Facebook Twitter

‘You can get justice': Utah rape kit initiative pushing for prosecution statewide

SHARE ‘You can get justice': Utah rape kit initiative pushing for prosecution statewide

SALT LAKE CITY — Nine years ago, a woman awoke to see three strange men in her bedroom. They tied her up, blindfolded her and burglarized her apartment.

It didn't end there.

While on her stomach as the men were stealing from her, she heard one of them call her "cute." One of them proceeded to rape her.

But she couldn't see his face.

Bakar Mohammed Mberwa

Bakar Mohammed Mberwa

Salt Lake County Jail

On Dec. 17, thanks to rape kit testing, a shackled Bakar Mohammed Mberwa faced 3rd District Judge Adam Mow, who sentenced him to at least five years and up to life in prison. Mberwa, 28, had been convicted of rape and aggravated burglary, both first-degree felonies.

"I think what's very concerning to the state is that this is a case that's a woman's worst nightmare," Salt Lake County deputy district attorney Colleen Magee told the judge. "This is what every woman fears who lives alone."

Although the woman thought she had put the incident past her in the years after the assault, she unexpectedly broke down in her testimony during the trial, Magee told the Deseret News.

"I think … how she felt changed when she actually testified in court. When she testified, we actually had to take a break because she broke down. And she didn't expect that. So at first, she was kind of, 'I don't even know if I want to come back and do this trial. It's been so long. I'm over it.'"

"But once she was here and she finally testified, she was very happy that she did that. And so I think the delay does cause, did cause her to wonder whether or not she should put herself through this because she was, in her mind, over it. But once she got here, it was something totally different," Magee said.

The case marks the first that's been prosecuted through a jury trial as a result of Utah's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, which started in 2017.

The prosecutor said the conviction signifies that "we are getting these kits tested, and it doesn't matter how long ago your rape was. That you can, in fact, get justice."

Utah's handling of sexual assault kits came under fire in 2014 when a statewide survey found law enforcement agencies had thousands of submitted sexual assault kits that had not been processed.

More than 3,900 previously unsubmitted and untested rape kits have been submitted for testing through the Utah Sexual Assault Kit Initiative. Of those, more than 2,700 have since been tested, according to the initiative.

"For me … it feels like it's a slow process, but at the same time, you know, these are old cases that everyone wants to say, why are you doing this project? And those convictions are why we're doing this project, is we're giving that justice to those victims even years later. So it is worth it," program coordinator Krystal Hazlett said.

The initiative established an information hotline, 801-893-1145, in mid-2017 that victims can call to learn the status of their rape kits. Hazlett says the hotline receives an uptick in calls whenever a story regarding sexual assault hits the news.

"Is it just a general conversation that's going on that maybe hasn't before, maybe pushing victims to find more information? Yes. … What we've seen across the valley has increased reporting," Hazlett said.

Anna Walker, the initiative's new victim's advocate, answers all phone calls to the hotline.

A former criminal justice major, Walker said she wanted to become a victim's advocate because "the more I learned about it, the more passionate I got" about helping survivors "navigate" the criminal justice process.

Anna Walker, sexual assault kit initiative victim advocate, poses for a portrait in front of the lab where sexual assault kits are processed at the Utah Department of Public Safety in Taylorsville on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018.

Anna Walker, sexual assault kit initiative victim advocate, poses for a portrait in front of the lab where sexual assault kits are processed at the Utah Department of Public Safety in Taylorsville on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

"And especially if you're a victim and you're being thrown into that, it's really hard to navigate. And so I kind of just became passionate about helping people navigate their way through it and not feeling like they were alone in that," Walker said.

When someone calls, she coordinates with the crime lab to find out the status of the caller's assault kit.

"And then I also coordinate with the police department that took the case and let them know that the victim is reaching out," Walker said.

She said anyone who has questions is welcome to call the hotline. "If you want information, I'll figure out where to refer you to if I don't have the answer," Walker said.

All untested sexual assault kits will eventually get tested under HB200. But when they will get tested is an issue of funding. Hazlett says victims calling into the hotline can help the initiative identify kits as older than March 2015, which qualifies them as "unsubmitted kits."

Federal funding — a $2.2 million grant Utah received in October 2017 — pays for unsubmitted kits to be tested, meaning that the initiative can outsource the testing, Hazlett said. It costs between $1,000 and $1,500 to test a rape kit, according to nonprofit End the Backlog.

For people with kits in the current caseload newer than March 2015, calling the hotline is "not going to move (the kit) any faster, but we can at least let the survivor know" its status. "Information is power," Hazlett said.

But she said the impetus for making sure their cases aren't forgotten doesn't fall on victims.

"It shouldn't be the victim's responsibility to contact us and ask where that's at," she said. "That should really be our due diligence to say, 'OK, we've now tested this kit, now what's the next step?'"

So far, the initiative has reviewed more than 300 cases with prosecutors and law enforcement agencies in Salt Lake County alone. Charges have been filed in 20 of those cases, the oldest of which was from 2002, Hazlett said.

Two cases prosecuted through the initiative have led to guilty pleas and another guilty plea is pending, she said.

Gerardo Guzman

Gerardo Guzman

Salt Lake County Jail

One of those assaults occurred in 2007 when Gerardo Guzman, who was 20, picked up a 13-year-old acquaintance and drove her to a McDonald's, then parked near the airport where he forced her into the back seat of his vehicle and assaulted her, according to court documents. Afterward, he threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

In May, Guzman, 31, pleaded guilty to attempted sexual abuse of a child, a third-degree felony, amended from first-degree rape. He was sentenced to up to five years in prison.

In 2009, a woman was at her friend's apartment when a man showed up with "food and drink," court documents state. After eating and drinking what the man had brought, the woman reported feeling "weird and dizzy." She went with him to his apartment, where he assaulted her.

Ramon Alexander Santos-Chaves

Ramon Alexander Santos-Chaves

Salt Lake County Jail

Ramon Alexander Santos-Chaves, 39, pleaded guilty in January to attempted forcible sexual abuse, a third-degree felony amended from first-degree felony rape. He was also sentenced to up to five years in prison.

For a prosecutor, seeing justice served for a victim of assault so many years after the fact is "a really good feeling," Magee said.

"And so to know that, especially after (the victim) testified, to know that we actually got her justice when she didn't even think she still needed it, is very, gosh, I don't know the word. It's heartwarming. It actually is heartwarming. I feel like I've done something important for her," Magee said.

Now, the initiative is making a push to get old cases prosecuted statewide, Hazlett said, and following up on cases with investigators and prosecutors in several counties.

She said she talked to one prosecutor who said, "I didn't think this affected my community."

"So it's kind of like, 'I didn't really pay attention to it because I didn't really think it affected me,'" Hazlett said.

However, "it affects every community across the state," Hazlett said.

"It is happening in your community, and so let's talk about it."