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Rape kit backlog hit tied man to 2 cold cases, police say

Van Riley Overton Jr. (APD)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In early April 1997, a 17-year-old girl said she was raped by an acquaintance at a party near the University of New Mexico. She said he pushed her to the ground in an alley and told her to be quiet or he would kill her.

Almost seven years later, about 1,000 miles away in Mountain View, California, a 42-year-old woman said she was sleeping in a motel when a stranger broke in, held her down and sexually assaulted her for about half an hour.

Late last month, after the Albuquerque Police Department tested the 1997 rape kit, detectives determined the same man was responsible.

Van Riley Overton Jr., now 45, was arrested in Albuquerque on Sunday.

He had become somewhat of a public figure in the city over the years, holding TED talks, founding and co-founding local youth advocacy organizations and appearing in multiple news stories involving his volunteer work.

He even won a prestigious award from then-Mayor Richard Berry in 2017.

Earlier this week, Overton was extradited to California to face multiple counts of rape. His public defender did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for the Mountain View Police Department said Overton had his first court appearance, an arraignment, on Thursday. She said he will be held in the Santa Clara County Jail until trial.

A spokesman for the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Bernalillo County said the victim from Albuquerque wants to push forward, as well.

“We will be indicting our case in the coming weeks and will prosecute him once the case in California is complete,” District Attorney’s Office spokesman Michael Patrick said. “It will be criminal sexual penetration in either the first or second degree,” he added.

Report in Albuquerque

In the early morning of April 6, 1997, a 17-year-old girl reported to police she had just been raped at a party on Silver south of University. Two officers were dispatched, and the girl told them she had attended the party with two friends and ran into an acquaintance she knew only as “Van,” according to a police report. She said he asked her to step out back with him and when she did he pushed her to the ground and raped her in an alley.

She said he told her he would kill her if she made a sound or if she told anyone, and he would stab and kill the people she told.

However, she did tell her friends, and they called the police.

The girl’s friends told the officers they didn’t know Van well but he had graduated from Highland High School and belonged to a tagging gang.

“(The friend) also stated that he would be able to find Van by asking around, I told him to call the police if he knew where Van could be found,” the report states.

The girl was taken to the hospital to be seen by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and evidence – including the suspect’s DNA – was collected.

It’s unclear from the police report what was done next and an APD spokesman said he couldn’t find any other follow-up in the case.

The rape kit wouldn’t be tested until November 2019.

California case

On Feb. 4, 2004, a 42-year-old woman staying at the now-demolished Lucky U motel in Mountain View, California, southeast of San Francisco, told police she was asleep when a man broke into her room, held her down and raped her.

“She called immediately after he left,” said Katie Nelson, a Mountain View Police Department spokeswoman. “He ran out of the room she was staying in at this motel. She called us and we immediately began our investigation.”

Nelson said the Mountain View Police Department, an agency with about 95 sworn officers, collected DNA as part of the woman’s rape kit, tested it immediately and uploaded it to a national DNA database.

“Unfortunately, at the time we did not have any hits,” Nelson said. “So over the course of the next roughly 16 years we proceeded to continually check and see if there had been any matches. Our detective at the time who is now our captain, Jessica Nowaski, stayed in contact with her.”

Nelson said that in late January they learned there was a DNA match in Albuquerque.

Detectives from the Mountain View Police Department collaborated with APD sex crimes detectives, and after taking another look at the Albuquerque case they zeroed in on Overton. Nelson said he lived in the area from about 2002 to 2006.

Over the past several years, Overton became heavily involved in volunteer work and philanthropy in the Albuquerque-area.

He co-founded Duke City Dream Lab and later founded the nonprofit SpreadLoveABQ, both of which are geared to helping Albuquerque youths grappling with substance abuse, homelessness and other adversities.

In 2017, Berry honored Overton as volunteer of the year for his work on behalf of the Albuquerque Public Schools Title 1 homeless project, and for organizing art programs that raised donations of food and clothing for homeless students.

A father of two, Overton also served three years as a member of the New Mexico Parent Teacher Association Board of Directors, and was an active volunteer in APS schools up until his arrest.

Overton was employed as an education assistant for two days – Feb. 6 through Feb. 8, 2020 – at Emerson Elementary School.

Overton had been interviewed by APD detectives Feb. 7, and his DNA had been collected.

Nelson said the DNA was determined to be an “identical match” in their case. Overton was arrested Feb. 9 and was extradited to Mountain View, California, the next day.

“Two women’s lives have been irrevocably changed because of these incidents,” Nelson said. “The gravity of what we were dealing with was not lost on us.”

Clearing the backlog

Out of the initial 5,418 rape kits in a decadeslong backlog, police say there are only 27 remaining.

The backlog became a hot topic in December 2016 when then-State Auditor Tim Keller – now mayor of Albuquerque – issued a report finding there were about 5,400 rape kits that had been collected as evidence in New Mexico but never processed. The vast majority of the cases, about 4,000, were from Albuquerque.

In 2017, Berry’s administration secured two grants to clear the backlog: one for $2.5 million through a Department of Justice program called the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, and another for $250,000.

Then, in early 2018, Keller signed an executive order calling for law enforcement and investigators to create a comprehensive plan for clearing the backlog.

When asked if the Mountain View Police Department detectives were frustrated to learn Overton’s DNA had been sitting untested in Albuquerque, Nelson said the case highlights the importance of clearing the rape kit backlog.

“That’s something we have faced out here in California,” Nelson said. “While our kits are cleared and updated we know that there are other places out there that are still grappling with that. We sincerely hope that this is another example of why it is so important to fund these types of efforts.”

The backlog was in the news again this week after the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Albuquerque is not eligible for a federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant due to the city’s status as an “immigrant-friendly” city.

APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said although the department will finish testing its backlog within the next couple of months without the funding, the grant would have helped with further investigation and prosecution of those cases.

“Without that funding it could have an impact, but I expect we’ll find it in other sources,” Gallegos said.

Journal staff writer Shelby Perea contributed to this report.

 

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