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ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS Cara Smith, the chief of policy and communications for the Cook County, Ill. Sheriff's department, stands in Robbins, Ill., on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013, at the site of an alleged rape. DNA collected in that 1991 case recently matched a convicted felon -- but he could not be arrested because Robbins police hadn't submitted the evidence in a timely fashion to the state crime lab. The rape kit in that case is one of nearly 200 in Robbins that Sheriff's investigators found that were never tested or, if they were, were never investigated. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
Will probe bring justice in Illinois town’s rape scandal?
First Published Nov 23 2013 07:02 pm • Last Updated Nov 23 2013 09:37 pm

Robbins, Ill. • The rape evidence was stored in the police department’s musty basement: brown paper shopping bags, stuffed with sneakers, bras and underpants, jammed on metal shelves. Scattered blood vials and swabs covered with dust and mold — an inventory amassed over more than 25 years.

Cara Smith, a Cook County sheriff’s aide, knew something was terribly wrong the moment she saw the jumble, which included 176 rape kits dating back to 1986. Many of these crimes had long been forgotten by everyone except the victims.

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Smith began digging into the cases and ultimately came to a disturbing conclusion: In most of the reported rapes, Robbins police had seemingly conducted little or no follow-up despite having crime lab results. And in nearly a third of the cases, police hadn’t even submitted physical evidence for analysis.

Those findings posed one daunting question: Is there any way to right the wrongs that, in some cases, go back a generation?

The answer will come from the Cook County sheriff’s office, where Smith and investigators have devoted much of the year to reviewing the cases, poring over records, interviewing victims, trying to put together puzzles even when key pieces are missing.

They have encountered frustrations and roadblocks along the way.

In scores of cases, no one can be charged because the statute of limitations has expired. One of the most infuriating, Smith says, involves a man investigators recently interviewed who is suspected of raping a 14-year-old Robbins girl more than 20 years ago.

But there is still hope in dozens more cases, almost all of which have DNA evidence, she says.

The sheriff’s office hopes to report its findings early next year, and renew its call for victims to come forward. But any success investigators have is bound is to be modest — and bittersweet.

"We went into this realizing there would be some significant disappointments," Smith says. "Justice is a strange word when we’re talking about a sexual assault. It doesn’t get wiped away, and they don’t get to forget about it. Hopefully, the attention we’re paying to these cases, that someone cares about and believes what happened to them — that may be what justice ends up looking like for some of these women."


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Does that mean some rapists will never pay for their crimes?

"It’s guaranteed," Smith says. "I know their names."

———

Robbins, a small suburb just south of Chicago, has a history of outsized problems.

The town emerged during the first wave of the Great Migration, when tens of thousands of black Southerners moved north, many settling in the Chicago area.

But as Robbins grew, so did its troubles — crime, corruption and poverty. Today, many of Robbins’ 5,400 residents are barely scraping by in a community with few resources and an abundance of abandoned homes and weed-filled lots. Median household income in 2010 was about $22,000, compared with the state average of around $55,000, according to census figures.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart intervened in the Robbins police department last winter after the resignation of the town’s police chief following his second drunken driving arrest in less than three years.

With no money and a largely part-time police force, Robbins welcomed help, which included assists with patrols and homicide investigations.

Dart, who was familiar with Robbins’ checkered history from his days as a prosecutor, was braced for trouble. But, he says, "we didn’t know the magnitude."

The scope became apparent at a town hall meeting in February when residents criticized the police and complained about brazen crimes, including a burglary ring that had been targeting the homes of elderly women while they attended church.

At that meeting, Dart also raised the rape issue, promising to have the untested kits processed, knowing it might help ease local suspicion of authorities.

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