DNA evidence helps Fayetteville Police Department solve decades-old cold rape cases

DNA evidence helps Fayetteville Police Department solve decades-old cold rape cases
Source: WMBF News

FAYETTEVILLE, NC (WMBF) - Ramsey Street runs through the military town of Fayetteville, N.C., connecting the downtown to the universities and country clubs.

For residents who lived in the area over the past decade, the street has become associated with more than just a way from point A to point B.

On March 31, 2006, a woman reported a rape to the Fayetteville Police Department. The attacker disappeared and his identity remained unknown.

Five months later, another woman told authorities she was raped two miles south off Ramsey Street. The rapist, again, was unknown.

Four more woman reported rapes along the street between August 2006 and January 2008. The attacker was dubbed “The Ramsey Street Rapist”.

“I can still recall there was a great deal of fear gripping our community, particularly in the north Ramsey Street corridor,” Fayetteville city manager Doug Hewett recalled during a August 2018 press conference.

The victims lived without answers for more than a decade.

Then, on Aug. 22, 2018, Fayetteville police announced an update.

“We got the guy,” FPD Lt. John Somerindyke said during a press conference. “He was just a local guy, living five minutes from the crime scene, born and raised and still lives here.”

Police arrested and charged Darold Bowden, 43, in connection with the six rapes.

The cases had gone cold and leads dried up until new DNA evidence led to a match.

Fayetteville police sent DNA collected from the rapes to a genealogy company that found a match by comparing it to open source records and online family trees.

“This should be a prime example to every police department out there; send off your rape kits,” Somerindyke said during the August press conference. “This state has a 15,000 rape kit backlog and I’d be willing to bet his DNA is in at least one of those 15,000 unsubmitted kits, along with several other serial rapists.”

However, the lieutenant and the department didn’t always know the power of DNA contained in a rape kit.

In 2015, the FPD discovered it had destroyed more than 300 sexual assault kits over the years.

“The reason we were doing it was to clear up space in the evidence room. It was simple as that. I mean it was wrong. It was a bad practice,” Somerindyke said.

After finding out the extent of the destruction, department officials, including Somerindyke, called every victim whose kit was destroyed.

Somerindyke said a victim helped put it in perspective for him when she told him, “The sexual assault kit, it's more than just a cardboard box with swabs in. It's a piece of my body in there.”

“So that really gave me a lot of perspective and really, I think, rose my level of commitment to getting all of these kits tested cause that is this a piece of a victim's body in that kit and it deserves attention and respect,” he said.

That attention and respect is what Somerindyke has strived to achieve for dozens of other victims who have been left in the dark for years.

Bowden’s arrest is just one of the 40 cases Somerindyke’s cold case unit has made an arrest for since it was created in 2014. Other cases were 10, 20, even 30 years old and there are hundreds more.

“What I did find with a lot of especially the older rapes, arrests may made not have been made because we didn't do that good of an investigation,” Somerindyke admitted.

He said some of the reasons the cases went cold were due to untested rape kits, a lack of advanced DNA technology, and a lack of understanding on how rape affects victims.

“I thought I was this great detective, you know, like Sherlock Holmes or something, and if the victim changed her story or didn't appear to make sense, I was automatically chalking it up, ‘She's lying,’” Somerindyke recalled.

Now, he and other experts know that trauma affects the way memories are encoded in a person’s brain. The process is not the same as during a non-traumatic event, so stories may be inconsistent.

After working cold cases for years, Somerindyke said he’s also come to realize just how important solving a single rape case is.

“I've read almost every rape report the Fayetteville Police Department has written going back to 1984 and I've come to the conclusion that every rapist is a serial rapist,” he said. “If we did not have those kits, if we did not test evidence for DNA, we'd to be allowing a serial rapist to continue to run free on Fayetteville.”

Currently, the Fayetteville Police Department has zero untested rape kits. It’s a number the department is proud of, but also one it didn’t get to alone.

The department was awarded a national Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) grant in 2015 to test 135 untested kits that dated back to 1984. The department also hosted sexual assault response training with the funding.

In 2016, the FPD was awarded another grant to update its evidence storage unit.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance has awarded more than $159 million in grants, from 2015 to 2018. These funds have tested 44,000 kits, of which 30 percent produced a DNA profile that could be entered into the FBI’s forensic database, CODIS.

Despite the strides his department has made, Somerindyke said he thinks his profession has a long way to go with sexual assault investigations.

On his office walls hang memorabilia of the cases the department has closed and his floors are lined with boxes filled with hundreds of case files. That’s hundreds of victims officers are left to find justice for and hundreds more rapists to put behind bars.

This is part three of WMBF’s multi-part “Untested: The Rape Kit Crisis in the Carolinas.” Click here to go to the series’ official homepage.

Copyright 2019 WMBF. All rights reserved.