INVESTIGATION: Half of Previously Untested Duluth Sexual Assault Kits Find DNA Matches
Minor Waits Seven Years To Bring Man Who Sexually Assaulted Her To Justice
DULUTH, Minn –
For years Duluth has carried a bad reputation when it comes to investigations into sexual assaults.
Back in 2015 a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension audit showed the city had nearly 600 kits, the highest number of sexual assault evidence kits in the state, sitting on the police department shelves that were never sent into the crime lab for DNA testing.
The old kits have now been tested thanks to a federal grant called the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), and now we’re learning more about the reasons hundreds of kits were never submitted for testing in the first place.
FOX 21 requested information about two of the cases in which suspects were prosecuted and plead guilty following the results of the previously untested DNA tests. In one case, a 15-year-old minor waited seven years to bring her assaulter to justice.
In 2010 that 15 year-old teenage girl and her friend made their way through downtown Duluth on foot after running away from Woodland Hills, a juvenile justice facility.
According to court documents, as they were looking for a phone to call for a ride home the girls ran into a man who offered them a cigarette and invited them inside to “warm up.”
Once inside they met another man who identified himself as “Curt” and both men talked about what would happen next, announcing to the girls which ones the men “would have” before separating them.
Once alone with the man who called himself “Curt” the victim reported to police that he “scooted close” and began to “kiss her face and neck.” She told him “no,” and “she did not want to do this,” but Curt “pushed her back into the couch and laid on top of her,” then forced intercourse.
The teenager later reported the crime to staff at Woodland Hills. She wanted to pursue charges so she completed the medical testing for sexual assault DNA kit at St. Mary’s Hospital.
In a 2010 interview with a Duluth police investigator she reported what happened, even a general location up the street from the Kozy Bar, but soon after the investigation was suspended until the case was revisited in 2016 thanks to a federal grant.
This month, we sat down with current Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, to review the case file. Tusken never personally worked on the case but did look through department files to explain the investigation’s process.
“We launched an investigation into the assault, and reached a point where we didn’t have any further info we could follow-up on, and the case was suspended at that point,” said Tusken. “If there’s a location there’s an opportunity to do a follow-up and see if they may have lived there. We don’t have records to show a canvas was done.”
On the evidence shelf is where the 15 year’s sexual assault kit test sat from 2010 to 2016, the DNA inside was never sent in for testing following a rule carried out by Duluth Police.
“Our organization as a rule when we didn’t have a named suspect, we did not submit kits in that time frame to the BCA for testing,” said Tusken.
That’s a policy that Jude Foster of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault says doesn’t make much sense.
“I don’t think that’s common,” said Foster. “I was a sexual assault advocate doing direct services in Hennepin County for 13 years. That certainly wasn’t true. We had a much higher rate of stranger assaults. That’s surprising to me.”
Foster says it’s unlikely other cities in Minnesota followed a rule not to test kits that didn’t have a suspect’s name.
In 2015 Duluth was identified as the Police Department in Minnesota holding onto the highest number of untested kits, nearly 600.
In almost all of those, 454, of the victims did file a police report and wanted to pursue charges but their kits never left the evidence room to get DNA testing.
Foster believes there’s a reason why cases like this one didn’t get sent in.
“It definitely comes down to bias, we all have bias and law enforcement is not excluded,” said Foster. “I think this would have been a really difficult case. We’re talking about a young person, a native youth involved in the criminal justice system. There’s already bias there. They might not have believed the victim.”
That’s where the SAKI grant comes in, over the course of three years Duluth has received $2 million dollars from the federal government to pay for a partnership and staffing for PAVSA, Duluth Police, and the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office to get through that large amount of kits.
The grant also allows financial support for the Minnesota BCA to transition to the ‘Direct to DNA’ testing method, a method Chief Mike Tusken asked the BCA to adopt so that they could get kits tested faster.
The grant meant all Duluth kits got sent in for testing, including the 15-year-old victim’s kit from 2010, which got a hit. The DNA in the kit matched the DNA of 43-year-old Curtis Guy Marrkula, who would have been 36 when he sexually assaulted the 15 year old. His DNA was already in the system even before the reported assault and he was already behind bars on other charges.
In fact he was a familiar face to Duluth Police. They featured Markkula as their “Property Crimes Wanted Person of the Week,” in 2014 for probation violations.
All that attention gave them a tip to his whereabouts then, he’s been in prison since.
When confronted with this sexual assault case, he plead guilty to fourth degree criminal sexual conduct and was sentenced to additional time in prison.
Through our investigation we discovered just how many cases potentially could end up solvable, there are many DNA matches in the previously untested kits.
As of the first of November 2018, DNA profiles have been detected in 203 kits and of those, 114, more than half match people who are already in the system. Investigators believe it’s likely that number will increase.
There is no statute of limitations for these cases, and so far with the new DNA results, Duluth Police have been able to send 17 cases to the prosecutor’s office for charges. However five of those cases, 30 percent, St. Louis County has chosen not to prosecute.
“What that means is when we apply the standard, we do not believe that there is a reasonable likelihood of success at trial,” said St. Louis County Prosecutor Nate Stumme.
With a large amount of DNA matches coming weekly it is crunch time both investigators, and prosecutors have a lot of work to bring justice to cases, sometimes decades old.
“It’s a bit overwhelming to be honest,” said Stumme. “We’ve had so many positive results that give us good strong evidence to proceed with cases, but we’re challenged with a lack of resources that will still always be a problem. There are limited resources, and so we, we’re going to have many, many cases that need investigation.”
PAVSA, Duluth Police and the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office are now working together to rebuild trust.
“Our policies today are more restrictive than legislation, we learned from it. And we’ll be better moving forward and will not repeat the mistakes of our past,” said Tusken.
All kits eligible for testing from 2016, 2017, and so far in 2018, have been submitted. DPD’s goal is to submit kits for testing to the MN BCA within 30 days of pick-up from the hospital. A new state statute requires them to be submitted for testing within 60 days.
There are unsubmitted anonymous kits in DPD’s Property and Evidence unit, and they will remain inventoried until the survivors come forward. Survivors can reach out on the Betty Skye Line by phone (218-730-5449) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org if they have questions about whether or not their kit was tested. More information can be found here.