Cara Smith, the chief of policy and communications for the Cook County, Ill. Sheriff's department, holds a photo of a rape kit on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013, in Robbins, Ill.
ROBBINS, Ill. — The rape evidence was stored in the police department's musty basement: Brown paper shopping bags, stuffed with sneakers, bras and underpants, jammed on metal shelves. Scattered blood vials and swabs covered with dust and mold — an inventory amassed over more than 25 years.
Cara Smith, a Cook County sheriff's aide, knew something was terribly wrong the moment she saw the jumble, which included 176 rape kits dating back to 1986. Many of these crimes had long been forgotten by everyone except the victims.
Smith began digging into the cases and ultimately came to a disturbing conclusion: In most of the reported rapes, Robbins police had seemingly conducted little or no follow-up despite having crime lab results. And in nearly a third of the cases, police hadn't even submitted physical evidence for analysis.
Those findings posed one daunting question: Is there any way to right the wrongs that, in some cases, go back a generation?
The answer will come from the Cook County sheriff's office, where Smith and investigators have devoted much of the year to reviewing the cases, poring over records, interviewing victims, trying to put together puzzles even when key pieces are missing.
They've encountered frustrations and roadblocks along the way.
In scores of cases, no one can be charged because the statute of limitations has expired. One of the most infuriating, Smith says, involves a man investigators recently interviewed who is suspected of raping a 14-year-old Robbins girl more than 20 years ago.
But there's still hope in dozens more cases, almost all of which have DNA evidence, she says.
The sheriff's office hopes to report its findings early next year, and renew its call for victims to come forward. But any success investigators have is bound is to be modest — and bittersweet.
"We went into this realizing there would be some significant disappointments," Smith says. "Justice is a strange word when we're talking about a sexual assault. It doesn't get wiped away, and they don't get to forget about it. Hopefully, the attention we're paying to these cases, that someone cares about and believes what happened to them — that may be what justice ends up looking like for some of these women."
Does that mean some rapists will never pay for their crimes?
"It's guaranteed," Smith says. "I know their names."
Robbins, a small suburb just south of Chicago, has a history of outsized problems.
The town emerged during the first wave of the Great Migration, when tens of thousands of black Southerners moved north, many settling in the Chicago area.
But as Robbins grew, so did its troubles — crime, corruption and poverty. Today, many of Robbins' 5,400 residents are barely scraping by in a community with few resources and an abundance of abandoned homes and weed-filled lots. Median household income in 2010 was about $22,000, compared with the state average of around $55,000, according to census figures.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart intervened in the Robbins police department last winter after the resignation of the town's police chief following his second drunken driving arrest in less than three years.
With no money and a largely part-time police force, Robbins welcomed help, which included assists with patrols and homicide investigations.
Dart, who was familiar with Robbins' checkered history from his days as a prosecutor, was braced for trouble. But, he says, "we didn't know the magnitude."
The scope became apparent at a town hall meeting in February when residents criticized the police and complained about brazen crimes, including a burglary ring that had been targeting the homes of elderly women while they attended church.
At that meeting, Dart also raised the rape issue, promising to have the untested kits processed, knowing it might help ease local suspicion of authorities.
"Every piece of evidence in there represented a person who was raped and who came for help ... and got nothing," Smith says. "What does that do to you for the rest of your life? Can you trust the police — or not?"
At the heart of this scandal is what the Robbins police did or didn't do — and how to explain it.
"Lack of capacity — that's the best-case scenario," Smith says. "The worst-case scenario? Indifference to the crime."
Dart calls it "raging incompetence, neglect and a lack of concern" and attributes it to several factors: A part-time force (most officers work three days a week). Inadequate training and supervision. And paltry pay. Some officers, he says, earn just $10 an hour.
"To be honest, you get what you pay for," the sheriff says. "... For $10 an hour you can go to a lot of fast-food restaurants."
What makes matters worse is "these issues have been there for decades and decades and decades. It's almost institutionalized," he says. "Have there been all sorts of red flags? Oh, God, please. Absolutely."
Last week, there was more turmoil.
Police Chief Melvin Davis, in office only since June, was told in writing that he was being dismissed as of Nov. 22, according to Smith. During his tenure, Davis had fired more than 20 percent of uniformed officers because, he said, they weren't "cut out for the job."
It wasn't immediately clear whether his firing was connected to the resignation of a part-time police captain, who also left last week, amid charges he misrepresented his credentials. Both had been hired to try to clean up the department. Mayor Tyrone Ward responded to the furor, issuing a press release saying he'd work with Dart but there would be "no takeover" of the Robbins police by the sheriff's office.
In an earlier interview, Davis blamed the problems with the rape cases on a department "mentality of old-school policing," with officers trying to solve crimes by knocking on doors. "They weren't up-to-date on technology," he said. "Some of these cases were solvable if they were just properly trained."
Davis also said he believed many rape investigations were dropped because of insufficient evidence
Sheriff's investigators now have police reports in just 45 rape cases and have interviewed about 10 victims so far. Smith says tracking them down has been very difficult.
One of the few to shed her anonymity is Rosa Pickett.
She approached Dart after the town meeting and said she'd been raped in 1977 — her case was older than those being reviewed.
But she still wanted answers, and asked him: "Why aren't you looking into mine?"
Her assault, she says, occurred Sept. 3, 1977, when she was 17: She was heading to her sister's birthday party when a man grabbed her from behind, choked her with a belt until she temporarily lost consciousness, pummeled her face and raped her. At the hospital, she spoke with a Robbins police officer, who photographed her bruises.
Pickett later described her attacker and was confident of an arrest. "I just knew they're not going to let me down because of the way he beat me," she says.
Pickett, now a 53-year-old grandmother, says she never heard from police again.
The rape, she adds, all but destroyed her.
"At 17, I had plans ... I wanted to do a lot of things with my life," she says. "I wanted to be someone successful ... But after that happened to me and there wasn't nothing done about it ... I got rebellious. I was mean and angry. I did not finish school. I became a bully. I ended up on drugs."
A decade later, while using drugs, she says, something incredible happened: She encountered her attacker at a gathering at a friend's house. She rushed to tell police, who she says informed her it was too late.
Pickett, who says she's been drug free for 20 years, remains angry.
"I felt just totally let down by everybody," she says. "The person that raped me violated my whole life. The police let me down. The village of Robbins let me down."
There is no rape kit or police report documenting Pickett's assault.
But this spring, Smith searched a police department file cabinet and found a 3-by-5 card notification card with Pickett's name and date of her assault.
"That," Pickett says, "was the only proof that I got raped on the day."
There was evidence in another brutal rape — a 14-year-old assaulted in 1991 — a case that Smith says epitomizes the wider injustices in this investigation.
The girl was walking home after basketball practice when she was grabbed. As she struggled with her attacker; they fell over a guard rail into a creek where the man pushed her face into the water, trying to drown her. She survived by playing dead.
The state crime lab found potential DNA evidence, Smith says, and told Robbins police, but there's no indication they pursued that lead. Two detectives assigned to the case were later imprisoned for taking bribes from a drug dealer, crimes unrelated to the rape.
This spring, the victim, now a 36-year-old mother, contacted Smith, who had a private lab re-analyze the evidence. Within 24 hours, she says, there was a match to a suspect in a national DNA database who'd served 14 years for armed robbery. Investigators put a flag on his file to alert them if he was arrested.
When the man was charged with domestic battery in Nebraska this fall, sheriff's investigators drove there. During questioning, Smith says, he acknowledged a sexual encounter in Robbins around that time, claimed the girl was perhaps 16 and said when she screamed, "You're raping me," he ran away. He refused to say more.
It's too late to prosecute, one more frustration to Smith.
"It's one thing if you have a cold case, if you don't know who the bad guy is," she says. "It's entirely another to know exactly who he is, exactly where he is and not be able to give justice to this woman."
Darlene Zohfeld says she, too, was wronged by police.
Her 2002 rape, she says, happened after she left a party and discovered her car had been towed. She says a man at a gas station volunteered to drive her home, but took her to a wooded area where he assaulted her.
After a hospital exam, she says she returned to her friend's house where another woman told her she'd actually met that man at the same gas station, where he'd tried to pick her up. He'd given that woman his name and phone number.
When Zohfeld gave those details to police, she said they knew the man because he worked for a towing company that did business with the village. When he was brought in for questioning, her then-husband, Bruce, was surprised to see him chatting amiably with an officer.
That officer, Bruce Zohfeld recalls, then returned to his then-wife, and became adversarial saying: "'You realize what you're accusing this man of? He could get 20 to 30 years in prison. How would you feel about taking a lie detector test?' She immediately said she would." (Such a demand violates state law.)
Bruce Zohfeld says police tried to suggest it was consensual sex, but he pointed out his then-wife had been half-naked, bruised and screaming as she ran for help.
"That doesn't sound consensual," he told police.
"Everybody's got their story," he says the officer responded.
"It wasn't just that it wasn't investigated," Zohfeld says. "They protected a rapist. They knew who he was and just let him go."
This summer, DNA evidence from Zohfeld's case matched another reported rape that occurred months later just a few miles away, Smith says. The circumstances were eerily similar: A woman waiting at a bus stop accepted a ride by a man driving the same distinctive truck.
Investigators are checking reports the man is dead. But Smith says if that proves true, it can still bring Zohfeld peace:
"She at least gets to know he's not out there attacking other people and she gets to know someone did give a damn about her."
Despite the many setbacks, Smith remains hopeful there will be prosecutions when the case review is completed.
But, she concedes, "any success we'll have will pale in comparison to the harm done to the community."
Early on, Sheriff Dart consulted with lawyers, judges and others hoping to find a legal way around the statute of limitations that would allow old cases to be prosecuted.
"We're still trying," he says. "But have our hopes dimmed? Yeah. I don't want to mislead people. ... There's no easy path right now.''"
For now, Dart says he can only express regrets and tell victims: "I'm sorry as a society we let you down."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer and can be reached at email@example.com