Thirty years ago, police had few investigative tools for tracking down the perpetrators of sexual assaults, particularly stranger rapes when a victim may never see her assailant's face. So when a victim was seen at a hospital, the sexual assault exam was really only able to determine that there had been recent sexual activity and, if the examiner was lucky enough to find the right trace evidence, the blood group of the assailant. Although hospitals took fluid samples, if no suspect was found in the case, the samples were essentially useless, and thus trashed.
Except, that is, at Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC), where one physician saved years of sexual assault evidence that is now being used to put rapists behind bars.
Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker seems an unlikely hero in the war against sexual assault. The pathologist, now semi-retired at age 78, is a consummate scientist who speaks about his work at GBMC with unaffected pragmatism, his deep voice belying a hint of an Austrian accent. Yet it is due to his labors that these cold cases are now being solved.
After working as a state medical examiner in Baltimore City in the 1960's, Breitenecker switched to hospital pathology. Aided by the rising feminist movement and increasing activism on behalf of rape victims, in 1967 he founded the Rape Care Center at GBMC, the precursor to today's S.A.F.E. Program (Sexual Assault Forensic Examination), where he applied to rape cases the knowledge of evidence collection he learned working city homicides.
"In previous years, alleged rape victims were taken to the University of Maryland, where junior personnel examined them after sometimes eight or 10 or 12 hours wait," Breitenecker recalls. "I thought this was atrocious. Women deserved better care than that."
At the GBMC center, women were examined expeditiously in a quiet room off the emergency room and samples were taken, including seminal fluid and toxicology. During his tenure from 1975 to 1998, Breitenecker was involved in the care of more than 2,000 alleged rape victims. But in the 1970's and 80's, prior to the existence of a DNA database, much of that information was essentially useless except perhaps to exclude a specific suspect. Yet somehow, Breitenecker knew the database technology was coming.
"Thirty years ago, if someone looked like a suspect, the victim or a witness needed to identify that person," says Sgt. Rose Brady, supervisor of the Baltimore County Special Victim Unit (SVU) at police headquarters in Towson. "And if they couldn't, without scientific evidence, they were released without charge. With stranger rapes especially, the suspects are covered up, it happens often in the dead of night, and they never see a face, so it would be virtually impossible to pick someone out. These were tough cases back then and a lot of cases remained open because there wasn't scientific evidence."
Luckily, in the state of Maryland, there is no statute of limitations on rape. Still, faced with seemingly useless forensic samples, most hospitals across the country discarded the evidence. Except Breitenecker. "My feeling was that since we had that sample, which is the last chance to have something from someone other than the victim, I'd rather preserve it for possible future reference."
Breitenecker explains that he was somewhat influenced by Paul Kirk, a professor at the University of California, Berkley who proposed a theory in the 1960's that blood could one day be tied back to a specific person. "I thought he was nutty, myself," says Breitenecker. "But a part of me thought, 'What if he's right?'
"I thought maybe some day, some way, we would be able to test for more specific markers," Breitenecker continues. So he started storing his samples, just a few drops of fluid put on slides and placed into a freezer in the lab at GBMC, unbeknownst to anyone but a few lab techs and pretty much forgotten. Until the 1990's, that is, when DNA evidence took off and Breitenecker's frozen stash came to the attention of the crime lab.
"When we talked to the crime lab, they were busy with new cases, but they worked up many of the old ones and put them through the national database and all of a sudden, some cases had positive hits," says Breitenecker. "This is how the cold cases became hot."
Sgt. Brady is an officer with more than 30 years on the job (four with SVU). When the old evidence came to light in about 2004, Brady knew right away that the secret cache in the GBMC deep freeze was a gold mine.
"I was ecstatic," she recalls. "I had been in homicide, so I knew the capability of DNA and I knew we would be clearing a lot of cases, actually locking people up and making them pay for this."
To date, materials from GBMC have been used to solve 51 cases and have resulted in 33 arrests (The arrest to case ratio indicating that several cases were perpetrated by serial rapists). For example, in July, police announced the arrest of Edward Leon Medley for the 1980 rape of a Woodlawn woman. Medley was serving a sentence at the Roxbury Correctional Institute in Hagerstown for another rape committed in 2002, when the old evidence pointed the finger at him for the 1980 assault. Evidence from GBMC will be crucial in the trial (set to begin in October) of Alphonso William Hill who was charged with six rapes that took place between 1978 and 1989. (Additional evidence implicates Hill in perhaps another 20 rapes as well.)
Revisiting the wound that is an old sexual assault is not easy. Brady says that when they contact victims regarding their cold cases, they are shocked and upset all over again. There are a lot of tears. Yet most appreciate the closure, even after all these years.
"The one that sticks in my mind was a victim of a serial rapist we've put away. She said that for the past 24 years she's been looking over her shoulder," says Brady. "She said that, 'When a man walked by, I never knew if that was the man who raped me.' I can't even fathom being scared to death for 24 years."
There was a luncheon in Breitenecker's honor in May and the press is suddenly knocking on his door, yet he is matter-of-fact about the media maelstrom his labors have caused. "I am not a prosecutor. I am an independent scientific observer," he explains. "I thought to do the best job I could do under the circumstances and not expect rewards."
Col. Terrence Sheridan, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, who first met Breitenecker in the 1960's and was at the May luncheon to provide a citation for Breitenecker's work, is not surprised. "He is very self-assured and knowledgeable. He's not a man to be swayed by anything."
Breitenecker is also not surprised that he has heard little from the women who are benefiting from his foresight. After all, most women simply want to forget. He is satisfied to know that his work is leading to arrests, and that his legacy will be far-reaching in the form of the physician residents he trained over the years and the protocols he put in place for sexual assault examination.
"Good care is given [to sexual assault victims] at GBMC, compassionate care, and that's a great improvement," he explains. GBMC currently handles all sexual assault cases in persons over age 13 in Baltimore County. "The satisfaction comes from setting up a system for the county that is well-functioning. The rape care has improved greatly because of the success of the system."
The protocol Breitenecker initiated at GBMC for sexual assault examinations has been modified and is widely used. And the Rape Care Center he founded as a tiny room off the ER has grown to a private suite complete with a high-tech exam room, a room for victims to shower and change into fresh, donated clothing, and private rooms for counseling or sitting with a friend or family member. The suite is staffed by certified S.A.F.E. nurses. All the evidence that is collected is sent to the Baltimore County Crime Lab for analysis.
While the process may be more high-tech and efficient than it was in Breitenecker's time, the impetus behind the process is unchanged. "Every exam you do you do for a good purpose—to help solve a crime," he says. "And that it turned out to be this successful is a pleasant surprise."