One alleged victim waited nearly 8 years to see a man she considered a mentor charged with second-degree rape. “I’m furious,” said the 28-year-old, whose case languished for years on the desk of a Seattle detective. Police brass say the delay is unacceptable and indefensible.
UPDATE on March 8, 2017: According to court records, King County prosecutors in September dismissed a second-degree rape charge filed against Austin Bowlin, now 27, of Chelan. The charge was dismissed due to evidentiary issues that arose subsequent to the filing of the charge, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Corrin Bohn wrote in the motion and order for dismissal. Bowlin’s attorney, Casey Stamm, wrote in an email that the case against her client was weak from the start and was dismissed “without me filing a single substantive motion or conducting a single interview of any State’s witness.”
She doesn’t have any memory of being raped, but later learned that three Seattle bicycle officers found her unconscious and half-naked in the front seat of her boss’ black BMW in Belltown in September 2008.
One officer reported seeing a man — her boss — “rising up into view” from the front passenger seat where she was lying, according to police and prosecutors. The officers summoned medics, who suspected the intoxicated woman also may have been drugged, according to a police report.
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Despite the three uniformed witnesses, the woman’s former boss wasn’t charged with second-degree rape for nearly eight years — enough time for the woman to move out of state, start a family and come to believe she would never see justice.
“I’m furious,” said the 28-year-old woman, who is now married with an infant son. “From the very beginning, I felt that things were mishandled.”
Her case is one of at least 50 that languished for years on the desk of Detective Leslie Smith, a backlog that came to light only after Smith was promoted to sergeant in early 2015 and transferred out of the department’s Sexual Assault & Child Abuse Unit (SAU).
Smith, 58, is a 17-year veteran who is now a sergeant in the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which investigates officers accused of misconduct. She did not return a phone call seeking comment.
“It’s totally unacceptable those cases sat on a person’s desk as long as they did,” said Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole. “An SAU detective should not have 50 to 60 cases open on his or her desk.”
Police have blamed systemic problems and staffing issues in the Sexual Assault Unit for the backlog. But the 28-year-old woman who says she was raped by her boss said it felt like Smith blamed her for the assault and sided with her alleged assailant.
The woman said the investigation into her case came to a screeching halt after someone in the police department — she believes it was Smith — told her evidence from her “rape kit” had been lost. She learned earlier this year, after another detective had taken over the case, that wasn’t true.
“I don’t know why anyone would say the rape kit was lost when it clearly wasn’t lost,” said Assistant Seattle Police Chief Robert Merner, who called the backlog of cases “indefensible.”
New detectives have been assigned to Smith’s old cases and are now working their way through the backlog, said Seattle police Capt. Deanna Nollette, who took over command of the Sexual Assault Unit a little over a year ago. Nollette blamed the situation on “a failure of supervision,” explaining there was no lieutenant overseeing the unit at the time.
She also described Smith as an overwhelmed perfectionist.
“Her sergeant should have picked up on it” and could have ensured Smith was taken out of the rotation for new case assignments while she caught up, Nollette said. “The detective herself should’ve asked for help … She was unwilling or unable to tell us she was drowning.”
Even after transferring from the unit last year, Smith cleared 14 of her cases, leaving 36 investigations for other detectives to pick up, said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a department spokesman.
Of the 14 cases cleared by Smith, eight were referred to King County prosecutors and one was sent to the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said Merner. Three child-abuse cases were closed as unfounded and one rape case was closed because the alleged victim, a homeless woman, declined to cooperate with the investigation, Merner said. One case remains open.
Whitcomb said of the 36 cases assigned to other detectives, 16 have been sent to King County prosecutors and city attorneys for charging decisions, three more are being actively investigated and one was referred to another law-enforcement agency. Four cases were determined to be unfounded and 12 others were administratively cleared — meaning they were closed for a variety of reasons, including lack of evidence or because no law violation was found, Whitcomb said.
So far, four cases sent to prosecutors by the new detectives have resulted in felony charges.
Over the past 15 months, Merner and Nollette have worked to address “significant systemic issues” in the unit to prevent something similar from happening again, Chief O’Toole said.
She also noted that OPA Director Pierce Murphy “determined there was no evidence of misconduct” on Smith’s part after his office received an anonymous complaint about Smith in May.
Seattlepi.com first reported on Smith’s backlog of cases on May 19. The next day, the OPA received an anonymous complaint about her, accusing her of negligence, Murphy said.
The complaint wasn’t very specific and during an intake evaluation, “We couldn’t find any policy that would apply to this situation that Detective Smith would have violated,” said Murphy, so there wasn’t a formal investigation.
Though no policy violations were found, Merner said Smith is “clearly culpable and at fault for a lot of these problems,” although, he added, her supervisors — none of whom remain in the unit — bear some of the blame, too.
“I’m not buying that this detective was so conscientious and that’s how this happened, and neither is Chief O’Toole,” Merner said. “The part that is most frustrating to me is that many of these cases were ready to be filed — the work had been done.”
In addition to instituting new protocols in the Sexual Assault Unit and working to develop a departmentwide, electronic case-management system to track detectives’ investigations, Merner said he is personally reviewing all of Smith’s former case files.
As a result of the delays, the statute of limitations has run out in a handful of Smith’s non-felony cases for crimes such as indecent exposure or indecent liberties, he acknowledged. In others, victims decided they did not want to go forward, including one case in which the suspect is incarcerated on unrelated charges, Merner said. In another, the suspect is now dead, he said.
“These are our most vulnerable victims,” Merner said of the mostly women and children who are victims of sexual assault. “We have to make these victims as whole as we possibly can.”
For some victims, the changes come too late to make a difference.
A Lake Forest Park woman, who was allegedly attacked in March 2007 by a professional contact through her work, said she felt “slut-shamed” by Smith. Her alleged rapist was interviewed by Smith and claimed the sexual contact was consensual, the woman said.
The Seattle Times generally does not identify victims or alleged victims of sex crimes.
The now-40-year-old woman said Smith never interviewed a bartender, who remembered that the woman ordered coffee but then saw her alleged assailant cradle her head and force her to drink an alcoholic beverage before following her into a restroom.
It wasn’t until after she was notified that no charges would be filed in her case that she learned hydromorphone — an opioid better known as Dilaudid — had been found in her system, she said.
“This is something that’s haunted me and my husband for nine years and I’ve never figured it out,” said the woman, a Seattle technology consultant. “Could it be something as simple as someone had too much stuff on her desk that it impacted my investigation? Is it possible she was just too busy and that’s the reason it didn’t get charged?”
Mary Ellen Stone, the director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, said, at the very least, police owe an apology to victims impacted by the pileup of cases caused by Smith’s inaction.
“I am appalled. It’s really quite shocking and from my perspective, there’s really no excuse,” Stone said of the backlog. “At a time when we’re encouraging people to come forward and telling them law enforcement will support them, to have this thing happening is really unacceptable.”
Since detectives have begun chipping away at Smith’s backlog, King County prosecutors have filed criminal charges against four men. Three cases are still being reviewed and prosecutors declined to file charges in six others, said Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.
“We are disappointed in the delay, but we appreciate that these cases have now been reassigned and are actively being investigated by detectives,” Donohoe said.
The cases resulted in charges against:
• Thach Bao Nguyen, 49, accused of sexually assaulting a then 7-year-old female relative in 2007;
• Austin Bowlin, 26, of Chelan, accused of raping a longtime friend who passed out at his Seattle house in 2011;
• Jeffery Johnson, 32, charged with six counts of child rape for allegedly raping two young relatives over a decade.
And then there is the Belltown case witnessed by three police officers. Bang-Nhan Luong Nguyen, a 48-year-old Renton man, is accused of raping his then-20-year-old assistant in the front seat of his BMW, which was parked outside a bank just before 1 a.m. on Sept. 5, 2008.
“This case was investigated in 2008 … For inexplicable reasons, the investigation was never completed and the case was not forwarded to this office until May 2016, when a new detective was assigned the case and completed the investigation,” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Carla Carlstrom wrote in charging documents.
The papers say the three police officers saw Nguyen — who looked “surprised and stunned” to see the cops — attempt to pull up the woman’s pants as she lay unresponsive in his car. He was charged on May 16 with second-degree rape.
The woman was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where she underwent a sexual-assault exam and her blood alcohol content was measured at 0.30, well above the legal limit of 0.02 for people under 21, say the charges.
Nguyen’s alleged victim said in a recent interview that she thought of her former boss — a man 20 years her senior with a wife and kids — as a mentor. She, Nguyen and several other co-workers had gone out for dinner and drinks, with Nguyen later buying numerous rounds for his underage assistant at a Pioneer Square bar, she said.
As the others departed, the woman was left with Nguyen and another male co-worker. She remembers going into a restroom but has no other recollection of the rest of the night before she woke up in the hospital and was told she had been sexually assaulted.
Her case was assigned to Smith, who met with the woman so she could provide a statement. She said Smith asked her if she had been hitting on her boss.
“I remember leaving and feeling, ‘wow, I feel like a slut.’ It was like I was asking for it,” the woman said of the detective’s questioning. “It felt like she (Smith) had already picked a side and that was it.”
Her rape kit — a medical exam to search for forensic evidence on a victim’s body and clothing — was completed in March 2009 and male DNA was found on the woman’s underwear.
She was told Smith would seek a warrant to get a sample of Nguyen’s DNA to compare it to DNA found by a scientist at the State Patrol Crime Lab. It was the final step before her case could be sent to prosecutors, she said.
But then “everything stopped,” she said. She was told her rape kit had been lost.
“I made dozens of calls to the police department,” and eventually became “so fed up with not hearing back on my case,” she said.
On her 28th birthday in February, a new detective called her parents and told them he was reopening the case. She said her experience with the detective “was 100 percent different” than it was with Smith. The detective got a sample of Nguyen’s DNA in March and it matched DNA from her rape kit, according to the woman and charging documents.
“The thing that beyond irks me is that I was told my rape kit was lost. When I talked to my new detective, he said, ‘No, it wasn’t lost,’ ” the woman said. “He said, ‘I can’t speak to what happened before, but we will get you justice now.’ ”