- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

CLEVELAND (AP) - When Stacey Fifer arrived at the prison one day last September, she was carrying four old photos of women, strangers to one another but bound by terrifying memories of the same man.

The criminal investigator had strong suspicions Dwayne Wilson was that man. A “hit” letter from the state crime lab had linked Wilson’s DNA to a sexual crime spree - including three rapes for which he’d never been charged and a fourth case that had been dropped, all within 34 months beginning in 1994.

He was now in the Grafton Correctional Institution on an unrelated sexual battery conviction, but perhaps not for long. On her printout from the corrections department, Fifer had highlighted in yellow the date - Oct. 18, 2014 - of Dwayne Wilson’s expected release. He could be free in just 23 days.

And another deadline loomed. One DNA “hit” had linked Wilson to a November 1994 rape, meaning time was running out to charge him under Ohio’s 20-year statute of limitations.

Fifer had come to confront Wilson about his past. She was there as part of a special Cuyahoga County task force organized to investigate new test results from hundreds of old rape kits.

At first, she tried to put Wilson at ease, but he was tight-lipped. Then she got to the point: His name had surfaced in some cold cases. One by one, she displayed driver’s license photos of the four women taken around the time each was raped. The youngest had been just 16.

“Do you recognize this woman?” she asked, four times. Wilson, she says, mumbled, shaking his head no at each photo.

“Did you have sex with any of the women?” she continued.

A long pause.

Then, according to Fifer’s notes, he responded: “‘I doubt that. I mean not that I would remember any face but none of them look familiar.’”

She pressed him: “Is there any reason why your DNA would be found in these sexual assault kits?”

Wilson, now 54, said he could have “partied” with them, she recalls, then added in a soft voice: “‘You’re talking two decades … I don’t know, I don’t remember.’”

He was scared, Fifer thought. And surprised.

For 50 minutes, she and a second investigator questioned Wilson. They asked, among other things, whether he’d carried boxcutters or knives with him, since all four women had been threatened with blades by their attacker. Fifer says he told them he’d carried tools in his cars and trucks because he’d done odd jobs back then. He also acknowledged some “wild times” in his past when he drank and smoked weed.

As Fifer prepared to leave, she told Wilson she’d be seeing him again.

She then watched him return to his cell, walking in the prison yard, moving slowly, his head hanging.

“Things,” she says, “were finally sinking in for him.”

___

Every Tuesday morning, a group of law enforcement officers meets to revisit an ugly past.

They gather around a long conference table to discuss investigations they’re pursuing against hundreds of suspected rapists in the county and women who’ve lived for years, even decades, looking over their shoulders, wondering if their attackers are still out there.

The Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Task Force, a team of prosecutors, police, state agents and others, is building cases based on the DNA results of thousands of newly tested rape kits that had, until recently, been languishing on evidence room shelves.

There’s urgency to their work, and not just for cases bumping against the statute of limitations. There are predators behind bars for other crimes soon to be released, and a frightening, even more immediate prospect: an untold number of rapists still on the streets.

“We’re racing against the clock and we know it,” County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who formed the task force, warned at one recent Tuesday meeting. “We’re going to be taking some god-awful rapists off the street forever and then some.”

At the weekly sessions, the blunt-spoken McGinty is both cheerleader and strategist, asking questions about developing cases, venting at inevitable frustrations.

When one prosecutor announces an accused rapist was acquitted, McGinty proclaims: “The judge has abandoned the victim.”

When another describes how a rape victim may have been intimidated by a defense investigator, McGinty responds: “Let’s react strongly, so he doesn’t do it again.”

The cold case unit is an outgrowth of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Sexual Assault Kit Testing Initiative. Shortly after taking office in 2011, DeWine started hearing about law enforcement agencies that had untested rape kits. He asked all of them to send the evidence to the state crime lab to be processed at no cost to local authorities.

As of May, about 7,200 of more than 9,600 untested kits had been analyzed, according to DeWine’s office. The result: nearly 2,700 “hits” or matches in CODIS, or the Combined DNA Index System, a national law enforcement database of DNA profiles.

So far, nearly 3,800 of the 4,800 kits submitted from law enforcement agencies in Cuyahoga County have been tested. About half have yielded matches in CODIS, according to the prosecutor’s office.

The “hit” letters are the starting point for investigators who make house calls, scour phone records, track Social Security checks, contact family members and go wherever necessary - West Virginia, Florida, California - in search of survivors and suspects.

In time, McGinty’s office plans to indict 1,000 rape suspects. As of late May, more than 300 men have been charged, resulting in 79 convictions and guilty pleas and seven acquittals. The accused include “John Does,” unknown men who are identified by their DNA in their indictments to prevent the statute of limitations from expiring.

Like many other cities with backlogs, authorities say money and technology contributed to the mess. Early on, testing kits cost up to $1,500 to $2,000 each. It’s now about $435 in Ohio. And DNA wasn’t used widely until the mid to late 1990s.

“I know the press loves reporting that we had them (the kits) sitting on the shelves gathering dust for many years, which on face value is true, but it really doesn’t tell the whole story,” says Cleveland police Lt. James McPike.

In the late 1990s, only cases that were being actively investigated and prosecuted were tested because the Bureau of Criminal Investigations lab had limited resources and Ohio hadn’t yet established its DNA database. At that time, there were no profiles to match with offenders. In cases with no identified suspect or an uncooperative victim, the case was likely at a dead end.

Around 2000, Ohio began building a CODIS database and requested agencies to submit stranger rape cases. Even then, a case probably wouldn’t be pursued without a victim’s cooperation.

Back then, police didn’t have as thorough an understanding of rape survivors’ trauma as they do today, McPike says. Many were low-income black women - some with drug, alcohol or mental health problems.

“From an offender’s viewpoint, those are very good victims,” he says. “They’re the least likely to report and, when they do, people are thinking, ‘Well, nobody’s going to believe them because of who they are and what they were involved in.’”

Rick Bell, special investigations division chief, points out that some potential cases also fizzled out because detectives didn’t question rape survivors quickly and some didn’t show up for appointments.

Over the years, as the kits piled up for various reasons, he says, “Nobody ever said, ‘Let’s go clean up the backlog.’”

Not everyone is enthusiastic about how it’s happening now.

“It’s now become this cause du jour,” says Tim Young, director of the state public defender’s office. “DNA is not proof of a crime. It’s proof of a biological sample. What we have to litigate now 20 years later is whether there was consent or not. … People are saying we have this incontrovertible evidence. You have to ask - ‘Evidence of what?’”

In non-consensual cases, Young says pursuing charges belatedly is unfair to women who’ve waited so long and suspects who have the daunting task of defending themselves after witnesses have died, evidence has been destroyed and memories have faded. The police, he says, have been dilatory, not pushing for testing and not pursuing suspects who were readily available for questioning. “This should have happened 15 years ago,” he adds.

But for McGinty, it’s better late than never. He credits the task force with ridding the streets of “one-man crime waves,” noting that, on average, every man with a DNA “hit” from a rape kit has been linked to 10 crimes - often burglary and domestic abuse.

About 30 percent of the cases have turned out to be serial rapists, some with five or more assaults.

“We always thought when we started this that we’re going to find some guy who really did one rotten thing and he’s been going to church ever since and praying for forgiveness and working on a charity or something to make up for his sin,” he says. “Well, I was dreaming. That guy doesn’t exist.”

___

Stacey Fifer suspected Wilson might already be in prison. A quick computer search confirmed her suspicions.

But before approaching him, she and a colleague began making calls and knocking on doors in search of four women.

Fifer knew interviewing them would be “opening up wounds that are buried so deep.” The women would have to dredge up horrible memories and, if the cases proceeded, repeat them in public. “It’s hard enough to have these women talking one-on-one, let alone getting before a jury, a judge and a courtroom of people,” Fifer says.

She also couldn’t assure them that justice would finally prevail. “I don’t make any promises,” she says. “There are no guarantees.”

The first rape victim, now 54 and living with her adult son, had hazy memories of an attack she’d tried to block out of her mind.

It had occurred nearly 20 years earlier, on Nov. 12, 1994. She was pulled off the street, shoved into a car and raped at knifepoint. Her assailant drove her to an abandoned building, raped her again, and punched and kicked her, leaving her with severe facial wounds and rib injuries.

As she talked, Fifer noticed the woman looked at her, but never at her male partner. Since the rape, she said, she hasn’t been comfortable around men.

When Fifer showed her an array of six photos, including of Wilson, she couldn’t identify him.

Fifer wasn’t particularly worried. “It’s just one tool,” she says of the photos. “It doesn’t make or break the case.”

The second victim, now 58, had a flypaper memory of the night of July 10, 1995. She’d been waiting for a bus when a man approached in his car, started flirting with her, then offered her a ride to her job as a home health care aide. After she accepted, he drove her behind a gas station, pulled a knife and raped her twice.

She told her story at a Burger King. She’d refused to tell investigators where she lived.

This case was different in one startling way: The woman had identified her rapist’s car, a green Buick Century. She’d even provided police his license plate number. Wilson was picked up the next week, but a grand jury declined to indict. It’s unclear why - it’s possible they wanted to hear from the victim. The woman later said she never even knew he’d been arrested.

She, too, couldn’t identify Wilson from his photo.

At the end of August, Fifer met with the third victim, who’d been approached on the street on March 15, 1997. She’d agreed to sell the man a rock of crack. He’d insisted the deal be made in his car and immediately drove into a parking lot. There, he put a box cutter knife to her throat and raped her.

This time, the law caught up with Dwayne Wilson - eight years later.

The results of the rape kit were linked to his DNA in a criminal database. He was indicted, but the case was dismissed when the victim failed to appear after being subpoenaed. The woman thinks she might have been in jail at the time.

Seventeen years had passed, but she instantly identified Wilson from the photo array

Fifer’s final stop was the house of a 33-year-old mother. On the night of August 15, 1997, she was a 16 year old waiting for a bus home after attending a movie with a friend.

A man approached in his car. “The bus isn’t coming. You want a ride?” he asked. She saw groceries and children’s toys in his car. He looked like a family man. She got in.

He raped her, also at knifepoint. She recalled his threat: “‘If you scream, holler or yell … I will slice your f––- throat.’”

She also identified Wilson from a photo.

“She had felt guilty throughout the years,” Fifer says, but has since “realized it wasn’t her fault.”

Twice, authorities had let Wilson slip from their grasp. Two other times, they had his DNA but it went untested while he preyed on others.

In 1998, he pleaded guilty to committing sex crimes against two women, including a 40-year-old he’d offered a ride to at a bus stop. He was sentenced to six months.

In 2004, he pleaded guilty to raping a 14-year-old who was supposed to babysit his two sons. She fell asleep and, when she woke, he was on top of her. His sentence: four years.

In 2009, he assaulted an 11 year old. Wilson pleaded to sexual battery after getting into the girl’s bed and fondling her. He was sentenced to five years.

With the benefit of Stacey Fifer’s notes from her interviews, the prosecutor’s office rushed to present the case to the grand jury. Wilson was indicted on Oct. 9, 2014 - about a week before his release date.

___

Mary Weston had two rape survivors who weren’t eager to relive their horror or see Dwayne Wilson again.

It was early 2015, and Weston, who’d already won guilty verdicts in five other rape kit cases, tried to make the women comfortable as she prepared them for trial. She briefed them on the questions she’d ask and offered to show them the courtroom. Both had reservations about testifying, and Weston wasn’t sure they’d be there until they arrived that morning.

Accompanied to the courthouse by her elderly father, the first woman took the stand on Feb. 12. She was angry.

These new DNA results, she said, were no comfort. “I wanted to leave it behind,” she testified. “It took all these years to find the person and I forgot all about it. Tried to, anyway. And for them to bring it back up just made me mad. … I didn’t want to hear about it or look him in his face or anything. I just wanted to be left alone.”

The rape had shattered her life. Soon after, she was admitted to a psychiatric institute because, she said, “I couldn’t deal with it.”

When a defense lawyer pointed out her hazy memory, noting she’d been drinking and using cocaine at the time and couldn’t remember many basic details, she responded coolly: “I recall being raped.”

After testifying, the woman left quickly. She told rape victim advocate Janine Deccola she was done with the case and had a request. It was one Deccola hadn’t heard before. “She asked that none of us contact her,” the advocate recalls. “She didn’t even want to know the verdict.”

The second woman also wasn’t happy to be there.

The criminal justice system, she said, had failed her long ago. She’d provided authorities the information they’d used to nab Wilson. “They didn’t help me then … so I figured they couldn’t help me right now,” she testified. “…I gave them all the evidence. I gave them everything they needed to find that person; nobody did anything.”

She, too, had trouble coping after the rape. She was unable to return to her home health care job.

But she felt good that day, she said, believing authorities were on her side. And she said she was now able to identify Wilson - something his defense attorney dismissed as “miraculous.”

The third woman, who had been a drug user, cried as she described Wilson’s deception in luring her into his car.

Then the last rape survivor - the one who’d been a teen when attacked - described her terror and the sickening feeling she wasn’t the first woman he’d assaulted. “How it played out, you could tell it was done before,’” she told jurors.

Testifying that day, she felt relief. “Some justice finally served,” she said. “Feels good.”

The defense said in closing arguments that DNA evidence isn’t foolproof and there were inconsistencies in each woman’s story.

Weston’s response: “These women … do not deserve to be attacked. Do not buy into that.”

When the jury returned after a couple of hours, she was a bit nervous. She thought about the small imperfections in the case.

“What if the impossible was happening?” Weston asked herself.

Then the verdict: Guilty on all counts.

___

On April 1, Dwayne Wilson, balding with graying sideburns and square glasses, stood in a 17th-floor courtroom, awaiting sentencing.

“This is probably one of the hardest days of my life … being accused of these crimes is just beyond my comprehension,” he said in a barely audible voice.

“A long time ago, I asked for help and I never got it,” he added. “Their answer was to send me to prison, send me to prison, send me to prison. So it is what it is.”

Weston was incensed, dismissing what she called Wilson’s “insane proclamations of innocence.” She urged a life sentence, saying Wilson had destroyed “the lives of numerous women throughout the city who are suffering to this day.”

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Nancy McDonnell called Wilson the “worst of the worst,” detailed his long “deplorable” criminal record dating back to 1979 and said he’d shown absolutely no remorse.

“You snatched women off the street, you took them somewhere else and you raped them,” McDonnell declared.

She then imposed sentence, count by count, for kidnapping and rape.

The total: 110 years.

Afterward, Weston said the streets are now safer, but four women “may never get over” what they’ve endured.

None of them was in court to see him escorted away in handcuffs.

___

Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at scohen@ap.org. Mark Gillispie and Mike Householder contributed to this report.

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