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Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, June 22, 2003

Rape unit reborn out of disgrace

By Craig R. McCoy,
Detectives Pete Langiewicz and Evangeline Cameron (right) were both rookie investigators assigned by then-Police Commissioner John F. Timoney to reopen ignored rape cases in 2000.
APRIL SAUL / Inquirer Staff Photographer

First of two parts.

The police with the Philadelphia Sex Crimes Unit told Katie she'd imagined the whole thing.

They said her friend's father had not molested her during a sleepover in 1996. They sent Katie, 12, on her way.

Years later, the phone rang at Katie's home.

It was the police. They were reopening her case.

Philadelphia police began making hundreds of such calls in 2000. It was an unprecedented step for a big-city police force.

The calls represented a department digging its way out of disgrace. The rape squad's hidden history of burying cases had come to light, and the department was reinvestigating nearly 2,000 rapes and other crimes it had deep-sixed.

For some victims, the calls hit like thunderbolts - with the power to heal.

"I witnessed a transformation that night," Katie's mother said later, describing the call from police. "Katie stated to me, with tears in her eyes, 'They believe me. They finally believe me.' "

The rape squad had begun walking a road of redemption. But for victims and police alike, it has been a difficult journey.

An Inquirer review of the rape squad's turnaround reveals:

A squad that was once among the nation's worst now makes more rape arrests than such larger cities as Los Angeles and Houston. Its rate of solving rapes is the best among America's largest cities.

As the squad prepares to move into its new $2 million headquarters next month, it is a third larger; its investigators are better-trained and more motivated.

But one number surprises the squad commander and victims' advocates alike: The squad classified one in four reports it received last year as something less than a crime. The advocates have seen nothing amiss in the squad's random audits of the cases, but they want to take a closer look at this new data.

For the victims whose past complaints were reinvestigated, not every injustice could be undone. Police were able to solve only a few of these deep-sixed crimes. Plus, the years of delay meant that evidence was lost, witnesses' memories faded - and prosecutors and victims had to settle for less in court.

Katie's attacker, for instance, got probation instead of jail.


Scandal enveloped the Sex Crimes Unit in late 1999 when The Inquirer revealed that the 63-officer squad, understaffed and overwhelmed, had systematically written off thousands of reported attacks as non-crimes ever since its founding in 1981.

In all, the squad wrote off as noncrimes a third of the complaints every year.

To make amends, then-Police Commissioner John F. Timoney ordered the squad in 2000 to reinvestigate 1,822 reports of rape, indecent assault, and other crimes dating back five years.

The review was limited to those years because the statute of limitations had run out on earlier attacks.

Timoney said it was clear that police had treated some past rape victims "at the least improperly, probably unprofessionally, and probably in a god-awful manner."

He dispatched several dozen rookie detectives, fresh from training, on an extraordinary hunt to solve mothballed crimes.

Though some had been street cops for years, they had just earned their detectives' gold shields. The work was frustrating, the atmosphere tense. They worked next to veteran investigators who had dumped the cases in the first place.

For some victims, like Katie, a reopened case meant vindication - an arrest, a conviction.

But others were bitter, wary, or didn't want to disturb old wounds. They wouldn't help.

The cases were tough to begin with. The squad hadn't thrown away the easy ones.

In the end, the rookies made just 62 arrests out of the pool of 1,822 reopened cases.

Of those 62 men, prosecutors have now convicted 32. Another 27 had charges dismissed or withdrawn.One was acquitted. One is a fugitive and one awaits trial on four rapes.

The most recent sentence in a reopened case was handed out Wednesday - jail time already served while awaiting trial - to a man who, at 43, had molested an 8-year-old girl.

Tough sentences have been relatively rare. For some victims, the only satisfaction was hearing their attackers plead guilty or no contest - before receiving probation.

A review of court records generated by the arrests sheds a harsh new light on how the rape squad once handled many cases. From the files tumble harrowing tales of cries for help that went unheard by police.


A week after turning 12, Katie was staying at a friend's house in 1996 when she was jarred awake. Her friend's dad, Modesto Pruna, 37 and drunk, was biting her bottom and pressing himself against her crotch.

Frantic, she pushed him off her and called her parents. Her father, then a police officer, took her right to the Sex Crimes Unit. It was behind brick walls, topped with barbed wire, at the old Frankford Arsenal.

There, the girl's agony grew.

"This almost destroyed her," her mother said in a recent interview. "It wasn't just what Modesto Pruna did. It was what the Philadelphia police did to us."

They didn't believe the child's account.

"They tried to push it at me, that I was just having a dream. I didn't know how to handle it, I said, 'Fine, I was dreaming,' " Katie, now 19, said in an interview.

"I was so young," she said. "I didn't even know what was happening. I wanted it to be over with."

It wasn't. At school, word spread that she was a liar. Depressed, angry at herself, she refused to talk about the attack.

She began cutting herself with razors and scissors. She would eat, but vomit later. She swallowed pills in a suicide attempt.

"Being molested was traumatizing itself," Katie said. "Because I wasn't believed, it never went away."

With a therapist's help, Katie began to improve. Then, in early 2000, the family got a call from Detective Pete Langiewicz.

He was one of the officers newly assigned to sex crimes. Soon, Langiewicz, 41, sat at Katie's kitchen table and listened to her story anew.

"That was when she started finally healing," said her mother. "She felt extremely validated. Finally, justice was done."

Pruna pleaded guilty to misdemeanors - indecent assault and corruption of a minor. His sentence?

Ten years' probation.

"I suffered for so many years," said Katie, now a college freshman. "He got to walk the streets."


The rape squad's new home is almost ready. Next month, the Special Victims Unit, formerly the Sex Crimes Unit, is to move to the first four floors of a Gothic tower at Episcopal Hospital, at Front Street and Lehigh Avenue.

For the first time, victims and suspects will be kept apart, with separate entrances, hallways and bathrooms.

Detectives, now shoehorned desk to desk, will work in semi-private cubicles.

To spare children from repeated questioning, three interview rooms will have one-way mirrors so social workers and prosecutors can look in, just like on Law & Order: SVU.

Visit the old waiting room, and you find a cramped space with a dirty sofa, a TV with a fuzzy picture, litter on the floor and graffiti on the walls. "It's a dungeon," said a sad-looking woman sitting there recently, waiting to report a crime.

The new headquarters has a waiting room just for children and parents. An entire floor is devoted to cases involving minors.

The goal is "a home-type atmosphere," said Rick Tustin, who directs the city's Capital Program Office. Victims are "already traumatized; we're trying to do everything we can to make them feel more at ease."

The squad will have twice as much space; in four years, it has grown from 63 officers to 86.

Some of that growth came after last year's news that overworked officers had not tackled the complaint of one South Philadelphia woman until it was too late - her estranged husband had killed her and her daughter. That spurred Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson to say he hopes to add 20 officers to the squad. He wound up adding 11.

Once a haven for cops with pull, the squad remains a plum job, because beat police officers can switch to plainclothes and become investigators without taking the detective's exam.

But Capt. John Darby, who commands the squad, said office politics no longer influenced appointments. He said commanders interviewed 76 candidates for six recent openings, determined to get the right mix of sensitivity and street-smarts.

Moreover, the squad is no longer staffed only by patrol officers turned investigators. It is half beat cops, half "gold shield" detectives, Darby said.

Also, the department now develops DNA data in each rape. Previously, DNA work was only done in high-profile cases.

The changes are reflected in the squad's statistics:

In 1998, the year before the scandal broke, Philadelphia police arrested 358 rape suspects. Last year, the squad arrested 508 - a 42 percent increase.

In the first three months of 2003, the squad made 217 rape arrests, more than double the same period last year.

"You've got them on a mind-set of closing cases, solving crimes," said Inspector Joseph M. Mooney, whose command includes oversight of the Special Victims Unit. "If you need to work overtime to solve a case, you can."

The new aggressiveness has made defense lawyers grumble.

"It's laughable," said Brian J. McMonagle, who is defending a man arrested by rookie detectives in 2000. "All you have to do is make an allegation of rape and somebody gets locked up in Philadelphia today. We have created a monster here."

Mooney acknowledged that many arrests come down to a victim's word. He said this was unavoidable when victims were attacked in private by relatives or acquaintances.

"We don't arrest people lightly," he said.

In another major change, Timoney also invited women's groups and victims' advocates to examine raw case files, starting with 2000 cases.

For two years, these outsiders have met annually at the Special Victims Unit's headquarters to review each case in which police decided a complainant was lying.

Timoney's decision, attacked by some critics as a capitulation to feminist pressure, remains unprecedented nationally.

Carol Tracy, executive director of the nonprofit Women's Law Project, said the outside scrutiny had paid off.

In last year's review, she said, "we saw just a vast improvement in the quality of the reports, the completeness of investigations."


So cold.

That was how Detective Langiewicz, who caught Katie's attacker, described the cases handed to him and others in the reinvestigations.

It was a hard task, poring over voters' and drivers' records and staking out street corners to find old victims, witnesses and suspects.

"Some people I spoke with didn't want to be bothered," Langiewicz said. " 'Let's leave well enough alone.' "

The caseload was huge.

For a year, the rookies hit the streets trying to find people, sometimes only to discover that old addresses had vanished. "The whole block was gone," recalled Detective Evangeline Cameron, 35.

"There were too many of us to show us what to do," Cameron said during a court hearing. "We basically went from police officer on the street, and we had to kind of find our way."

The rookie detectives also saw, as one prosecutor said in a trial, how "Special Victims really dropped the ball on a lot of cases."

The unit had dumped a 1997 rape after its investigators called the victim a liar, threatened her with arrest on an old drug charge, and demanded she take a lie-detector test.

But police reinvestigated in 2000, arrested her attacker, Harold Strand, now 47, and got him sentenced to up to 23 months in prison.

In a 1996 case, records show, police dumped a sex-abuse complaint - the victim was a 13-year-old boy - even though four months earlier, the suspect had admitted molesting another boy, just 7, in New York City.

The suspect, Lonnie Sweat, now 33, was later targeted by the rookie detectives - and pleaded guilty in the Philadelphia attack. He was sentenced to six to 23 months in jail.

Another 1996 case had been labeled a noncrime even though the initial report said the suspect's three sons, ages 9 to 12, "were observed... with scars and bruises on their entire bodies."

Three years later, the records say, police were called back to that family's Mount Airy home. In 1999, the middle son told them his father had whipped him, leaving "numerous bleeding welts." The father admitted he had hit the boy.

This time, the unit arrested him.

And while awaiting trial, he was arrested again - by the rookies, for the old case.

Authorities eventually dropped the 1999 case, but the father, now 41, pleaded guilty to the earlier beatings.

His sentence: a week in jail, up to six months' house arrest, and three years' probation.

Many of the cases have been resolved by guilty pleas to misdemeanors - with no jail time.

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Mallios, chief of the district attorney's rape unit, said prosecutors had to settle for such pleas.

Mallios said this often reflected "problems of proof" with old cases, the strong hand dealt the accused by past police negligence and delay, and the fact that some victims simply couldn't bear to continue.

"A lot of the victims got justice that they would not otherwise have had," he said. "And the community got protection it otherwise would not have had."

Mallios pointed out that many sex-crime defendants who were spared jail nonetheless had to undergo therapy and monitoring by specially trained probation officers.

At times, reopening cases only provoked another round of heartbreak.

At least two cases were lost after police disclosed that they had tossed out the rape kits with physical evidence of the crime.

One such case involved a man accused of drugging a woman in 1996 and raping her. After a judge acquitted the defendant in 2000, a relative of the victim stood up in court and shouted at the freed man, "When I see you on the street, I'm going to kill you."

Another involved a woman raped in 1995 at age 35 at a playground after she left a bar. The squad initially dumped the case because the woman didn't have a phone, and an investigator said he couldn't find her.

A suspect was finally arrested in 2000 in that case - but then police conceded that the rape kit was gone. They threw it away.

At that time, the crime lab discarded the kits after two years to save storage space. Now it keeps them.

Defense lawyer Scott F. Griffith got the playground rape dismissed. He used the squad's bad history as part of his argument.

The police "should be embarrassed," Griffith told the judge, but his client "shouldn't be forced to defend himself because they are embarrassed."


The case files also reflect dogged work, and notes of grace, by both the rookie detectives and the prosecutors, especially in dealing with the most vulnerable targets of sex crimes: children and teenagers.

These victims figured in most of the reopened cases, as they do in about two-thirds of the unit's caseload.

One young woman testified of repeated rapes by her father, from age 7 to 15. He'd even given her his pills for venereal disease, fearing to take her to a doctor.

The victim hadn't cooperated with police in 1996. A teenager then, she told them she just wanted to leave town and join the Job Corps. Her complaint was classified as a noncrime.

But three years later, the new detectives won her over, and she testified against her father. He received an eight-to-16-year sentence.

At one hearing, a 7-year-old girl froze at the prospect of saying how her father had molested her.

"You don't have to keep looking at him, baby," Assistant District Attorney Kendra McCrae counseled. The girl kept testifying.

The girl's older sister had been raped by the same man. "Go ahead, sweetie," McCrae implored the 11-year-old.

"He would tell me after he's done that if I ever told my mother then he would hurt her when I least expect it and then he will go after me," the girl said.

The suspect, James Franks, now 36, was given the harshest sentence - 15 to 45 years - of anyone in cases made by the new detectives.

Detectives, including Cameron, had learned of these two victims by chance. They picked up fresh reports of these attacks while pursuing a separate case.

Then there was the gentle strategy that Detective Kenneth Roach used in 2000 to help a boy, then 15, recount how his mother's boyfriend had raped him six years earlier.

The city's initial response to that case, in 1995, was mixed. City social workers officially labeled the boyfriend an abuser, but police dropped the case, saying the boy gave them only sketchy details.

Even in 2000, shy and in tears, the boy bolted from the room again and again in his first meeting with the detective.

But then, as the boy said later of Roach and his partner: "They made me tell my story. But I wrote it on paper instead of talking because I couldn't do it - I just don't like saying the words."

In court, the defense suggested the boy was making it all up.

The prosecutor, Christina Lenko, told the judge that the system had let the boy down: "The police didn't do their job in 1995. Unfortunately, perhaps if the police did have the training they have now? They would have dug a little deeper."

She persuaded the judge. The rapist is serving 10 to 20 years.

Lenko says the young victim in that case seems to be putting his life together.

"He is very strong, very insightful," she said. "He went through this process and, luckily for him, it had a good outcome. Hopefully, that will help him."

Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or Inquirer staff writer Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. contributed to this article.
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