PHOENIX - At police departments across the Valley, the ABC15 Investigators have discovered there are thousands of rape cases with DNA that has never been tested.
Experts say it's critical evidence that has been ignored, leaving suspected rapists on the street and victims without answers.
"It's difficult enough as a rape victim to come forward," said Hilary Peele, a rape victim-turned advocate. "To not have that tested is just horrific."
The ABC15 Investigators spent four months working with Valley police departments to learn how each handles DNA evidence collected from sexual assault evidence kits, or rape kits.
Our investigation found agencies have different policies and practices when it comes to collecting, processing and tracking the evidence.
Some departments don't track it at all.
Despite low arrest rates for sexual assaults and a history of failures in investigating sex crimes in the Valley, there isn't a clear consensus among top officials on this issue.
Law enforcement officials, lawmakers and prosecutors can't agree if it's a problem, or if something should be done about it.
WAITING FOR ANSWERS
Peele was brutally raped in her Tempe apartment in 2004.
"A man broke in when I was in the shower," she said. "I opened the door to go out in the hallway, and he was waiting for me. He threw a towel over my head so I couldn't see his face. He held a knife to my throat, forced me into my bedroom and he raped me at knife-point for about 45 minutes."
The night of her rape, Peele – like other victims who report attacks – was given an examination and swabbed all over her body to collect any DNA that may have been left behind by the perpetrator.
The evidence was placed in what's called a sexual assault kit.
"It's definitely the most invasive thing you can think of," she said.
DNA that is gathered and stored in sexual assault evidence kits can be entered into state and federal databases and matched directly to DNA profiles of convicted offenders and arrestees, including suspects of other rapes.
The process is designed to link crimes together by comparing DNA collected from crime scenes and people who have been arrested or convicted of a crime.
After the kit was collected, police told Peele her results would be ready in approximately two weeks.
But when that time passed and she didn't hear anything, Peele asked again.
"They told me another two weeks," she said.
That's the same answer Peele would get every time she called for eight months.
"You start to lose hope," she said. "You start to lose faith that your kit will ever be tested that your attacker will ever be caught."
TRACKING UNTESTED KITS
To find out how many sexual assault kits have not been tested, we sent out dozens of public records requests, reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, and, for some departments, hand counted their number of untested kits.
Our investigation found there are at least 2,996 untested sexual assault kits in the Valley.
However, there could be hundreds more – if not thousands.
"It makes me sick to my stomach that there are 2,000 people who came forward, reported their attack and don't have answers," Peele said.
Some Valley police departments could not provide a complete record for the number of their untested kits. Others did not provide numbers at all.
Those departments also declined to go in and count.
UNTESTED KITS, UNSOLVED CRIMES
Victims, advocates and some crime experts say that thousands of untested kits represent thousands of missed opportunities to solve past and future rapes and other crimes.
Sarah Tofte is an advocate who works for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a New York-based non-profit. She has spent several years researching the rape kit backlog nationally.
She also said it's estimated there could be as many as 400,000 untested kits across the country.
"Untested kits for us are about lost justice for rape victims," Tofte said.
In Arizona and other states, when a suspect is booked into jail or sent to prison, their DNA is taken and entered into the same databases as rape cases.
So, if a sex assault kit isn't tested, the chance is lost to link that DNA to other rapes, a person arrested in the past or someone who will be arrested in the future.
"When you're looking at a jurisdiction with a large number of untested kits, I think you're looking at a jurisdiction that's really not responding effectively to sexual assault," Tofte said.
When it comes to making arrests in sexual assaults, every Valley police department we collected data from falls below national averages.
When it comes to untested sexual assault kits, there's no clear, standard or uniform response from Valley law enforcement agencies.
While every department said investigating sexual assaults is important, few have made testing every rape kit a priority.
Only one has an official "test all" policy, that's the Pinal County Sheriff's Office. Mesa police and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office also told the ABC15 Investigators that they test all cases.
However, the majority of police officials downplayed the significance of testing all kits and defended their numbers.
The Phoenix Police Department, which has half of the Valley's untested kits, was one of those agencies.
"We're going to continue to maintain what it is that we're doing," said spokesman Sgt. Trent Crump.
In Phoenix, it's up to the detectives to decide whether or not to test a kit and process the DNA, which can cost around $800.
"It's going to be very costly," Crump said.
In general, Valley police said there are circumstances in which they feel a kit doesn't need to be tested:
-When a victim declines to prosecute.
-When a victim changes their story or recants.
-When a suspect admits to the crime and/or is arrested for it.
-When the suspect's identity is known and it becomes an issue of consent.
Crump said his department usually doesn't test in cases in which the victim knows the identity of the rape suspect.
Phoenix is not alone. That was a common response from many agencies.
"It really because a matter of consent," Crump said. "The kit doesn't help us solve that."
But victims and advocates disagree.
They point to research that shows the majority of rapes are acquaintance rapes, committed by someone the victim knows.
They raise the question: If those kits aren't tested, does law enforcement miss the chance to link a suspect to other crimes, or find out if a suspect has been accused by other women in the past?
That's the question we brought to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.
"That's a legitimate question, that could happen," he said, adding that it could help law enforcement and prosecutors in his office resolve more cases.
But, he said he won't force law enforcement to test kits in those cases.
"There's a limit to what I can do as County Attorney," he said. "That's a question for law enforcement agencies."
PUSH FOR CHANGE
Victims and advocates push to have every sexual assault kit tested. They've had success in other major cities like New York and Los Angeles.
They say that the importance of tracking the evidence, rapes and rapists – both known and unknown – is invaluable.
Hilary Peele is an advocate herself.
In 2007, she won the title of Miss Arizona.
After her rape, she changed her platform and decided to speak out about the number of untested kits around the country.
Her message is clear: "Whatever needs to happen: More resources, more funding, more staffing, the problem needs to be taken care of," Peele said.
Police didn't test Peele's kit for DNA until she had called every two weeks for eight months, she said.
"I was told we probably wouldn't have gotten the results so quickly, if we had not called every two weeks," she said.
What police found when they finally tested it is exactly why Peele says every kit needs to be tested.
"They did find a match from a previous rape case," she said. "So the police know this man has raped at least one other person. And I say ‘at least' because I don't think you rape two people and just stop.
"This is a serial rapist," she said. "I believe there are more victims out there."
***This is the first part in a series of reports about the Valley's untested sexual assault kits. On Tuesday night, the ABC15 Investigators take a look at other Valley cases and how we compare to the rest of county.