Dedicated CMPD cold case unit solving decades-old rapes

Dedicated CMPD cold case unit solving decades-old rapes

Clockwise, from left, are Assistant District Attorneys Samantha Pendergrass and Barry Cook, who work with cold case Detectives Dick Riedel and Troy Armstrong, Sgt. Darrell Price and Detective Linda Holmes. The bins are filled with unsolved sexual assault cases. PHOTOS BY David T. Foster III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

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by GARY L. WRIGHT / Charlotte Observer

WCNC.com

Posted on March 11, 2012 at 2:33 PM

Updated Sunday, Mar 11 at 2:35 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was the hardest thing she'd ever had to tell her dad. She'd awakened in the middle of the night with a stranger on her bed and a pillow over her face. The intruder told her he had a knife. Then he raped her.

Nineteen years would go by before her attacker was captured in 2009.

"The police gave me a gift I never thought I would get," the woman, now 50, told the Observer. "I was amazed that they found him. The police didn't give up. They kept at it - kept digging. It made me feel that somebody cared about what had happened to me."

Gilbert McNair was nabbed by detectives with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's sexual assault cold case squad and charged with the rapes of six women between 1990 and 1998 in the Myers Park and Elizabeth neighborhoods.

Since it was set up six years ago, CMPD's Sexual Assault Cold Case Unit has reviewed 860 cases and solved or cleared 132 of them - most through the use of DNA. McNair and 28 other men have been arrested and charged with sexual assaults - some dating back to the 1980s. Among them were six serial rapists.

The police department has more than 2,500 unsolved sexual assault cases and more than 500 unsolved homicides. Each year, about 100 new sexual assaults and homicides are added to the unsolved violent cold cases.

CMPD has now obtained a $485,777 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that will give higher priority to the department's unsolved sex crimes and homicides.

For Sgt. Darrell Price, who heads the Sexual Assault Cold Case Unit, solving decades-old sex crimes has been the most rewarding work of his more than 30 years on the police force.

"Women who have been raped don't ever forget it," Price said. "Seldom does a day go by that they don't think about what happened. It's amazing to see the looks on their faces when we tell them we've solved the case.... They thought nobody cared."

Squad's origins

CMPD in 2003 set up a homicide cold case squad to tackle a growing backlog of hundreds of unsolved murders.

Three years later, the Sexual Assault Cold Case Unit was launched. It was one of the nation's first cold case sex crimes squads.

Only one detective was initially assigned to the sex crimes cold case unit. In 2008, CMPD obtained a Justice Department grant for $197,245 and used the money to add a sergeant and two more detectives to the squad.

CMPD's Sexual Assault Cold Case Unit is now staffed by veteran investigators. Together, the squad's leader, Sgt. Price, and Detectives Troy Armstrong, Linda Holmes and Dick Riedel have spent more than 100 years in police work.

Barry Cook, a retired 29-year veteran of Mecklenburg's District Attorney's Office, spent most of his career prosecuting sex crimes. He now works alongside the detectives on the sex crimes cold case squad. With his salary paid by the new federal grant money, Cook will work to prosecute cold case sex crimes.

"As a prosecutor, you never lose your enthusiasm for putting someone in jail that needs to be there," Cook told the Observer. "There's a lot of satisfaction in playing a part in solving these cold case sex crimes and putting whoever's responsible for these crimes in prison."

In many sexual assault cases, Cook said, the victims can't identify their assailants.

"If we have DNA, it makes prosecuting those who commit sexual assaults relatively easy," he said.

The nearly $500,000 in the new 18-month grant will keep the four-member cold case squad intact. It also will be used to hire a DNA analyst, who will focus exclusively on sex crime and homicide cold cases.

The detectives spend much of their time poring over files of unsolved cases. They look for new leads to pursue. They identify evidence - such as a bloody shirt, a fingerprint on a glass or saliva on a cigarette - that can be tested for DNA. Technological advances allow police today to find DNA they couldn't detect years ago.

Armstrong says the team's years of experience are invaluable in their work.

"It is remarkable to know that when we are sitting around drinking a cup of coffee and discussing cases we're drawing from over 150 years of combined experience," Armstrong said. "It is impossible to comprehend the kind of resource that is. There is absolutely no substitute for that."
CMPD, in its grant application, described its goal as "simple" - to arrest more killers and rapists.

"With more than 2,000 unsolved violent cold cases ... it is imperative that our investigative work continue," the application said. "If not, what do we tell the victims of these rapes and the families of those slain who deserve to know that CMPD has done all it can to resolve these cases."

Challenges

Advances in DNA technology, along with the development and expansion of national and state databases containing DNA profiles, have become powerful tools in police efforts to solve cold cases.

Biological evidence once thought to be too small or too degraded for testing may now help police identify those responsible for the crimes.

DNA can be found on evidence decades after it has been collected. The DNA evidence, such as blood, saliva or semen, can implicate or exonerate a suspect. It also can be used to link several crimes to one perpetrator.

But DNA evidence, as powerful as it is, doesn't guarantee a conviction.
Detectives must reconstruct the crimes - sometimes going back decades. Finding and arresting the suspects can be easier than locating the rape victims, who might marry and change their names and move out of state.

Some of the victims have died. So have some of the suspects.

"DNA is why we can solve these cold case rapes," Armstrong said. "But DNA is not the magic bullet. It's only a part of the puzzle. We have to put the entire puzzle together. It's not a slam-dunk case just because we have DNA."

CMPD's sexual assault cold case squad has put together enough evidence to charge 29 men with 45 sexual assaults. Twenty-two of the men have been convicted. One killed himself on the day jury selection in his trial was set to begin. Four of the suspects are awaiting trial.

Two cases were lost. One of them ended in a mistrial. There were questions about the rape victim's behavior, and the jurors failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Prosecutors decided not to retry the rape suspect.

The other case was thrown out because two key witnesses had died.

Armstrong called "extraordinary" his experiences over the past six years working sexual assault cold cases.

"On a personal level, the satisfaction and relief I have been able to share with victims and their families have been beyond rewarding," he said. "On a professional level, we are constantly blazing new paths in investigations, lab work and the courts.

"Our team may be small in numbers but it has proven effective."
Mecklenburg Assistant District Attorney Samantha Pendergrass has prosecuted most of the cold case rapes.

"It's the best feeling to help these women get justice after so long," Pendergrass said. "They haven't known the name - sometimes not even the face - of their attacker. For years, they lived in fear knowing he was still out there - somewhere."

'That's the guy'

The 50-year-old woman who spoke to the Observer about being raped is now a successful businesswoman. She still remembers how angry she was at first following the attack. She had a hard time making eye contact. She didn't want to be noticed.

"I didn't do anything to deserve what happened to me," she says. "It left a scar on me. It'll always be a part of my life and who I am. But it doesn't define who I am today."

The rape happened 22 years ago.

She remembers how difficult it was to tell her parents about the worst thing that has ever happened to her.

They rushed to be at her side and hugged her when they arrived.
As the years went by, she became reconciled that the stranger who raped her would never be caught.

"I didn't think I would ever have the opportunity to confront the man who attacked me or see him put in prison," she said. "I came to accept that closure was going to have to come within me and not with the help of the criminal justice system."

Then, in 2009 - 19 years after the rape - she received a call from Detective Armstrong. He asked if she could see him in an hour.

They met at a coffee shop. Armstrong handed her a photograph.

"That's the guy," she remembers him telling her.

But last March, Gilbert McNair, accused of sexually assaulting her and five other women, pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree rape. The 56-year-old serial rapist was sentenced to 35 to 44 years in prison.

The rape victim is relieved her attacker may spend the rest of his life in prison and will no longer be able to hurt another woman.

"What happened to me took a toll on everyone who loved me," she said. "The police gave me closure. They cared enough about what happened to me all those years ago and found out who did this to me. And he got punished for what he did.

"I finally had the feeling that it was really, really over."




 

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