How rape kit DNA and an intrepid investigator unraveled a serial rape case
CLEVELAND, Ohio – By the time Stacey Fifer started investigating John Doe #2, he was already the suspect in six rapes.
Fifer, a Bureau of Criminal Investigation special agent working with Cuyahoga County's Sexual Assault Kit task force, caught the seventh case. It was a 2003 rape reported by 39-year-old woman who said she was forced into a car and raped in a vacant lot on Cleveland's East Side.
Investigators had his DNA found in rape kits collected from women in 1993, 1994, 1995, 2000 and 2003.
Clues to the suspect's identity were otherwise sparse.
He was an average-sized black man. One victim said he spoke with a "thick tongue." And he often wielded a gun, using the weapon to coerce the women into his car or to take their clothes off, according to the police reports.
At least once a victim said he used it.
In 1994, a 36-year-old woman told police the man who raped her fired three shots at her as she fled the Buick he'd attacked her in near East 80th Street in a vacant lot.
Other times, he threatened their lives.
On Aug. 18, 2003, a 29-year-old woman told police he threatened to "shoot her in the head and put her head in a bag and dump her body," never to be found. The woman, who said the man forced her into his car at gunpoint, ran sobbing into Cleveland's Fourth District police station lobby shortly after the attack.
The man told her he was from Chicago but had to leave because he'd "killed some people."
A little more than two months later, on Oct. 26, 2003, a woman reported the rape that would eventually lead Fifer to her suspect.
Indicting DNA profiles
Early on, with little to go on to identify John Doe #2, prosecutors used a novel legal move to indict his DNA profile, essentially a string of letters and numbers that indicate specific genetic markers.
Those indictments preserved the right to prosecute several of the the cases, which otherwise would have expired with a 20-year statute of limitations. That window to prosecute has since been extended to 25 years, and now has a special extension for rape and sexual battery cases with DNA evidence.
John Doe #2 is among 114 similar cases where DNA was indicted. Of those, seven have since been identified; three were convicted by judges or juries, two were found not guilty; charges against one were dismissed by a judge.
He is also among 500 men indicted in Cuyahoga County since the rape kit testing project started more than 5 years ago.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine lauded Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty's tactic of aggressively seeking indictments in "John Doe" cases, a practice he encourages other counties and cities to consider using.
A suspicious carjacking
The case assigned to Fifer consisted, at first glance, of a single police report.
A 39-year-old woman said a man ordered her into his car. His hand was wrapped in something that appeared to her to be a gun.
The man drove to a field near East 75th and Rawlings Avenue where she says he raped her.
When the man was distracted, the woman jumped from the car and ran to the nearby Orlando Baking Co. screaming for help.
She left behind a shoe, a jacket and some personal papers.
As Fifer reviewed the details of the crime reported 12 years earlier, she noticed something interesting in police records -– a mention of another crime report.
Fourteen minutes after the 39-year-old woman called Cleveland police, dispatchers got another call.
That call was from a guy who told a dispatcher he was carjacked. He had fallen asleep at a stoplight and woke up to see a man with a gun, he said. The man got into his car with two other people - a man and a woman -- who forced him to drive to a vacant lot, he said.
When the carjacker attempted to drive out of the vacant lot, the car got stuck on a brick retaining wall.
That's where police found it. They took photos. On the ground in the field was some scatted paperwork and the jacket.
The rape case was closed after police couldn't contact the victim. The carjacking case also went unsolved.
For Fifer, the carjacking report held a new importance.
The man who made the report, Fifer thought, might lead them to a serial rapist -– or he might be one.
"It just didn't add up as far as the details in the report. It looked as if he was our suspect, at least to me," Fifer told fellow task force members during a weekly meeting.
Fifer tracked down Jonas Rhodes, the man who made the carjacking report. He was 58 and living on Cleveland's East Side.
Rhodes' DNA was not in state or federal crime databases. He hadn't been arrested or convicted of a felony crime, which requires a swab of genetic material to be collected.
Rhodes' most serious charges locally were for soliciting (he went through a special program in 1992 to have the charges dropped) and having an open container. Other records about his life are sparse, he's been married four times. He was sued twice in cases that involved fast food restaurant chains.
Rhodes allowed Fifer to collect the swab of his DNA, which she sent to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation lab the same day. Three days later, she learned Rhodes was a match to her case. The chances it was someone other than him was rare. Less than one in a trillion chance.
Read the entire story at Cleveland.com