The Orange County District Attorney’s Office says it has successfully cleared a 30-year backlog of untested rape kits which they hope could bring justice to hundreds victims.
Orange County had 6,480 sexual assault kits in its inventory. Of those, 3,791, many dating back several decades, were untested.
The DA’s office said it has been working for several years to address the issues of the unsubmitted rape kits that were submitted through various law enforcement agencies in the county. Through a $1.86 million grant from the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, the DA’s office was able to establish the Orange County Sexual Assault Forensic Endeavor, aka, OC SAFE, to collect and inventory thousands of sexual assault kits.
In 2016, the program began evaluating the kits for testing and found that about 1,700 were eligible to be tested by the Orange County Crime Lab. In 2020, additional grant money made it possible to send some of the untested kits to an outside lab to alleviate the backup at the county’s crime lab.
The kits were tested in order of the likelihood of criminal charges being filed, the DA’s office said.
Hundreds of new DNA profiles have since been uploaded to the FBI’s national DNA database, and criminal charges have now been filed in six cold cases.
“Every one of these untested sexual assault kits represents a victim who deserves justice,” said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer in a news release.
Spitzer said testing these kits has been a major priority for him dating back to his time as a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
“By clearing the backlog, we fulfilled a promise to every victim of sexual assault that the Orange County District Attorney’s Office will never stop fighting for victims and we will never stop fighting for justice,” Spitzer added.
Among the cold cases to have renewed evidence thanks to kits being tested was a 28-year-old cold case in which a man kidnapped a couple at gunpoint while he pretended to be a police officer.
On April 4, 1993, a man and a woman were on a date in the town of Stanton in northern Orange County. As the couple parked and talked in front of the woman’s home, they were approached by a man who claimed to be a police officer who said he was investigating reports of prostitution in the area.
The victims told law enforcement that the man got in the car with them, held the two at gunpoint and then demanded they drive to a second location. He then raped the woman after ordering the man out of the vehicle.
He then forced the couple to drive around Orange County while he held them at gunpoint, stole their wallets and then ultimately dropped them off and drove away with the man’s car. With their personal information in hand, he warned the couple that he would kill them if they reported him to law enforcement.
Within minutes of being left on the side of the road, the woman flagged down a Cypress police officer and reported what happened. She underwent a sexual assault screening, but the kit remained untested until 2019, more than 25 years later.
The DNA profile positively identified Michael Ray Armijo as the attacker. Armijo had been previously identified as a suspect in the case, the DA’s office said
In February 2021, criminal charges were filed against Armijo for the kidnaping and robbery of the couple. But Armijo never faced charges for raping the victim as the the statute of limitation for rape cases had expired.
Armijo was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 24 years to life in prison, which the DA’s office said was the maximum allowable sentence.
OC Safe says there are a multitude of reasons that a rape kit could go untested. That includes cases in which a suspect was identified through “superior evidence” such as a confession or other evidence collected at a crime scene. Testing was also not done if the victim opted not to cooperate with the investigation, OC Safe says in its Frequently Asked Questions section of its website.
Still, the biggest factor for kits not being tested was a limitation of technology and a shortage of funding and qualified staff members. Many of the resources used to test rape kits could be pulled away by other criminal cases such and homicides and DUIs which put a restriction on the resources available to test the sexual assault kits.
Those working on the OC Safe program say there have been major changes to prevent future testing backlogs. That includes better cooperation between law enforcement agencies, crime labs and those who are qualified to perform and collect the evidence acquired in a sexual assault kit.
Additionally, as of 2016, law enforcement agencies are required by California law to submit forensic evidence of sexual assault to a crime lab within 20 days of its collection.
In Orange County, qualified nurses who collect evidence for the sexual assault kits can bring the kits directly to the Orange County Crime Lab for testing.
The process, OC Safe says, has been streamlined and made easier in recent years in hopes of preventing a future backlog, and delaying justice for future victims, from happening again.