The struggles of New Orleans police to bring rapists to justice have been well documented, most shockingly in a recent report by the city’s Office of Inspector General that found that five officers in the sex crimes unit did little if anything to investigate hundreds of rape cases assigned to them.
A December arrest warrant raises still more questions about the unit’s shortcomings. The document explains that DNA from the 2003 rape of a 13-year-old girl was matched nine years later to a 31-year-old suspect in a State Police database.
Despite the strong evidence against the suspect, James Moye, it took the NOPD two years to apply for a warrant for his arrest.
Though Moye had been in a state prison during much of that span, he was released in October — two months before the warrant was issued. He remains at large.
“It’s fair to say it’s inexcusable,” said Amanda Tonkovich, coordinator for the New Orleans Sexual Assault Response Team. “From a victim’s standpoint, the criminal justice system is already very slow.”
Tonkovich and her team have been working with the NOPD since November, when the OIG released its report. She said they’ve sat in on interviews between victims and detectives as a task force reinvestigates rape cases that were mishandled.
“We’ve been having an amazing experience working with them,” Tonkovich said. “But they are tremendously understaffed.”
‘Necessary action taken’
According to the warrant, a 13-year-old girl was sexually assaulted on March 31, 2003. The girl told police she was attacked and raped by a man named “Tirk.” She was treated at Children’s Hospital, where a sexual assault exam was executed; few other details of the incident are available.
The incident was labeled a Signal 21, a “miscellaneous complaint,” meaning no initial report was completed. It was also tagged “necessary action taken,” which usually means no further investigation is warranted.
The Special Victims Unit’s habit of classifying rape complaints as Signal 21 incidents came under scrutiny in Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s November report. That report examined 1,290 calls for service assigned to five specific detectives identified by the Police Department’s Public Integrity Bureau and concluded that roughly two-thirds were “designated Signal 21.” In those cases, “no reports were written and there were no comments in the Incident Recall Report,” the IG’s report said.
One of the reforms outlined in the Justice Department’s consent decree governing changes at the NOPD now requires sex-crimes detectives to get written approval from a superior before they can label a reported case a Signal 21.
NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said nobody in the Special Victims Unit from 2003 is still there.
Rape kits go to Marshall
Two years after the rape, the NOPD’s DNA lab was swamped by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters, one of the many pieces of the criminal justice system’s infrastructure to suffer such a fate. It’s not known if the rape kit was examined in the two years between the reported rape and the storm.
After the storm, the State Police Crime Lab in Baton Rouge tested and analyzed evidence from crimes in New Orleans. To deal with the evidentiary backlog, the State Police and NOPD in 2011 sent 833 sexual assault kits, including the one from the 2003 rape, to Marshall University in West Virginia to be tested.
Once Marshall processed the information, the State Police would enter it into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, said Joanie Brocato, DNA manager of the State Police Crime Lab. CODIS includes DNA profiles of all felons, sex offenders and some people convicted on misdemeanors. It includes any key pieces of evidence and the profiles of all deceased victims of violent crimes.
Brocato wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the 2003 case but said that in general, once DNA information was received from Marshall, it would be inserted into CODIS and compared against other individuals in the database. According to a April 2012 press release from Marshall University, the 833 sexual assault cases from the NOPD produced 78 CODIS hits.
The State Police Crime Lab received the result of the 2003 sexual assault kit in December 2011, and on Jan. 10, 2012, it entered the data into CODIS. Moye’s profile would have been compared to a state database that includes about 500,000 profiles and a national FBI database that includes about 14 million profiles. And two days after it was put into CODIS, a hit came back.
“It’s not sirens,” Brocato said, “but we get a report back out of the CODIS software that tells us that this match was made, and we have to take that information and compare the profiles and decide whether that is a true match or not.”
Once Brocato and her team have double-checked the match, they issue a “CODIS hit letter” to law enforcement — which then usually prompts swift action.
“We give them the perpetrator’s name,” Brocato said. “We call it an investigative lead, because they still need to look into that case. They need to evaluate that case.”
The State Police Crime Lab sent the CODIS hit letter on Feb. 3, 2012. Three days later, according to court documents, “a report was forwarded to the sex crimes unit” that “advised a DNA match from the National DNA Database was discovered.”
In that same letter, State Police requested that when and if the suspect was caught, authorities should collect what is called a “known reference sample” from the suspect and submit it back to State Police as evidence.
“We really need that direct reference sample from that individual so that we can finalize that connection,” Brocato said. referring to how CODIS reference letters work in general.
State Police never received a follow-up on Moye.
A 2012 arrest
Less than two months after the CODIS match, in March 2012, Moye was sitting in the 800 block of Bourbon Street in the French Quarter when he offered to sell an undercover cop a substance that appeared to be marijuana. According to police records, Moye made the sale, but the marijuana was fake.
In June, he pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute a counterfeit controlled substance and received a five-year suspended sentence and five years of probation. But he missed a couple of probation appearances, didn’t pay court fees and repeatedly tested positive for illegal drugs, according to court records, so his probation was revoked. He was incarcerated from August 2013 through Oct. 2, 2014, when he was paroled, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde.
Two months after his release, on Dec. 17, the warrant for his arrest finally came through.
The warrant was issued a month after the IG report came out and also after the NOPD received an $83,000 grant from the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement. Called the Stop Violence Against Women grant, it’s being used to pay homicide and special victims unit detectives overtime so they can investigate cold sex-crime cases.
“This grant is one piece of the puzzle,” Gamble said, “as we grow the unit and hope to get more detectives.”
A November story in The New Orleans Advocate reported that the sex crimes unit normally has about eight or nine detectives. Of the five detectives singled out in the OIG report who had been reassigned to patrol duty, four were in the sex crimes unit. The same story said the Special Victims Section, which includes the child abuse, domestic violence and sex crimes units, had a total of 16 detectives and seven supervisors, though Superintendent Michael Harrison has said some supervisors have been removed.
Gamble said part of the job of one person in the division is to monitor CODIS hits, so cases get picked up faster by detectives and the backlog of unsolved cases doesn’t continue to grow.?
“One of the primary goals of the mayor’s task force to reform the sex crimes unit is to prevent backlogs,” said Tania Tetlow, a Tulane law professor who specializes in domestic violence cases. “Ultimately the unit needs more resources.”
The 2003 case was assigned to Detective DeCynda Barnes in November 2014. Barnes was not made available for comment, but Gamble said she interviewed the victim, now in her early 20s, after getting the case. Barnes is featured on the A&E reality show about the NOPD, “The First 48”; her job, according to the show’s website, is working on cold case homicide investigations.
Before Barnes was given the case, Gamble said, nobody was working the investigation. He also said that as the department struggles to return to full staff levels, it’s difficult to look into long-dormant investigations while also digging into the stream of new incidents that occur.
Similar case, different outcome
In January 1997, a victim told police she was sleeping when a man came into her bedroom armed with a knife and had her put pillows over her head. Then, according to court documents, he raped the victim with the knife to her neck. Afterward, he snatched her purse and left.
The victim was taken to Charity Hospital and a sexual assault kit was administered. Then, as in the Moye case, the slow wait for a CODIS match began.
Not long after the rape, Jamol Rickmon, then 19, was picked up by police in a string of drug offenses, along with several sexual assault and burglary charges. According to Laborde, the DOC spokeswoman, Rickmon in 1998 began serving a 20-year sentence for aggravated burglary.
By 2010, as Rickmon sat in jail, an arrest warrant indicates that a detective was assigned to investigate the 1997 rape. A hit had come back from the State Police Crime Lab matching DNA from the 1997 crime to Rickmon’s DNA profile in CODIS. Four years later, instead of being released on parole, Rickmon was transferred from state custody to Orleans Parish Prison to await trial on the new charge.
In November, a grand jury indicted Rickmon on two counts of aggravated rape for the 1997 case.
Follow Benjamin Oreskes on Twitter, @boreskes.