The call that Chelsie Thurmond received last week from the New Orleans Police Department was the kind she had pined for back in 2012, when all she heard was cold indifference, then silence.
On the other end of the line was Cmdr. Paul Noel, the head of a task force set up to reinvestigate hundreds of reported sex crimes that were handled by five detectives who were suspended last month in the wake of a scathing review of their files.
Thurmond’s allegation, of being raped by a local lawyer she had met at a popular Lakeview bar in late 2010, was among the 271 cases that investigators from New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office flagged last month, saying they could find no record of a follow-up investigation.
Damita Williams — the detective who Thurmond said interviewed her, then concluded, “It doesn’t seem like rape to me” — was cited in the inspector general’s report for voicing her belief that simple rape shouldn’t be a crime. Thurmond said her jaw dropped when she read news accounts of the IG’s report, which came out Nov. 12. A few weeks later, Noel called to make contact and to let her know it might take a while.
“I almost felt bad for him. He was just saying, ‘Bear with us, because we have to start from scratch,’ ” Thurmond, 25, said of the phone call from Noel.
“I was thinking, ‘I don’t even know if I want to go through that.’ It just freaks me out about all that stuff. He kept saying, ‘I can’t promise you.’ ”
Such is the work facing Noel and a group of detectives assigned by NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison to try to repair, case by case, the damage from the latest black eye to the long-troubled force.
And now there is more of it.
The task force has added 49 cases to be reinvestigated, along with the 271 the IG’s report identified from 2011 to 2013, said NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble. The new ones include all reported sex crimes in 2014 for which the now-suspended detectives wrote initial, cursory reports, but for which they did not file supplemental investigative reports before being booted from the Special Victims Section.
Four of the detectives — Merrell Merricks, Derrick Williams, Vernon Haynes and Williams — handled cases this year before all were reassigned between May and last month. The fifth, Child Abuse Unit detective Akron Davis, left that unit last year.
“As people approached us and had complaints based on the detectives who did the initial reporting, (the task force) decided they were going to look at all the cases touched by any of those detectives this year,” Gamble said.
The total number, now at 320, could go higher if other complaints are received, he said.
The task force includes Noel, a sergeant, two detectives and a member of the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau. It is treating each of the 320 reported sex crimes as “cold cases,” which could mean reinterviewing victims and witnesses, conducting new medical exams and piecing together whatever other evidence exists, Gamble said.
There is no clear timetable to complete all of the investigations, which are being done in stages.
“They’re taking the cases in groups and figuring out what’s going to take the most effort, the most manpower to get through, and those are the ones they’re tackling first,” Gamble said of the game plan. “In some ways it’s kind of unprecedented.”
Thurmond said Noel told her that her case is among the first 50 that the task force is investigating.
Her case may be complicated by the fact that she reported it more than a year after it allegedly occurred. While that’s not unusual among rape victims, it seemed to dim the view of Williams, the detective, who kept asking her why she took so long, Thurmond said.
She described a night at Parlay’s Bar, where she met the lawyer and agreed to drive him home nearby on a rainy night. He grabbed her keys and ran inside, then demanded she have a glass of wine.
“I got extremely, extremely drowsy, sloppy feeling. I don’t know if he put something in my drink. I’ve gone over it time and time again in my head,” Thurmond said.
“I remember just asking for my pants. I remember thinking, just in case he tries something, at least I’ll be in pants. Next thing I remember is him on top of me. I remember thinking, ‘This is a freaking episode of “Law & Order.” ’ I remember thinking, ‘Make sure you say no.’ I remember saying, ‘What are you doing?’ His eyes were black, as if he was functioning like a robot. There was no emotion. I was trying to grab my phone. He’s holding me down. This guy’s big, just a big guy.
“No, I didn’t scream bloody murder. There was a struggle. It was awful.”
The next morning, as she lay curled in the fetal position, Thurmond said, she was crying. Her assailant left to play golf, saying, “I’ll be back, sweetheart. Stay here and sleep,” Thurmond said.
“I was in shock. I called my friend and left him this long voicemail: ‘I don’t know what just happened. I think I was raped.’ ”
It took her almost two years, after running into the man at a bar and confronting him, to finally call 911. Now a law student in California, Thurmond has kept her alleged assailant’s soiled clothes in a drugstore shopping bag, hoping someday someone would listen. Williams never retrieved them, she said.
“I remember her saying, ‘If this goes to a jury, they’re going to think that you wanted this.’ She was so mean. I got so fed up and said, ‘Have you not received any training to work with victims of trauma, ever?’ She just had a lot of jabs. I remember I called the supervisor. He said, ‘I will look into this and get back to you.’ I never received a call back.
“I got nothing. I got her card. She literally was just blaming me, saying my story didn’t add up.”
Thurmond said she still gets flashbacks after years of therapy and stays up at night “like an owl. I just sit and look out my window and watch to make sure there’s no stranger danger.”
While reticent, Thurmond said she wants to pursue the case against the lawyer, now a partner in a large corporate law firm.
Among the challenges for the task force will be piecing together cases in which victims or witnesses may be hard to locate, less willing to participate or less able to recall key details. The prosecution’s case doesn’t usually improve with age.
“It puts you in a bad position,” said Sam D’Aquilla, district attorney of the 20th Judicial District, in East Feliciana and West Feliciana parishes. “If it’s stagnant for a while, victims or witnesses might not be as inclined to testify. If I don’t go out and take a statement from a witness right after it happened, two years from now they might say they don’t want to get involved.”
Jurors may be left to wonder what took so long, while defense attorneys are bound to question the work of discredited detectives, D’Aquilla said,
“The passage of time makes every case more difficult to prosecute. Memories fade and shift over time. There is less ability to track down evidence that might have been available. It can be harder to interview suspects to see if you get a confession,” said Tania Tetlow, director of the domestic law clinic at Tulane University. “But the bigger issue is whether the investigation is flubbed on the front end. Undoing that damage is difficult.”
Even so, a thorough reinvestigation is important, said Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor who is working with the NOPD to create lasting fixes to the Sex Crimes Unit. Tetlow cited a study showing that the vast bulk of rapes are committed by serial rapists. She cited recent allegations against former Saints safety Darren Sharper and comedian Bill Cosby as examples of the power in numbers.
“Having multiple victims against one suspect can make it absolutely provable. So it matters very much to follow up on those cases to stop the serial predators from acting again, and when they have acted again, to connect the dots,” Tetlow said. “Looking at a swath of cases over time might help reveal patterns of particular predators.”
Gamble, the NOPD spokesman, acknowledged that getting convictions out of the 320 cases may prove daunting, but he said it won’t be for lack of effort.
“The main goal we have is to be able to assure the public we’ve gone back and we’ve done everything we can and used every available resource we have to do the best investigation we can, and refer all of that to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution,” he said.
Noel, Harrison, PIB head Arlinda Westbrook, Quatrevaux and Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson plan to update the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday on the status of the reinvestigations, as well as a separate investigation into the five officers and their supervisors.
While the five detectives all remain suspended pending the outcome of the PIB probe, none of the supervisors who oversaw the unit has faced disciplinary action from the IG’s findings, Gamble said.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.