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‘It’s not just a kit’

Meredith Dunn writes on a wall in Alabama, which is now her home state. After hearing news about the rape kit backlog, she was compelled to start sharing her story of being raped in Albuquerque in the 1990s. (Courtesy of Meredith Dunn)

Meredith Dunn writes on a wall in Alabama, which is now her home state. After hearing news about the rape kit backlog, she was compelled to start sharing her story of being raped in Albuquerque in the 1990s. (Courtesy of Meredith Dunn)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Meredith Dunn said she’s done shutting up.

As the Albuquerque Police Department sends the last of its backlogged rape kits away for testing, and the District Attorney’s Office sorts through the cases to see which it will be able to prosecute, Dunn says she wants people to know what it’s been like for her and the thousands of other women whose kits sat around in evidence rooms for years.

More than 20 years ago one summer night in Albuquerque, Dunn was raped by a stranger in front of an apartment complex. Bloodied and bruised, the then-20-year-old was first taken to the hospital, then to another site to undergo an hourslong sexual assault examination.

Months later, she said, the police officer in charge of her case told her there were no leads and there was nothing else they could do. The case was closed.

It wasn’t until last year that Dunn, now 42 years old and living in Alabama, learned her full kit had never been tested.

“In a crime like mine where the person was unknown, the one piece of evidence that they had – scraping from the inside of my body – they didn’t take the time to actually test it?” Dunn said. “Why did I even endure that? I could have gone home; I could have taken a shower; I could have gotten into the bed.”

The kit – her bloody clothes, swabs and collected hairs – sat in an evidence storage room until she asked about it last year.

Dunn said once she learned her kit had never been tested – and that it would be tested now and she would possibly have to face the man who attacked her – she began experiencing intense post-traumatic stress disorder once again, even worse than right after the attack. It was almost impossible for her to function.

For months she couldn’t sleep, and if she did drift off she would awaken terrified and drenched with sweat. She said she was completely consumed by depression and anxiety over what the test would reveal.

Then, when the kit was finally tested in September, it came back negative for male DNA.

That means she is no closer to having answers about her attacker than she was in 1998.

Dunn – who in the years after the attack got married, had two children, moved away from New Mexico and now writes and works in marketing – said after following the news about the rape kit backlog in cities across the country, she felt compelled to share the story of what happened to her and how the backlog sent her into a tailspin as she experienced the trauma all over again.

“I just really want people to know there are people behind these stories, it’s not just a number, it’s not just a kit…,” Dunn said. “I want people to know that number (of backlog rape kits) represents people’s lives. The impact of learning the people who were supposed to protect you did not is life-altering, not just for the survivors, but for whole family.”

After weekly therapy and coming to terms once again with the fact that she may never know who raped her, Dunn said she has been sharing her story with her friends, the community and, now, the public.

Final 27 kits

New Mexico’s rape kit backlog was once the worst in the nation, with more than 5,000 kits sitting in evidence rooms in 2015 and 2016. Almost 75% of those kits were from the Albuquerque area.

But over the past couple of years, after receiving grant funding and devoting resources to the problem, 5,391 kits have been tested, reducing the backlog to just 27 kits, which the Albuquerque Police Department expects to send out for testing this week.

The District Attorney’s Office said 16 people have been charged as a result of the kits being tested and an additional 162 cases have been assigned to prosecutors. Many other cases are now being investigated and evaluated.

Last month, APD announced two cold cases – one in town and another across the country in California – had been solved due to the testing of a rape kit from 1997.

Dunn’s story does not have that kind of tidy conclusion.

In Dunn’s case, APD actually did do some preliminary testing, according to a spokesman.

Gilbert Gallegos said the department conducted a “fast track kit” in which they collected one swab from each orifice, then tested them for body fluids, a practice called “serology.”

“Serology was used as a decision making tool on which samples to take to DNA, and that was common practice nationwide at the time,” Gallegos wrote in an email. “Common practice was that if no semen was detected, it was almost certain that a male DNA profile wouldn’t be obtained, so samples were stopped.”

In Dunn’s case, the swabs tested negative for semen.

The collected samples in the full Sexual Assault Evidence Kit were not sent away for testing until last year as APD worked through its backlog.

“State law requires that DNA testing be done, serology testing doesn’t meet this threshold,” Gallegos said. “This case was negative for serology, so it is considered backlogged, and was sent for DNA testing.”

When the results came in last September, no male DNA had been detected.

A spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office said there were more than 750 other kits for which they found insufficient evidence or no suspect DNA.

‘I just want to go home’

Dunn grew up in Illinois and moved to Albuquerque in the summer of 1997. She attended community college while waiting to get state residency so she could enroll in the University of New Mexico and study English and education.

One night in early June 1998, Dunn said, her friend gave her a ride to another friend’s apartment in Northeast Albuquerque near the university. She said she was walking to the complex when a man approached and asked her what she was doing.

“At that point he told me to shut up and he hit me across the face,” Dunn said, adding that he pushed her to the ground and raped her.

“I don’t have a lot of memory after that, other than being on the ground and feeling the moisture from the ground seep through the back of my shirt onto my skin,” she said. “The whole time I was screaming this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, I recall screaming very loudly.”

It was only three or four minutes later that her friend, waiting nearby in the car, heard the screams and came running. At that point, the man got off her and ran away.

Dunn curled up on the floor of her friend’s car and was driven to the hospital, leaving her sandals behind at the scene.

At the hospital, she met with a police officer and gave a description of her attacker, according to an APD incident report.

Hours later, she went to another facility to undergo a sexual assault examination.

“They said you need to now have this really intensive exam to try to collect evidence. I was tired, I was traumatized, I was bleeding, I was covered in blood, my clothes were destroyed, my parents had been called…” Dunn said. “There was a moment when I thought I just want to go home and take a shower. I don’t want to be touched, I don’t want to be questioned, I don’t want to be prodded.”

In the months that followed, she stopped going to the summer classes she was enrolled in.

Even though the assault didn’t happen at her apartment she couldn’t imagine spending another night there – fearful her attacker knew where she lived – so she packed up and moved.

She began to have trouble sleeping and going out alone after dark.

But she also met the man who would become her husband, and a couple of years later they moved away from New Mexico, eventually ending up in Alabama 12 years ago. They’ve built a life there and are raising two kids.

That’s where, while driving in her car one day, Dunn happened to hear Mayor Tim Keller on National Public Radio talking about Albuquerque’s rape kit backlog. It made her wonder about her own case.

She called APD and learned that, no, her full rape kit had never been fully tested.

“They did the quick thing, but you can’t find anyone from that – what the hell?” Dunn said. “It felt like a … it’s like a betrayal, like a re-trauma. The wound is always there. It will never go away, but it felt like it was ripped back open.”

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