New APD cold case unit poised to unearth offenders of unsolved sex crimes

FILE - Blood samples being tested at APD's DNA lab. (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Blood samples being tested at APD's DNA lab. (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With the creation of a new sex crimes cold case unit at the Austin Police Department, detectives may be able to link offenders to other unsolved crimes.

Interim Chief of Police Brian Manley says the department has worked diligently with the Austin City Council to get contracts with labs and apply for grants to clear the backlog of more than 3,000 cases, ranging from a year old to 1991.

“We have a sex crimes investigation unit that is already suffering with a very high case load,” Manley says. The new team of four detectives, brought from APD’s park enforcement and investigative unit, will focus on relieving that backlog by handling the results the department is beginning to get back from the 1,500 cases they’ve sent out so far.

Among the thousands of cases, many of them involve a suspect known to the victim, or a confession was made, there was a witness to the crime, or the survivor did not want to see prosecution move forward, Manley says. Under those circumstances, the case may have been prosecuted without the sexual assault kit gathered from the victim ever being processed.

“What we now realize is that… by identifying the profile that’s within the kit and loading it into CODIS [Combined DNA Index System], we have someone that has reoffended since that time and was unknown to that victim, and we may actually have the evidence that would link those two cases,” the chief said.

Chief Manley says they’re working toward making sure survivors of sexual assaults in Austin can see their cases processed in a timely manner.

Manley says he wants sexual assault survivors to know they are a priority in Austin.

“We care about them. We care about what has happened to them, and we want to work towards closure of their cases,” he said.

APD closed their own DNA lab in summer of 2016 after it was revealed that thousands of samples were possibly contaminated. Manley said at the time that the department had failed with its DNA operations.

As for the new unit, the department will be monitoring their progress and make adjustments if more detectives are needed. For now, the sex crimes cold case unit appears to be permanent.

A Survivor’s Story

Lavinia Masters was sexually assaulted in her home in 1985 when she was only 13 years old.

Lavinia Masters was sexually assaulted in 1985. The survivor's case wasn't solved for more than 20 years. (KXAN Photo/Ed Zavala via Skype)
Lavinia Masters was sexually assaulted in 1985. The survivor’s case wasn’t solved for more than 20 years. (KXAN Photo/Ed Zavala via Skype)

“Someone broke into our house and raped me at knife-point,” Masters told KXAN Wednesday over Skype. “It’s like it’s etched in your mind. You never forget what happened.”

Today, more than 30 years after she was raped, she still remembers the violent encounter.

“My case went unsolved for over 20 something years. Come to find out my kit was sitting on a shelf,” Masters said. “Nothing prepares you for being sexually assaulted, for being violated. I wanted to know whatever happened to my case.”

It wasn’t until the Dallas Police Department launched their own sexual assault cold case program that Masters’ case was solved in 2006. Dallas PD was able to find a match to a perpetrator who, at the time, was serving time in prison for other rapes he had committed.

“It was devastating to know that he was in prison for other rapes, but he was not tied to mine,” she continued.

However, Masters says the cold case unit was able to give her the answers she so desperately desired about her case after living in fear of her unknown attacker.

“I lived with the fear — that hidden fear — of not knowing if he was really somewhere watching, lurking.”

Masters is now an advocate for sexual assault survivors across Texas. She commends APD for the creation of this unit.

“Get these kits off the shelves. These are lives. These are lives in limbo. They are waiting for answers,” she said.

Masters’ hope for survivors like her?

“That they will have their cases reexamined. That they will get the treatment that they deserve. That they will get the closure that they deserve,” said Masters.

For more information about DPD’s program, click here.

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