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Christina Palazzolo, a ViCAP analyst, presents at a training session. (

Editor’s Note: In this series “Rape Kits in America,” Forensic Magazine dives into the issues within the pile of sexual-assault evidence that has been stored on crime lab and police department shelves for decades, even as some serial offenders go free. Part One looked at the forensic details within rape kits. Part Two assessed how there exists a “backlog-on-backlog” when CODIS hits weren’t followed. Part Three looks at a new partnership between the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program and the federal grant program called the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

Something drives him: his urges and his brutal rage, his travels between states, and the bodies he has left along his trail. But the means to his violent ends have varied, with at least three dead but five left alive. Dragging a woman from her bed, beating her and strangling her to death, then dumping her body in the apartment’s bathtub. Eight years after that, executing a woman and her 12-year-old daughter in their farmhouse, but not before sexually assaulting the child. Two hours after that, confronting a woman at the entrance to her mobile home—and during a struggle, shooting her in the shoulder before fleeing in a full-size van. The rape of a child that never seemed to fit anywhere—until the DNA hit.

The four attacks occurred in three different states—South Carolina, Missouri, and Tennessee—and appeared to be different in nature, at least at first glance. But forensic evidence has linked the series of assaults to a single killer-rapist. The FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or ViCAP, has an alert out for unsolved homicides from 1990 to the present in seven states.

Artist's sketch of the unidentified serial rapist and killer sought by law enforcement for crimes in South Carolina, Missouri and Tennessee. Investigators tied the single perpetrator to multiple crimes through a DNA hit. (Image: Courtesy of ViCAP)

But it’s not just homicides that may connect the forensic dots for investigators. Rape kits, the trove of hundreds of thousands pieces of evidence that have remained untested or uninvestigated, may hold the key to tracking some of the most elusive and violent predators at large. A new partnership between ViCAP and the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) proposes to bring together a new vantage point for seeking out serial rapists—and serial killers. All 41 SAKI sites are currently encouraged to enter these cases into ViCAP. But starting later this year the Bureau of Justice Assistance intends to require the kits be entered into ViCAP.

Analysts say that they could have breakthroughs in cases nationwide, with a class of mobile predator that doesn’t stop at state lines—or at normal limits to depravity.

“That’s the whole point of ViCAP, is linking cases,” said Christina Palazzolo, an FBI crime analyst at ViCAP. “It’s not only our analysis and connecting the dots, we also have algorithms running on our database. With every connection made, we make better connections going forward. It will all lead to better leads we send out.”

“We’re a logical next step in the investigation,” added Kevin Fitzsimmons, supervisory crime analyst at ViCAP.  “Although we cover more than just sex assaults, it doesn’t mean the offenders stop at just sexual assaults. It opens it up to the rest of our database here, as well.”

A computer screen displaying ViCAP software. (Photo: Courtesy of the FBI)

LINKING CRIMES

ViCAP was started in 1985 at Quantico, with the intention of using computer databases to link crimes and criminal behaviors, creating an investigative information net to identify seemingly random patterns and help catch the most dangerous and mobile of predators. More than 85,000 cases have been submitted to its ever-increasing database that now has algorithms to spot serial offenders amid a seemingly disparate load of crimes spanning the entire U.S.

The system has had mixed reviews in the ensuing three decades. Critics have pointed to its limitations, the biggest of which is the relative participation rate. By some accounts, only 1,400 of roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country take part in the program. Entering the cases into ViCAP is time-consuming, and has never caught on in most agencies across the country—because it’s not mandatory. So state and local agencies may not have entered in key cases that could crack serial crimes across the country—or even in neighboring communities. At the same time, Canada’s counterpart to the U.S. program—called the Violent Criminal Linkage Analysis System, or ViCLAS—has claimed thousands of linkages between unsolved crimes, mostly because its use is mandatory. ViCAP has no such legislative support.

“That’s one of the challenges we’ve always faced is, ViCAP is a voluntary database,” said Fitzsimmons. “It’s not mandatory for law enforcement to submit cases into the system.”

But ViCAP could be significantly strengthened by just getting these 41 SAKI sites online and in the fold—potentially doubling the database with 100,000 more cases, officials said.

ViCAP has also never been able to offer back-end assistance, said Palazzolo. While the analysts may provide five good leads to a local agency, it may have represented the end of the line for an investigation because of the potential workload. But that could change with the benefits of federal funding.

“Now, with money coming in from SAKI, they’ll be able to either create a new position or otherwise able to follow up on those leads,” she said.

Police Chief Tom Kelly, of Apache Junction, Arizona. Kelly spent time as an FBI Police Executive Fellow and was assigned to ViCAP. He spent a lot of time working with the ViCAP team on cases and traveling the country to promote the program. (Photo: Courtesy of ViCAP)

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER

Cases and kits from the SAKI sites, with financial assistance from the grant funds, would conceivably add more dots on the map, thereby revealing patterns of killers and rapists through motive and method, investigators told Forensic Magazine.

“A lot of these offenders, we see an arc, where they start with sexual assaults and end up with homicides—or sometimes they start off intending to kill, and for whatever reason that one victim survives,” said Palazzolo. “Being able to link these different types of cases, I think we’ll definitely start seeing some of those leaps between case types, and connections made between them.

“Now we could have a live witness we can talk to, whereas before we only had deceased victims—it could definitely lead to a break in the case,” she added.

DNA hits would often link cases obviously and quickly, be they homicides or rapes, or both. But a large number of rape kits do not turn up DNA profiles, as reported by Forensic Magazine in Part One of this series. ViCAP could link the signatures of such attacks, unearthing the blueprint, even potentially a map of offenders—even without DNA.

“That’s the case where ViCAP could really step in. Whether we have DNA or not, if we don’t know who the offender is, let’s go back to the database and see where similar M.O. is displayed—or if we do have a known offender, and their DNA is not in CODIS, or situations like that—we can really help inform some of these cases,” said Palazzolo.

The circumstances of the rape—the type of crime, the modus operandi, the descriptions of an attacker and their behaviors—could help create linkages even without the all-important genetic profile, said Jim Markey, a retired sergeant at the Phoenix Police Department, who now specializes in backlog and cold-case investigations, and works regularly with SAKI.

“Only about 50 percent of the kits actually have some sort of profile,” said Markey. “You don’t have anything in the sexual assault kit—what can you do with case? There’s a lot you can do with that case. Just because you didn’t get a CODIS hit, doesn’t mean you close that case.”

The Detroit backlog alone hints at the potential of identifying the sexually-motivated criminals from within the rape-kit backlog, said Angela Williamson, senior policy advisor for forensics at the U.S. Office for Justice Programs, who heads SAKI. From the years of testing, 800 serial rapists were connected by DNA from attacks in the Motor City to crimes in 40 states.

“A lot of these offenders are serial, and very mobile,” said Williamson. “These guys don’t just stay in their own neighborhood. We know these offenders are going to be in multiple SAKI jurisdictions in multiple states. ViCAP is the next step—it’s going to help put the pieces together.”

ViCAP’s Highway Serial Killer Initiative, for instance, could benefit greatly. Most of the suspects sought by the Initiative are highly-mobile persons, like truck drivers, who target prostitutes. The sexual and violent motives therefore could create linkages that were totally unknown prior to the added caseload, the analysts said.  

“Many of the cases rolling out the Highway Serial Killings Initiative are frequently related to prostitution, that turns into a sexual assault, which in turn becomes more violent, and turns into some sort of a killing,” said Fitzsimmons. “You end up with a body on the side of the road that’s in your area, you don’t necessarily know to look outside of your county, your state. Where do you look next? We can help bring that national view—as in, here are similar cases, two states over.”

A series of ViCAP flyers. (Image: Courtesy of Google)

A VIOLENT KILLER ON THE LOOSE

In the South, the killer and rapist may potentially be trackable through the new program. A singled backlogged rape kit “discovered” this year at a SAKI site has further triangulated his travels.

His trail first began with the “blitz” attack of Genevieve Zitricki, 28, in her apartment the night of April 4, 1990 in Greenville, S.C. The offender broke in through a patio glass door. He also left clues, including DNA and a threatening message on the bathroom mirror nearest the tub where Zitricki’s body was left.

The murder of Sherri Scherer and her daughter Megan, which included the sexual assault of the 12-year-old girl, occurred at their Portageville, Mo. farmhouse on March 28, 1998. Both mother and daughter were shot with a .22-caliber gun. Investigators believe the killer used a ruse to trick the victims into gaining access inside.

Just two hours and 40 miles down the road, in Dyersburg, Tenn., the man failed to kill or rape the woman in her mobile home, struggling with her when she refused to allow him inside where children were. He shot through the door—but this time only wounded the woman in the arm. Instead, he fled in his conversion van.

The links have been enough to start the portrait of a serial killer. The firearms analysis of the two attacks in 1998 linked them together. The double homicide in Missouri was linked to the South Carolina murder through DNA.

Already SAKI has helped ViCAP make an additional DNA linkage. The Memphis rape kit from a 14-year-old victim in 1997 has pulled up the same DNA profile. The particulars of the case are familiar: the rapist knocked on the door, got inside, threatened three women and a girl with a gun, then bound them. He sexually assaulted the youngest among them. This time, however, no shots were fired, and all were left alive.

More kits in the backlog—in Memphis or elsewhere—could provide the crucial clue that breaks open the case, and brings a killer to justice, according to the officials involved.

“We’re looking at potentially 100,000 cases hopefully being added into ViCAP,” said Williamson, the SAKI head. “I think we’re going to see some real interesting trends—what these guys have been doing, and what they’re continuing to do.”

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