AEJMC Panel: Covering Victims of Crime
International Conference & Summit on Violence, Abuse & Trauma
Panel: Clinical Lessons from Journalists
Conversation with Aluf Benn
Three years ago, serial killer Maury Travis taught St. Louisans a lesson: Prostitutes can be rape victims, too.
He picked them up from the city's Baden neighborhood, forced them into sex acts and snuffed out their lives -- at least one with his home video camera running. Authorities don't know how many people he killed but think it may be as many as 20.
Women on the edge -- prostitutes, runaways, addicts, transients -- are sitting ducks for sexual predators, who know such victims may get less attention. Crime experts say the Travis killings illustrate the value of investigating crimes against women who cling to society's bottom rung.
Barely a year after Travis hanged himself in jail, another young prostitute in the Baden area reported on Jan. 22 of last year that she was kidnapped, held captive for two days and raped repeatedly.
Police neither investigated nor wrote a crime report. They called her mother to pick her up.
A memo written that night by a Sex Crimes Section detective, says Erinn Steinbeck called 911 from a gas station on Hall Street. She "never reported being raped, " he wrote, adding that her mother concurred that Steinbeck "has nothing to report."
Steinbeck and her mother, Christine Dawes, dispute that.
"That's not true, " said Dawes, who recalled in a recent interview how her daughter was adamant about leading authorities to the scene. "She was literally insisting that they go with her there. Erinn wanted to show the cops where he locked her in. She really insisted they take her back to the place because she felt there was enough evidence there.
"But they said, 'We're not going to get a good case out of this. Nobody is going to believe a crackhead. All the guy would have to say is that he didn't pay her and she was upset.'"
Capt. Mary Warnecke, a former Sex Crimes Section commander who now is a commander of the 2nd District, disputed that Steinbeck really reported a crime.
"In this particular case, the young lady with her mother gives us information that she's suffering from an illness and she didn't have a crime to report, " Warnecke said. "You can't say 'rape' and make a crime report happen. You have to give specifics and you have to give particulars to substantiate any crimes, whether it be a rape or any crime. This was not provided."
Steinbeck, a drug addict and former prostitute, is typical of a group of women reflected in police memos examined by a Post-Dispatch reporter who spent six months tracking the women and trying to verify their stories.
For decades, sex crimes detectives wrote memos instead of reports about some incidents. While crime reports were counted in statistics and computerized for easy access and analysis, memos were not counted as crimes and were paper records kept in a file drawer.
Some outside experts who reviewed memos written in the last two years, the only documents available, said many incidents appeared to be crimes. Those memos were routinely destroyed, sometimes before the statute of limitations had expired.
In an interview, Police Chief Joe Mokwa insisted that a victim's social status is not a factor in how vigorously a crime is investigated.
Regarding Steinbeck, Warnecke said, "If this particular victim has a crime to report to us, we'd be happy to hear from her."
Did memos hide predator?
If Steinbeck's ordeal happened as she described, a rapist got away with one crime and remains a threat. Crime experts and police in other cities say that is why it is imperative to look seriously at such claims.
"You do yourself a disservice in dismissing those cases, " said Philadelphia police Capt. John Darby, commander of his department's Special Victims Unit.
"The worst case scenario is that the next victim is somebody's mother or sister or daughter who happens to be walking through the area, unbeknownst to what goes on in that area, and is misidentified -- identified as an addict or a prostitute and becomes your next victim, " he said.
The practice raises questions about how police investigated what may have been the city's most prolific and elusive sexual criminal -- Dennis Rabbitt, better known as the South Side Rapist. Although Rabbitt told the Post-Dispatch he was active in the 1970s and '80s, police didn't begin recognizing a pattern until the spring of 1992.
The newspaper sought to examine memos written in the 1970s and '80s, when Rabbitt said he was active. Department lawyer Jane Berman Shaw said all but a few memos written before 2003 were destroyed over the years.
Several crime experts interviewed for this story said such treatment of rape claims -- and the rote destruction of what records were made -- might have helped hide the work of serial rapists.
"They are destroying an opportunity to catch repeat offenders by destroying DNA and by turning these cases from incidents into memos, and then destroying memos, " said Michelle Anderson, an expert on rape law and a professor at Villanova University School of Law, near Philadelphia.
In Atlanta, a retired police commander said a serial rapist convicted there in January could have been caught sooner if police had thoroughly investigated rape complaints by prostitutes.
Some of his crimes had been relegated to informal complaints and kept out of crime statistics.
Police didn't see a "good case"
Steinbeck acknowledges that few people would be sympathetic toward her. After a suburban upbringing, she spent years on the street selling sex and stealing purses to buy heroin. She recently served almost a year in jail in St. Louis County for forgery and plans to enter a treatment center soon.
On the night she was attacked, Steinbeck said, it was too late for a bus home after two days of drinking and drugging with friends. A man on a porch offered his phone to call her mother. She said she followed him into a house being rehabbed on Church Road, north of Halls Ferry Road. As a prostitute and a drug user, she was accustomed to following strange men into houses.
"As I came in, he grabbed me from behind, " she said. She described repeated rapes in an unfinished room. He left at times, she said, locking her in the dark with nothing but blankets. She said no one responded to her cries for help.
After two days, she said, he let her go shortly after midnight.
"It was like he was done with me, " she said.
Steinbeck called 911 from a pay phone at Gimblin and Hall streets.
In three paragraphs, Detective Blaskiewicz wrote that Steinbeck appeared "intoxicated and mentally ill." Officers summoned her mother, Dawes, from her home in Florissant. Blaskiewicz wrote that Dawes said her daughter was on drugs and seeing a psychiatrist, and "added that her daughter has nothing to report." The memo gave no details of her complaint.
Blaskiewicz provided two forms for the mother and daughter to sign. The first was a "no-prosecution" form stating that Steinbeck would not help prosecute the unidentified offender. The second was a "victim waiver" stating that she understood police would not investigate her claim and that she had "nothing to report at this time."
Steinbeck and Dawes signed each form, and the officers left.
Dawes said recently that she felt she had to sign them, under the circumstances.
"I wasn't forced in any way, " Dawes said. "I'm 48 years old and I grew up in Florissant. It's 3 a.m., I'm standing in my pajamas with my coat over them in a really scary place. I wanted to do whatever was quickest to get out of there after it was apparent they weren't going to do anything. They were going to leave."
Dawes said her daughter wanted to take her to the house, even after police refused to go there.
"She wanted me to go back and see it, " Dawes said. "I said, 'Oh, no, honey, I'm not going back. She kept saying, 'They've got to see! They've got to know!'"
Dawes said she immediately felt guilty about signing the waivers.
"I thought this guy is going to do this to someone else, and they're going to find a dead girl in that building, " she said. "I keep fearing I am going to see that on the news and know I could have prevented it."
Dawes also thought her daughter should have been arrested.
"She's a drug addict who had just admitted to doing crack, " she said. "They keep letting them go and letting them go and letting them go, and the problems start piling on."
Later on, Dawes said, she saw a TV report about Maury Travis, the serial killer, and realized how close her daughter might have come to meeting death at his hands. Her lifestyle "shouldn't be a death sentence, " she said.
Chief Mokwa ordered that the Steinbeck memo, and scores of others, be converted to crime reports last fall, after the Post-Dispatch raised questions about the handling of rape complaints.
The report was written on Jan. 5 -- nearly a year after Steinbeck called for help. But it did not change the outcome. Police classified the report as "unfounded, " allowing the department to keep it out of the official crime count and off the Sex Crimes Section's list of active cases.
After turning over the record of Steinbeck's complaint to the Post-Dispatch, another police detective called Dawes at the end of June.
"She said they wanted to reopen the case if Erinn would like to speak with them, " Dawes said. "I said, 'How would you reopen the case? You have no evidence. Anything that was there was gone a few years ago.' I said, 'I assume this has something to do with the fact that she's been talking to a reporter.' And she says, 'Oh, no, we weren't aware of that at all.'
"They're going to pull this file and reinvestigate it all of a sudden? How stupid do you think I am?"
Dawes said she felt intimidated by the call.
"I haven't said anything but the truth, " she said. "I'm not trying to sue them. So let them do what they may."
Injuries -- but no report
Another St. Louis woman whom police knew as a prostitute never had a chance to sign away an investigation.
Police did it for her.
The 38-year-old woman told police on Nov. 3, 2002, that a man in a red car abducted her, beat her up and raped her. The officer who responded, Thomas Carroll, noticed facial injuries and that the victim "appeared to be under the influence of drugs and alcohol, " according to the memo he wrote.
Carroll referred the case to the Sex Crimes Section. But the detective on duty, Michael McAteer, was working another case; no one else was available. The woman was taken by ambulance to Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where a nurse collected evidence in a rape kit.
Carroll made no record of the woman's case; McAteer wrote a memo, based on what Carroll told him. The case was not counted as a crime and was not among those later converted to crime reports.
The memo said Carroll asked the woman to contact McAteer. It also said that McAteer left his card at her home later that day. While similar memos obtained by the newspaper typically listed the victim's home address and telephone number, this one did not. McAteer did not indicate where he looked for the woman.
When there was no word from her in three months, McAteer picked up her rape kit from Barnes. It went to police headquarters but was never analyzed for DNA.
He also checked her record and found she had multiple arrests for prostitution, and allegedly had made eight prior reports of being sexually assaulted, according to his memo.
Not all of them had been unfounded complaints, however: The police later confirmed that they had led to at least two arrests.
The police insist the case did not warrant a report -- that the woman should have called them back.
"We need to be able to establish the elements of this crime, " Warnecke said. "You have to give us the elements of the crime, and she didn't do that."
Said Chief of Detectives Timothy Reagan: "We left business cards. She clearly knew how to contact us."
A Post-Dispatch reporter needed just hours to find the woman, through a message left with her sister at her listed phone number. The woman expressed surprise that McAteer said he had visited her home.
"Really, which address did he go to?" she asked. "I was homeless at the time, and I told them that. I didn't have an address." She said she did not know that police had never written a report on her case.
And she disputes the idea that police could not find her. They found her when they needed information about a higher-profile case, she said.
She said they showed her pictures of some of Maury Travis' unidentified victims. She told them she recognized some of the faces from the streets.
She also told them something else: She knew Travis. She said she was almost one of his victims.
Months before, she said, he picked her up outside a bar in Baden and drove to the Walnut Park neighborhood. They were sitting together in his vehicle in an alley and a motion-activated light on the rear of a house kept switching on and off, she said. It seemed to make him nervous.
She said he offered her some crack and she declined. That made him even more nervous, she said. "He thought I was the police because I wouldn't smoke crack with him, " she said. "He never got a chance to do any harm to me."
Today, the woman said, she has been clean and sober for more than a year, and was recently married. She works in a shop downtown, exercises in a fitness club and says, "I'm much better now."
In May, the Post-Dispatch asked the Police Department for a copy of the 911 call reporting the attack, to see exactly what details it contained. The department refused, citing provisions of a Missouri law that restricts such access.
But within days, the woman said, a detective called her.
"The lady detective said, 'It sounds like you think you weren't treated fairly.'"
Your contributions help the Dart Center nurture informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide.
The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.