A decade after the worst rape kit backlog in the state, Duluth police aim to fix ‘broken trust’

DULUTH — In 2013, Don Guthrie Jr. raped a 19-year-old woman at a lakefront condo party in Duluth, after she fell asleep on a chair.

Six years passed before the woman saw her rapist convicted.

“It took a very, very long time,” she said recently.

So long, that she was shocked when she learned he’d actually been charged with a crime.

The case of Kaylin, now 29, is one of 40 sent for prosecution as a result of testing a 400-plus backlog of sexual assault kits here in Duluth. She asked that only her first name be used because she is a victim of sexual assault.

Prior to 2016, the Duluth Police Department had the worst backlog of sexual assault kits in the state, some sitting in storage for as long as 25 years. But since that fact was widely publicized, the department has overhauled how it handles rape cases, from the way officers interview victims at the hospital to how it addresses kits as they arrive at police headquarters.

When the public learned of the backlog, “there was this broken trust,” said Mary Faulkner, who works for Duluth’s rape crisis center, Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA), and coordinates the police department’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) begun in 2016 to address the backlog.

Victims are often not only concerned for their own safety, but for others, she said, and will endure an invasive rape exam to help prevent another assault.

“So for the evidence not to be tested, it feels like that effort that person made for the broader community is lost,” Faulkner said.

And, in some ways, the city’s reformed system is an apology to victims involved in those untested kits, she said.

“We can’t change what happened for them in that moment, but they deserve answers.”

What changed?

The Legislature ordered a one-time audit in 2015 of all untested kits held by Minnesota law enforcement agencies. Departments reported more than 3,400 untested kits; Duluth had the most, at 578. (Minneapolis officials said in 2019, however, that the city’s police department turned up an estimated 1,700 untested rape kits from as far back as the 1990s.)

Duluth received several million dollars in federal grants to tackle it’s backlog and add other programs to improve its process. The scale of its effort was unique in Minnesota and by 2018 the Duluth Police Department had sent off all that could be tested.

Jen Goad manages property and evidence for Duluth police. Prior to 2015, there was no protocol dictating how kits were handled, she said. Investigators largely decided which would get sent for testing, based on whether there was enough evidence to charge a case, for example. Now, all are tested if a victim opts for that.

Of the 444 sent out, 211 resulted in usable DNA samples to enter into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a national database of DNA profiles that includes convicted offenders. Of those, 126 hits turned up potential suspects.

Not all were sent for prosecution for a variety of reasons, including a lack of witnesses or the strain felt by a victim during a trial, and societal views of victim-blaming, Faulkner said.

In 2022 the BCA rolled out a new sexual assault kit tracking system, so victims have online access to information about their kit. As part of that the barcode is attached to the kit at the hospital, which also alerts Goad and her team.

The department’s system is now all electronic, and the barcode triggers an automatic review date that must be addressed on a computer, “so it’s really hard for something to fall through the cracks,” Goad said.

Officers have 10 days to retrieve exam kits from health care facilities. They then have 60 days to investigate and submit them for testing, according to a state law enacted in 2018. Today, Duluth sends unrestricted kits to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, often weeks before the state-mandated deadline. The new law followed the audit, and more state sexual assault reforms were approved in 2021.

Alisha Blazevic is a sexual assault nurse examiner at St. Luke’s hospital, which recently built a suite just for sexual assault exams, which are free to victims under federal law. She sees “constant improvement” in the way police work with victims.

“Fifteen years ago they would stand at the bedside with a notebook and be very black and white about the data they wanted from someone,” she said. “Now they come in and sit down and say ‘is it okay if I talk to you; are you doing OK?'”

Officers are trained not to push too hard for a story immediately and they offer an advocate to support victims, said Sgt. Chris Beekmann, who investigated cases for several years.

It’s a trauma-informed approach, Beekmann said, that takes into account a story may be told in pieces or out of order, indicating a normal human response to what happened.

Officers are taught to “take the time, sit and listen to their story, try not to ask as many of those questions about the who, what, when, where, why type of thing. Just let the victim speak,” he said.

Ilse Knecht, policy director for the Joyful Heart Foundation in New York, which advocates for rape kit backlog reforms nationally, worked with Duluth police and PAVSA on the new program. They were among the first departments with a backlog to set up a helpline for victims and work diligently to notify those with old cases, she said.

She lauded Duluth’s efforts to train officers on how a victim might respond to trauma, which can prevent a case being dismissed by police.

“More often what we see is law enforcement kind of going, this doesn’t add up,” Knecht said. “They might convey that bias to the prosecutor. And what we’ve seen in many, many jurisdictions that have taken these old kits off the shelves and tested them was that mistakes were made … and sadly, in all too many of them there’s a serial offender that was represented in that case, and they’ve just been operating with impunity on the streets.”

‘I’m glad it’s over’

More than 100 backlogged kits weren’t tested because victims hadn’t originally consented to it. PAVSA will begin calling those victims in January to see if they want them tested now, after time spent tracking down current information.

The Duluth Police Department has two investigators who travel, sometimes to other states, to obtain DNA from felons convicted in Duluth in old cases if the DNA hasn’t yet been collected from them. It is required in Minnesota for felons to give samples and some of those samples can be connected back to old sexual assault cases.

The department, with the help of federal grants, is also submitting even more samples and other information to the FBI database that can help solve crimes elsewhere.

A DNA sample is how Guthrie was connected to Kaylin’s rape.

The St. Louis County Attorney’s Office charged Guthrie in 2017, four years after the assault. When her case was re-investigated as part of the backlog work, his DNA was tested and it matched samples from Kaylin’s sexual assault kit.

Guthrie pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2019 to five years of probation.

Kaylin didn’t know Guthrie. He had followed her around at the party and saw her vomit several times, she told police. When she woke up the next morning still at the condo, she saw him running out of the room. Her pants were pulled down and she knew she had been raped.

“I remember going home that day and crying, and crying and crying,” she said.

Traumatized, Kaylin turned to drugs and alcohol in the aftermath of her assault, even ending up in jail for drug-related crimes.

“We were really trying to get to the root of why I was doing that,” she said. Now, it’s clear to the mom of a 2-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl that the rape played a major role.

She doesn’t think Guthrie paid enough of a price for what he did to her, and how it affected her young life.

“But I’m glad it’s over,” she said, as she snuggled her children at home earlier this month. “And I am nearly three years sober today.”

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