Rape kit tests yield suspects but not necessarily convictions

EVERETT — The 20-year-old woman spent Christmas 2010 in a hospital exam room as a forensic nurse carefully collected swabs from her body.

The woman told Everett police someone had raped her hours earlier at a family holiday party while her husband slept nearby. The man she suspected, the only other man sleeping in the living room, denied assaulting her.

Evidence was collected from the woman, but Everett police didn’t submit the sexual assault exam kit to the Washington State Patrol crime lab for analysis.

Detectives closed the investigation “for lack of evidence.”

Everett police Capt. Greg Lineberry recently said that the kit likely wasn’t tested because of the totality of the circumstances. The officers had a named suspect at the time, and he had provided a credible statement that he wasn’t involved, Lineberry said.

“It didn’t appear that it was a case that could be prosecuted so they didn’t have it tested,” he said.

The 2010 rape kit recently was analyzed by the FBI as part of an initiative to reduce the number of untested sexual assault kits across the country.

It’s estimated that nationwide law enforcement agencies are in possession of hundreds of thousands of untested sexual assault evidence kits. Washington lawmakers last year passed legislation to reduce the number of unsubmitted kits and to address the backlog of evidence awaiting testing by the Washington State Patrol crime lab.

Everett police were notified in April that forensic scientists found DNA in the evidence collected in the 2010 case. The genetic profile allegedly matches that of the man who hosted the Christmas party, not the man initially named as a suspect.

Ignacio Fierro Sifuentes had told police back then that he’d been asleep with his wife and three children in the master bedroom at the time of the assault.

An Everett detective late last month contacted the woman who reported the rape. She confirmed that Fierro Sifuentes was in the house when she was assaulted.

Prosecutors earlier this month charged Fierro Sifuentes, 37, with third-degree rape. It’s the first case charged in Snohomish County stemming from recent efforts to reduce the number of untested sexual assault kits.

Scientists were able to identify Fierro Sifuentes because his genetic profile was already in the FBI’s national database, according to court papers. He was required to submit a DNA sample in 2011 after he was convicted of a sexually motivated attack on a woman in an Everett bar.

That felony assault happened about two weeks after the alleged rape.

Everett detectives have since learned that Fierro Sifuentes is being held in a federal detention center in New Mexico. He was deported after serving his jail sentence for the 2011 assault. He was arrested for illegal re-entry in March.

It is expected that Fierro Sifuentes will be brought back to Everett to face the rape charge. A Snohomish County judge recently signed a $150,000 warrant for his arrest.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Matt Baldock said Everett detectives didn’t refer the 2010 rape case to his office until recently.

If the case had been forwarded to prosecutors for review at the time, they likely would have asked Everett police to submit the kit to the State Patrol for analysis, he said.

The presence of male DNA likely would have given the detectives grounds to obtain a court order to collect cheek swabs from the men who were in the house at the time. Those genetic profiles could have been compared against the DNA recovered from the sexual assault kit, Baldock said.

The woman told police in 2010 that she and her husband attended a family Christmas Eve party in Everett. Many of the partygoers stayed overnight. The woman and her husband and other adults, along with several children, went to sleep in the living room. The homeowner, Fierro Sifuentes, his wife and their children were in the master bedroom.

The woman reported that she awoke a few hours later to find a man lying on the floor behind her. He began fondling her over her clothing. She pushed his hands away. The woman, still intoxicated, believed it was her husband, Baldock wrote in charging papers. The man pulled down her pants and engaged in sex with her. The next morning she confronted her husband, telling him that it wasn’t appropriate behavior given that there were other people in the room.

“Her husband was surprised and adamantly denied having any kind of physical contact,” with his wife during the night, Baldock wrote. She became upset, realizing that she’d been raped.

The woman assumed that the assailant was the only other adult man who had been sleeping in the living room, according to court papers. Her relatives confronted him about what happened, but he denied raping the woman. He denied the allegation again when interviewed by an Everett police detective. He said he’d slept in a chair in the living room.

The woman went to a local hospital for a sexual assault exam.

“The police investigation was closed for lack of evidence,” Baldock wrote.

Two weeks later Fierro Sifuentes was arrested at an Everett bar after attacking a 45-year-old woman in the restroom. He forced his way into the woman’s stall, grabbed her by the neck and pushed her to the ground. Fierro Sifuentes threatened to rape and kill her.

She kicked him and freed herself, and Fierro Sifuentes was detained by a security guard.

Fierro Sifuentes pleaded guilty to second-degree assault in early 2011 and was sentenced to eight months in jail. As part of his sentence Fierro Sifuentes was required to provide a DNA sample for the FBI’s national database.

There are multiple reasons sexual assault kits have not been submitted for testing over the years, Baldock said. In some instances, a victim reports the sexual assault to a medical provider but doesn’t consent to having the kit tested. Law enforcement may never learn of the allegations, Baldock said.

Police also may not believe there is probable cause to show that an assault happened, the deputy prosecutor said.

Everett detectives have prioritized testing for cases in which the suspect is unknown to the victim, Lineberry said.

“But a lot of sexual assault reports we receive involve a suspect who is known to the victim, so we already have a suspect name,” Lineberry said.

In some of those cases, the suspect claims that the sexual contact was consensual. A forensic exam is still conducted, but the DNA testing isn’t necessary for prosecution, Lineberry said.

“Those kits would typically not be sent in for testing, and over the years the number of those kits we are holding gets larger and larger,” he said.

Before new legislation was passed last year the department decided to submit all of its untested rape kits, Lineberry said. The department has about 370 kits in its property room.

A few years ago the department conducted an audit of its untested kits to determine if any that should have been tested slipped through the cracks, Lineberry said. He also wanted to take a second look at some cases to see if improvements in forensic testing might yield results. The review identified a number of kits that need testing.

Last year the department had the chance to participate in a new program with the FBI to submit older kits that had not previously been tested. Everett was allowed to submit 18 kits. The 2010 rape was in that batch. The department will be allowed to send up to 22 more once the first set is completed, Lineberry said. Everett also will be allowed to submit up to 175 untested kits to the State Patrol’s Crime Lab as part of the grant fund created by lawmakers to address the number of untested kits around the state.

The new law requires that all kits collected after July 2015 be submitted to the State Patrol’s forensic labs within 30 days. The legislation also established a task force to study how to tackle the thousands of untested kits collected before July 2015. It’s estimated that statewide there are 6,000 tests that haven’t been submitted for analysis.

Additionally, this year Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law requiring the state to track all rape kits from hospital room to police station to the crime lab.

In Everett, about 83 kits have been through the department’s review process, Lineberry said.

About 20 of those already had been tested, and there was no basis for additional examination, he said. About 63 reports have been submitted to the State Patrol, and the department is waiting for the lab to notify officers when to send in the kits. The department is reviewing the remaining 250 cases, one report at a time, to determine what 100 or so kits will be shipped to the State Patrol, Lineberry said.

Of the 83 cases that were reviewed as a part of the crime lab project, about 47 had named suspects. Eleven were cases in which the victim declined to cooperate with police. The kits were collected between 1998 and 2008.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t know how many of its 922 rape kits have been tested, spokeswoman Shari Ireton said. No searchable field was set up to track that information when the office switched over to the beleaguered New World software record tracking and dispatching system.

A deputy has been assigned to audit the kits and determine which should be submitted for testing.

Law enforcement routinely has been judicious about what kits to send to the State Patrol.

“We haven’t wanted to flood them with kits that aren’t needed for prosecution,” Lineberry said.

Police want to be able to get quick results for sexual assaults committed by unidentified suspects, he said.

Everett police are hopeful that they will be able to test all of the unsubmitted kits. There’s no guarantee the tests will help prosecute a suspect. That’s because a large number of the untested kits are from cases in which a suspect already was identified but there are other problems.

“In the vast majority, a DNA match probably won’t result in prosecution,” Lineberry said. “It will, however, add to the DNA database and may help solve other crimes where the suspect was not known or help solve crimes in the future.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley

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