Solving old local crimes

A call by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine a few years back for police agencies to move cold case rape kits from their evidence rooms to a state crime lab appears to be netting some results locally.

At least two local police departments are among those across the state that have submitted older rape kits to state crime labs for testing, and in some cases re-testing, as part of the cold case initiative DeWine launched in 2011.

For Austintown police, DNA testing has helped advance a cold case that has been in their files since the early 1990s.

Authorities got a hit on DNA from Sharon Lynn Kedzierski, whose body was discovered, but not initially identified, on Clarkins Drive in Austintown on April 9, 1992, near the Universal Truck Mall. DNA testing helped investigators identify Kedzierski through a national database of missing persons.

The analysis also helped investigators determine that a man charged in 1993 with the killing possibly had not.

Now, police are waiting for the results of more testing, hoping to get a better handle on the case. DeWine’s office confirmed Austintown submitted a rape kit for testing. Township police said it was a rape kit from Kedzierski.

”It’s all part of a process,” Austintown police Chief Robert Gavalier said. ”But it is a process we can go back to and look to when we’re trying to look more closely at something or piece it together.”

Last year, Warren police got a hit in a 17-year-old rape kit when investigators sent it to a state crime lab for DNA testing.

Although the development isn’t officially part the DeWine’s cold case initiative, it’s still part of local law enforcement’s efforts to solve old crimes, specifically sexual assault cases.

”It definitely can help move a case along,” said Warren police Officer Doug Hipple, who handles much of the department’s evidence including rape kits.

Hipple said he could not elaborate on the details of that case because the investigation is ongoing. However, he said the state’s DNA testing system has been beneficial to the city police department.

”When you think about it, it really is no different that fingerprinting,” Hipple said. ”You collect the evidence and you test it. It’s a very similar system and a beneficial investigative tool.”

Cold case breaks from DNA testing may be just what local police departments need to finally resolve some cases, and in the nick of time as the statue of limitations on rape in Ohio is 20 years. The state requires police agencies to keep rape kits for 30 years.

DeWine’s cold case program in 2011 calls for sexual assault kits to be submitted for testing, regardless of how old they are, unless it’s clear that a crime hasn’t been committed.

As part of the program, DeWine created a unit to process old rape kits.

According to statistics provided by DeWine’s office recently, 2,430 old rape kits from police agencies across the state – including one kit each from Austintown and Howland police departments – have been submitted for testing since the program was launched.

The goal is to get the DNA profiles in the database, where they can be matched against specimens taken in other cases in which DNA is used.

The move to process untested rape kits came after news reports revealed that many such kits were languishing in storage.

Locally, law enforcement officials said they have not had a backlog of untested rape kits because they have made it a policy to routinely send their sexual assault evidence to state crime labs – even more so since DeWine’s program went into place. But there are instances when “cleaning house” and cleaning off the evidence shelves has paid off.

Warren Detective Michael Stabile said city police went through most of their evidence a few years ago, sent what they could to the crime lab and have continued to do so on a regular basis.

“Basically, we sent out evidence on any cases that were still open,” he said.

Hipple noted that kits from all sexual assault cases involving minors are automatically tested.

Youngstown police also have a policy to process rape kits immediately, depending on the investigation, and forward them to the crime lab, said Officer Sonia Wilson, who works in the city police department’s records office.

“Basically, a report is taken and each rape case is processed,” she said. “Every kit goes to the lab at least once. They return it to us and we store it, put it away. If the lab gets a hit, we use that information as part of our investigation.”

She said sometimes, depending on the situation, a rape kit can be sent back to the lab for more testing after an initial hit.

“There are just so many variables,” she said. “Testing can carry an investigation a long way, move it along. They can get a hit years from now depending on situation.”

Wilson said it’s important to remember that the rape kit must include viable DNA from someone who is already in the system.

“Their DNA samples to be already be somewhere,” she said. “Or, you can test a kit now and someone is arrested and charged later somewhere else in relation to another crime and you get a hit that way.”

Local police cautioned that not every “hit” results in an arrest or the case being closed.

“It just depends on the circumstances of that particular case and where the investigation is,” Warren police Chief Timothy Bowers said.

Still, police said they have nothing to lose. Typically, the evidence in a rape kit is collected by hospital staff and stored until it is handed over to the proper police agency, which then processes it and sends it to a state crime lab. Like fingerprinting analysis, rape kit testing is done at no cost to the local police agency.

Officials said the goal is find “hits” that match data in state and national DNA databases.

Warren Detective Michael Currington, who handles most of his department’s sexual assault cases, said the matches don’t automatically result in an individual case being solved, but can give investigators more information that could lead to an arrest or possible prosecution.

“It can definitely help,” he said. “It can definitely help us clear up a lot of questions. It can help you rule out a suspect. Ideally, we want as much evidence as we can possibly get. Rape is one of those instances where DNA can play a huge role.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.