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How the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office boosts its rape stats without solving cases

“None of these cases I reviewed were properly or thoroughly investigated,” said a retired criminal investigator, who reviewed 11 of the cleared cases for the Times.
- [LISA MERKLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

It took three months for Alicia to feel ready to tell sheriff’s deputies that she had been raped by an acquaintance.

It took eight days for Pinellas investigators to close her case.

They didn’t interview the suspect. They didn’t arrest him.

Instead, they put Alicia’s case in an obscure statistical category that made it appear to have been solved.

The designation, called “exceptionally cleared,” is supposed to be used sparingly in circumstances where police departments have enough evidence to arrest someone but can’t for reasons out of their control.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has used it to close some cases where it hadn’t identified a suspect, assigned a detective or even confirmed that a crime had occurred, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

The Times examined files detailing more than 80 rape cases that were exceptionally cleared by the agency from 2014 through 2018. It found dozens of cases that had not been investigated enough to be put in that category.

The sheriff’s office justified closing most of the cases after concluding the victims didn’t want to move forward. But at times, investigators used techniques that could have discouraged victims, according to experts who reviewed the files for the Times.

Pinellas is not alone in routinely using the “exceptional” category for rapes. A Times analysis found that from 2014 through 2018, a third of Florida’s largest law enforcement agencies closed more rape cases by exceptional clearance than by arrest, including the sheriff’s offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas.

But the Times examination shows Pinellas to be a stark example of how departments can fail to solve rape cases yet get credit anyway.

From 2014 to 2018, Pinellas made arrests in only 15 percent of its rape cases, less than all but two other large departments in Florida.

And yet, because of how the agency applied the exceptional classification, Pinellas reported clearing more than half of its rape cases. That record-keeping raised its overall standing, placing it in the top half among the 25 largest departments in Florida.

Times graphic [PAUL ALEXANDER]

After being asked by the Times, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri conceded his agency improperly categorized some rape cases. He downplayed it, however, by saying that those cases weren’t moving forward anyway, regardless of their categorization.

He said that some of the cases his agency classified as exceptionally cleared would not even have been reported as rapes by other agencies in the Tampa Bay area.

“At least our data shows the crime, even if it overreported the closure for some cases,” Gualtieri said.

He said he is satisfied with the quality of his department’s rape investigations and called working on cases where victims don’t cooperate “a waste of time.”

Gualtieri added that some people who report being raped may not cooperate because they are lying. He described sex workers shaking down clients for money and spouses trying to cover up consensual affairs.

“Some of these victims … they’re doing it for their own vindictive reasons,” Gualtieri said. “We get those. Every victim is not a true victim.”

The quantity of false rape allegations is difficult to measure but research has put it in the range of 2 percent to 10 percent.

Experts say it’s not unusual for sexual assault victims to stop cooperating after reporting a crime. They may fear facing their attacker, worry no one will believe them or come under outside pressure. Those problems can be made worse if investigators mishandle cases.

Rachel Lovell, a research assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University, said that closing cases before they’re fully investigated can let serial rapists go free.

“Because this case didn’t get prosecuted, there’s another victim and another victim,” she said.

Two experts who reviewed Pinellas cases selected by the Times both pointed out flaws and missed steps.

“None of these cases I reviewed were properly or thoroughly investigated,” said Russell Strand, a retired criminal investigator with the U.S. Army, who reviewed 11 cases. “Although a few of them demonstrated some good quality investigative work, every case I reviewed had outstanding leads that could, if properly pursued, have changed the outcome of the case.”

Closed in one day

In Florida, more than 7,000 people report rapes or attempted rapes every year.

Only about a quarter of those reports result in an arrest. Fewer end in conviction.

The handling of rape cases has come under increased scrutiny in the era of the #MeToo movement, which has included high-profile examples of victims coming forward years later to report attacks.

In federal statistics, arrests are lumped together with exceptional clearances to calculate a police agency’s clearance rate — a common measurement of how effective agencies are at solving crimes.

Gualtieri himself has characterized clearances as “solved.” While touting his agency’s overall clearance rate during a presentation to county commissioners in 2012, Gualtieri explained that a clearance is “where the case is closed, it’s solved.”

But when asked to clarify, Gualtieri told the Times last week that cleared and solved were “very different” and that his agency has never characterized an exceptional closure as “solving” a case.

Lovell, the Case Western Reserve University researcher, said confusion arises because “people think cleared means solved or at least resulted in a suspect being charged.”

The “exceptional” category has been used since the 1930s, when crime statistics began being tracked nationally. The federal government doesn’t specify every situation where the category is allowed. But it gives some examples: the suspect has died, is being prosecuted in another jurisdiction or has been identified but the victim won’t help prosecutors make the case.

Even then, there are a few simple rules. Law enforcement must have identified and located the suspect and have enough evidence to charge them with a crime and turn the case over to prosecutors.

In Pinellas, more than a quarter of the exceptionally cleared rape cases reviewed by the Times were closed before a suspect was identified. When a suspect was named in the file, they were interviewed only about a third of the time.

In 2014, a woman told a deputy she’d been raped by a stranger in a white work van. She had a black eye and swollen lip, but she declined to get a rape kit done or have her body photographed.

A deputy went to the scene with the victim and found tire marks. Another deputy spoke with a nearby store clerk who confirmed the woman told him that she had just been raped. But the report noted inconsistencies. The case was exceptionally cleared in one day, citing the woman not wanting to cooperate. The agency never assigned a detective or identified a suspect.

The woman’s name was redacted from the report, as were all cases reviewed by the Times.

In 2015, a woman reported that she had been raped earlier that year. She had just learned her assailant had been released from jail in a human trafficking case and wanted to make sure he went back behind bars.

It took two weeks for a detective to call her back.

The five paragraphs he wrote in the case file don’t include any details of the assault. Instead, the file describes the detective telling the woman her case would be hard to prosecute given her delay in reporting.

The detective wrote that he told the woman the human trafficking case was still pending. The woman “expressed a great deal of relief and said she did not feel a need to pursue a criminal investigation.”

He listed the case as exceptionally cleared and moved on.

Gualtieri said it’s possible there was more conversation that wasn’t documented. He said the two-week lag may have been the detective playing phone tag with the woman.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

He said he saw no issues with how the case was investigated but conceded that it probably should not have been categorized as exceptionally cleared.

But Strand, the retired Army investigator, identified problems with the way the case was handled. “The victim was basically told the case wouldn’t go anywhere — so why bother?” he said.

Strand said a delay in reporting should never be the basis for not pursuing a case.

“This was, in my opinion, an inadequate response to a report of a serious felony,” he said.

Coming forward

Alicia waited months to tell law enforcement that one of her ex-boyfriend’s friends had raped her. (The Times agreed to use only her first name to protect her privacy.)

At the time, she had a drug problem and a history of interactions with law enforcement. She began dating her ex-boyfriend again shortly after the incident and was worried he would not believe her. But one day, as they were driving past a police station, she broke down in tears and told him. She said they called the sheriff’s office the same day.

She told investigators she agreed to go to a hotel because they had been drinking for hours and she was too intoxicated to drive home. Her memories of what happened after that have stuck with her. That she had been surprised to see only one bed in the room, and that she’d stayed on the hotel balcony for hours, waiting until he fell asleep. That when she finally laid down, he rolled onto her. That she repeatedly said she didn’t want to have sex and tried to squirm away. That she tried to avoid eye contact as she lay underneath him.

The detectives were polite, Alicia said, even understanding. But they spent more than half an hour telling her how problematic her case was.

They asked her to call the suspect, with a detective recording the conversation, to see if he would admit to the rape. Alicia couldn’t imagine him doing that. She figured the detectives were probably right that her case wouldn’t go anywhere.

Finally, Alicia agreed to sign a form saying she didn’t want to go forward.

Signing cases away

Many experts say agencies shouldn’t pressure potential victims to decide whether they want to prosecute early in an investigation. Some advise against asking them to sign a written statement — like the one given to Alicia — that says they don’t want to press charges.

Most of the Pinellas cases reviewed by the Times included mention of victims signing non-prosecution forms. More than half of the forms were signed the same day the rape was reported.

Gualtieri said the forms help avoid confusion. A number of Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies use them, including the Pasco County and Hillsborough County sheriff’s offices, although agencies have different rules about how and when to use them.

Experts and advocates say the forms can give law enforcement an excuse to not fully investigate felony rape complaints — especially if signed early in an investigation — and can deter victims from returning if they later decide they do want to prosecute.

“Investigations should not be based only on a traumatized victim’s perceived ability to participate right after the event,” said Anne Munch, a former Colorado prosecutor and consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice. “Crimes should be investigated thoroughly with victims being kept informed and in the loop and presented with the conversation after the investigation is completed.”

A Pinellas deputy in 2016 closed a case of attempted rape after having a woman sign such a form.

Two witnesses walked in to find a man on top of the woman, who was unconscious. He had pushed her legs apart, hiked her dress up and had his hands in his pants, about to pull out his penis, the witnesses said.

The deputy spoke with the witnesses and the woman, who said she did not remember the incident and didn’t want to go to court. The deputy then had the woman sign a non-prosecution form. According to the witnesses, she had been passed out, intoxicated, less than two hours earlier.

The deputy attempted to contact the suspect but failed. No detective was ever assigned. The case was exceptionally cleared that day.

Munch reviewed the case for the Times and said she was surprised it wasn’t pursued given that there were two eyewitnesses.

“If you’re only basing an investigation solely on a traumatized victim’s ability to participate after the rape, then that’s a red flag,” she said.

In 2018, a woman showed up at the sheriff’s office to report that her ex-boyfriend had raped her about an hour earlier. She showed a deputy messages on her phone and said she’d be willing to undergo a forensic exam to look for DNA and other evidence.

Detectives told her an investigation could result in her ex-boyfriend serving time. They asked her whether, knowing that, she really wanted to proceed.

The woman hesitated and had a private conversation with her father then told detectives she didn’t want to move forward. Less than two hours after she reported the rape, her case was closed.

Munch said the detectives’ focus on the consequences for the suspect can send a message to the woman that either the detectives didn’t believe her or that being raped by an ex-boyfriend is less egregious than being raped by someone else.

‘We’re not afraid of messy cases’

In a recent interview, Gualtieri blamed some of the problems of misapplied exceptional clearances on previous supervisors of the detective unit that handles adult rape cases.

He said that the sergeant overseeing the unit has been in the job for a little more than a year and that he has been closing fewer cases exceptionally and is instead putting many of them in a category called an in-house closure. Those cases don’t count as cleared in federal statistics.

Gualtieri said his office has limited resources and can’t chase down cases where deputies aren’t getting cooperation. The nine-detective unit that investigates adult rape cases also handles robberies and homicides, as well as missing children cases, aggravated assaults and others.

Gualtieri said his agency would never discourage a victim from cooperating. His deputies will sometimes show up at a hospital and the woman will say she hadn’t wanted the hospital to call, he said.

The Times reviewed some cases where victims appeared adamant from the beginning that they did not want an investigation.

Gualtieri pointed to a recent arrest his agency made in two 1998 sexual assaults as evidence of his agency’s commitment to solving rapes. In that case, the agency used DNA from a genealogy database to track down a suspect in violent stranger rapes.

“We’re not afraid of messy cases or tough-to-prove cases. That’s what we do,” Gualtieri said.

Gualtieri said he’s not worried about serial rapists going free because most of the cases his agency sees relate to a question of consent rather than an act of violence.

“We don’t have those serial rapists, with the true victim,” Gualtieri said. “Say a woman was asleep at 3 o’clock in the morning and someone broke the window of the home, came in through the back, was dressed in black — we can make up whatever the scenario is. … We’re going to treat that very differently than this type of situation.”

Some agencies may take cases to prosecutors despite an uncooperative victim, he noted, which can lead to the cases getting closed at a later stage.

Advocates note that rape cases pose special challenges. A lack of consent can be difficult to prove. Shame and fear and stigma can keep victims from cooperating. But they say such barriers are why rape investigations require extra care.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit that recommends policy for police departments, has developed best practices for law enforcement agencies on handling sexual assault investigations. It stresses training law enforcement officers on handling traumatized victims, properly coding cases and keeping bias or disbelief out of investigations.

“Few issues were neglected for decades in the way sexual assault crimes have been discounted,” the group’s executive director wrote in a forward in the 2018 guidebook.

Gualtieri said he is a member of the Police Executive Research Forum but said the group’s guidelines can be “somewhat idealistic and unrealistic.”

In recent years, states like Illinois and New Jersey began requiring law enforcement officers to have specialized sexual assault training. Although Florida offers specialized training, it’s not mandatory.

Strand, a consultant who has helped train Florida law enforcement officials to investigate rapes, said his review of Pinellas cases showed mistakes that are common in departments that lack updated training on handling sexual assault cases. He suggested doing away with non-prosecution forms and increasing the use of victim advocacy resources.

Case cleared

Alicia recently read a copy of her file. She said it seemed like the investigators who wrote the report thought she had consensual sex.

There’s no indication in the case file that the detectives knew where the suspect lived.

The case file notes that Alicia described telling a friend or friends some details of the assault shortly after it happened. Investigators never reached out to any of them or wrote their names in the file.

A deputy noted that the suspect rented a room at the hotel on the day of the reported attack.

When reached by the Times, the man listed in the case file expressed surprise that there was an investigation, saying he found it hard to believe that a rape was reported with his name attached and investigators never spoke to him. He said he never had sex with Alicia.

For months, Alicia said, she saved her underwear from that night — blue, with gray stripes — in a plastic baggie. She always thought she’d need it at some point, when she reported the rape.

A few weeks after signing the non-prosecution form, however, she recalled walking to a dumpster at the apartment complex where she was living.

She cried as she threw the underwear away.

- [LISA MERKLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

Data Reporter Connie Humburg, staff writer Tony Marrero and senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Resources related to sexual assault

Reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7 at 800-656-HOPE or go to rainn.org for live chat.

In Pinellas, the Sexual Assault Services Helpline at 727-530-7273 will connect you with the Suncoast Center.

In Hillsborough, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay’s hotline can be reached by dialing 211.

About the story

Following an investigation from ProPublica, Newsy and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting into exceptionally cleared rape cases, the Tampa Bay Times took a closer look at how rape cases were being cleared in Florida, and particularly in the Tampa Bay area.

As part of the FBI’s standardized Uniform Crime Reporting program, law enforcement agencies report their “clearances” for a number of serious crimes, including rape. The clearance rate — often seen as a way to understand how well agencies are solving cases — is made up of both arrests and exceptional clearances, divided by the total number of reported crimes, excluding unfounded cases.

In order for a case to be exceptionally cleared, law enforcement agencies must have been able to identify and locate the offender, gather enough evidence to support an arrest and turn the offender over to the courts, and encounter circumstances that preclude arresting, charging and prosecuting the offender.

The Times requested data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for every reporting agency from 2014 through 2018.

The Times also requested incident-level data from a number of law enforcement agencies across the state.

The Times excluded 13 cases from the analysis that didn’t appear to meet the federal definition of rape or attempted rape. The Times built a spreadsheet with information on each case file, including information on whether witnesses or suspects were identified or interviewed, whether alcohol or drugs were involved and whether a forensic exam commonly known as a rape kit was completed.

The Times asked two experts to review a total of 12 cases that we provided. All of the cases mentioned in the story were reviewed by at least one of the experts.

Support our journalism

Times staff writer Allison Ross spent months looking at exceptionally cleared rape cases, talking to experts, searching for victims, reading hundreds of case files and submitting dozens of open records requests.

If you are a Florida survivor of sexual assault and want to share your story about your experience with the criminal justice system, please reach out to her at aross@tampabay.com or on Twitter at @allisonsross.

In-depth journalism like this takes time and money — and it’s only possible with the help of readers like you.

Please support us with a tax-deductible donation to the Tampa Bay Times Investigative Fund.

Or, become a long-term supporter and subscribe.

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