ABC 17 News Investigates: Victim of the System

ABC 17 News Investigates: Victim of the System

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - Two years ago, Taylor Hirth, 32, of Kansas City, was raped inside her then-Independence apartment in the middle of the night.

“My daughter was sleeping next to me and there was a man standing next to my bed telling me to get on my stomach,” she said. “I have no idea how he broke in at the time. I wanted to run and fight, but my daughter was right there.”

Hirth said over the course of several hours, multiple men raped her while her young daughter laid close by.

“I was terrified that she’d be hurt, so I did what they told me to,” she said. “They proceeded to rape me for about two to three hours.”

After the men left her apartment, Hirth reached out to a friend to call 911. She went to the hospital and completed a sexual assault forensic exam.

The evidence was sent to one of the three Highway Patrol crime labs capable of testing rape kits. Police reports show it took one month for results.

Capt. John Hotz, public information and education division director at the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said sexual assault evidence kits take about 35 days, on average, to complete testing.

“It will vary depending on what other types of evidence are with the case,” he said. “You could have blood evidence, or you know other items, clothing, bedding, those types of things.”

A DNA profile was established from Hirth’s rape kit, but there was no match in the Combined DNA Index System. She wouldn’t learn who her assailant was until he struck again.

In October of the same year, a Johnson County sheriff's deputy was kidnapped and raped. The DNA profile from that rape kit finally matched back to Hirth’s.

Although her rape kit was tested in a timely manner, Hirth said there was a lack of communication from law enforcement.

“It’s hell to be put through when you’ve already been through so much,” she said. “To not know where it is, or what stage in the process it is or if it’s ever going to be tested is just hell.”

Right now, there’s nothing in Missouri law that regulates how long evidence should be held and where it should be stored after a sexual assault forensic exam is completed.

“We have nothing that provides guidance so it’s really up to a local community how they’re doing it,” said Jennifer Carter Dochler, public policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Sexual Violence. “So there’s a lot of inconsistent practice, because we don’t have any clarification statute about what is the bare minimum we should be doing.”

Law enforcement agencies and hospital across the state have different policies for how long they will store rape kits.

Jennifer Coffman, a spokesperson for MU HealthCare, said the hospital will keep a completed rape kit for at least a year when a victim is unsure if they want to send their kit to a crime lab for testing.

Coffman said the hospital will contact the victim after a year has passed to see whether they want their kit to be sent for testing or destroyed.

Lawmakers and advocates said the lack of state regulations can create issues.

“Not having standardized procedures can result in delays, can results in bottlenecks in various places and what we need to find out is where are the bottlenecks,” said Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.

Hawley’s office is in the process of collecting data from all law enforcement agencies, hospitals and crime labs to find out how many untested rape kits are in the state. While there’s no timeline on when the audit will be completed, Hawley said they hope to finish soon.

ABC 17 News sent Sunshine Requests to different hospitals and police departments across the state asking for the number of completed rape kits that hadn’t been sent to crime labs for testing.

MU HealthCare did not provide a number in time for this report. A spokesperson from both Boone Hospital Center and Lake Regional Health System said there weren’t any completed rape kits still at the hospitals.

ABC 17 News got the following numbers from police departments:

Jefferson City Police Department: 55

Springfield Police Department: 267

Joplin Police Department: 84 (30 of them will be sent to the FBI until they are completed.)

Independence Police Department : 369

The Jefferson City Police Department said the rape kits date back to 2009.

Capt. Doug Shoemaker said the department consults with the Cole County Prosecutor’s Office before destroying any evidence.

“We'd prefer to err on the side of caution, as these are some of the most sensitive types of cases we investigate,” he wrote in an email.

The department said in 24 percent of those untested kits, the victim later said it was consensual and another 18 percent were uncooperative with the investigation. Three kits were from recent 2017 cases and will be submitted to the lab for testing.

The Columbia Police Department told ABC 17 News it could not provide an accurate count.

As of Feb. 1, Hotz said the Highway Patrol lab system had 63 recently received kits that had not begun testing yet. The agency has 18 personnel who test and analyze sexual assault forensic exams. In 2017, the Highway Patrol processed 666 kits.

“We look at the personnel that we have, the budgets that we are allocated and we use those personnel to come up with the best system to analyze the evidence as quickly as possibly,“ he said.

Several bills have been filed this legislative session in hopes to create some statewide regulations.

Sen. Caleb Rowden, R - Columbia, served on the state’s Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which met last year to discuss Missouri’s criminal justice system. The task force recommended a policy that would codify the language on the collection, storage, and holding of evidence collected through sexual assault forensic exams.

“I think we all recognize now that we haven’t, the state, as a whole, has not handled this situation exactly the right way,” said Rowden, who sponsors SB 966.

Part of Rowden’s bill would give law enforcement agencies 14 days to pick up a completed rape kit from the hospital and then another two weeks to send it to the crime lab for testing.

HB 2462 filed by Rep. Cora Faith Walker, D - Ferguson, would give victims 60 days written notice of plans to destroy the saved evidence kit. It would also notify victims of any lab results.

Walker described the legislation as a survivors’ “Bill of Rights.”

“Awareness isn’t enough,” she said. “So we’ve actually got to start talking about policy changes that can be made to really address this issue.”

Bills in the House and the Senate are working to establish an electronic monitoring system within the Attorney General’s office so victims, law enforcement and medical providers all have access to information on a rape kit.

“The hospitals don’t want to hold on to these and so what happens is they hold on to them for maybe 30 days, maybe 90 days and they toss them. That’s gotta stop,” said Rep. Donna Lichtenegger. “It’s too important for these men or women to have their day in court.“

The estimated cost to establish an electronic monitoring system is anywhere from $1.2 million to $2.2 million. The Attorney General’s office estimates it would require another at least $400,000 a year to maintain.

Hirth said having these types of regulations in place would have taken a huge weight off her shoulders while she waited for answers.

“To know that there’s a system in place that’s keeping it safe and giving me updates as I need them, it would have been so helpful,” she said. “Really it would have.”

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