Series: Cold Justice
The Outrage and Promise of Untested DNA From Rape Victims
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. This story is the last of a three-part series. Read part one and part two, and sign up for the Cold Justice newsletter to go behind the scenes of this investigation.
Editor's note: This story contains a brief description of a rape.
Christopher Grant, a veteran detective with the city of Baltimore’s police department, had to take a refresher course in 2007 on investigating sex crimes. At the last minute, the instructor backed out. They would watch a video instead.
The video was an old “48 Hours” episode involving a rape victim named Laura Neuman. Neuman was a teenager when she was raped by a stranger in Baltimore in 1983. Her rapist had never been caught, but she had never let go. She called Baltimore police over the years until she found two determined city detectives to investigate her case in 2002. They solved it in less than a week using a fingerprint that police had never bothered to load into a state database. She saw her rapist, Alphonso Hill, sent away for 15 years.
Grant couldn’t take his eyes off the show, especially not off the face of Hill, the convicted rapist.
Grant’s wife, Evelyn, was also a cop, a detective working rape cases for the neighboring department in Baltimore County. She was part of a unit run by a sergeant named Rose Brady, and Brady’s squad had been scrambling for three years to solve cold-case rapes.
Brady had learned of a stash of physical evidence from such cases kept for decades by a doctor at a county hospital. The doctor’s makeshift DNA database had long been ignored, but Brady and her team had exploited it to solve close to 20 old cases, a number of them involving serial rapists.
Brady’s team, though, had been haunted by a serial rapist they could not identify, much less arrest. His DNA had been found in a half-dozen old cases in which evidence remained at the hospital. The rapes had all happened in the same suburban neighborhood and had spanned two decades. But Brady and her squad could not match the DNA to any profile in state or national databases.
Desperate, Brady had assigned Evelyn Grant, trained as a sketch artist, the task of using a single victim’s description of the rapist from the case files to develop a portrait of what he might look like decades later. Christopher had watched his wife work away at the sketch, curious but doubtful.
Now, in a police training classroom, Christopher was dumbstruck. The rapist featured in the “48 Hours” episode was a dead ringer for the sketch Evelyn had developed.
When he told his wife, she was not as convinced. The rapist on “48 Hours” was behind bars. Brady’s unit had checked the DNA profile of the suspected serial rapist against all convicted felons, including sex offenders. There had never been a hit.
Still, the Grants resolved to bring the “48 Hours” tape to Brady and the Baltimore County special victims unit. Maybe they’d at least take a look.
The story Laura Neuman told on “48 Hours” began on Thursday, Oct. 13, 1983.
A small woman with shoulder-length curly brown hair, Neuman had just moved into an apartment at the northern edge of Baltimore, the start of what she hoped would be a new chapter in her life. She had dropped out of high school, packed her clothes into garbage bags, and driven away from home as soon as she turned 18.
“There was a lot of dysfunction in our home growing up,” Neuman said. “I really just wanted to leave.”
After her waitressing shift at a local Mexican restaurant, Laura hung out with some colleagues across the street at a Steak and Ale restaurant and then drove home. She changed out of her uniform and into her favorite long pinstriped nightgown, then collapsed on her bed.
Around 2:15 a.m., she heard noises and thought it was a dream, then assumed it was her roommate coming home. Suddenly, she felt a pillow smother her face. She was told to keep quiet and not move. Then she felt the gun pressing against her temple.
“How old are you?” her attacker asked. “Eighteen,” she said as the man shoved a washcloth into her mouth.
When the police arrived, she had backed herself into a corner behind the dining room table. As detectives dusted for fingerprints on her roommate’s windowsill, the suspected point of entry, an officer, she recalled, asked her what had happened.
“They asked me about why my room was not neat and why I was 18 and living on my own,” she recalled. “The questions they were asking me let me know that they thought I wasn't telling the truth.”
The ambulance took Neuman to Mercy Medical Center near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The doctor filled four swabs with spermatozoa from the exam, according to the police report. The evidence was transferred to police for storage and “possible future analysis.”
The exam found evidence of sexual activity, but police quickly concluded Neuman had invented the tale of rape. They had found a footprint in the dirt outside the roommate’s window. They seemed to think she had staged the crime. The sperm could have belonged to anyone she’d had sex with. The police told her family as much.
City police marked her case as “solvability poor,” suspended it within a week, and then threw away her rape kit.
Nearly two decades later, Neuman barely resembled the 18-year-old high school dropout of 1983. She was 36, an executive of a technology company and owner of a four-bedroom home with a pool near the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Maryland.
Hard work had been a distraction and her saving grace.
On Friday night, Jan. 25, 2002, Neuman lay in bed flipping television channels until she settled on ABC’s “20/20.” The new Baltimore Police Commissioner Ed Norris told of his frustration at lacking the money to analyze untested rape kits. Neuman sat up in bed.
“I knew about my case and I knew that they had taken DNA,” Neuman said.
Neuman tried to reach Norris directly. Her calls, though, were redirected to Detective Bernie Holthaus, who led Baltimore’s new SVU cold-case division.
“What were you wearing?” Holthaus asked Neuman.
“I told him in absolute detail all the way down to the pinstripes on my nightgown,” Neuman said. “I told him in detail every single thing that happened.”
Holthaus told her he would look into it and know within days whether it was a solvable case. The first thing he did was walk over to the evidence control room to look for the rape kit. But it was gone, destroyed after the police had disbelieved Neuman 20 years earlier.
“When they told me they didn’t have the DNA, I was outraged,” Neuman said. “The idea that evidence would be destroyed was just inconceivable to me. I was furious.”
Without any DNA, Holthaus and his partner in the cold-case group, Detective Chester Norton, walked down to the fingerprint lab and gave them her case number. A fingerprint had been taken the night Neuman reported the rape. Was there a chance it still existed?
Indeed it did, and it was linked to a man who had been convicted more than a dozen times since 1978 for drug crimes, burglary, assaults, forgery, trespass and a fourth-degree sex offense — but never for rape.
The detectives called Neuman. She was in a business meeting, but she stepped out of the conference room and took the call.
“We got him,” Norton told her. Norton said they had found the suspect, arrested him, and now had him inside police headquarters.
She walked back into the conference room speechless. “There was no way to share the news because they wouldn’t understand how the call just changed my life,” she said.
Since the rape, Neuman had felt like she was in her “own personal prison.” She couldn’t carry on a long-term relationship, have children or live alone. She developed a crushing routine of checking doors and windows. She was spooked by strangers, once quitting a job on the spot when she heard a voice that sounded similar to that of the perpetrator.
But that night, after years of nightmares, she said she dreamt in color for the first time. She remembers flying with the world lit up in iridescent colors below her.
“It was beautiful and it just felt positive,” she said of the dream. “Everything felt like it was right.”
Confronted by police, Alphonso William “Butch” Hill explained what had happened the night he raped Neuman. He said he had been on a peeping spree. He would go to a window, look in, masturbate and leave. When he got to Neuman’s window, he said he saw her already in bed.
“I woke her up, by, you know, turned her over and woke her up, and whatever, put my hand over her mouth,” he said after his arrest. He told the detectives, who recorded the interview, that he had never done anything like that before or since.
Hill pleaded guilty to second-degree rape and was sentenced to 15 years. One of the conditions of his plea was that he provide a DNA sample to the state database.
Neuman decided to go public with her case. She was both ecstatic and furious. “Apparently a lot of women don’t like to put their name on it,” she explained in an interview. “I understand it’s a very personal experience, but we will never change this if we don’t start talking about it.”
“The more I started sharing my story, the less it was like a chain around me,” she said. “The more I talked about it, the less it controlled me.”
Both she and Hill agreed to be interviewed by “48 Hours.” The episode, “Cry Rape,” aired in 2003.
And then again in Baltimore police headquarters in 2007, at Christopher Grant’s training session.
Brady almost didn’t even want to look at the “48 Hours” show when Evelyn Grant brought it to her.
“Where is he now?” Brady asked of the rapist in the show.
Brady was told he was at Western Correctional Institution, a state prison.
“How long has he been there?”
“Well guys, this is 2007,” Brady said. His DNA profile, she said, should have been in the state database of convicted sex offenders.
Brady, whose early career had included an undercover operation meant to catch a serial rapist, had taken over the SVU in Baltimore County in 2004. She was the first woman to run the unit, and, unlike any of her predecessors, she’d made powerful use of an early DNA database compiled by the doctor who ran Greater Baltimore Medical Center’s Rape Care Center. Well before DNA technology had remade the world of crime-fighting, the doctor, Rudiger Breitenecker, had meticulously collected and stored physical evidence from rape victims who were sent to the hospital for examination and care.
So far, Brady and her unit had obtained slides from more than two dozen GBMC cases and unearthed some remaining evidence from the property room, which had led to an array of triumphs, including nearly 20 arrests and convictions for rape.
Still, her efforts had been limited by a lack of money and staffing. Hundreds of the doctor’s evidence files remained unanalyzed. Each one could help identify a predator still on the loose.
The sense of urgency and anxiety that drove her had been distilled by the case of a serial rapist who she and her team suspected was responsible for dozens of assaults. Brady knew one of those victims, a friend and colleague in the department who had been raped in 1978.
Now one of her detectives and her husband thought they had identified the monster she’d been seeking for three years.
Brady agreed to watch the “48 Hours” episode. Her team found an old 13-inch TV with a built-in VCR and they huddled around it.
“As soon as we saw him and saw the sketch, we were just like, ‘Oh my God, it’s him,’” said Joan Wheeler-Felts, one of the detectives. “We were also like, ‘OK, well, it can’t be him because he’s incarcerated.’”
Brady called the state police, asking that they search their database once more, this time for the name Alphonso Hill.
“I said, ‘I know it’s not going to be this guy ’cause he’s been incarcerated for like four years, but can you just run his name anyway for me just to make me feel better?’”
“Anything you need,” the state DNA database administrator said.
Two hours later, the state police called back. Hill’s DNA had been taken twice, but neither swab had made it into the system. There was a massive DNA backlog that had grown to more than 24,000 samples from convicted felons by that spring. Hill’s was among the profiles waiting to be uploaded.
“Well, when is he going to be in the system?” Brady asked. It would be better to get a search warrant and DNA on their own and have the Baltimore County lab analyze it, she was told.
Brady knew the clock was ticking. Hill, sentenced in 2002 to 15 years for raping Neuman, had already applied for parole.
On Monday, Aug. 13, 2007, Brady’s detectives applied for the search and seizure warrant to get Hill’s saliva for DNA testing. The warrant application outlined how the county police department had turned up six rape case hits in the FBI database where DNA samples matched each other, and one other rape in the city of Baltimore, but no individual had been identified. The locations of each assault differed only by a few blocks.
The judge approved the warrant, and Brady and two detectives drove three hours to the Western Correctional Institution to visit Hill.
He didn’t appear worried. Brady and the detectives returned with his swabs and asked the county forensics lab to speed up a process that normally takes several weeks.
Seven days later, Brady heard a commotion outside her office. She looked up and saw people crowded around her doorway. She guessed what it might be, then summoned the nerve to ask.
“‘Please tell me that it’s Alphonso Hill.’ And they said, ‘Yes! Yes!’”
The detectives met with Hill again, and they filmed the encounter.
They placed the map they had used to chart his attacks on the white interview room wall. Color-coded stars represented the rapes and attempted rapes Grant and the detectives had linked to Hill by DNA or M.O. One boulevard. One quarter of a century. Thirty assaults.
Hill didn’t look at it. He just sat, slurping his soda fountain drink, reading through the charging documents the detectives had given him.
“This is just some bizarre coincidence,” Hill said. “If it ain’t got Ms. Neuman from 1983, it just don’t apply to me.”
A detective took the paperwork and read aloud for him the information about the DNA matches to his profile, hoping it might sink in.
“It’s impossible! No way my DNA matched,” Hill said, followed by a string of expletives as he slumped in his chair.
A year later, on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008, Hill stood in a Baltimore County courtroom. He had once hoped he’d be next door in a city of Baltimore court to argue for his parole after serving five years of his 15-year sentence for raping Neuman. Instead, he was to be sentenced to 60 years after pleading guilty to eight other rapes. The authorities believed he was responsible for plenty more.
Brady’s team had sought Neuman’s help to talk to two fellow survivors reluctant to come forward. Over several months, Neuman spoke at length with them. She told them that they needed their day in court and promised to be there with them when they had to face Hill. She explained the process and how it was going to go. She wanted them to know what to expect and how it could change their lives. Perhaps more than anyone, she knew.
She convinced both women to pursue their cases. On the day of the sentencing, she met with them and the other survivors outside the courtroom.
She said she had warned them that Hill was going to be soft-spoken, that he was going to say he was sorry, and that he’d sound convincing. She told them not to be fooled. If he were really sorry, he would admit to all the women he’d raped, including the cases still unsolved, and he hadn’t done that.
The women were set to speak during the proceedings.
“This is how you get your power back,” Neuman had told several of them.
The women walked inside and sat together in the pews. Brady sat next to her old colleague, who had chosen to remain silent. The courtroom filled to standing room only. They were there because of Neuman, and because of Brady. And, of course, because of Breitenecker.
As Hill walked in from a door to the left of the judge’s bench, Brady said she could see the survivors train their sights on him.
“It was like laser beams,” Brady said.
Then the women spoke, one after another.
“To this day, I sleep with a fan on at night … so I don’t keep getting up and checking the noises,” said the woman listed as No. 200 in Breitenecker’s logbook, who was examined at the Rape Care Center on July 18, 1978.
Victim No. 226, Nov. 11, 1978: “In addition to the loss of a relationship, I live with the constant fear of the dark, unable to go anywhere on my own.”
Victim No. 287, Sept. 7, 1979: “Life became consumed with fear, hypervigilance and worry about how to stay safe from attack.”
Victim No. 588, June 29, 1983: “My son couldn’t understand why mommy cried a lot.”
Victim No. 631, Jan. 24, 1984: “I would sit in my bathroom with a knife on my wrist. … I couldn’t bring myself to have children. I hadn’t been able to protect myself, how could I protect my children?”
Victim No. 1,079, March 14, 1989: “It was a year before I slept in a bed, it was 15 years before I could sleep on my stomach.”
“I was afraid for a very long time,” said the woman from case No. 240, one of the only ones who had caught a glimpse of her attacker’s face. “After today, I won’t be afraid anymore.”
Brady said she could see the relief on the face of her friend and the other women as they saw Hill sentenced. “They knew the monster couldn’t come out again.”
When they were done, Judge Dana M. Levitz said he wished Breitenecker was there to see justice done.
A prosecutor spoke up.
“Well, your honor, he is here.”
Breitenecker was sitting in the back of the courtroom. He was 78 and had been retired for 11 years. He sat with nurse Linda Kelly, who had taken over for him at the hospital’s sexual assault unit. She tried to get him to stand up.
At last, Breitenecker did. The others in the courtroom rose as well, exploding into cheers.
Brady’s work with Breitenecker’s evidence didn’t end with Hill’s sentencing in 2008.
“We were told numerous times she wouldn’t retire until that case was solved,” Jessica Hummel, one of Brady’s detectives, said of the Hill investigation. But then, Brady would say she wasn’t going to retire until the next case was solved, and the one after that.
Brady would stay with the unit another nine years. All told, her team would arrest four dozen men, 18 of them suspected serial rapists linked to two or more felony sex offenses.
A ProPublica analysis of Maryland Judiciary records for the arrested men revealed they had been charged in an average of eight felony or other serious crimes, including murder, rape, robbery and assault.
But for all the unit’s success, finding the money and will to fully exploit Breitenecker’s trove got no easier. Their last arrest was in 2014, according to records obtained by public information request.
About 150 cases from Breitenecker’s microscopic slide samples, less than 10% of the collection, have undergone some level of DNA analysis.
The Baltimore County Police Department says it has had the intention but not the resources to carry out comprehensive testing.
Brady applied for grants from a federal program aimed at testing backlogged rape kits in 2015 and 2017, but she was rejected both times. The Department of Justice cited the need for more details in the goals and objective sections in the 2017 application, according to a response forwarded by the police.
In 2019, Shelly Hettleman, then a state delegate from Baltimore County, secured a $300,000 grant from a local foundation.
Neuman — who’d gone on to serve as the county executive of Anne Arundel, the state’s fourth-largest county, and is now a venture capitalist — attended the press conference announcing the grant. She hadn’t intended to speak, but as she listened to officials’ promises, she did the math and realized it wouldn’t come close to paying for testing of all Breitenecker’s slides.
“Why are we still not testing all of the kits?” she asked, noting that slides from nearly 2,000 cases had still not been analyzed. “I want to know why they aren’t all being tested.”
Baltimore County Police Capt. Brian Edwards, then the supervising lieutenant with SVU, explained the nuances of testing all of the cases. Some of the victims may have been examined at GBMC but arrived there from other jurisdictions, in which case Baltimore County would hand the cases off to other agencies. Police need to get separate DNA samples from survivors to compare with the slides, which adds to the cost.
“I can’t speak for how we’ve gotten to today, but I know there are kits to be tested and we need funding to do that,” Edwards said, adding that Neuman was an inspiration and “one of the main reasons why I am so passionate about testing all the kits.”
A few months after the 2019 press conference, Baltimore County police applied again to the federal grant program and won $911,000 for rape-kit testing, training and investigation.
Edwards has said that they are now investigating all of Breitenecker’s evidence. He said they have boosted staffing, remodeled SVU offices and are following federal guidelines and testing all DNA from rape kits that are eligible to be uploaded in the federal database. Forty-nine cases have been sent to a private lab for testing over the last year.
But there have been embarrassing repeats of past mistakes, too.
A 2016 Baltimore Sun investigation showed that even a few years ago, Baltimore County was among the U.S. police departments still destroying evidence from certain rape cases, including those in second-degree sex offenses in which the victim did not cooperate, detectives concluded the case did not meet the legal standard for rape or prosecutors declined to pursue charges. Asked how that was possible at the time, then-Chief James Johnson said that, apart from storage, there were personnel, climate-control and sometimes refrigeration costs to consider.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear now that police should have kept all the kits for at least 50 years, and that evidence-retention policies across the country could use standardization, said Terrence Sheridan, the Baltimore County police chief between 1996 and 2007 and again from 2017 to 2019. “It’s better to bite the bullet, take evidence, pay the money and save it.”
State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said the destruction made the doctor’s preservation efforts all the more important. “Even if a rape kit in Baltimore County had been destroyed, we had our backstop, and that was Rudiger Breitenecker.”
Edwards, who initially led the charge for recent testing of Breitenecker’s evidence, said police now take a very different approach. The department has a 75-year retention policy for evidence from sexual-assault cases.
Brady retired in 2017 after 40 years with the department, but she is now back working as a volunteer on Breitenecker cases at the state’s attorney’s office. She is, as her colleagues describe her, “obsessed” with solving them. “I really want to get Dr. B’s cases done,” she said. “I want to make sure we keep going, so we don’t forget about these cases.”
Breitenecker, at 91, is frail these days, his health failing. His children said they take turns caring for him and their mother, Robin.
Breitenecker spends most of his time on a sun porch surrounded by tall oak trees and horses.
“That’s where he set up the gun range,” said his oldest son, Rudi Jr., pointing to their backyard, where the former medical examiner set up a shooting range to conduct experiments on bullet penetration.
Over a series of interviews, Breitenecker credited Brady and her team, the hospital and the prosecutors for the cold-case justice. “A lot of people had to work together to be successful,” he said.
Slides from more than 1,800 cases from Breitenecker’s files remain in storage in small gray boxes inside the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, along with several logbooks that carefully note the evidence from each case. Police are also researching several hundred frozen test tubes of vaginal washes that were transferred from the hospital to headquarters after Breitenecker’s retirement.
“Maybe someday you can use it again,” Breitenecker said of his approach to preserving evidence on the chance that rape victims’ assailants can be identified and stopped.
“You don’t know for sure, but save it. If it’s thrown away, it’s gone.”