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Whistleblower lawsuit alleges APD failure on rape cases

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Over the past several years as the Albuquerque Police Department undertook the testing of decades worth of rape evidence kits – clearing what was once the worst backlog in the country – three former detectives say the sex crimes unit leadership undermined the investigation and prosecution of serial rapists and failed to train newer detectives on how to investigate complex and sensitive cases.

They say that the unit is understaffed and that the most experienced investigators have left.

In a whistleblower lawsuit filed in 2nd Judicial District Court last week, former detectives Sally Dyer, Teresa Romero and Mandi Abernathy say they were retaliated against when they repeatedly raised concerns about the way the sex crimes unit was run.

All three have since resigned from APD, and Dyer and Abernathy now work for other law enforcement agencies in the state, their lawyer says.

The city of Albuquerque and APD are named as defendants in the case.

According to the lawsuit, in 2017 officers were told to stop using a database to track suspect information – including location of an assault, description, and vehicle – and the unit’s leadership “frustrated” detectives’ use of a national database created by the FBI.

The lawsuit also says that new detectives were not properly trained and that Sgt. Amanda Wild, the head of the unit, told detectives not to communicate with prosecutors about cases.

“I think everybody is very confused why this wouldn’t be a top priority of the department,” said attorney Laura Schauer Ives, who is representing the detectives. “It’s clear this wasn’t just incompetence; this is absolutely a purposeful effort to undermine the arrest and prosecution of serial rapists.”

Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, did not respond to the allegations laid out in the lawsuit or answer questions about why the databases weren’t used or why detectives were told not to communicate with the District Attorney’s Office. He said the city has not yet been served with the lawsuit and will fully investigate the allegations.

“APD has been working to improve investigations of sexual assault, including … testing the backlog of rape kits, and will continue with those efforts,” Gallegos wrote in an email.

In March, APD told the Journal there were six detectives investigating active sex crimes and two detectives assigned to cold cases from the backlog.

At that time, Gallegos said they were finishing sending the last of 5,438 kits in the backlog to be tested and they had results for 2,913. Of those, 1,112 met the criteria for uploading DNA into the national Combined DNA Index System, he said.

The lawsuit paints a picture of a unit that is understaffed and whose detectives have not been trained on how to interview trauma victims or investigate cold cases. The detectives say although there was an internal directive that all sex crimes detectives be trained on trauma-informed interview techniques, not all of them underwent that training. This failure caused the officers to re-traumatize rape victims during interviews, not understand a trauma victim’s memory lapse and ultimately made them less likely to pursue vigorous investigations, according to the lawsuit.

In one instance, after the arrest of serial rape suspect Timothy Bachicha in 2018, APD opened an internal investigation into Sgt. Wild’s supervision of the unit to see whether the suspect could have been charged earlier if information had been added to an internal database, according to the lawsuit.

The result of that internal investigation is unclear; Gallegos did not respond to questions about it.

Detective Dyer, who had investigated the West Mesa serial killer case and high profile rapes before leaving APD in 2013 to care for her children, said she was hired to work as a civilian service aide on contract with the department in 2016 and realized the sex crimes unit did not have a functional database documenting allegations against alleged offenders. So she compiled her own list of 22 suspects and kept them posted at her desk.

“However, when Amanda Wild became sergeant of the Sex Crimes Unit (which included its Cold Case Division) in 2017, she ordered former detective Dyer to immediately discontinue documenting serial rapists and took away former detective Dyer’s cases that had been assigned to her by the previous sergeant,” the lawsuit says.

Detective Abernathy, who worked for APD for 13 years, 10 as a detective, said that at one point she was tasked with investigating 350 cases and that it was not possible for anyone to adequately investigate that many.

And detective Romero, who had worked as an officer since 1998 and at APD since 2002, said she was not given any support for coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. She said Sgt. Wild treated her less favorably because of her PTSD diagnosis and broke protocol to assign her more cases than other officers.

The detectives are asking for actual, compensatory and special damages, two times back pay with interest, compensation for damages sustained, reasonable attorney fees and any other relief the court deems proper.

“Although APD claims it has processed all of its backlogged rape evidence kits, the difficult work lies ahead, and the Sex Crimes Unit officers must now actually investigate the cases,” the lawsuit says. “But the Sex Crimes Unit is understaffed, its most experienced officers are now gone, and the same leadership that undermined investigations and prosecutions of serial rapists continues to be at the helm of the unit.”

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