the doctor’s evidence thanks to private funding. But COVID-19-related delays and a deluge of DNA at private and local government labs have slowed the process.
The survivor community is making a renewed push to test the evidence now that the Attorney General’s Office has concluded a four-year investigation into the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The office identified 158 priests accused of sexually abusing and physically torturing more than 600 victims over the past 80 years.
Among the “credibly accused” is a late priest, Anthony Joseph Maskell, who worked as a counselor at Archbishop Keough High School and served as a Baltimore County police chaplain in the 1970s. The archdiocese has so far paid $462,000 to 16 of Maskell’s abuse victims, according to the Baltimore Banner. As chronicled in the 2017 Netflix series “The Keepers,” former Keough students said they were also abused by police officers he brought into the school.
The doctor’s slides stand as the last remaining evidence from sexual assault going back to the 1970s. Many of the victims did not get rape exams or report to law enforcement. Most victims of sexual assault do not report to police, and many clergy survivors said their lives were threatened. Now, survivors wonder whether other victims of their same predators went to the rape care center at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center while Breitenecker was collecting evidence.
Recent research shows sex offenders are far more serial than previously thought; they also often switch victim types between strangers and acquaintances, young and old and Black and white more than previously assumed.
Though it would require genealogy testing, as the vast majority of the accused men were never arrested, survivors wonder whether the slides might identify former clergy and Baltimore County police.
“I am starting to question whether the Baltimore County police, who have jurisdiction over this DNA evidence, is the right place to be deciding whether or not these cases actually get investigated,” Laura Neuman, a survivor whose attacker has shown up 11 times so far in the hospital slide cases, said in a recent WBAL radio show discussing clergy abuse. Neuman has lobbied local and state officials for quicker DNA testing for survivors, some of whom have since died. “Because we know when we investigate them, we get resolution. We know that cases get solved.”
Former Keough student and survivor Jean Hargadon Wehner spoke about the abuse she suffered by Maskell and police officers in “The Keepers.” Of the Police Department, she asked: “How are they choosing which ones they are going to be testing? And who is observing that decision? I think it is important that there is no bias.”
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In response to concerns of bias, Erica Palmisano, a Baltimore County spokesperson, said, “Investigations can and will be based on cases no matter who may be involved, and the county is willing to utilize outside support where appropriate.” She added that the county executive’s current search for a permanent chief of police will be driven in part by a commitment to sustained progress in sexual assault investigations.
Baltimore County police released on Wednesday their first website detailing their sexual assault kit workflow and statistics. The site does not include the evidence saved by the doctor. A spokesperson said police are considering doing so in the future.
Survivors seeking more information about their untested rape kit in Maryland can call the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault at 833-364-0046 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Baltimore County Police Department Special Victims Unit Cold Case Squad can be reached at 410-887-2223.