Sunday, December 19, 1999
First of three parts: The Rape Squad Files
How police failed the victims
A 7-year-old 'knew who did it'
By Mark Fazlollah,
Mary Williams, whose child was raped in 1996, is upset that the attacker is still free. (Tom Gralish/Inquirer Staff Photographer)
and Craig R. McCoy
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
Seven-year-old Jesine Williams was playing in the snow on a January day in 1996 when a man dragged her into his car on a North Philadelphia street and drove to Fairmount Park.
Near the East Park Reservoir, he pulled over and raped the girl. Then he pushed her out of the car and drove off.
Jesine staggered to Ridge Avenue near 33d Street, a shabby strip of convenience stores and boarded-up buildings, and told a stranger what had happened. The woman took her to the home of a neighbor, who called 911.
Police were on the way.
Yet Jesine's ordeal was only beginning.
What unfolded next was a chain of blunders so egregious that by the Police Department's own account, Jesine was traumatized all over again by people who were supposed to help her - and find her assailant. They did neither.
Her story, never before made public, is a chilling example of the mishandling of sexual-assault cases by Philadelphia police.
Consider these facts:
The patrol officer who responded to the 911 call questioned the sobbing girl harshly, then wrote up the incident as a "lost child," making no mention of the kidnapping and rape, a departmental inquiry found.
The officer, Sheila Pressley, did not take Jesine to a hospital for examination. She did not secure the crime scene or search for evidence. She did not alert the sex-crimes unit. Instead, she put Jesine into a squad car, drove her home and - finding no one there - left her with a next-door neighbor.
After the girl's mother got home and learned what had happened, Jesine was taken to a hospital. An exam verified that she had been raped. The sex-crimes unit dispatched an investigator.
Police were on the case once again. And once again, they failed Jesine.
The lead investigator, Roscoe Cofield, never contacted the man identified by the girl and her family as the rapist. Cofield went to the man's address, left a business card, and told his mother that police wanted to talk to him. Hearing nothing, Cofield wrapped up his investigation several weeks later.
"I believe the guy did it," Cofield said in a recent interview. "I never could catch up with him. His mom said she couldn't catch up with him."
Reporters located the man last month at the same address Cofield was given in 1996. The man, whose name is being withheld by The Inquirer because he has not been charged, said he had no involvement in the rape.
No one has ever been arrested or charged in the case.
Pressley, interviewed later by the Internal Affairs Bureau, explained her actions by saying she did not know Jesine had been raped. The child never mentioned it, Pressley said. A disciplinary board reviewed the evidence and rejected that explanation.
It said Pressley's actions constituted "neglect of duty" and suspended her without pay for six days. She is appealing.
Cofield, 56, who retired last year after 10 years with the sex-crimes unit, said a heavy workload prevented him from doing a more thorough investigation in Jesine's case - and in many others.
"If I really could have done more investigation, more people would have gotten locked up," he said.
Jesine's mother, Mary Williams, said the girl, now 11, saw a therapist for two years after the rape and still has nightmares about it. Williams said it worried and angered her that the man responsible was still free.
"I want the police to investigate."
Recent Inquirer articles have scrutinized the Police Department's history of manipulating statistics on sexual assault and minimizing or burying women's complaints.
In this article and others over the next two days, The Inquirer tells the stories of three victims - a child, a teenager, and a young woman traumatized by sexual assaults - and what it was like for them to deal with a police department that seemed not to care.
Jesine's story was reconstructed from interviews with the girl's family, Cofield and others, and from a review of confidential police documents, including records of the internal inquiry into Pressley's conduct.
The case shows that problems sometimes begin before cases reached the rape squad - with the patrol officers who respond to 911 calls.
Those officers make the first evaluation of an incident and are responsible for alerting the sex-crimes unit when someone reports a sexual assault. Patrol officers have sometimes downgraded such assaults to lesser crimes or written them off as noncrimes. The motives vary, police veterans say. Officers might suspect a complainant is lying or might feel pressure to keep down the crime tally in their districts.
The departmental review in Jesine's case offered no explanation for Pressley's actions. Through her lawyer, Pressley declined to be interviewed for this article.
The Williams case also demonstrates the inadequacy of many of the investigations done by the sex-crimes unit, whose members say they struggle with an overwhelming workload and pressure from commanders to close cases quickly.
This year, the unit's 56 investigators are on track to handle 5,000 cases. That is 89 per investigator - 20 times the typical caseload for homicide detectives.
The Williams family agreed to speak with reporters about the rape and asked that the victim be identified as Jesine, her middle name. They said they want the story told.
It was Jan. 12, 1996, four days after a massive snowstorm. Mary Williams needed groceries.
She and her three children live in North Philadelphia. Around 12:30 p.m. that day, she dropped the children off at her sister's house, near Seventh Street and Allegheny Avenue, in the Fairhill section.
A 15-year-old niece baby-sat while Williams and her sister went shopping.
Shortly after the two women left, Jesine went outside to play in the snow. She was walking along Allegheny Avenue when a man forced her into a car. He drove about two miles west to the East Park Reservoir, between Kelly Drive and 33d Street. He parked, ripped Jesine's pants down, and raped the 7-year-old. Then he pushed her out of the car and left.
Jesine stumbled through the snow to Ridge Avenue, where she found a woman on the street and told her that she had been raped. The woman, identified in police documents only as Allison, took Jesine to the home of her friend Dorthea Arrington.
"I sat the little girl in my kitchen, and she was crying and shaking. The little girl told me that she was raped and she knew who did it," Arrington told internal affairs investigators two months later.
Arrington, 32, whose own daughter is two years younger than Jesine, called 911. A police dispatcher put the call on the radio as a rape, requiring an urgent, "Priority One," response.
Pressley, then 35 and a member of the force for 21/2 years, went to Arrington's home. Jesine told the officer that "she was touched by a man who snatched her in front of the house and took her to the park," Arrington told investigators.
"The officer was having a bad day, the way she talked to the little girl, like she was an adult. She kept asking the little girl where the man touched her and what did he do. The little girl just kept crying."
Pressley, questioned by investigators later, said Jesine never told her she had been sexually assaulted.
"The child stood there and said that she was lost," Pressley said, according to a transcript of her interview.
Pressley called her supervisor at the 22d District and told him that the rape call had turned out to be a case of a lost child. The supervisor told Pressley to take Jesine home, and she did.
Finding no one there, Pressley asked a next-door neighbor, Mary Edmonds, to watch Jesine until her mother got home.
Edmonds later told investigators that "the child was shivering and cold-looking."
Pressley wrote a note to Jesine's mother on a police incident-report form and put it in the Williamses' mailbox. "Child was lost. She is with Mrs. Mary Edmonds," it said.
Soon after Pressley left, Mary Williams arrived home in a panic. The niece who was baby-sitting had paged her to report that Jesine was missing. Williams found her daughter at Edmonds' house.
"I brought her home and she told me what happened," Williams said in an interview. "We found blood."
Williams works seven days a week as a collection specialist, persuading people to pay old debts. She doesn't accept "No" easily. She was determined to get police to start investigating and looking for the rapist. Immediately.
Williams worked the phones and in short order "got everybody under the sun at my house."
An officer took Jesine to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, where doctors found dried blood and semen during their examination. The hospital saved the fluid samples and the girl's underwear for the rape investigation.
Cofield, the sex-crimes officer, was sent to the hospital to interview Jesine - who again described how the man abducted, undressed and assaulted her.
"I was raped," Jesine told internal investigators, who talked to her as part of their inquiry. "The man laid me down and pulled my pants down."
Jesine and family members quickly pointed Cofield to a suspect: a North Philadelphia man who had once dated Jesine's aunt.
According to Cofield's confidential investigative report, the aunt - Mary Williams' sister - said that Jesine had given her a description of the rapist that matched the North Philadelphia man.
The niece who had been baby-sitting told Cofield that the man had stopped by her house that day.
Jesine herself identified the rapist by a nickname - the same one used by the North Philadelphia man.
Jesine's family gave Cofield the man's full name and address and said he was an auto mechanic who occasionally worked in the neighborhood. Cofield paid a call at the man's home, leaving his business card.
On Feb. 3, 1996, the rape squad prepared a photo array. It included a mug shot of the suspect, taken during a previous arrest on unrelated charges, and photographs of other men with similar builds and complexions.
Jesine viewed the photos 22 days after the attack. Cofield said that he would have liked to arrange the lineup sooner, while the girl's memory was still fresh, but that he was "working five or six cases at the same time."
Jesine picked out someone who resembled the North Philadelphia man but who had been in jail at the time of the rape.
"My case fell through when she couldn't identify the guy," Cofield said. "You have to have real good probable cause" to make an arrest.
Cofield made no further efforts to find and question the man. He referred Jesine's case to the rape squad's victim assistance officer. The hospital samples were sent to the crime laboratory for storage. Cofield was done with his investigation.
The Inquirer discussed Jesine's case with F. D. Jordan, a former Kansas City, Mo., rape squad detective and author of a manual for rape investigators. He said it was unusual for police to close such an investigation without interviewing the prime suspect.
Jordan, now a consultant, said victims, especially children, are often unable to pick suspects out of photo lineups. That should not have stopped Cofield's investigation, he said.
Police should have brought the suspect in for questioning to see whether he could account for his whereabouts at the time of the rape, Jordan said, and to see whether he would provide a blood sample for DNA testing. Such a sample could be tested against the fluids recovered after the rape to see whether the DNA matched.
Jordan said that in many cases, suspects voluntarily give a sample. If the North Philadelphia man had balked, police should have asked the District Attorney's Office to obtain a search warrant compelling him to do so.
"If the suspect won't come in, investigators should present the information to the D.A. and ask, 'Do you feel we've got enough to get a search warrant?'" Jordan said. "You never know unless you ask."
Cofield said he did not try to get a search warrant because he was convinced he did not have enough evidence.
The Inquirer contacted the man by using the address that Jesine's family gave Cofield in 1996. A reporter left a business card with the man's mother, and he returned the call the same day.
In a lengthy interview, the man, who was convicted in 1990 of selling crack cocaine, denied any involvement in the rape and said that "the little girl kept lying on a whole lot of people."
He said he had dated Jesine's aunt and had visited the house the day that Jesine and her brothers were there. But he said he arrived in the afternoon, after Jesine had been abducted.
At the time of the rape, he said, he was at a supermarket with two women, both of whom could vouch for his whereabouts.
"You know I'm not BS'ing you," he said. "What criminal do you know that's calling you back?"
After wrapping up his investigation, Cofield missed several opportunities to catch up with the man and question him.
On Oct. 15, 1996 - nine months after Jesine was assaulted - the man was arrested on charges of driving a stolen car. Court records show that he appeared in court seven times between his arrest and May 1997, when the charges were dismissed.
Jordan, the rape specialist, said it is a standard investigative practice to check arrest records periodically to see whether a suspect wanted for questioning had been picked up on other charges.
Cofield said he was too busy for that.
"You had too many cases. The workload is crazy. Nobody has time to do that."
Internal affairs began investigating after Mary Williams filed a complaint against Pressley on Jan. 16, 1996 - four days after the rape. The investigation was limited to the patrol officer's actions. The rape squad's handling of the case has never come under departmental scrutiny.
After a four-month inquiry, investigators concluded that Pressley was not truthful in saying she had not known that Jesine was sexually assaulted.
In a formal "request for disciplinary action," Capt. Thomas Walsh, then commander of the 22d District, cited the medical evidence of rape and the account given by Arrington, "a disinterested person" who "had nothing to gain or lose."
The complaint against Pressley cited a series of missteps:
"You failed to conduct a thorough investigation, seek hospitalization, protect a crime scene, safeguard evidence, notify a supervisor and the appropriate investigative unit after being informed . . . that a 7-year-old child had been raped."
Pressley contested that finding and took the case to the Police Board of Inquiry, which holds trial-like hearings. She was represented by a lawyer supplied by the Fraternal Order of Police. The board upheld the complaint in July 1996 and imposed the six-day suspension.
Pressley, now assigned to desk duty, filed for arbitration in an effort to reverse the ruling, a process that can take several years. She is still awaiting a hearing.
Mary Williams said Jesine has seen her assailant walking in the neighborhood three times since the rape. Williams said she called police each time, but the man had left by the time officers arrived.
"How is she going to feel safe," Williams asked, "if he's walking past the house?"
Tomorrow: A jogger attacked in Fairmount Park in 1995 took the initiative to find her assailant.
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