Special Report: Lincoln's unsolved rape cases

LINCOLN, (Neb.) In the last 20 years, the number of reported rapes in Lincoln has nearly doubled. 2016 was a record breaking year for the Lincoln Police Department, with more than 200 reported sexual assaults, and many of those cases are still open and unsolved.

In about half of all reported rape cases in Lincoln the victim goes to the emergency room for a sexual assault kit. There, they meet a nurse like Brie Auxier who walks the victim through the evidence she will need to collect.

“I’ve had to stop mid exam, sometimes they need a break and that’s ok,” said Auxier.

Depending on what the victim is comfortable with, Auxier will first ask the victim what happened. Then she examines the victim, taking photos and DNA evidence.

“It can be pretty invasive depending on the nature of the assault,” said Auxier.

The State of Nebraska covers the cost of the exam. The Nebraska State Patrol’s lab tests the kits for free. But most of these kits don’t make it to the lab.

Instead, the kits sit in a police department’s evidence room.

“So far in 2016, there have been 102 rape kits… and 27 were sent off to testing,” said LPD Chief Jeff Bliemeister during an interview in December.

Bliemeister says some victims don’t want their sexual assault kits sent to a lab.

When 1011 News asked Bliemeister why a victim would do this he responded, “I could speculate why they might be, but I’ve never walked in those shoes.”

Bliemeister says the other reason is that most sexual assaults are acquaintance rapes, meaning police already know who the accused is.

In these cases, Bliemeister says officers have two very different stories of what happened. With little evidence, officers must try to answer the question, was it consensual. “A rape kit is only going to show that there was intercourse,” said Bliemeister.

Some organizations like the Joyful Heart Foundation say submitting all rape kits is important, because the kits are put into a national DNA database called CODIS.

But Bliemeister calls this an overreach of power.

“There’s no investigative value to this particular case in hand… Are we going to throw a broad net to see if this person’s DNA has been submitted previously?” said Bliemeister.

Doing this, Bliemeister says violates the accused right to privacy.

But Ilse Knecht, of the Joyful Heart Foundation,says a person’s DNA profile has no personal information and is similar to when police and even employers collect a person’s fingerprints.

“That lab person has no idea who that person is. (If they got a match) They’d have to call the law enforcement agency that submitted the profile. Tell them this case number matched. Then that person has to go back to that case file that that person’s DNA matched,” said Knecht.

LPD has hundreds of untested rape kits, and even more rape cases that are open and unsolved.

1011 News requested data on rape related arrests from Bellevue, Grand Island and Kearney Police. From 2010 to 2015 those departments on average arrested someone in nearly 30 percent of all rape cases. LPD averaged a little less than 10 percent.

“I can’t judge ourselves based upon the subjective interpretation of hundreds of cases of what would another law enforcement agency do in this particular case,” said Bliemeister.

Bliemeister says the data doesn’t highlight what he says his department excels in.

“We do an outstanding job of communicating to the public and people that are victims of these very traumatic incidents.”

Regularly hearing these traumatic stories, nurse Auxier says she encourages all victims to have a rape kit done.

“If they do have it collected they can always change their mind at a later date… but at least we have the evidence,” said Auxier.

The Lincoln Police Department does not have a policy on informing victims on what happened to their rape kits. But shortly after 1011’s interview with Chief Bliemeister, the department says they are now looking into putting together a written policy.

Following the release of the story above, Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister spoke to the media Thursday morning at a daily cops briefing.

Chief Bliemeister said that the Lincoln Police Department can do better, but there are a number of reasons for the increase in sexual assault cases and the low clearance rate.

As for the increase in reported rapes, the chief says this is due to a change in reporting requirements. The change expanded the definition of what was considered a rape.

In addition, he added that well over half of sexual assault victims know the suspect, and often times it comes down to consent. Rape kits can only detect whether there was sexual intercourse, and sometimes both parties agree on whether intercourse occurred, but disagree on consent.

Chief Bliemeister acknowledged that some would argue that every kit should be sent for analysis, regardless of circumstance.

He said that he falls on the side of a particular standard needing to be met to send a rape kit to the lab, due to a high volume of kits creating a log jam at the facilities.

Prior to the story Chief Bliemeister released the following statement:

"The Lincoln Police Department intentionally develops partnerships with health care providers, victim service advocates, and schools to improve the reporting of sexual assaults because we recognize the majority of sexual assault victims never report a crime and those that do often have concerns about the process,” Bliemeister said.

“The Criminal Investigations Unit has been delegated by policy to be responsible for the investigation and follow-up of first degree sexual assaults. Through enhanced training and experience we believe this protocol reduces repeating the victimization within the investigative process and enhances the apprehension and conviction of those culpable for these crimes.”

“I know our Officers possess empathy and compassion for the victims and take ownership of the cases assigned to them. They are professionals dedicated to working with victims to arrest those responsible and begin the healing of those undoubtedly traumatized because of these heinous acts."

In response to the story, and Chief Bliemeister's comments, the Joyful Heart Foundation released the following statement:

In a recent media interview, Lincoln Police Department Chief Jeff Bliemeister excused the lack of submission of the state’s untested rape kits by saying on the one hand that a kit would only show that intercourse occurred (therefore not be relevant if it was an acquaintance rape where sex was acknowledged), and on the other violates the accused’s right to privacy. As an organization dedicated to eliminating the rape kit backlog nationwide and advocating on behalf of survivors of sexual assault, we stand with national experts in strongly refuting these statements, which are no more than excuses that deprive survivors of sexual assault of their right to justice.

Every year, thousands of individuals who have been sexually assaulted take the step of reporting the crime to the police. They submit to an invasive examination of their bodies and have evidence collected in a process that typically takes four to six hours. The evidence is saved in a “Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit” – a rape kit.

DNA evidence is an invaluable investigative tool. When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant, reveal serial offenders, and exonerate the wrongly convicted. Rapists are often serial offenders who are engaged in other crimes, including domestic violence and murder. They commit crimes against strangers, intimate partners and acquaintances. This is why we support the mandatory submission and testing of every rape kit booked into evidence and connected to a reported sexual assault, regardless of whether or not the assailant is known.

Mandating the swift testing of every sexual assault kit sends a powerful message to survivors that they—and their cases—matter. It sends a message to perpetrators that they will be held accountable for their crimes. It demonstrates a commitment to survivors to do everything possible to bring healing and justice. It is also the pathway to a more effective criminal justice system and safer communities across the country. And it in no way violates the privacy of the accused – strict rules and guidelines govern the national DNA database to ensure privacy. Even the Supreme Court has ruled that “taking a DNA swab is no more invasive than taking someone’s fingerprints.”

Yet too often the decision is made not to test these kits. Survivors deserve better. Survivors deserve reform.

In the last two years, more than 20 states have passed laws requiring sexual assault kit audits or mandatory submission guidelines. Nebraska has taken no such step. The time to act is now.

We know this kind of commitment requires resources. That’s why the Joyful Heart Foundation has worked with allies in the federal government to dedicate resources and research to help fix the problem. These federal funds – available right now – will provide much-needed support for communities as they work to end their backlogs and secure justice for survivors.

This is not a time for complacency or further delay. We stand with every survivor in Nebraska who has done everything society asks: reporting the crime to the police and enduring an invasive search of their body for DNA evidence left behind by the attacker. The question is, do leaders in Nebraska?