Pima County law officials hope to investigate and prosecute more unsolved sexual assault cases and provide additional victim support with a $2 million federal grant.
The Pima County Attorney’s Office announced the award from the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday. The money will be shared by the County Attorney’s Office, the Tucson Police Department and the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.
The funds will support a joint project titled “Out of the Shadows: Justice for Unsolved Sexual Assault Case Victims.” The project’s goal is to create a countywide, collaborative response to sexual assault.
Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said the project will be victim-centered.
“Holding these offenders accountable is extremely important not only for the victims to get closure and to feel safe, but also for the community,” she said during a Tuesday news conference at the Pima County Legal Services Building.
About $800,000 will go to the Police Department, where two cold-case detectives will be hired to investigate cases, said Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus. Some of the department’s funds will also be used for further testing on rape kits.
Having more resources focused on cold cases will allow other detectives to keep up with incoming sexual assault cases, Magnus said.
While the department was able to use a $1 million grant in 2015 to test all its backlogged rape kits, sexual assault reports are constant, he said.
“We’ve made sexual assault cases one of our highest priorities,” Magnus said. “A priority which fortunately we share with our (county) prosecutor’s office.”
Ten years ago, LaWall learned the county had a backlog of 2,000 untested sexual assault kits. Since then, the police and sheriff’s departments have worked with her office to reduce that backlog, LaWall said, adding that testing a rape kit costs at least $500.
The Sheriff’s Department has a backlog of about 465 rape kits, half of which are being tested through the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier.
With the grant, the Sheriff’s Department will be able to test all untested sexual assault kits and upload DNA results to national databases.
“This grant will make a difference,” Napier said. “It will result in bringing perpetrators to justice and reducing further victimization in Pima County.”
The Sheriff’s Department will also use some of the grant money to add one cold-case detective to its staff while the Pima County Attorney’s Office will hire an additional prosecutor to handle special victim cases.
Alan Goodwin, the special victims bureau chief of the Pima County Attorney’s Office, said when the county initially received a $1 million grant in 2015, he was skeptical of the idea that they needed to test all rape kits, when some tests wouldn’t lead to new information.
“DNA may not be particularly useful in an isolated case if you view that case in a vacuum,” Goodwin said. “But what it enables us to do is to link cases together. It enables us to find those sex offenders who are truly predatory in their nature.”
Magnus and Goodwin used Nathan Loebe’s case as an example of how helpful rape kits and the $1 million grant in 2015 were in prosecuting a serial rapist.
In May, Loebe was sentenced to 274 years in prison for rape after he was convicted in February of 12 counts of sexual assault, five counts of kidnapping, three counts of stalking and one count of attempted sexual assault.
Several women were victims of Loebe’s crimes between 2003 and 2015, but their cases went unsolved until 2017, when police and prosecutors were able to build a case against him using DNA evidence.
Along with investigating sexual assault cold cases and prosecuting perpetrators, the county will use the grant to hire two victim advocates at the County Attorney’s Office, LaWall said.
Advocates will facilitate communication between victims and detectives.
They will also work with victims to provide information about their case and provide them with crisis intervention.