Robert Gehrke: This Utah woman sought justice for victims of rape. Now it’s up to us to continue the cause.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Sexual Assault Kit Initiative) Krystal Hazlett, grant manager and site coordinator for Utah Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, was a strong advocate for rape victims in the state. She died July 19 at the age of 42.

As frustratingly strange as it seems, there was a time just a few years ago when some of the best evidence in roughly 2,000 rapes sat untested in evidence rooms around the state.

For weeks, months, years, these rape kits gathered dust while the unknown perpetrators wandered free.

Julie Valentine of Wasatch Forensic Nurses told a legislative committee in 2017 that one county in Southern Utah had submitted just 4% of its rape kits for processing.

Atop of the unimaginable trauma of the attack, add the incomprehensible insult that law enforcement couldn’t be bothered to make processing these kits a priority.

That changed, in large part to the efforts of a group of women — Rep. Angela Romero who sponsored legislation and got funding to begin processing the backlog of kits; Valentine, whose research helped build the case for the value of such work; and Krystal Hazlett, who for the past several years had been the grant manager and site coordinator for the Utah Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI).

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Thanks to their effort and the work of others, along with additional funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, Utah is on course to clear out its backlog of rape kits in September.

Hazlett won’t be there to mark the milestone. She died in her sleep unexpectedly last week at the age of 42.

“Krystal was a huge force for good,” Valentine told me Wednesday. “She was always there, wanting to be a voice for the underdog, a voice for justice, a voice for those who had not been heard. She put her all into it every day.”

What came of all those kits that Hazlett helped to make sure got tested?

Through the end of June, 4,841 previously untested kits had been submitted; 2,594 DNA profiles had been uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database; and 1,057 suspects were identified, including 257 serial offenders.

One of those kits belonged to Alyson Ainscough, who was drugged and attacked in 2007. For a decade that kit wasn’t processed, but when it finally was, the DNA was a match.

Her attacker was identified and charged with rape in 2018 but, because part of the kit had been compromised, prosecutors agreed to a plea deal and four months ago he was sentenced to a year in jail.

She credits the SAKI office for getting her kit tested and, after it was processed, she said Hazlett helped connect her with victim resources and counseling.

“There was absolutely no way they would have located him had they not had that DNA evidence, and my kit sat on a shelf for almost 10 years,” said Ainscough, who told me she was disappointed at the light sentence her assailant received, but is glad she can “close that chapter of my life.”

“I don’t need to carry the worry anymore,” she said. “Now it’s more, how do I reconcile this happening to me and go on with my life. We have closure to the case, how do I move forward?”

Ainscough is one of many who are getting the opportunity to move forward thanks to Hazlett and the SAKI team, like the woman who prosecutors say was raped while she was unconscious in 2006; or the 16-year-old who was abducted and raped in 2006 and whose attackers were identified a decade later.

“I’ve certainly seen the power of what a kit can do that is properly collected and processed,” said Susan Chasson with Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Especially in cases where it’s a stranger assault where the victim doesn’t know the person who attacked her, that DNA can make all the difference in the world.”

But it’s not just about locking people up — although that’s important. It’s a message that these attacks are taken seriously, that the survivors willing to be subjected to the invasive gathering of evidence are believed and respected. They are important.

On top of coordinating the rape kit processing, Hazlett oversaw a grant to train sexual assault teams across the state, aimed at trying to build a seamless system, from law enforcement, to health care providers, to prosecutors and victim advocates.

A product of that work is that, where once survivors had no idea what happened to their kits after an attack, now they can go online and track the status in real time.

“One of the things that Krystal was very good at was putting the survivor first,” Chasson said. “That was her biggest strength and always her No. 1 motivation.”

Hazlett was, to be sure, one member of a team that has reshaped how Utah treats victims of sexual violence, a transformation that others will now build upon.

“She made a huge impact on the state that most people will never know of,” Valentine said, “and it’s not just the people who are living here right now, it’s the people who will live here in the future.”