In episode 5, we hear about what happens with the DNA sample police collected of the man Linda identified as her attacker through an internet search. We will also take a look at how another police department handled the destruction of more than 300 sexual assault kits.
READ THE TRANSCRIPT:
EPISODE 5: A PARALLEL ROAD
Editor’s note: This podcast includes adult language and themes. It also contains descriptions about sexual violence. Please be advised.
(Beginning of Introduction)
SARAH DELIA: Time slows down when you’re waiting for good news. It’s the same thing when you’ve been in the car too long trying to get home. Everyone and everything is annoyingly slow. All you want is to get where you need to be.
DELIA (to Captain Melanie Peacock): Do you think she’s owed an apology at all?
DELIA: We ended last episode with Linda getting news that Detective Christina Cougill obtained a cheek swab from the man Linda identified as her attacker. Now she has to sit and wait for lab results.
PEACOCK: Well, I think we apologize for how things have panned out, and it’s so regrettable. And you know, I mean we, we empathize with her so much of what she’s gone through, but unfortunately it’s not something we can correct. It’s nothing that we caused. It’s just situational.
DELIA: And listeners, we are building to something. But I think to fully understand and appreciate what we’re driving toward, we have to look at a road that runs parallel to the winding road Linda is on. It’s not the same, but it has many similar twists and turns. I hate to make you wait, but this parallel path is important.
And in order to do it justice, I have to reintroduce you to someone.
HAROLD MEDLOCK: My name is Harold Medlock. H-A-R-O-L-D, Medlock, M-E-D-L-O-C-K.
DELIA: You may remember Harold Medlock from Episode 2, when we discussed the victim-centric policing philosophy. He was with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department for more than two decades. The reason he left the department was for a career move.
HAROLD MEDLOCK: “I wanted to see if I could accomplish things as a chief of police, but I knew that if I was going to be a chief in my lifetime, I would have to seek employment elsewhere.”
DELIA: So in 2013, he packed up his bags and moved three hours east to Fayetteville, North Carolina. The city of over 200,000 is right next to the Army base Fort Bragg. He retired from Fayetteville on Jan. 1, 2017. He’s now in his early 60s and lives in Charlotte.
If there’s one thing you should remember about Medlock, it’s that he’s all about relationships.
MEDLOCK: Yeah, I’m from the South. I am that person that, you know, is Mr. Congeniality. I like to talk with folks. I’m going to try to build that relationship with you before we get down to business.
DELIA: All relationships are important, he says. The relationship a detective has with a victim. The relationship the police department has with the community. The relationship a police officer has with a neighboring city.
I think the best way to let you in on what type of person Medlock is, is a story he shared with us. It takes place during his tenure in Fayetteville. It was 2015, and he responded to the scene of a murder. The victim’s sister was also at the scene and she was, understandably, very emotional.
MEDLOCK: That murder happened to have happened on my birthday. So, you know, that morning we get the call, and I’m out there and, and so the detectives work it.
DELIA: A year went by, and the case, as Medlock would say, is still a whodunit. So the next year on his birthday, May 1, he decided to make a phone call to the victim’s sister.
MEDLOCK: She said, ‘Why are you calling me?’ I said because this happened on my birthday, and I said, ‘For the rest of my life, this will have happened on my birthday.’ And I said, ‘You and I are connected forever.’ And she was not the easiest person to deal with, but when we made that connection, the relationship with the detectives started to change. Did I have to do that? Was that a requirement? No, but it was something in me. Again, this is me, Harold Medlock. I may be completely outside the lines. If I am, I am. You can’t experience those things and not have them affect you personally, but also then be willing to make that connection with that victim or that victim’s family.
DELIA: It was a good thing Medlock had that perspective. A surprising discovery would require the police to focus their energy on creating and repairing the connections they had with victims in a way no one saw coming.
From WFAE in Charlotte, I’m Sarah Delia. This is She Says.
(end of introduction)
DELIA: Medlock didn’t know it, but he was inheriting a problem within the Fayetteville Police Department when he took the job as chief of police in 2013. He couldn’t have known because no one found it until Lieutenant John Somerindyke brought it to his attention. Somerindyke has spent his entire 26-year career with the Fayetteville Police Department. He’s now the head of the special victims unit, which handles sexual assault cases.
In early 2015, Somerindyke was reviewing sexual assault cases to see if there were enough to form a cold-case unit. He sees one case with a CODIS hit that had never been acted on.
SOMERINDYKE: I’m immediately excited. I know that, hey, this is one we can jump on now and probably make an arrest now, but when I go to look for the evidence for the case, I find the evidence had been disposed of at some point in the past. So I was reviewing other cases that were also I felt were workable unsolved cases and was seeing this trend where, hey, you know the evidence — most notably the sexual assault kits — had been disposed of.
DELIA: So Somerindyke tells Chief Medlock about what he was finding, and Medlock orders an audit. It takes two months, and the department finds they’d destroyed 333 kits from 1995 to 2008.
They didn’t do anything illegal. Other departments were also destroying kits to free up space in the property and evidence rooms. Somerindyke says it was a bad practice.
For sure, there’s never a good time to discover that the police department you work for destroyed hundreds of sexual assault kits, but Somerindyke says the timing was especially bad for the Fayetteville PD in mid-2015. The department had just been awarded a grant that would help speed up the testing of backlogged sexual assault kits. Then a week later, the news broke about the destroyed sexual assault kits.
SOMERINDYKE: Kind of like a punch in the gut. It kind of took the wind out of my sails a little bit, but you know we all knew it’s the right thing to do and we all knew if we didn’t do it, it was going to come out eventually anyway.
DELIA: So the Fayetteville Police Department didn’t hide from the story — quite the opposite. First, Chief Medlock held a press conference to let the public know what they found.
MEDLOCK (from 2015 press conference): I’m distraught. I’m frustrated. I’m angry that truly one person may not get justice as a result of our practices.
DELIA: Then, the agency, with the help of the local Rape Crisis Center, attempted to call every victim whose kit was destroyed and do something police rarely do: apologize.
Somerindyke made some of those apology phone calls. He says they weren’t easy calls to make. People had reactions all across the board, but this was one he remembers well.
SOMERINDYKE: After I notified her and then apologized to her, she immediately said, ‘You know my faith in the Fayetteville Police Department is restored.’ You know that that’s a huge thing to say for a lady who’s, you know, we didn’t do that good a job back 10-15 years ago. And now she’s probably harbored that resentment for years, and all of a sudden, it’s released just because of a simple apology from a, you know, from a cop.
DELIA: The choice to apologize was one Medlock calls a ‘professional decision based on personal beliefs.’ It was important to apologize to both the victims and the community, he said, even though the destruction of this evidence happened before he accepted the job in Fayetteville.
MEDLOCK: I believe when I took the job in Fayetteville that I became accountable for everything that had occurred prior to my arrival there. It would be very unfair for me to simply say, ‘Not my time. We found this mistake. Let’s move on.’ The other thing that drove my decision to apologize was my belief that there was, when those horrific crimes occurred, a lot of pain, a lot of anguish not just for the victim, but for their families. And for me to come out and acknowledge that we had found this terrible mistake and not apologize for the mistake to the victims, I think would have been a slap in their face again.
DELIA: Medlock said it made the relationships between the police and those victims stronger. He said apologizing gave the department some of its credibility back. Yes, people were mad initially — very mad — but he believes the community saw that the police were trying to do the right thing and that he was empathizing with the victims.
MEDLOCK: But at the end of the day if that had been one of my family members who had who had been sexually assaulted or raped, I would have expected someone to apologize for that mistake.
DELIA: But to be clear, this was not the easy path for Medlock to take.
DELIA (to Medlock): What was the backlash like for you personally?
MEDLOCK: There were some of my peers who were not very accepting of my decision. There were some within my city government that weren’t accepting of the position and the public acknowledgment. There’s always the fear from the lawyers that you’re going to be sued for something, and my theory has always been we’re going to be sued anyway. So let’s just get it out in the open and let the legal system run its course. I can’t be worried as the head of an agency for trying to do the right thing and then worry about being sued. Within the profession, I received some criticism because folks thought that they would now be, other agencies would now be scrutinized. I had some police chiefs and some sheriffs reach out to me and say, you know, I’ve opened a can of worms, and I should have just acknowledged to those victims individually the mistake. We, in our business and law enforcement — I think everyone tries to be professional, tries to do the right thing, but we make mistakes. And I think when we make a mistake we need to acknowledge it, and we need to move on.
DELIA: Medlock says neither he nor Fayetteville got sued. Police say it took two years to try and contact all the victims. In total, they were able to contact 79 percent of the victims. Remember, some of these cases were more than 10 years old. Some people had moved out of the area and couldn’t be found; others had passed away.
MEDLOCK: Believe it or not, cops still have hearts. They didn’t take them away when we put the badge on, but I think sometimes it’s hard for us to admit a mistake because then we’re afraid that folks will, our communities will have less confidence or less trust in us.
DELIA: At the same time the police were apologizing for the mistake, they were also participating in a two-year-long review with the Police Executive Research Forum, a research and public policy organization. The review specifically looked at how the Fayetteville Police Department and three others across the country investigated and handled sexual assault cases. The study resulted in some changes at the FPD.
The department modified its sexual assault procedures in 2016 to specify that detectives needed to have a victim-centered approach when investigating these cases: things like non-judgmental, opened-ended interview questions and reminding officers that a victim’s memory can be impacted by the traumatic event; also, to not discount a victim’s credibility if some details about the incident change. And it directs officers to always take a reported crime seriously — no matter how much time has passed since the incident.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department doesn’t have this level of detail spelled out for how it investigates or treats adult victims of sexual assault. CMPD’s policy spells out some principles for how all victims of crimes should be treated: with compassion, fairness, dignity and respect. In the early 2000s, detectives working sexual assault cases created a guide for investigations. They direct detectives to not put their opinion in a victim’s statement. The rest of the guide is mostly focused on how and what kind of evidence the police should collect and how to make sure victims are safe and where to refer them to.
Medlock’s road wasn’t easy, but it was an empathetic path. And it led to needed change. In Linda’s case, CMPD clearly empathizes with Linda’s situation. But is there empathy in regard to how she feels like she was treated by the police?
It’s time to rejoin her after this quick break. I’m Sarah Delia. This is She Says.
DELIA: I told you earlier that the road Harold Medlock was on ran parallel to Linda’s. Remember, she was assaulted in June 2015, which was just a few months before Medlock gave that press conference in Fayetteville letting the public know about the 333 destroyed sexual assault kits. As Medlock was looking into ways to transform the Fayetteville Police Department, Linda was just starting to learn how to navigate her relationship with the CMPD.
From our first step together, I know you’ve had a question in your head that’s probably grown by now: Is the man Linda identified Mr. X? If it’s not him, then who assaulted her? To Linda, whether it’s him or not is, well, everything. This investigation has become her life. It’s what she thinks about and worries over day in and day out, which brings us to March 2018.
It’s been 988 days since her assault or two years, eight months and 13 days. I know this because Linda is counting.
And all that time has added up to a voicemail from Detective Christina Cougill.
COUGILL (voicemail left for Linda): But I wanted to let you know the DNA came back, and I signed warrants this morning, and I’m putting a request in to have somebody go and pick him up.
DELIA: The DNA profile found in Linda’s kit matches the DNA swab Detective Cougill took from the man Linda identified from an internet search she did almost two and a half years ago. The detective got that swab when the suspect was in court on unrelated charges.
I spoke to Linda after she got the call about the match.
DELIA: How are you feeling right now?
LINDA: It’s kind of surreal. I don’t — I’m like, I’m — I don’t quite know yet. Like, I’m really excited and I’m happy to hear that. I mean, I just, I don’t know yet. I don’t know. I’m probably not the best person to interview right now. I’m speechless. I really am. Here we go. I just got to let it sink in a little bit, I guess.
DELIA: It’s easy to get swept up in this news. Police say there is now DNA evidence linking the man Linda says is her attacker to the actual assault. But to be clear, this doesn’t conclusively prove that he sexually assaulted her. That’s for a jury to decide.
A few days later, he’s arrested. He’s charged with three counts of first-degree forcible sexual offense and one count of assault by strangulation. A sexual assault becomes first degree when the crime involves a weapon, and it can mean a harsher penalty if there is a conviction.
I spoke to Linda the day of his arrest.
LINDA: It feels good, but it’s bittersweet because the whole circumstance is really sad. I think I feel better now from a mental and emotional perspective. I feel better now than I have in a really long time because there were so many what-ifs in my mind.
DELIA: The same morning the man Linda identified as her attacker was arrested, we had an in-person interview with Captain Melanie Peacock to talk about Linda’s case. This interview had been in the works for a while, but the cosmic irony of our sit-down taking place the same day the suspect was arrested was not lost on me.
After we were buzzed in, we walked down the long hallway to the pressroom. It’s a room usually packed with reporters and cameras and can be a little cramped. But that day it felt a little empty. There were only four people in the room. She Says reporter Alex Olgin, CMPD Public Affairs Director Rob Tufano and Captain Melanie Peacock.
You’ve heard bits and pieces of this conversation throughout this season, but now, it’s time to share more.
I started by asking Peacock about the Google search Linda did. First, I wanted to make sure the lab never gave the suspect’s name to CMPD. Peacock confirmed that that was true. Linda provided the name to CMPD through her internet search.
DELIA (to Peacock): If she had not done the Google research and provided that name, would we be here today? Would he be arrested today?
PEACOCK: Probably not. It’s hard to say. I mean she, her providing that information was critical, but unfortunately it does not give us probable cause to charge him just based on that.
DELIA: Which is what Cougill told Linda several times. Peacock goes on to say they had to wait for the DNA evidence to come back so they could build a case and that doesn’t happen overnight because of the backlog. And as we know by now, even when the DNA hit comes back, there’s still an issue, and Cougill has to rely on the internet search.
DELIA (to Peacock): It feels like the victim kind of cracked the case in this instance.
PEACOCK: Yes. And like I said, this is — the situation is — so unfortunate. I have never seen this happen before in my time in investigations. Half of my career is in investigations, and I’ve never seen this situation happen before. It’s so regrettable, and it’s so unfortunate, but it’s not anything that the detectives did wrong. It’s just the circumstances — the way they worked out.
DELIA: When Detectives Cougill and Banner tell Linda in the June 23, 2017, conversation it’s not him, they didn’t do anything wrong. They’re going off the facts, Peacock says. And she doesn’t find anything wrong with how the detectives spoke to Linda.
DELIA (to Peacock): The way in which the detectives speak to the victim, do you find any problems or do you wish they would have spoken to her in a different way in any of the tapes that you reviewed?
PEACOCK: Not at all. I think our detectives have an obligation to be matter of fact and to explain the circumstances and also to give the victim, in any case, a good idea of what to expect because there’s a whole big difference between identifying a suspect, then making an arrest and then getting a successful prosecution. Those are all different hurdles. They have their own barriers. So they’re simply trying to lay out the whole picture to let her know what to expect, and I think we have an obligation to do that with victims.
DELIA: There’s a piece of Detective Cougill’s conversation with Linda from November 2017 that has always stood out to me. It’s from that interview we played last week, although we haven’t shared this piece of audio with you yet.
At one point, Cougill starts to walk Linda through what the process would be like if an arrest was ever made in her case.
COUGILL: If I were able to arrest him, and I would put the file together, everything that I have and send it. The [District Attorney] and I would meet and go over everything, and then they would be your point of contact until trial.
DELIA: Cougill tells Linda if the DNA matches, it will be very hard for him to deny that he was involved.
COUGILL: So he’s already said he doesn’t know who you are. He already, so…
LINDA: Well, yeah.
COUGILL: If he doesn’t know who you are, then how did his DNA get…
COUGILL: Inside your kit.
LINDA: So right there…
COUGILL: So to me, he would have to take a plea. I mean that would be our ultimate. If you go a trial, you’re taking a huge chance of him being found not guilty.
LINDA: So, then, OK, yeah. Alright, gotcha. You’d rather him plea?
COUGILL: I would. It opens up so much stuff to you.
LINDA: That’s true.
COUGILL: That’s what people don’t understand. But it’s totally up to you. It’s you and the DA’s decision, not mine.
“What we do is lay out the picture of what’s ahead and let the victim decide what they want to do. I think we have an obligation to tell them what they’re in for.” – Melanie Peacock
DELIA: What Cougill said here is that she would want a plea deal. If Linda went to trial, it would, quote, ‘open so much stuff to you. That’s what people don’t understand.’
I wanted to know what Captain Peacock’s reaction was to that portion of the audio. Was she concerned that that kind of language could dissuade Linda from certain legal options?
Captain Peacock said what the detective was doing was letting Linda know there was a hard road ahead and to make her aware of it.
PEACOCK: What we do is lay out the picture of what’s ahead and let the victim decide what they want to do. I think we have an obligation to tell them what they’re in for. If we don’t, then they’re going to be caught off guard when something goes to trial, and it’s not how they expected it to be.
DELIA: Other law enforcement officials we’ve spoken to have pointed out that it’s important that the victim understands what could happen if an arrest is made and the potential legal options but that there’s a difference between explaining how the process works and talking in the first person about what you would do.
One of the people we spoke to was George Erwin Jr. He’s the director of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police. Erwin was a sheriff in Henderson County in western North Carolina from 1994 to 2006. To be clear, Erwin is not commenting on Linda’s case.
He says detectives should stay focused only on investigating the crime. He also says when a detective tells a victim how difficult a trial could be or that a plea deal would be ideal, it could discourage that victim from following through on charges.
ERWIN: In my personal opinion? It definitely could. The officer, again, is to investigate the crime. It’s up to victim services individuals, counselors and the district attorney to address the other issues. It’s not up to that officer to make a determination whether somebody ought to take a plea deal, accept a plea, or this is what they’re going to put you through. Those things, the victim is prepped for court by the district attorney and victims service professionals — not the officer.
One of the last questions I got to ask during our 26-minute interview with Captain Peacock was this:
“It’s not up to that officer to make a determination whether somebody ought to take a plea deal, accept a plea, or this is what they’re going to put you through.” – George Erwin Jr.
DELIA (to Peacock): Do you think she’s owed an apology at all?
PEACOCK: Well, I think we apologize for how things have panned out, and it’s so regrettable. And you know, I mean, we empathize with her so much of what she’s gone through, but unfortunately it’s not something we can correct. It’s not something that we caused. It’s just situational, and the best thing I think we can do at this point is just help her move forward, either through, you know, resources and advocacy — and keeping her apprised of what’s to come just as the detective tried to do throughout the whole case. We try to let our victims know exactly what to expect, exactly what’s to come, so they’re not hit with any surprises, and we’ll continue to do that throughout the process.
DELIA: I recently asked Linda the same question.
DELIA (to Linda): Do you feel like you are owed an apology by the police or anyone in particular?
LINDA: Well, I mean, I’m glad that you asked that question. I do feel like I’m owed an apology.
DELIA: What do you think, like if you did get a phone call from her, like what do you think that would do for you? Like, how would that help?
LINDA: I worked with Cougill a lot, and that — that would mean a whole lot to me. It would just mean a lot to me. And I can’t say that I haven’t been thinking about her since all of this came out because it makes me sad. I guess I had more — you know I had a relationship with her more than anybody there. So yeah, it would mean a lot to hear that from her, but I don’t I don’t anticipate talking to her.
“I’m glad that you asked that question. I do feel like I’m owed an apology.” – Linda
DELIA: The words from police are very carefully chosen. They apologize for Linda’s situation and say it’s regrettable. The situation they apologize for is this bizarre sequence of events that led to the arrest of the man Linda believes attacked her in 2015. According to Linda, the situation she would like an apology for is the way she was treated and spoken to by police.
There are two words that would have been easy for Harold Medlock to avoid saying when it was brought to his attention that 333 rape kits were destroyed before he even took the job as chief of police in Fayetteville. He could have described it as a regrettable situation and left it there.
But he chose to say two words to victims and the public even though the damage was done from 1995 to 2008, when he was three hours away serving with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
I’m sorry. Two words that say a lot.
The man Linda identified through her internet search in 2015 came back as a DNA match in 2018. He was arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree forcible sexual offense and one count of assault by strangulation. After his arrest, he was incarcerated at the Mecklenburg County Jail.
And it’s important to note that when someone is arrested for any crime, they have the right to know who has accused them of that crime. Sexual assault crimes are no different.
Like I said before, this investigation has become Linda’s life. So when the man she believes is her attacker has a bond hearing, she goes. She sits in the very back of the courtroom with her husband. I was there.
PROSECUTOR (in court): The defendant’s up for bond hearing. He’s charged with first-degree rape and assault by strangulation. I did pass up the warrant affidavit, which has most of the facts, I think. I just want to add two things. I’m not sure if this information was included in there…
DELIA: And I saw the defendant and Linda lock eyes. She later told me it was important to her that she not be the first to look away.
For a little over two weeks, Linda feels for the most part a sense of ease, like she can catch her breath. And then she gets a call.
VINE MESSAGE: This message is from the Mecklenburg County Vine’s service. Please listen carefully. You may want to have a pen and paper handy. You are registered with us to receive updates about an offender whose last name is…
DELIA: The last name and first name of the man Linda identified as her attacker are said here. Linda had signed up for this VINE service when he was arrested. It stands for “Victim Information Notification Everyday.” It’s a free service anyone can sign up for so they can be notified as soon possible when an inmate’s status changes. This was the message to let her know he was able to post bail and was no longer incarcerated.
VINE MESSAGE: I’m calling to tell you that there has been a change in this offender’s status. If you have any concerns about your immediate safety, contact your local law enforcement agency, or if you have an emergency, call 911.”
Since her assault in 2015, Linda has had many fears. Fear that her case wasn’t being taken seriously, the fear that nothing was being done in the investigation, the fear that no one would be brought to justice. But now, she has a new fear. The man she believes is the person who assaulted her is out, and now, he knows who she is.
I’m Sarah Delia.
Next time on She Says:
We want to hear from you. What questions do you have about Linda’s case? What do you want to know about making this podcast? In an upcoming episode, we’re going to answer your questions. But we need to hear from you first. You can write us at [email protected] or leave us a voicemail at 704-448-6511. You don’t have to leave your name, but if you do leave us a voicemail, please know your voice may be part of something featured on our website, on another episode or possibly the radio. Your deadline is end of day Monday, July 2, 2018. For more information visit wfae.org/shesays.
She Says is written, produced and reported by Sarah Delia. Our editor is Greg Collard. Joni Deutsch is our producer. Alex Olgin is our reporter. She co-wrote this episode. Music is provided by Pachyderm Music Lab. Keep the conversation going on Twitter using the hashtag #WFAESheSays. You can tweet at Sarah Delia directly @SarahWFAE. If you want next week’s episode in your feed as soon as it comes out, make sure to subscribe to She Says on NPR One, Apple Podcasts or wherever you find podcasts. You can find more information about the podcast at WFAE.org/shesays.