Forensic Scientist Hid Backlog Of 40 Cases, Delayed DNA Testing For Years: DPS

A forensic scientist at the state crime lab intentionally hid her backlog of cases for years, failed to test DNA submitted in 40 cases, and kept evidence from those cases in her possession, according to a DPS audit.

TEMPE, Arizona -- A forensic scientist at the state crime lab intentionally hid her backlog of cases for years, failed to test DNA submitted in 40 cases, and kept evidence from those cases in her possession, according to a DPS audit uncovered by a six-month 12 News Investigation.

In at least one of those cases, justice may have been denied.

Tempe police investigate alleged sex assault

On October 18, 2009, 19-year-old Melissa Rukstelis called Tempe police to report she was sexually assaulted by a man she said she dated in high school.

Rukstelis had been at a party hosted by a friend in the area of McClintock and Hermosa Drive, the police report said. She told the investigating officer, Det. Sue Schoville, she had recently re-connected with David Baldry, 21.

Rukstelis told the officer she invited Baldry to the party to "catch up" and that they hadn't been in a romantic relationship since she was in high school. Rukstelis admitted to drinking heavily during the party and, according to the police report, vomiting several times.

The police report said that at 4 a.m., Baldry offered to give Rukstelis a ride home because the person who was supposed to give her a ride was asleep.

A person at the party told police that he helped Baldry escort Rukstelis to Baldry's car and put her in the back seat as this was "easiest" for them. The witness told the investigator Rukstelis was lying in the car, wearing a seat belt and she was close to "passed out" when she and Baldry left, records show.

The police report showed that Rukstelis laid in the back of Baldry's Ford Taurus and gave him directions to her house.

Baldry later told police he stopped two houses down from the party so she could throw up, as well as a second time on a residential side street along Baseline Road.

While Rukstelis admitted to police that she was "extremely intoxicated," she said she remained awake and noticed Baldry kept driving around instead of taking her home, according to the report.

Rukstelis told police that when they finally reached her apartment complex she fell asleep in the backseat of the car.

When she woke up, she said her jeans were pulled down "completely off her right leg and down by her knee on her left leg," according to the police report. Rukstelis also told the officer Baldry digitally penetrated her against her will. She said she thought she was "dreaming" but woke up and told him to "stop." "I crossed my legs" and "pushed his hand away."

Rukstelis said she then fell back asleep and Baldry performed oral sex on her, according to the report. At that point the police report shows she pushed Baldry toward the door and told him to get off of her.

She told the officer Baldry became upset with her, pushed her and held her down. The officer took photographs that showed Rukstelis had multiple scrapes, scratches and bruises on her arms, including a three-inch scratch she says was from Baldry holding her down. In addition, she had multiple purple and red contusions on her back, according to the police report.

Rukstelis got out of the car, realized she'd left her purse and returned to get it, the police report said. She told the investigator that at that point Baldry got out of the car and approached her, but she couldn't remember if she "slapped" or "punched" him in the face. In the report, she said Baldry uttered a profanity at her and pushed her against the car, then she ran into her house.

Rukstelis told police she laid down in the tub as she continued to be sick and did not immediately contact police because she was "too intoxicated."

The Tempe Police Officer seized the clothes Rukstelis wore to the party as evidence and a sexual assault examination was performed on her, records show.

Suspect denies sexual assault

On October 23, 2009, Schoville called David Baldry and recorded the conversation. The report and audio recording reveals Baldry only said he knew Rukstelis from attending Mountain Pointe High School. In the recording, he claimed he had no prior sexual history with Rukstelis, "no high school relationship with Rukstelis or even a romantic relationship."

Baldry was adamant on the recording that they had no history together other than that of mutual friends.

"We didn't even date in high school, we were just friends," Baldry said on the recording.

However, one of Rukstelis' friends who lived at the home where the party was held confirmed to the detective that Rukstelis and Baldry were involved intimately in high school, records show.

During the recorded conversation, Baldry also denied removing her pants, putting his fingers in her vagina, and performing oral sex.

Baldry said he offered to let Rukstelis sit in the front seat but that she wanted to lie down in the back seat and told the detective she passed out in the back seat when he got to her apartment complex. He said he remained outside the car while trying to wake her up, according to the recording. He told the investigator that when Rukstelis woke up she started yelling at him, calling him names and then slapped him in the face.

According to police records, Baldry said that at no time were Rukstelis' pants down. He said he never touched her private parts or performed oral sex on her. According to the report and the audio recording, Baldry said there would be no reason to find his DNA on Rukstelis' body.

Baldry told police he'd done nothing wrong and was just trying to be a "good friend," the report said. He told the officer that he did not touch Rukstelis other than by shaking her shoulder and grabbing her arms when her knees buckled under her. Baldry denied any physical contact with her and denied all her accusations.

The investigator encouraged Baldry to offer up his DNA to avoid being falsely accused, the report said. However, on the recording, he can be heard saying "this is making me extremely uncomfortable" and "I just hear stories all the time of just bullshit, like people getting wrongly accused for things.”

He declined to willingly offer up his DNA during the conversation, according to the police report and the audio recording.

After the alleged assault, Rukstelis was interviewed a second time at Tempe Police Headquarters. She also obtained an Order of Protection against Baldry from the Chandler Municipal Court on October 30, 2009, records show.

Police reports show that on August 11, 2010, the DPS Crime Lab notified Tempe PD that no semen was detected in the sex assault test kit. However, the lab said further testing – called Y-STR – could be done to try to locate male DNA on the collected evidence.

To conduct Y-STR testing, Schoville would need to submit DNA from the suspect for the scientific analysis. On September 2, 2010, she obtained a court order from Maricopa County Superior Court Judge White for Baldry's DNA. The order allowed Schoville to swab the inside of Baldry's mouth, which she collected as evidence at the Tempe Police Department.

The swabs were sent to the DPS Crime Lab so that the Y-STR testing could be completed and a possible suspect identified.

But there wouldn't be immediate answers. This case would sit at the DPS Crime Lab for years.

Audit uncovers crime lab misconduct

Kathy Press, the supervising forensic scientist tasked with examining this evidence, was hiding cases from her supervisors to cover up her backlog of cases, DPS records show. She even kept evidence “in her possession”, according to the state audit.

Supervising Forensic Scientist Jennifer Kochanski discovered the misconduct when she began an audit of the DNA unit's backlog in October 2015. Kochanski identified 29 cases Press was assigned that were not completed in a timely manner, DPS records show.

"In January 2016, you reported 11 additional cases were on your backlog. These additional cases were in your possession. You had the evidence in your possession and the case files were at your desk. Many of the cases identified were cases from several years prior," Kochanski wrote.

On January 19, 2016, Kochanski wrote that the Scientific Analysis Bureau (SAB) identified a total of 40 cases assigned to Press in which she failed to complete the scientific analysis process. Reports show that many of these cases were several years old.

Kochanski indicated it was difficult to track the cases because Press had taken possession of the evidence but then "unassigned" herself from the case. Kochanski wrote that she had to check the "audit trails" to see who worked on the case, which is how she discovered Press' involvement.

As the investigation continued, Kochanski determined Press' actions appeared to be "an intentional act to hide your backlog of cases."

Among the 40 cases, one in particular stood out as an "old case": the Tempe Police Department’s sexual assault case involving Rukstelis.

SAB determined that Press did not complete the de-convolution work even though the original profile she entered received a CODIS hit for a suspect in December 2014.  The investigation also concluded  that Press failed to  notify Tempe Police about this hit and, at the time of the investigation, had not completed the report she was required to issue to Tempe PD, according to state records.

Press was put under internal affairs investigation. Records show Kochanski asked Press why she had not completed her cases. Kochanski asked if Press was "too busy...or overwhelmed." DPS records show Press said, "No, I just haven't gotten to them yet." Press agreed that these cases should have been completed "a long time ago."

Kochanski also noted that when police departments inquired about the status of testing, emails revealed that Press either didn't respond to their emails or said she would get them information but didn't follow up.

According to DPS records, when asked, Press agreed with the allegation that she was “inefficient" "because there's cases that are on my backlog that should have gone out."

This audit wasn’t the only time there was an issue with Press’ backlog of cases. Internal documents from Press' personnel file show in January 2015, Central Regional Crime Lab Manager Scott Rex identified 37 of Press' cases that were four to five years old. At that time, Press was put on a performance improvement plan and relieved of some of her responsibilities.

As a result of the policy violations and misconduct discovered during the internal investigation, Press was demoted from supervising forensic scientist to forensic scientist IV effective May 21, 2016. The order was signed by Deputy Director Lieutenant Colonel Heston Silbert.

On May 11, 2016, prior to the demotion taking effect, Press tendered her resignation effective May 24, 2016. She wrote that personal and family circumstances have made it difficult for her to continue a career at DPS.

The same day, she notified the Tempe Police Department that she had finished the scientific analysis of their 2009 sexual assault case and David Baldry's DNA was a match.

Too little, too late

On September 14, 2016, Tempe police arrested Baldry on suspicion of sexual assault. Det. Greg Bacon questioned him for three hours.

Initially, Baldry again denied allegations that he touched Rukstelis’ vagina or performed oral sex on her, according to police records.

“I did not sexually assault her,” Baldry said, according to a video recording of the police interview.

After reminding Baldry of his statements in 2009, Bacon tells him, “you lied.”

“That's pretty clear-cut. You lied. There's no other way to say it. You lied. There's no other way to say it. You lied. Your DNA was found inside of her vagina,” Bacon told Baldry, according to the recording.

Baldry finally cracks.

“It was like foreplay, it was just like, you know touching and all of that,” he said.

“He wouldn't until they had him pinned. It was like he was putting up that surrender flag: 'I'm done. I'm done. You've caught me,” said Rukstelis.

During the interview, Baldry told Bacon that he “did not think Rukstelis was too intoxicated to provide consent.” He also told the detective that when he realized she had passed out or fallen asleep, he stopped, according to police records.

There would be no victory for the alleged victim.

The Maricopa County Attorney declined to prosecute Baldry and said the six years it took to receive the DNA results was a factor.

“Yeah, it had an effect,” said County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

He added that six years was “a ridiculous amount of time” to complete testing.

Montgomery said that other factors contributing were a consent issue and a lack of witnesses.

“It's not an instance in which she did anything wrong, the case is not gonna come together for us like we need it to, as we know we need it to in order to get a jury to convict,” he said.

Montgomery said Rukstelis did everything right – in reporting, in having an exam done, and in cooperating with law enforcement.

“Even if everybody is telling the truth, we would have a hard time because of that consent issue,” said Montgomery.

The county attorney said he is required to prove the victim did not consent and the suspect knew the victim wasn’t consenting.

“No one is saying that they disbelieve the victim,” Montgomery said. “The question becomes, ‘do we have the evidence to present to a jury where we can get them to convict?’”

Ultimately, Montgomery said they decided there was not a reasonable likelihood of a conviction.

Rukstelis said she feels victimized by the system designed to seek justice for her.

“Someone does it once, they can do it again. And I want people to know who he is," she said.

12 News was unable to reach David Baldry after several attempts but did leave a message with someone who knows him to ask him to call.

Over the course of our investigation DPS respectfully declined to speak on camera but issued two statements:

Tempe PD case 2009172852 (DPS DR 2009744972) was submitted to the DPS Crime Laboratory in November 2009, with a request to perform DNA analysis on a sexual assault kit. A Scientific Examination Report was returned to Tempe PD in January 2010, stating that no semen or spermatozoa were detected in the sexual assault kit. In September 2010, Tempe PD requested that the Laboratory attempt further DNA analysis. In early 2016, it was discovered that the ADDITIONAL DNA analysis had NOT been completed for this case. The analyst assigned to the case did not complete the analysis or report the results in a timely fashion, ultimately reporting the DNA results in May 2016. When this was discovered, the analyst was disciplined and demoted. Subsequently, the analyst resigned from the Department. The excessive time to complete the analysis is regrettable. ALTHOUGH the Laboratory has procedures in place to ensure that this does not OCCUR, THE INVOLVED EMPLOYEE DID NOT FOLLOW THESE PROCEDURES, PREVENTING MANAGEMENT FROM DISCOVERING THE ISSUE EARLIER.

The second statement from DPS identified the former employee as Kathleen Press:

Through an internal investigation it was discovered a former employee had gone to lengths to hide their work files and mask their incompetence. The case for which you inquire was assigned to this employee, who as a result of our internal investigation was demoted and subsequently resigned. Under Col. Milstead's administration, beginning in 2015, a department-wide, work-performance accounting and auditing system was implemented. As a part of this system, greater scrutiny and accountability is provided to each employee's work. As a result of a supervisor's diligence, the aforementioned misconduct by a former employee was discovered. The employee's lack of professionalism is beyond regrettable, it is reprehensible. In the last two years we have increased the speed and accounting of cases assigned to the Crime Lab and specifically the Forensics Unit.

All of the major laboratory disciplines have improved their processes and have lower backlogs than in 2013. The backlogs for the disciplines have improved as follows:

• Blood Alcohol, from 759 cases to 4
• Controlled Substances from 1,554 cases to 1,240
• DNA from 5,348 cases to 1,310
• Latent Prints from 1,411 cases to 176
• Toxicology from 877 cases to 513

Press issued the following statement through a spokesperson:

For just under 10 years, I had a productive career with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, rising through the ranks through multiple promotions into a supervisory role. I did so despite an overwhelming caseload, little support and a leadership structure that refused to solve or take responsibility for a well-documented backlog in DNA testing.

I resigned from DPS by my own choice in 2016. I did so because I could no longer work for an organization that continued to allow issues to fester nor work in a position that was negatively impacting my health and my family life.

The case in question represents a true tragedy – one caused by DPS leadership’s refusal to help fix a backlog they knew existed. Rather than attempt to solve this backlog crisis, they chose to ignore it and sweep it under the rug. This blame deflection apparently continues to this day, as their untrue statements about my performance indicate. DPS leadership’s false assertion that I let this case languish for six years flies in the face of the truth reflected by the case files.

I never allowed this case or any other case to sit idle for undue periods of time to hide incompetence or misconduct. At a time when I was taking on multiple leadership roles – positions that today are handled by multiple full-time employees – I was also required to maintain a caseload that was in no way a one-person job. As emails and case files document, DPS leadership was well aware of this caseload and the department’s backlog, as were others involved in the cases. They were also well aware of my assumption of additional roles and responsibilities, and my attempts to re-assign cases so they could be completed.

While it may be convenient for DPS to “throw me under the bus,” that’s simply a deflection of what really happened here. To make excuses is simply to fail the victims of these crimes again. That failure is beyond unfortunate.

The majority of Press’ 40 cases are from Tempe police. It’s not clear if DPS notified any of the agencies about what happened. However, when we reached out to Tempe, they were not aware of the situation.

Here is the list of her 40 cases:

2009703286 [Coolidge PD, PC]

2009708038 [Glendale PD, PC]

2011708490 [Glendale PD, PC]

2012708795 [Tempe PD, SA]

2010729903 [Glendale PD, SA]

1978021106 [Tempe PD, VC]

2007740874 [Tempe PD, SA]

2007741955 [Tempe PD, PC]

2008720387 [Tempe PD, VC]

2009704369 [Glendale PD, PC]

2009708639 [Surprise PD, PC]

2009724452 [Tempe PD, SA]

2009739417 [Tempe PD, PC]

2009744972 [Tempe PD, SA]

2010720698 [Tempe PD, PC]

2010731792 [Tempe PD, PC]

2010740660 [Tempe PD, SA]

2011738986 [Tempe PD, PC]

2011732514 [Tempe PD, SA]

2011732754 [Tempe PD, SA]

2012708024 [Tempe PD, PC]

2012712817 [Tempe PD, VC]

2012718026 [Tempe PD, PC]

2012720787 [Tempe PD, VC]

2012722405 [Tempe PD, VC]

2012727440 [Tempe PD, SA]

2012734155 [Tempe PD, SA]

2012730880 [Tempe PD, VC]

2013707961 [Yuma PD, SA]

1997048006 [Tempe PD, SA]

2009727317 [Tucson PD, SA]

2010729202 [Tempe PD, PC]

2010734389 [Tempe PD, PC]

2012708030 [Tempe PD, PC]

2012714208 [Tempe PD, PC]

2012723616 [Tempe PD, PC]

2012726211 [Tempe PD, PC]

2012730880 [Tempe PD, PC]

2012735051 [Glendale PD, SA]

2013701406 [Prescott Valley PD, PC]

 

PC = Property Crime

VC = Violent Crime, non sexual assault

SA = Sexual Assault

 

Katie Bieri contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 KPNX


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