Wendy Guidry thought someone had died.
The voicemail from the Lake Charles police deputy sounded urgent, but it offered few specifics. As Guidry listened, her thoughts drifted to the day when, years before, officers had appeared at her mother's workplace bearing news of her father's fatal accident. And her eyes darted to framed photos of her husband and two teenagers she'd placed on a small bookshelf at her office.
Guidry called back the deputy immediately. When she did, the woman's voice on the other end was oddly bright.
"I have great news for you," the deputy said. "We solved your case."
"Excuse me?" Guidry asked.
"We have a positive DNA match from your rape case in 1992."
Guidry fell to her knees.
She had spent two decades trying to forget that night. She was a 20-year-old nursing student at the time, tall and shy with long chestnut ringlets and deep-set brown eyes. On a muggy Friday in June, Guidry and her friend April Dugan had stopped at a local honky-tonk called John's Barn to dance and get something to eat.
While the women were inside, a man broke into Guidry's powder-blue Honda Civic and coiled himself in the rear of the two-door hatchback under a reclined backseat. A male friend who walked the women out noticed "something wrong with the lock" as he squeezed the door handle, but Guidry thought little of it and slid into the driver's seat.
The two women had been driving for several minutes when Guidry glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the man, who was wearing a balaclava. He quickly grabbed Guidry and put a knife to her throat before calmly instructing her to drive to a woodland area 10 miles east of Lake Charles.
As they drove, Guidry pleaded with him. She offered him money, credit cards, and her car in exchange for letting the women go. Guidry also made mental notes of passing landmarks — a red barn, a green shed, railway tracks. It would later help lead police to the spot where the man told Guidry to stop the car before forcing her and Dugan onto the hood, where he raped them repeatedly.
The attacker took both of their driver's licenses, then made Guidry drive him back to the city. As he got out, she tried to run him over, but he scampered into the darkness.
By the time the deputy called in 2012, Guidry had long since lost any hope that police would find her assailant. Though she had been swabbed, photographed, scraped, and combed during a forensic exam hours after the attack, nothing had come of it. The bagged DNA evidence had been opened for testing once in the '90s — the exact date was not recorded — but that was before a national database of sex offenders had come online. Since then, the evidence from her attack had been gathering dust in a police warehouse along with hundreds of other sexual assault forensic kits, commonly known as rape kits.
Meanwhile, the man who attacked Guidry and Dugan that night would go on to rape at least one other woman.
* * *
Over the course of the past 40 years, America has created a rape kit crisis. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of shoebox-sized kits containing millions of swabs, hair samples, and microscope slides of blood and semen sit untested on storage shelves. In Louisiana, one-third of the more than 1,300 untested kits have been warehoused for 5 years or more, according to state crime lab reports.
The exact number of untested kits nationwide remains unknown, but Louisiana's total is relatively modest. Detroit alone has 11,000 untested kits. Memphis, more than 12,300, and Dallas more than 4,100. Before 2015, fewer than a dozen states had laws in place to ensure kits were counted and tracked, and there is still no federal law mandating the nationwide auditing and testing of rape kits.
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As a result, many women subjected to grueling and invasive forensic rape exams don't realize that their kits are never submitted for testing.
In recent months, however, there have been signs that things may change. Advocacy campaigns like the Rape Kit Action Project, launched in December 2013 by a coalition of groups including the Rape, Abuse and Incest Network (RAINN), urge states to address rape kit accountability. In the last year, seven states have enacted laws to help eliminate backlogs, the most recent being Minnesota, which passed a bill last month requiring all police and sheriff's departments to take stock of their untested kits and devise an action plan.
Wendy Guidry and her husband, Randy. (Photo via Wendy Guidry)
"There has been a groundswell of activity, particularly at the state level," RAINN's director of public policy, Rebecca O'Connor, told VICE News. The momentum has also been driven by increased funding, including the federal allotment of $41 million last year to help local jurisdictions clear backlogs and prosecute cases. Congress plans similar funding for 2016.
"[States] don't want to be the ones sitting back and being the next negative headline," O'Connor said. "The pressure has come from survivors as well, because they're seeing the impact that testing kits has had for other survivors and for getting rapists whom we know are serial criminals off the streets."
The push for testing has been sparked by both sides of the political aisle. At a US Senate committee hearing on the rape kit backlog last month, both Republican and Democratic senators agreed on the need for change.
"When we treat crimes of rape with less urgency, it reinforces the terrible message that these are second-class crimes," Senator Patrick Leahy said at the hearing. But he also acknowledged that "solving this problem won't be easy," pointing out that while his home state of Vermont strived to test rape kits within 48 hours, delays still occur, and the reasons are "not always clear."
"Sometimes the kits remain at the hospital, sometimes the police station, and sometimes the lab," he said. "States all over this country are wrestling with these same issues."
Although DNA testing became available in the late 1980s, and conducting a forensic exam on survivors had already become a routine part of criminal rape investigations, a nationwide database of offenders called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) did not become fully operational until 1998. Kits often went untested unless police had determined a lead suspect in a rape case, says Linda Fairstein, a former New York prosecutor who oversaw the clearance of that city's 17,000-kit backlog between 1999 and 2003.
"In the early days, you had to have somebody picked out of a lineup or you had to have probable cause to get a sample of someone's DNA because there were no data banks," said Fairstein, who was attached to the NYPD's Special Victims Unit for almost 30 years and is now a board member for sexual assault advocacy group the Joyful Heart Foundation. "It was an extraordinarily expensive endeavor — I'm talking about at least $5,000 a sample. So many jurisdictions couldn't do it."
Today, it's a different story. A kit takes a couple of hours to enter into the system before being sent off to an outsourced crime lab. When the results are returned, forensics teams analyze the information and convert it into code, which is then entered into CODIS. The whole process takes roughly 30 days with an average cost of $500 per kit, says Irma Rios, director of the Houston Forensic Science Center. In some jurisdictions, that cost can soar to $1,500 per kit, depending on the working costs of a specific crime lab.
Even after the development of CODIS, however, local authorities across the country continued to sit on untested kits. Many police departments and crime labs did not have the resources to clear their backlogs without outside assistance. Still, the kits remained viable; according to Rios, DNA evidence should ideally be tested immediately after being collected, but if it's stored correctly, any type of DNA — as long as there is enough of it — can be preserved for years before it degrades beyond the point of effective testing.
After New York became the first state to clear its backlog in 2003, authorities there moved to help other jurisdictions do the same. The reason, according to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., was to pursue rapists who cross state lines and commit more crimes. Last November, Vance pledged $35 million to test 70,000 kits nationwide. But it was up to local jurisdictions to apply for financial assistance. Cleveland (4,300 untested kits), Baltimore (an unknown number of untested kits), Memphis, and Detroit are among the cites that have applied for grants.
Ultimately it is at police discretion whether the kit is run or not, and it's not uncommon for investigators to disbelieve or reject survivors' claims of sexual assault, says Kimberly Lonsway, research director for End Violence Against Women International, which trains police to investigate gender-based violence.
"Most police don't have very much, if any, training specifically on sexual assault investigation — and if they do, a lot of it tends to be 'old school,'" she said. "One of the things we see with law enforcement interactions is, they sort of start by assuming [the rape] didn't happen…. It's a symptom of how society largely approaches sexual assaults. It simply hasn't been a priority for this country."
Vials of evidence in a sexual assault case are labeled and sorted in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center. (Photo by Pat Sullivan/AP)
Discrepancies in survivors' accounts or blank spots in survivors' memories are sometimes interpreted as an unwillingness to cooperate or a lack of credibility — even after the victims have suffered trauma, Lonsway said. A 2012 National Institute of Justice (NIJ)-funded study on sexual assault case attrition examined more than 12 years' worth of data from six different jurisdictions; 86 percent of sexual assaults were never referred to prosecutors. In more than half of those cases, officers told survivors what happened to them was not serious enough to investigate, or asked the survivor what she did to provoke the attack.
Though Guidry had always believed the Lake Charles Police Department had handled her case well overall, she endured indifference and skepticism from officers early on. When she was at the hospital just hours after the attack, a responding officer asked Guidry whether the whole incident "wasn't just a drug deal gone bad?"
Later, at the police station, she sat wearing a borrowed tracksuit while male officers surrounded her and two detectives asked her questions. When Guidry told investigators she couldn't recall the masked man's face, one officer suggested that she might be able to recognize his penis if she saw it again. This elicited laughter from others.
* * *
At some point, detectives did pull Guidry's rape kit for testing, when police caught a peeping tom matching the description of her attacker in the vicinity of John's Barn. The suspect voluntarily agreed to a DNA swab, but there was no match, and nobody informed Guidry that the test had taken place.
When this happened, however, is unknown. Denise Hughes, an assistant investigator in the case who submitted Guidry's kit for testing, said she could not recall the date the analysis was run, and that "for some reason it's not in the reports." She did confirm that the National DNA Index System did not exist at the time, meaning it was before 1998.
In 2004, Guidry contacted detectives for the first and only time in her case, during the high-profile investigation of Derrick Todd Lee, known as the Baton Rouge Serial Killer. Lee's DNA had been linked to the bodies of several women in Louisiana that year, and his mug shot ran beneath local headlines for weeks, prompting Guidry to ask investigators to test her kit.
Workers inventory rape kits at Houston Forensic Science Center. (Photo via HFSC)
Police, however, did not call her back with results, and she never followed up. She was "embarrassed," she says, about meeting police face-to-face again, and eventually convinced herself that the DNA test would likely lead nowhere. Though she dreaded the results, she often wondered if police had ever run the kit.
Seven years later, Dugan's mother sent Hughes a Facebook message to ask where things stood with the investigation. Hughes, who had earlier that week revealed to colleagues at a lunch that she had always been "haunted" by Guidry's and Dugan's case, took it as a sign, and pushed to submit the kit to forensics for testing in late 2011. Hughes retired six months later after handing the investigation over to cold case detectives, but by that time, the crime lab had already come back with a "hit" on CODIS:
Darwin Junia Hutchinson.
Hutchinson, a former security guard at a factory outlet mall, had been sentenced to life in Louisiana's notorious Angola prison in March 2000 for raping a local television reporter. The woman was on the phone with her boyfriend when Hutchinson knocked on the door. She answered, thinking it was her landlord, but screamed as Hutchinson forced his way inside. The line went dead, and the boyfriend, who was in New York, immediately dialed 911. When police arrived, the woman fled the home half dressed, closely followed by Hutchinson. As officers tackled him, a pair of gloves fell to the ground, followed by a roll of duct tape, a gun, and a ski mask.
He claimed the sex had been consensual.
* * *
Guidry's coworkers helped her up off the floor. Still shaken from the call with police, she went home and considered the ramifications of the new forensic match. As Guidry would learn, Hutchinson was serving life in Angola — but he was still eligible for parole. Detectives had already reopened Guidry's case based on the newly tested DNA, and a conviction for the rapes of Guidry and Dugan would ensure that Hutchinson would never walk free.
"Life is supposed to mean life, but it's not always so clear cut," said Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Killingsworth, who prosecuted the case. "You never know what's going to happen with parole."
Guidry had mixed feelings about taking her assailant to court. She felt certain that if she didn't, the "monster" would eventually be released and rape again. But it had been more than 20 years since the attack; she was now married with a family, and she feared what revisiting that night might do to her.
"I was dead for years after it happened to me — a part of you dies," she said. "I kept moving further and further from my family, because I didn't want them to see all the pain I was going through. I sort of felt like nobody could save me."
'I wanted to see him because I had walked around for 22 years looking over my shoulder, not knowing who to be afraid of.'
For weeks after the attack, Guidry suffered nightmares, waking up to vivid flashbacks of the feel of the warm, dank soil during the attack. Hutchinson's final warning before he got out of the car, that he would find her again and bring his friends, continually haunted her. She ended up moving more than a hundred miles away to Baton Rouge where, six months after the rape, she overdosed on sleeping pills. Guidry says she doesn't remember taking them and doesn't know how she got to the hospital where doctors pumped her stomach.
After a month of counseling at the hospital, her family and boyfriend, Randy, convinced Guidry to return to Lake Charles. On her first night back, she slept wedged between her parents in their bed, too afraid to close her eyes. Her father eventually convinced Guidry to move with Randy to his home in the country, 20 miles outside the city. There, they spent weekends shooting guns and fishing. The pair got engaged six months later and married a year and a half after the attack.
Remembering how difficult it was to move past the attack is what cemented her resolve to follow through with the case after she received the deputy's call. Guidry remembered that lingering fear of her attacker, and she never wanted to worry whether he'd been released from prison and was somewhere out there.
What followed, however, was three years of court dates. She was forced to repeatedly recount the rape to lawyers in front of family — none had heard the details before. The process took its toll.
"We never imagined [proceedings] would take this long," Guidry said in February. "I've really lived in post traumatic hell the last three years, but I had to do it to stop him. I know there were women before me and I know there were women after me."
* * *
On April 22, 2013, Guidry saw Hutchinson for the first time since the night of the rape. Her presence at his arraignment was optional, but she believed seeing him would help prepare her for trial. She arrived early and waited anxiously — she had never before seen the man's face. When Hutchinson appeared, Guidry locked eyes with him briefly from across the courtroom before he dropped his gaze.
"I wanted to see him because I had walked around for 22 years looking over my shoulder, not knowing who to be afraid of," Guidry said. "I knew if he ever spoke to me again I would know it was him, but I wanted to see his face."
That day, Hutchinson pleaded not guilty to two counts of aggravated rape. When investigators visited him in Angola to take a statement and another mouth swab, he told them he vaguely remembered the two women in 1992 — but claimed that the sex was consensual.
"It kind of pissed me off," Guidry said, visibly shivering at the thought.
As the court proceedings continued, she gave her notice at work to focus full-time on making sure Hutchinson remained behind bars. She rarely saw him, however; he sometimes appeared via satellite phone from prison, where he was housed with some of the state's most dangerous rapists and murderers.
Still, there were days Guidry wasn't sure she was doing the right thing. The emotional stress was severe; on several occasions, written notices of court date cancellations or reassignments left her depressed or in tears for hours at a time. She'd shut herself up in her room on those days, attempting to spare her 14-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter.
"I think sometimes I'm still in shock," Guidry said. "You're just reliving your worst nightmare. The only way to survive — the thing that kept me going — is knowing that he would never hurt anyone else again."
Other survivors have attested to similar experiences. Natasha Alexenko, whose forensics exam was identified in New York City's backlog in 2003, went to court after police finally tested her kit more than 10 years after she was raped and robbed by a stanger at gunpoint in 1993.
Natasha Alexenko, right, is hugged by actor Mariska Hargitay, founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation, during a 2014 news conference in New York during which Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced $35 million would be used to help eliminate a backlog of untested rape kits nationwide. (Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP)
Her attacker, initially indicted as a John Doe, was identified as Victor Rondon thanks to DNA obtained after his 2004 arrest in Las Vegas for jaywalking and punching the cop who gave him the citation. Two months after the rape, Rondon was convicted for possessing an illegal 9mm semi-automatic weapon, for which he served jail time. After his release, he was arrested again for dealing crack, indecency in front of a minor, and numerous sexual assaults, but he managed to escape a long-term prison sentence — until his DNA was matched to Alexenko's kit. He was convicted the next year on eight counts relating to the rape, and is currently serving out a minimum 44-year prison sentence.
"In retrospect, the trial was where I was able to take back the power," Alexenko said. "But the moment I saw him in court… it was as if I had gone through a wormhole and we were back in time to 1993 where it was just he and I face-to-face with the gun."
Alexenko founded the rape kit advocacy nonprofit Natasha's Justice Project in 2011, she said, because she was so enraged by the extent of New York's backlog.
"For the years my rape kit wasn't tested, this man was a one-man crime wave," she said. "He was all over the country creating additional victims — men and women."
* * *
This past February, police in Houston announced the end of an arduous 18 months spent clearing its own backlog of more than 6,600 untested rape kits. Before the push, the city had been responsible for a hefty portion of the state's 20,000-kit backlog.
To process the kits, the city assembled a multi-agency task force comprised of police, forensics experts, lawyers, and agencies like the Houston Area Women's Center (HAWC). A state law giving agencies a timeline to audit and run the forensic evidence was passed in 2011, but as Sonia Corrales, HAWC's advocate on the rape kit task force, explained, "There was no money attached to it."
It took two contributions totaling $5.9 million to kick-start the testing of thousands of kits.
The Houston task force was troubled, but unsurprised, to find at least 850 of the kits tested — more than one-third of them — returned hits on the national offender database. As a result, Houston prosecutors filed at least 29 new indictments in connection to sex crimes, some of which dated back decades. The figure is negligible compared with cities like Cleveland, where at least 300 rape suspects have been prosecuted as a result of newly discovered DNA matches since 2013.
But before possible indictments were even discussed, Houston police and prosecutors struggled to determine the best way to notify and engage with survivors — a challenge that has surfaced time and again as states work to clear their backlogs. Guidry said she still believes law enforcement should call ahead before a kit is tested.
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"If they're going to test the kit, it needs to be the victim's choice after a certain amount of time," she said. "Had somebody even called before they ran it, I would have expected news about a match. I wouldn't have fallen to my knees…. I was in a happy place before all this happened, I was running half marathons, chasing kids here and there, had a good job. It really turned my life upside down."
Dugan felt differently. A former ballet teacher now raising two children in Alabama, Dugan believed that every kit should be tested. That belief, she says, was informed by a childhood spent demonstrating on women's rights issues with her mother. She had been vocal about the issue long before police ran Guidry's rape kit.
"Some women feel possessive of their DNA and the kit, that they should be asked in order for it to be run," Dugan said. "I disagree with that in the sense that if there's any possible way to catch a serial rapist, then there should be no question that all kits should be tested."
Jane Waters, a special victims prosecutor with Harris County, which encompasses Houston, said that advising survivors of movement in their cases "turned out to be much more complicated than we realized."
"We tried to figure out a uniform victim notification protocol, and what we discovered was, there wasn't an answer," she said. "They don't all want to be notified, and they don't all not want to be notified. They don't all want to be called on the phone, they don't all want to get a letter. So you really are trying to figure out, how do we reach out to them?"
The complex guidelines surrounding statutes of limitations have also hampered efforts to reopen old cases. Among stacks of jury instructions and affidavits on her desk, Waters keeps a three-page chart explaining Texas's statute, which she often refers to when making indictment decisions in years-old rape cases.
"There's no magic date," Waters said, explaining that while many cases are subject to a 10-year statute of limitations in her state, that deadline can be waived in some circumstances, like when certain types of DNA evidence from a previously unknown suspect become available.
Rules in other states also vary. Some have no statute of limitations at all, while others have no exceptions on finite limitation dates, meaning once the statute is up, there is no possibility for prosecution, even if a tested rape kit later produces a match on CODIS.
Further complicating matters, there is no guarantee the survivor will want to participate in a prosecution. Most need encouragement, Waters said.
"None of our victims want to come in, whether [the rape] happened yesterday or 10 years ago," she said. "Some are at a place in their lives where they're not willing to go back there — maybe their families don't know what happened to them. Some are angry at the way things were handled [by police], and they can't get past that. Every victim is different."
However, even if authorities are unable to prosecute a particular case, there is "still value in testing all the kits, regardless of whether there is a statute of limitations issue," said Mary Lentschke, assistant chief of the Houston Police Department and the former head of its Special Crimes Division. She explained that forensic examiners can still extract evidence from kits that could help police link perpetrators to unsolved rapes or play a role in parole hearings.
"If they're on trial right now for another crime and they're found guilty, then information from that sexual assault we can't prosecute can be entered in for consideration during their sentencing phase," Lentschke said.
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Testing in some cases can also lead to exonerations; Fairstein says she saw at least one wrongful conviction case overturned in the four years it took to clear New York's backlog. She also dismissed the argument that kit testing should be limited only to rapes perpetrated by strangers — a cost-saving measure pushed by some "mayors, prosecutors, and police chiefs in the overwhelming number of jurisdictions with backlogs." She called it "narrow-minded and foolish" to test only stranger-stranger rapes, since every piece of DNA evidence entered into CODIS can assist in prosecutions of listed offenders.
"That's a differentiation we make with rape kits that we don't make with murder," Alexenko said. "We don't say, 'We're not going to investigate this murder further or we won't upload this guy's DNA because he only murders people he knows.' That is ridiculous."
* * *
On February 22, Hutchinson abruptly retracted his original not-guilty plea and pleaded guilty to two counts of forcible rape of Guidry and Dugan, telling the women he was "truly remorseful." Guidry said she doesn't know why he willingly accepted an additional 80 years in Angola without the possibility of parole. In a letter to VICE News last week, Hutchinson wrote that finding religion in prison had transformed his life and that he "knew pleading guilty was the right thing to do… in spite of all the counsel I received not to plead guilty."
At Hutchinson's sentencing, Guidry delivered a speech she had penned the previous night. She wavered between being "stoic and emotional," said Hughes, who requested a special assignment to the courtroom as a bailiff that day.
"There is nothing I could ever do to him that could give me back what he took from me," Guidry read without lifting her eyes to look at Hutchinson, who stood before her in shackles and an orange jumpsuit. "Two 20-year-old girls with big dreams were kidnapped that night, and I was raped, which has taken me 22 years to be able to say out loud in public. It's time for me to give all the shame and the burden back. I will no longer look over my shoulder and fear you."
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Liz Fields will discuss this story live on Thursday at 12pm EDT. Tweet your questions to her @vicenews #OnTheLine.
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