Two women received unexpected phone calls from the Vancouver Police Department last year. Their sexual assault kits returned DNA matches to the men police believe raped them about 17 years ago.
The cases are not connected; they were reopened when two of the thousands of sexual assault kits in a statewide backlog were submitted for testing in recent years and returned suspect names. The kits were previously only partially tested and then sat in evidence storage at the police department.
With trials in the two cases approaching, agencies are making progress in eliminating a backlog of nearly 10,000 rape kits statewide — some of them decades old. Law enforcement credits advancements in technology, increased testing capacity and new legislative standards on how quickly kits get tested for DNA hits that could lead to justice.
In 2015, the Washington Attorney General’s Office led an effort to inventory untested sexual assault kits sitting in storage at police agencies and hospitals across the state. The initial estimates were between 10,000 and 12,000 untested kits, Washington State Patrol spokesman Chris Loftis said.
That year, the state Legislature passed House Bill 1068, requiring law enforcement to submit sexual assault kits to the crime lab for testing within 30 days and encouraging testing of any previously untested or partially tested kits. A 2019 bill set a deadline of Dec. 1, 2021, for analyzing the backlogged kits.
The Washington State Patrol, which oversees the crime labs, received 9,232 untested kits. The agency says it has about 1,500 left to test by Dec. 1.
On Sept. 12, 2003, a Vancouver woman reported she had been raped by a stranger while walking to a friend’s house from a downtown bar, according to Clark County Superior Court records. She went to the hospital to be examined for sexual assault. The evidence kit was ultimately sent to the crime lab for testing.
Her kit was tested that month, according to the State Patrol, and by December of that year, low levels of semen were detected — however, not likely enough to return a DNA match. The Vancouver Police Department said it couldn’t get in touch with the woman, and the kit was sent to evidence storage.
Under the new laws, the woman’s kit was retested in May 2018. In an effort to efficiently test thousands of kits, it was one of many outsourced to Sorenson, a private forensics laboratory, according to the State Patrol.
In April 2020, the crime lab had a DNA match to 38-year-old Jacob Dimas, a transient man with Vancouver and California addresses. He was in the DNA system from prior convictions, including a 2003 theft out of Clark County.
A warrant was issued for his arrest on Feb. 10, accusing him of first-degree rape. He was arrested in July and has since pleaded not guilty, court records show. His trial is scheduled for Oct. 4.
The circumstances of the woman’s case echo another that was filed in January in Clark County Superior Court.
A 17-year-old girl was examined for sexual assault after a high school house party in 2003 in Vancouver, according to court documents. Her kit was partially tested and found male DNA, but it was not tested for a match. Again, police said they couldn’t contact the victim at the time, and again, investigators said there likely wasn’t enough DNA to build a profile.
That is, until the 2015 bill brought the kit out of the Vancouver Police Department’s evidence storage.
The DNA test came back as a match for Fred Shreves, 35, of Camas, according to court records. He was arrested in January and subsequently pleaded not guilty to second-degree rape, court records show. His trial is scheduled for Sept. 20.
In 2016, Vancouver police began submitting nearly 700 untested or partially tested kits for analysis, according to Assistant Chief Troy Price. He recalled one kit dating back to 1994.
Price said that prior to the legislation, a driving force behind whether police submitted a kit for testing was whether evidence would be valuable in court. If prosecutors were able to prove their case without a DNA match, if the case was dismissed or if the victim didn’t want to press charges, the kits were sent to storage.
“If the case settled and the kit had not been tested, then it just sat, because it had no prosecutorial value at that point,” he said. “And none of the departments, nationwide, were thinking about, ‘Hey, let’s get that information into (the DNA database), just in case.’ ”
Now, Price said, it’s beneficial to add the kits to the national DNA database for future prosecution efforts, even if the DNA found in a kit didn’t match anyone in the system at the time.
Of the hundreds of kits Vancouver police began sending for testing in 2016, he said, five are pending results. Of the ones they’ve received results on, he estimated scientists found a DNA match from about 10.
“It’s a small percentage, but each one of those hits is huge,” Price said. “I try not to look at it as a numbers thing. It is the value of that one hit because that’s one criminal who had yet to be identified — and what it can do for the prosecution of that person and holding them accountable. It can also help bring closure for that victim, and it’s additional proof that what they say happened happened.”
Justice for victims
Although many may think a DNA match would be a win for the victim, Laurie Schacht, YWCA Clark County’s sexual assault program director, said it’s often not that simple — especially when it’s been years since the victim reported the assault.
Some victims may have done their best to move on from the harm, and they may have people in their lives who don’t know they were sexually assaulted, Schacht said. It can be traumatic to relive the assault, regardless of how long it’s been.
That’s something Price said police are mindful of when contacting victims about results from their kits. One strategy is to advise victims to reach out to police if they want to know the status of their case or kit. That way, they can decide whether they want to know more.
Schacht cited a variety of factors that may lead a victim to wanting to prosecute a sexual assault years later or deciding against it — including what kind of support system they have and how they were treated when they initially reported the assault. She said some might have a hard time trusting that they could get justice when they were unsuccessful years ago.
Still, she said victims have a right to all of the available information about their sexual assault, including DNA test results.
Justice looks different for different people, Schacht said. For some, a criminal conviction can help them heal. For others, the punishment doesn’t mitigate the harm that was done to them.
The criminal justice system may not provide all of the answers they’re looking for, such as why they were assaulted in the first place, she said. A case can also take years to resolve, and some might not want to drag it out even further.
Still, Schacht said the fact that testing these kits became a priority shows that officials care about what happened to sexual assault victims and recognize how difficult it is to come forward.
Loftis agreed, saying the State Patrol takes what happened to the victims and the agency’s role in getting them justice seriously.
“We’re part of that healing for victims,” Loftis said. “We have to be a leader in our part of it.”
The crime lab is testing the thousands of historic kits while also working to meet another legislative deadline for turnaround time on new kits submitted for testing. The 2019 bill also requires that by May 30, 2022, kits be tested within 45 days of the crime lab receiving them.
Loftis said the agency continues to receive about 125 new kits for testing every month.
While he said it’s unlikely that the agency will meet the deadlines outlined by the Legislature, especially with COVID-19 creating staffing and training issues, Loftis believes it will come close.
The influx of sexual assault kits needing testing, in addition to overall rising crime rates, has spiked demand for the crime lab’s resources, Loftis said. In order to keep up, the agency has upped its number of forensic scientists on staff and purchased more equipment. It also continues to utilize private labs, such as Sorenson.
With those efforts in mind, Loftis said he feels the crime lab is “making good progress” and is “well positioned” to eliminate the backlog of sexual assault kits in Washington.