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Ignored for years, Tampa teenager's rape kit is linked to a previous offender

TAMPA — For months after she voted not to convict a man accused of raping a teenage girl, the jury forewoman couldn't get the case off her mind.

Robin Chase didn't think of herself as someone who easily dismissed a young girl's word. But the 16-year-old's testimony was rife with small inconsistencies. There were moments when she could have fled from the older man pursuing her, yet chose not to. The defendant, Michael H. Hunt, left a more favorable impression — a decade after the trial, Chase recalled that he was well-spoken, married and a father of five.

On Aug. 23, 2005, six jurors voted to acquit Hunt of rape. They weren't allowed to hear that he had previously been convicted of sexual assault. And they couldn't foresee that in 2010, another 16-year-old girl would be photographed and swabbed, the evidence from her body collected, and then inexplicably ignored for five years. When her rape kit was finally tested this year and compared to DNA in a federal database, it led investigators straight to Hunt.

"I keep trying to defend myself,'' Chase said, "but he didn't appear . . . well, how does a rapist appear?"

Hunt, 50, is the first and, so far, only person to have been arrested based on the results of one of Hillsborough County's previously shelved and now newly tested rape kits.

Florida is in the beginning stages of reckoning with nearly 11,000 evidence kits collected from rape victims that have sat unexamined for years. In Hillsborough County, 428 rape kits have been gathering dust, the result of slashed budgets and an overworked state crime lab, or in some instances, detectives' decision that there was insufficient cause to submit the kits for analysis.

This year, law enforcement agencies finally began to send the kits to crime labs for testing, a process that is expected to take years and millions of dollars to complete. As of this writing, roughly a quarter of Hillsborough's untested kits have been analyzed, and the results confirm what advocates for rape victims have long suspected — the odds of solving thousands of old sexual assault cases are slimmer than many had hoped.

Of the 99 newly tested kits from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, only 12 have produced hits to a person in the FBI's DNA database. Of those, seven are from cases in which victims disappeared, became uncooperative or decided not to prosecute. In one case, the suspect died before he could be held to account.

The kit that led investigators back to Hunt is one of four that have reopened sexual assault investigations. If successful, his prosecution would be an early victory of Florida's newfound interest in forgotten rape cases.

But his arrest also raises troubling questions about why detectives failed to have a teenage girl's rape kit tested sooner, allowing a man with a history of sexual violence to remain in society.

The Sheriff's Office declined to answer questions about Hunt's case, citing its status as an open investigation. And Hunt, who is free on bail, could not be reached for comment. But there are a variety of legitimate reasons why kits weren't tested, said Col. Donna Lusczynski, who oversees criminal investigations. In some cases, the victim already knew the identity of her attacker; in others, the victim refused to press charges.

"We recognize that in the past, there have been mistakes," Lusczynski said, declining to say whether Hunt's case was among them. "There are kits that just should have been sent, and weren't."

Hunt was a sergeant in the U.S. Army in 1990 when he first appeared before a panel of his peers on a charge of rape. In court documents, he referred to the incident as a "date rape," as if to soften the charge. But to the Army, this was not a he-said, she-said. Hunt was convicted by a general court-martial of rape, larceny, two counts of assault and adultery, and three other charges of "misconduct discrediting to the armed forces."

Dishonorably discharged and sentenced to 14 years, he was incarcerated at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the military's only maximum security prison.

Hunt was released early on probation, but settling down to a quiet existence wasn't in his plans. Between 2002 and 2015, he was arrested more than two dozen times in five different Florida counties. Some of the charges were misdemeanors and violations of probation for failing to register as a sex offender whenever he moved. But others were grave offenses.

In 2002, Hillsborough investigators found Hunt's semen on the jeans of a 16-year-old girl, who said she had met him at the mall and followed him to his car, where he forced her to perform oral sex. The girl said Hunt told her he could help her get modeling work and gave her a drink he said was "99 percent alcohol-free." Within minutes of drinking it down, she began to feel light-headed.

"I wanted to run," she said in a deposition. She thought Hunt might be armed, though he never explicitly threatened her. "I mean, I really wanted to leave, but I basically was just trying to be safe and I didn't know what to do."

When the case went to trial in 2005, the defense explained the semen on the girl's pants as an unfortunate leftover from a passionate moment between Hunt and his wife in the car. The teenager must have sat in his DNA, the argument went.

Chase, the forewoman, said the jury didn't believe the defense for a minute. Everyone thought that sex had occurred, but no one trusted the teenager's claim that she had been forced. She couldn't explain why the jury didn't convict Hunt of unlawful sexual activity with a minor, a second-degree felony that could have sent him to prison for as many as 15 years.

"It would have been an automatic guilty," Chase said, "but I don't remember that being on the table at all."

A decade would pass before Hunt's DNA tied him to another sexual assault of a teenager, but in the intervening years, he was arrested once for drug trafficking and twice for pimping, or what state law calls "deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution."

In 2011, a sting operation to catch prostitutes in Clearwater Beach also netted Hunt, who arranged a tryst between an undercover officer and an 18-year-old. As the young woman began to undress and Hunt reached for the money, a team of Clearwater police officers sprang from an adjoining room.

"My constitutional rights have been gravely violated!" Hunt complained to Pinellas' chief judge. Insisting on his innocence, he said he hadn't known the woman was a prostitute and had merely agreed to give her a ride to the beachside condo.

Out on bail, Hunt was arrested again, this time in Polk County, for pimping two women to another undercover officer. According to sheriff deputies' report, he was found wearing a hat with the word "police" printed across it to intimidate overly aggressive johns.

By the time Hunt decided to plead guilty, he was already serving a three-year prison sentence on a different charge.

Ten days after his release in June, law enforcement in Bay County picked him on a warrant from Hillsborough. He was wanted on a rape charge. Again.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

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