This story was originally published by the Institute for Public Service Reporting on August 4, 2020.
The attack was so vicious even a seen-it-all cop like Cody Wilkerson seemed to recall every agonizing detail years later.
“He broke into the house. He put a pillowcase over the victim. He tied her hands up. He raped her repeatedly. He ransacked the entire house. The assault went on for hours,” said Wilkerson, a recently retired Memphis Police Department detective. “If I remember correctly, she had superficial cuts all about her body. He was telling her that he was going to kill her during the assault and then he would cut her just a little bit.”
Testifying against his former MPD colleagues, Wilkerson sat face-to-face with a team of city lawyers and a former boss as a court reporter recorded every word.
“That rape kit was not tested,” he said, describing how failures by MPD’s Sex Crimes Bureau allowed a brutal serial rapist to attack again and again.
Wilkerson said he’d complained repeatedly about incompetence and indifference by his fellow detectives, but no one would listen. A “significant percentage’’ of cases were closed without any DNA testing and sometimes investigations were shut down even after DNA tests identified a suspect, he said.
Wilkerson gave that sworn account in 2017 in a class-action lawsuit filed against the city after MPD revealed four years earlier it was holding stockpiles of rape kits – more than 12,000 – many never tested for DNA, sitting for years on warehouse shelves.
Records reviewed by The Institute for Public Service Reporting show the city has spent $1.5 million battling the suit and a second one backed by scores of women who believe their cases were neglected by MPD. As the now six-year-old lawsuits crawl through the state and federal court systems, some of those victims contend the so-called “backlog” of untested kits is a symptom of a larger, official indifference toward rape that stretches back decades and continues even today, despite the gloss of reform.
The women believe they could prove their claims and resolve haunting questions if the city would stop spending taxpayer money to block them with aggressive legal maneuvers and finally release records that explain MPD’s broad, systemic failure to investigate rapes.
“I’ve been raped twice,’’ said Debby Dalhoff, who learned when she finally obtained her file a couple years ago that police destroyed critical pieces of evidence and misplaced others. “I’ve been victimized twice. Once by the city and once by the rapist. I’m over the rapist. I lived through that. But I feel like for 35 years I have been another victim of the city.”
The Institute for Public Service Reporting typically does not name victims of sexual assault. But Dalhoff and other victims backing the lawsuits went around their lawyers to speak on the record. The women said they’re tired of the city’s delay tactics – they just want police to answer for what they’ve done.
“They destroyed my life,” said Celia Reynolds, who, after reading her file, believes police destroyed her rape kit collected after she was attacked on her way to work 37 years ago. “And every time this case comes up it’s like a knife is stuck in my heart. I am 74 years old. And I cannot get my life right because of this.”
The women may finally have a glimmer of hope: Pushed into a legal corner by a series of adverse court rulings, the city finally agreed in June to transfer a massive batch of electronic records – thousands of case files opened between 2001 and 2006 – to the plaintiffs in the federal suit. The transfer is expected to take months, and it will take even longer before lawyers can determine if the records will help their case.
But the plaintiffs say they’ll need thousands more files, stretching back into the 1980s and forward into more recent years, to fully demonstrate the pattern of abuse they believe existed.
Meantime, city officials remain in litigation mode.
The city’s lead attorney Robert Meyers, Mayor Jim Strickland’s Office, and MPD all would not agree to an interview in the weeks before publication of these stories.
But on Monday, Aug. 3, after the first installment appeared, Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen gave a brief interview. Saying he could not “attest’’ to “attitudes or beliefs’’ police may have held in the past toward sexual assault, McGowen pledged to continue reforms the city first undertook in 2013 when news of the backlog surfaced.
“We have transformed our approach to this and we continue the work,” he said. “We have not stopped for one second to fulfill the mission that we set about to do.”
That mission involves three core initiatives: testing all kits in the backlog, re-investigating overlooked cases and ensuring another backlog doesn’t happen again.
City leaders raised more than $15 million in public and private funds to test those warehoused kits and investigate cold cases, and they’ve effectively erased that 12,000-kit backlog. MPD has also amended its procedure, agreeing to submit new kits for testing within 96 hours.
Armed with new DNA evidence gleaned from those old kits, prosecutors have filed more than 300 indictments against individuals and DNA profiles they hope to eventually match to suspects.
They’ve identified 22 serial rapists who had long evaded justice, sending nine to prison.
“I believe that this has been an outstanding effort – I think one of the best, if not the best, in the nation as many jurisdictions have tried to contend with their backlog,” said Deborah Clubb, executive director of Memphis Area Women’s Council and a member of the Sexual Assault Kit Task Force.
ORIGINS OF THE LAWSUITS
Few investigative missteps were as consequential as those made in the case of serial rapist Anthony Alliano. The ski-masked assailant raped eight females — some juveniles — in and around Memphis between 2003 and 2010 before he was finally apprehended and sentenced to 178 years in prison.
His first known victim was Meaghan Ybos. Then a high school student, she was raped at knife-point in her Cordova home in May 2003. Shelby County Sheriff’s detectives seemed skeptical; they didn’t send her kit for testing. It was nine years later — in 2012 after Alliano was caught using a victim’s credit card — that Memphis police arrested him and announced they’d finally caught the “Cordova Rapist.”
When Ybos heard the news she contacted a detective at MPD, which oversees the vast collection of sexual assault evidence assembled by police and sheriff’s detectives through the years. Her rape kit was located and finally sent for testing to the state crime lab run by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. It matched Alliano.
“I still have a lot of issues that I think I’ll have my whole life because of this. I have a lot of trust issues,” said Ybos, now 34, who runs a criminal justice reform organization, People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws. A series of developments in the months before and after Alliano’s arrest would push her into activism and into a leading role in one of the rape kit lawsuits.
That saga started in 2010 when WREG-TV revealed MPD failed to test a range of rape kits, the packets of evidence containing hairs and body fluids collected from victims following sexual assaults. Then-Police Director Larry Godwin called the report “the most irresponsible reporting that I have ever witnessed.”
But by the fall of 2013, MPD estimated it had failed to test some 8,000 rape kits. Later, that number grew to more than 12,000 — one of the largest backlogs in the country.
The development triggered a series of lawsuits.
The first was a class action suit filed by former City Attorney Robert Spence in U.S. District Court in December 2013 alleging the city failed to test kits and properly investigate the rapes of mostly female victims in violation of the 14th Amendment that guarantees equal protection under the law. Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr. dismissed the suit in 2017 but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed the decision last year and sent it back to the lower court, giving the case new life.
In a split decision, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit found the city had convinced Fowlkes to dismiss the suit “before Plaintiffs had an opportunity for meaningful discovery” — before they even had a chance to collect evidence needed to prove their case.
“At the time that this case was dismissed, which was roughly three years after we filed it, the city had only produced three files,” said Spence, who said he’s signed contracts with “hundreds” of victims to represent them if a class of claimants is eventually certified. Like attorneys litigating the other suit in state Circuit Court, he complains the city has tied him in knots with delay tactics.
In contrast, the city’s attorneys said they’ve provided reams of data including a spreadsheet filed under seal that lists some 11,000 rape kits collected between 1987 and 2014 — a massive document dump that cost the city more than $1 million to assemble.
“That’s not (even) a drop in the bucket in this case,” said Spence, who estimates he will need hundreds of thousands of documents contained in some 15,000 case files if he has any hope of meeting the high burden of proving MPD maintained discriminatory practices against female rape victims.
“The spreadsheets that the city prepared … were given to us so that we would not look at the files. It was their attempt to have us only review the spreadsheet and not the actual files themselves,” said Spence, who called the city’s maneuver a “bait and switch, and a ruse.”
“No lawyer in America would allow his opponent to dictate what discovery he gets.”
Celia Reynolds often phones other victims she’s met.
For news on the case. For support. For the simple need to hear a voice.
She was raped years ago on her way to work. Police have never arrested anyone. Still, she wonders if her attacker might have been brought to justice in another way — perhaps convicted for a separate rape.
“Sometimes I feel like he’s my shadow. That he’s standing over me,” she said. “Somebody could have told me whether he was dead or alive or whether he was already in prison. Nothing has happened. Nothing.”
A NOVEL LAWSUIT
Spence’s suit resembles others filed across the country that accuse local governments of discriminating against women by failing to take sexual assault investigations seriously. Such cases are difficult to prove and, so far, they’ve gained little traction.
The second suit filed by Ybos and others started as a federal suit making similar equal protection claims. But lawyers handling the case later dropped it and refiled in state Circuit Court pursuing a novel allegation the city negligently inflicted emotional distress on victims through careless handling of rape kits and indifference to sexual assault.
The case builds on a 2005 Tennessee Supreme Court decision involving the Catholic Diocese of Nashville. The court allowed families of two non-Catholic boys abused by a priest outside of church activities to pursue discovery against the diocese because church officials had recklessly inflicted emotional harm on the families by not adequately investigating longstanding abuse allegations against the priest inside the church.
“No one’s ever done anything quite like this,” said attorney Daniel Lofton, who said he represents about 80 clients. “It has some major challenges, but it’s got some major advantages, too … Our standard (of proof) is much lower. We only have to prove that the city was negligent.”
In fighting the suit, the city has tried to limit discovery and block depositions or the taking of pre-trial testimony from police officials.
“I think that their credibility is at stake,” said Ybos, who was dropped as a plaintiff after the city argued the statute of limitations had passed on her claim but who follows the case closely. Additionally, Shelby County was a defendant in the suit but was dismissed.
“They fought discovery pretty hard and I wonder how much of that is motivated by their desire to keep everything a secret … They claim that they were acting within the standards of a reasonable police department, so if that’s true, I question why they’ve used so many resources and spent so much time fighting discovery.”
They call her Jane Doe No. 2. She’s the lead plaintiff in the federal suit. It contends that MPD’s discriminatory investigative practices have been particularly injurious to African American women.
“The justice system has failed us African American women,’’ says Doe, who chooses to conceal her identity.
“They left us sitting there for so many years and (we) felt like we was nothing … I feel like this lawsuit can bring awareness to the city of Memphis, and not just the city of Memphis, to all states, and let them know that we are human, too.’’
She was raped in a home invasion in 2003. Her file was closed seven weeks later. Her rape kit was finally sent in for testing in 2013 — a decade after the fact.
She still has no idea who did it.
“You can understand my frustration, right?’’ says Doe, who, like many, believes women of color have received unequal treatment in sex crimes investigations here. Still, she realizes firm answers can come only by accessing the files.
“And this is where I am today: I have trust issues. I have relationship issues. I am 38. I’m single. I have security issues. I have low self-esteem. I have anxiety. I have depression. I have an eating disorder. I have PTSD. I have guilt and shame and anger. I have all these things balled up inside me. And 38. So, think about this: I don’t have one child. Okay? So, it’s hard for me to even have a family.
“Do you understand?”
A FORMER DETECTIVE TESTIFIES
A glance down the docket of Ybos’ suit — Circuit Court case CT-003516-14 — reveals hundreds of entries: Motions and counter-motions, memorandums, exhibits, summonses, subpoenas and orders.
Early on, the city asked for a protective order limiting discovery, arguing the request was “overly broad and unduly burdensome … and unlikely to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” In turn, they asked Judge Gina C. Higgins to limit any release of information to the suit’s three named plaintiffs.
In a contentious, back-and-forth battle, the city even filed a rare motion in December 2014 for sanctions. The pleading demanded that Lofton, the women’s lawyer, personally reimburse the city for its legal costs for filing “frivolous claims” unsupported by law “intended to harass, delay, or deliberately increase the City’s costs of defending this litigation.”
“It was just an intimidation move on their part,” said Lofton, 38, who suggests the city thought it could push him around because of his relative youth. He has since joined forces with veteran litigator Gary K. Smith who’s worked decades in Memphis pursuing a range of medical malpractice, insurance bad faith and sexual abuse cases.
A similar battle ensued in 2017 when the plaintiffs moved to take Wilkerson’s deposition. An imposing man with a crewcut and a large, muscular frame, the 26-year police veteran claimed to have witnessed a series of failures over five years as a sex crimes detective and supervisor, the latter a two-year stint that ended with his retirement in 2016.
Attorneys went back and forth for weeks trying to alternately compel or quash Wilkerson’s testimony. Judge Higgins finally allowed him to testify.
“Things are really done the same way now that they were done 20 years ago,” Wilkerson said of an MPD sex crimes unit he characterized as over-worked and under-motivated. He said he saw detectives prematurely close hundreds of rape files — at times even after they’d received DNA matches from TBI identifying suspects.
“I wanted some oversight. I wanted more supervision. I wanted detectives to not have the ability on their own to close a case and to move them off into cyberspace, and I told that to everybody that I could.”
Wilkerson said he complained over and over — to police brass, to prosecutors, to politicians — all to no avail.
He believed he could finally convince his bosses to make changes by laying out grievous mistakes police made in pursuing a sadistic serial sex offender named Sammie Grant. Over the course of six years, Grant shattered a girlfriend’s eye socket, molested a 3-year-old girl, raped one woman in a park, another on the grounds of a Whitehaven apartment complex and a third inside her apartment.
“I thought that this was … the home run. This was the grand slam,” Wilkerson testified, explaining how detectives made a monstrous mistake in 2006 by failing to test a rape kit after Grant struck again, this time in a savage home invasion.
Wilkerson said he told his supervisors how that mistake allowed Grant to prey on more victims, including a small girl.
“I (thought) I could show this to my supervisors and they would listen to me about how important it is that we need to make these changes.”
But that didn’t happen, he said.
Records independently reviewed by The Institute show:
- Already convicted of attempted rape and domestic violence, Grant broke into a home in Memphis’ Alcy-Ball area in October 2006 and attacked a woman. He avoided arrest then. Though a sexual assault kit was collected from the victim at the Rape Crisis Center, it wasn’t sent to the TBI for testing for several years.
- Three weeks after the home invasion, Grant beat a girlfriend during a dispute. “Both of the victim’s eyes were swollen shut,’’ a report said. She underwent surgery.
- He was back on the street the following May. A year later – in May 2009 – he molested a young girl.
- Before police could arrest him, Grant struck again. He attacked a 36-year-old woman at knifepoint on July 18, 2009 near Alcy Samuels Park. Grant was finally arrested days later after the victim spotted Grant in her neighborhood calmly “sitting on a green utility box talking on the phone.’’
- Convicted in the other cases, Grant was charged for the 2006 attack in April 2015. DNA finally linked him to the crime. He was indicted on two counts of aggravated rape. Now 43, he pleaded guilty this February to a single count of rape and was sentenced to eight years to be served in addition to the 10 he’s already doing.
“That rape kit was not tested, and at that time in 2006 it was standard practice to submit stranger assaults for aggravated rape, and that kit should have been sent in and it wasn’t,” Wilkerson said. “If it had been, he would have been identified … he would have been arrested … .
“Had the detective done his job in 2006 and submitted — all he had to do was submit that rape kit for testing — and it would have prevented those two rapes.”
Karen Williamson’s early adult life played out in a brutal cycle of drugs, jail, prostitution and homelessness.
She’d been arrested nearly two dozen times by her 30th birthday. She attributes her dark journey to trauma suffered in 1988 when, as a high school senior, an ex-boyfriend five years her elder raped her.
“I was emotionally destroyed,’’ says Williamson, 51.
She turned her life around in 2000 — got off drugs and off the streets. Now she’s looking for answers. She disagrees with characterizations in her case file that she was an uncooperative victim. But she was just 18 then — scared and bewildered. Abused by a violent, older man. She wonders, in turn, what happened to her rape kit and how it might have helped prevent other assaults: The man who attacked her all those years ago currently is in jail on a separate charge of aggravated rape.
“They’re not really concerned about us and how we’re feeling,’’ Williamson says of the city. “It’s just about the money to them.’’
ANOTHER COSTLY MISTAKE
Wilkerson alleged detectives often closed incomplete electronic investigative files and sent “them off into cyberspace even after getting a CODIS hit” — meaning a match on the FBI’s massive suspect database, the Combined DNA Index System. They did it without supervisors detecting anything, he said.
“The chances of anybody ever finding out are slim because rape victims are not breaking down the door demanding to know what’s done on their cases,” he said.
An example Wilkerson cited involves the case of convicted rapist Carlos Wilson, who broke into a woman’s house and raped her in 2010 as she lay in bed with her 3-year-old son. A DNA profile was properly uploaded to CODIS, but no match was returned until four years later when the database identified Wilson, now 45.
Despite the match, a detective closed the file, Wilkerson said.
“So, he just closed it and moved it into cyberspace and nobody was the wiser to it. It was just dumb luck that I ran across that case (in 2014),’’ the ex-detective testified.
Wilson later was convicted and is serving 33 years in prison – 12 for this case and another 21 years for molesting an underage girl in a separate case.
Wilkerson cited a variety of reasons for detective failures. For one, detectives were overworked. He recalled during his first stint with sex crimes from 2009 to 2012 that the adult crimes division had eight investigators reporting to two lieutenants. Then four of the investigators were promoted out of the unit. Detectives who’d been handling one to three new rape cases a week in addition to a range of other offenses suddenly got one new rape case at least every other day.
Detectives who typically carried 30 or 40 open cases suddenly had over a hundred. This went on for nine months, he said.
“All of their cases would have to be reassigned,” he said. “And I saw my co-workers would not take those cases as seriously as they would the cases that they were more emotionally involved with. I mean they never saw the victim. They never spoke with the victim. So, they had no connection to that case, and they’re so overwhelmed.’’
Meyers, the city’s lead attorney, pressed Wilkerson on his claims.
“If we went back and looked at all of your files,” Meyers asked, “would we find any files that you failed to investigate up to your own standards?”
“Absolutely,” Wilkerson agreed.
Testifying in a later hearing, MPD Deputy Chief Mike Ryall took a more direct shot at his former colleague. Calling Wilkerson “a very brutal” and “harsh manager” who “wanted a lot of attention,” Ryall said he was instructed by his then-supervisor Anthony Berryhill “to move Cody out of the DNA unit.”
Nonetheless, Ryall confirmed there were troubles with some sex crimes detectives.
“We looked deeper into the investigative process and there were cases that fell short,” he said, though he declined to characterize those shortcomings “as widespread.’’
Terry Burks was one of the first women to publicly step forward after MPD revealed the scope of its backlog in 2013. Twenty-five years after she’d been raped by three men (no one has been arrested), she spoke at a City Council meeting about the need to test the kits.
“I was excited. I thought finally, you know, there’s going to be something done. Finally, I mattered.”
Police promised her they would move her kit to the front of the line for testing. But in time, as she pressed for answers, she found police had lost or destroyed valuable pieces of evidence. She said she would call and call for updates and rarely hear anything.
“I just kind of gave up,” she said.
Burks hasn’t signed on as a client in either lawsuit. But she is watching from a distance.
“How long has this been going on? … How many women have gone through this? And it hasn’t made a difference. That’s what really bothers me more than anything else, is how many have gone through it.’’
WHAT IT TAKES TO WIN
To win their lawsuits, plaintiffs in both cases likely will have to demonstrate “widespread” troubles: a years-long pattern of intense neglect or discriminatory practices.
For Ybos, that pattern is evidenced in the repeated failure of MPD to submit rape kits for testing.
“Unsubmitted rape kits are simply pieces of evidence that police chose to disregard,” Ybos said, different from a true backlog of kits sent to the crime lab and waiting to be processed.
Equal protection cases can be especially difficult to prove. Federal judges have recently dismissed similar suits by rape survivors in San Francisco, Houston and Austin, Texas. As the Sixth Circuit noted in reinstating the Memphis suit, an equal protection litigant “must show that it was Defendant’s policy to provide less protection to victims of sexual assault than those of other violent crimes and that this was motivated by gender discrimination.”
Though studies show few sexual assaults ever lead to arrest or conviction, a series of Supreme Court rulings have made it particularly difficult for women to successfully bring police bias claims, said Northwestern University law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer.
“By requiring proof of intentional discrimination (rather than mere inaction), the Court has largely immunized intentional under-enforcement of laws against private violence,” Tuerkheimer wrote in 2016 in the Boston College Law Review.
To help meet their large burden, the Memphis plaintiffs have requested the names of scores of sex crimes detectives since 1999. They seek records detailing how often MPD tested kits after DNA testing became widely available in the early 2000s. They’re prepared to dig through thousands of files and memos.
“Further evidence of animus might also be found in emails not yet produced and if Plaintiffs were permitted to depose the officers involved in those investigations,” the Sixth Circuit ruled in reinstating the case.
The plaintiffs have since redoubled their efforts to secure MPD records. Last fall, their attorneys gained access to a computer terminal at MPD’s Real Time Crime Center. There, they accessed electronic sex crimes investigative files for the first time.
But the process has been agonizingly slow.
Burdened by a plodding printer and sluggish MPD software, the attorneys could print just 14 files a day. At that rate, they estimated it would take two years to copy everything they need. Instead, they proposed an IT consultant download some 6,000 electronic investigative files from MPD’s VisionRMS case file system by using sophisticated computer programs. They argued the workaround could be designed in a month and the massive data download completed in 10 to 15 weeks.
But again the city pushed back.
Meyers wrote in a January legal brief the city favors following the suggestion of the Sixth Circuit: that “rather than requiring a complete production of the source files” the city should “produce a sufficient sampling of the Investigative Files or permit Plaintiffs to review a representative sampling of these files.”
Spence, who served as city attorney from 1997 to 2004, said he’s adamantly opposed.
“I wouldn’t feel that I had given my clients justice — win or lose — if I relied on a sample,” he said.
Then, at the height of the coronavirus crisis, came a breakthrough: In a June 3 status conference held via Skype, both sides agreed to a massive electronic transfer of files estimated to “take months to complete,” according to an entry on the court docket. The court set a deadline of Sept. 4 for filing a status report on the progress of the file transfer. A status conference is set for Dec. 16.
Spence is ecstatic with the development.
“We are getting something that they have maintained a veil of secrecy around forever,” he said, anticipating his team will receive its first hundred files in a week or so.
The transfer involves electronic files opened between 2001 and 2006. But Spence said he’ll push for older paper files going back to about 1985 and newer electronic files between 2007 and 2014 as well.
“I’m going to get every one of them,” he said, vowing to find a pattern showing female sexual assault victims were treated differently than were victims in other violent crime investigations.
In state court, meantime, Lofton said he’ll file a report by an expert witness who said Memphis failed to keep pace after DNA testing became a standard law enforcement tool in 2003. He said struggling cities such as Hurricane Katrina-struck New Orleans and bankrupt Detroit did a better job.
“Their response to the problem was objectively superior to ours,” he said. Like Spence, Lofton said he’s personally fronting the costs of litigation because of its importance.
“I mean, it’s just the biggest law enforcement scandal in recent history that I’m aware of.”
Debby Dalhoff found something she never dreamed possible when she began attending hearings in the state rape kit case a couple years ago. She was looking for answers to her own horrifying assault three decades earlier.
Instead, she found camaraderie: A community of people just like her searching not only for answers — but for healing.
“I had a lot of compassion because I wasn’t the only one,” said Dalhoff, 65. “We’re talking about thousands and thousands of rape kits that went untested. And I know that now that some have been tested, these criminals have been caught. That was my goal: Can we catch this person who did this to me? But I had so much compassion because I’m not the only one.
“There’s so many more women who have questions who can’t get the answers that we need, that we deserve, that we have the right to.”