The first time Tristin Engels realized her grandpa was a big deal, she was about 8 and on the side of a road in Wisconsin. A flat tire interrupted a drive home from a family fishing trip, and the police officer who pulled over to help her grandfather became starstruck when he learned his name.
“Why does he know Papa?” she remembers asking her mother. The answer was vague. “He is well known,” she thinks her mom said, leaving it at that. She was too young to hear more.
Fast-forward a couple of decades: Engels’ boyfriend, a paramedic and registered nurse, spotted in her home a framed photograph of her Papa. He knew who the man was, assumed she was a closeted science nerd, but still asked: “Why do you have this?”
“That’s my grandpa,” Engels answered, proudly.
Louis Vitullo was a Chicago police sergeant who became the chief microanalyst in the city’s crime lab. He worked on high-profile cases, like Richard Speck’s mass murder of eight student nurses in 1966. In the black and white photo she had on her wall, he was inspecting Speck’s knife.
But Vitullo’s biggest career legacy is this: He was credited with developing the nation’s first rape kit, the standardized tool to gather forensic evidence after sexual assaults. In the beginning, in fact, the cardboard box that held instructions and items like swabs, slides and a small comb was known as the “Vitullo Evidence Collection Kit.”
First used in Illinois and then across the country, rape kits haven’t had his name attached to them in decades. But they are making headlines as hundreds of thousands of them are being discovered backlogged, untested and, in some cases, destroyed.
New reports about rape kits crop up in the media each week.
What Vitullo accomplished in his lifetime is a source of great pride for his granddaughter, whom he called “Cetriolo,” cucumber in Italian. They spent weekends and summers together. When they went fishing, he wore a hat that read “Captain” while hers said “First Mate.”
Vitullo died in 2006, one year after Engels graduated from college. Her late grandmother shared condolence cards that came in after news of his death. They included notes from grateful survivors who had been victimized years earlier. Because of her Papa, she remembers reading, their rapists had been convicted.
“I was an activist for women’s abuse issues in the ’70s and ’80s,” says one card, preserved in a family scrapbook. Vitullo’s work “was indeed revolutionary. He deserves to be remembered with great respect and gratitude.”
Yes, he does. But as the saying goes, behind every successful man is a formidable woman.
On a mission
Martha Goddard was a survivor of sexual assault who took up the charge to create a comprehensive rape kit — and to lobby hard to get it into circulation.
It was the 1970s, and the women’s movement had found its footing. Women were finding the courage to report their sexual assaults, and the crime of rape was, at last, getting media attention.
But there was no standardized protocol to collect and share forensic evidence, nor was there an understanding of the psychological trauma attached to these crimes. If a woman didn’t appear sufficiently traumatized, her claims were often dismissed, explains Susan Irion, who advocated for rape victims back then. If emergency room personnel bothered to gather evidence, she adds, it often wasn’t preserved correctly. Slides were co-mingled. Packages containing evidence were not properly sealed. The evidence was destroyed, tainted or open to allegations of tampering.
Goddard, 74, formed and led a Chicago organization she called the Citizens Committee for Victim Assistance. She embarked on a pavement-pounding odyssey to make the kit a reality.
She visited hospitals to learn about procedures. She met with sheriffs, states attorneys, prosecutors, scholars, judges and politicians. She sat down with members of a nurses’ association and waltzed into every police precinct in the Chicago area. She was on a mission — “16 hours a day,” she says — to learn what was needed to best collect evidence in a uniform way and “wanted the brains of people who knew what they were doing and were frustrated.”
Because she had a friendship with Christie Hefner, Goddard says, initial funding for the kits came from Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Foundation.
The kit was first utilized in September 1978, according to a 1980 Chicago Tribune article, when 26 Cook County hospital emergency rooms made it part of their standard practice for gathering trace evidence when rape victims came through the doors.
Less than two years after the kit’s introduction, the Tribune reported, 215 hospitals across Illinois were using it.
It became known as the “Vitullo kit” because forensic experts had “the final say-so for a lot of the design features,” says Marian Caporusso, who worked with Vitullo and was quoted in his Chicago Sun Times obituary.
Goddard brought on staff to train law enforcement, hospital clinicians and prosecutors across Illinois. Later, she was tapped by the Department of Justice to help on a national scale.
One of her Chicago hires, who acted as her assistant director, was Susan Irion.
Irion, now 61, was a young, disenchanted public relations worker who derived meaning through volunteer work — offering support to rape victims in emergency rooms. She was counseling victims when the Vitullo kits were being beta-tested. That’s how she met Goddard.
“The presence of the kit, and the fact that it rolled out statewide, created a snowball effect,” remembers Irion, who became an attorney and now professionally trains other lawyers. “It raised awareness about how to have an effective prosecution, which included properly supporting a victim. It gave legitimacy to the whole area of sexual assault, recognizing it as a serious felony that had to be handled properly.”
The rape kit, Irion says, is as important as it ever was — which is why headlines about untested kits bother her so much.
“It’s nothing short of a tragedy,” she says, “because what that means is that those cases can’t be successfully prosecuted and those offenders are still out there offending.”
Goddard, who gave so many hours and years to the rape kit, wasn’t privy to the recent headlines and only learned about the backlog problem from CNN.
She says she doesn’t own a television or a computer, and she no longer subscribes to any newspapers. That there are backlogs doesn’t surprise her; there were when she was a crusader for the cause. But the sheer volume today? That is something else.
“They were catching up at one point,” she says. “I’m sorry to hear it is worse than I thought.”
A ‘life-altering’ contribution
If Vitullo knew of the backlog problem, “he would roll over in his grave,” says his daughter, Joanne Antosh.
She remembers her father as overprotective, which made sense given the lens through which he saw the world.
Antosh, 54, grew up in Cary, Illinois, about an hour outside Chicago. For 18 years, she only saw her father on weekends; he stayed with his sister in the city during the workweek. Chicago made him so nervous he didn’t let his daughter go there by herself until she was over 20.
He may have been steeped in blood and violence on the job, but at home he was someone else.
Antosh recalls a story from her adolescence.
“I was playing softball, and I cut my lip open,” she says. “I thought he was going to lose it. He was shaking, and it wasn’t even that much blood.”
He didn’t talk about his work. Details about rapes, murders and serial killings weren’t really fodder for dinner-table conversations or bedtime stories. She doesn’t remember how old she was when she learned about the rape kit, though she knows she must have been old enough to know what it was for.
After her father died, Antosh’s own daughter determined that, like him, she wanted to live a life that mattered. Who he was and what he accomplished shaped the woman Tristin Engels became.
She earned a doctorate in psychology and now works as a forensic psychologist in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
She says her grandfather dealt with criminals who he often saw reoffend. She decided to focus on the underserved, incarcerated population, many of whom have mental health issues, to try to prevent crimes.
Engels, 32, works with convicts to determine who’s fit to stand trial and who needs medical attention. She sees all types — parole violators, murderers and, yes, rapists.
She and her mother marvel at the fact that Vitullo didn’t speak about the contribution he made.
“I would be boasting about it if it was me, but he never did,” Antosh says. “It is a big thing if you think about it.”
It certainly is, says Linda Fairstein, a former prosecutor — and a best-selling novelist — who headed up the sex crimes unit at the New York County (Manhattan) District Attorney’s office from 1976 to 2002. She never met Vitullo face-to-face, but she says she knew of his work, his contribution to getting rape kits in the system and spoke to him by phone.
“It was life-altering for the survivors of the crimes because for the first time it ensured there was a way to get physical evidence from a doctor’s office to a police department,” she explains.
Fairstein and former District Attorney Robert Morgenthau teamed up to eliminate backlogged rape kits in New York City, of which there were once 17,000.
Today, she serves on the board of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which works to end sexual assaults, domestic violence and child abuse. Through the foundation’s ENDTHEBACKLOG program, it is helping lead the fight for rape kit reform. She says anywhere between 400,000 and a million kits in the United States remain untested.
In September, the foundation applauded the earmarking of nearly $80 million in grant money — $41 million from the Department of Justice and $38 million from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office — to tackle the backlog.
Processing kits has paid off. Just look at Detroit, which discovered more than 11,000 untested kits in 2009. As of last month, the city had tested about 10,000 of them. According to the Wayne County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force, this undertaking has resulted in 2,616 DNA matches, 652 suspected serial offenders, 182 active investigations and, so far, 27 convictions.
Her case still mattered
Natasha Alexenko can vouch for how life-altering a kit can be.
She was 20 when she was attacked at gunpoint on New York’s Upper West Side in 1993. She was raped, sodomized and robbed. Because she could see her assailant’s face, she says, “I was sure I was going to die.”
But she somehow got away. She was desperate to take a shower, but her roommates insisted she go to an emergency room. She sat there for hours, then had a three-hour rape exam. Soon after, she moved back to Canada, where she was raised, to heal.
Police sent her mugshots of suspects from time to time, but her attacker was never among them. She assumed her rape kit had been tested. After a year, investigators closed her file, saying they’d exhausted all leads.
Nearly a decade after her attack, she got a call from the Manhattan Districat Attorney’s office. Her kit was one of the 17,000 that had gone untested and was finally processed with all the others between 1999 and 2003.
To stop the clock on the 10-year statute of limitations on rape (there no longer is one), she was asked in 2003 to testify before a grand jury, which then brought charges against the unknown DNA in her kit. Creating a “John Doe” indictment gave prosecutors the freedom to charge her attacker if or when he was captured.
She was caring for her grandmother on Long Island when, in 2007, a plain-clothed detective showed up at the door.
“Remember that really bad thing that happened to you in 1993?” she remembers him saying. “You have to call the DA’s office.” She knew immediately. “The first thing I asked was, ‘What is his name?'”
Fifteen years after her assault, Alexenko confronted Victor Rondon in court. He faced multiple first-degree charges of rape, criminal sexual act, burglary, robbery and sexual abuse.
In the time after her assault, Rondon had served a short sentence in New York for illegal possession of a weapon. Then he was arrested in Las Vegas and extradited back to New York on a parole violation charge, says a spokeswoman for the Manhattan DA’s office. Once in custody in New York, a DNA swab was taken and entered into the Combined DNA Index System. Lo and behold, there was a match.
Alexenko fainted when she first saw him in court. The bailiff caught her.
“It was as though time stood still, and I had returned to the scene of the crime,” she says. “My mind was telling me to flee.”
But she gave her victim impact statement at his sentencing. The jury found him guilty of all charges. He was sentenced to 44 to 107 years and is locked up in Sing Sing prison. Every month, Alexenko checks online to make sure he’s still there.
When she heard that her kit had gone untested all those years, she wasn’t initially upset about it. She had been healing for nearly a decade at that point and was just grateful her case still mattered. If she knew then what she knows now about the backlogged kits collecting dust, she suspects she would have been a lot angrier.
Alexenko, 42, is now the force behind Natasha’s Justice Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the rape kit backlog and helping survivors of sexual assault use their voices to bring about change. Each day she receives calls and emails from survivors who want to be heard.
“They’re sad, most of all, and want to feel like someone believes them and cares,” she says.
In a piece she wrote for ENDTHEBACKLOG, Alexenko said:
“My rape kit sat on a shelf for many years. My rape kit was not just a number in a police department. My rape kit was me — a human being. Every rape kit that sits on the shelf is a human being. Every rape kit that sits on a shelf has the potential to solve a crime.“
When I tell her I spoke with relatives of the man and the actual woman credited with developing the first rape kit in the 1970s, she gasps.
“The thought of even being in the same room as those people gives me goose bumps. I’d burst into tears of gratitude,” she says. “How can you begin to say thank you for that? And what an insult to that ingenuity that we’re just letting these kits languish.”