This multipart series focuses on rape survivor Sandi Fedor’s efforts to track down the serial rapist who attacked her as she discovers that her trust has been betrayed by the indifference of an historically under-resourced Cleveland Police sex crimes unit. Judges praised the team for “successfully intertwining a visceral survivor’s point of view narrative with traditional investigative reporting.” They said the series “meticulously documents with photographs, video clips, audio recordings, public records, police documents, and prior investigative reporting” a “pattern of systemic police department failure dating back decades” which “enabled serial offenders like the man who attacked Sandi Fedor to evade justice for years.” Originally published in the Plain Dealer on September 29, 2019.
CLEVELAND, Ohio — When Sandi Fedor reported her rape, she warned a Cleveland detective that her attacker would hurt someone else. She gave police more than enough information to find him. But they barely investigated her case, then dropped it without telling her.
Sandi couldn’t live knowing her rapist was still on the street — so she set out to track him down herself. She isn’t the first woman to come to police, asking for help, only to be shunted aside, “discarded,” she says, “like a piece of trash.”
The persistent problems within the city’s sex crimes unit span decades. Sandi’s story reveals the human cost of those failings for her, the detectives assigned to work the cases and the Greater Cleveland community. The Plain Dealer spent more than a year reporting and producing this special report.
Find each part of the story below and a link to the materials we used in our reporting. Scroll to the bottom for more videos, and a link to join a discussion about the series.
More in Sandi’s words below:
Part 1: Sandi reports her rape
Raped in Cleveland.
Abandoned by police.
She became her own detective.
By Rachel Dissell and Andrea Simakis • Originally published September 29, 2019
She’s in that dingy basement again. Everything is drained of color. The smell of simmering sauerkraut overwhelms her. His voice mocks her.
She hears it, over and over: “You’re not going anywhere.”
No matter where Sandi went, all this time later, she felt trapped in that man’s house. The memories came in flashes. Invasions. As she tried to grocery shop. Or babysit her grandkids. Or go anywhere in her car, the one he’d been in.
Once, she’d thought about driving that car off a pier into Lake Erie. But she couldn’t do that to her husband, her daughters, her sisters.
It had been almost two years since Sandi Fedor ran, naked and screaming, from a man she barely knew. Since she had fought him off, the bones of her nose crunching under his fist. Since she’d survived.
Sandi had done everything she could to lead Cleveland police to her rapist back in 2015. She’d let a nurse swab her body for evidence. She’d given a detective the man’s first name and phone number. She’d warned police he’d hurt someone else.
But police hadn’t caught him. They weren’t even trying anymore.
He was still out there. “My monster,” she called him. She didn’t know where he was, so he could be anywhere.
That meant he was everywhere.
Sandi isn’t the first woman to bring her bruised body to Cleveland police — to show up, and ask, politely and persistently as she could, for them to please do their job — only to be let down.
After they questioned her, then ignored her and forgot her, Sandi unraveled, waiting for answers that never came. And she carried the guilt when she learned her rapist had lured another woman into his basement.
That left Sandi, like so many other women, to wonder: What was wrong with the Cleveland police? Were they incompetent? Or did they just not care?
For decades, police chiefs and mayors in Cleveland have said crimes against women and children are a priority. But that has proved to be lip service. The unit that investigates those crimes is always an afterthought.
The message to serial rapists is clear: Feel free to find your next victim.
The message to victims? Ask Sandi Fedor, who found out what it’s like to be raped in a city that refuses to care.
Cleveland police had closed Sandi’s case. Hadn’t even bothered to tell her. Unless she did something, her rapist would never see the inside of a courtroom for what he did to her.
So she did what no woman should have to do. She set out to track him down herself.
Why did you do that to me?
Sandi Fedor headed into Cleveland for one reason in July 2015. To get high. She had been sober for years. But then her mom died, and she’d slipped up.
One drink at dinner became two. Then her drinking turned to drugging. Now the 50-year-old was in the city, a half-hour from her husband in Mentor, partying with one of her old friends. But the woman had her kids with her, and for Sandi, grandmother to 10, that crossed a line. You didn’t use with children around. She wanted out of that situation.
Sandi hadn’t slept well for days. She was tired and thought about going home, but she didn’t.
She tried to meet up with another friend. He was busy, so he suggested Sandi call his buddy, Will. Will would help her out.
As soon as Will slid into her passenger seat, Sandi knew she was in trouble. This guy was all bad vibes.
He was at least 6 feet tall and all muscle, with long arms and dirty fingernails. He filled the tight space of her black Ford Focus.
Did she want drugs? he asked.
“No,” she answered.
Ordinarily, she would have said yes. But something — instinct, maybe — told her that she did not want to be high on crack. Not around this man.
“I am not smoking today,” she said.
Her refusal was like pulling a pin from a grenade. “You’re wasting my time!” he yelled.
Now she was really scared. Sandi reached for her phone. He snatched it away. Without it, she had no idea how to get home.
Will yanked the keys from the ignition. The car stalled, right there, in the middle of the road. She grabbed for her keys and ripped his shirt. He threatened to throw them out the window.
“You’re not gonna let me go. You’re just not gonna let me go. I don’t know what I’m doing here!” Sandi shouted.
He clapped his hand over her mouth, muffling her screams.
“Shut up,” he commanded.
Just do what he wants, she told herself.
With Sandi at the wheel, they zigzagged through unfamiliar streets and construction detours. He criticized her erratic steering. “I’m not going back to jail for you!”
Everything was a demand. Turn here! Go there! To a park overlooking the lake. To a gas station where he put gas in her car. To the liquor store to buy booze.
Sandi knew she had to get away from him but didn’t know how.
Why not say it?
After what felt like hours, he ordered her to pull down a side street and back into a driveway between two houses.
Relax, he told Sandi. Have a couple of drinks.
He handed her the bottle he’d bought earlier. If she drank, she could go. That’s what he told her. She took a few swigs of vodka. Soon, she was woozy.
Now he wanted to go into the house. She was too terrified to run.
Please God, Sandi thought. Why do I got to go in his house?
He hustled her into an unassuming two-story with grimy white aluminum siding. Will introduced her to his mother. She was old, but alert.
The woman glanced at Sandi from her perch on the couch. “Hi,” she said. The pungent odor of sauerkraut permeated the room.
Will bragged about his mother’s cooking and insisted Sandi have a bowl.
She wanted to bolt, but he corralled her down a narrow flight of stairs.
The basement was cramped and grimy. She saw a TV, a rumpled bed.
Sandi emptied the bowl Will had handed her, hoping the food would soak up the liquor. But then he told her to take another swig of vodka. And another. Sandi asked to use the bathroom.
Maybe the bathroom had a window, one large enough for her to wiggle through. She tried to close the door behind her, but he stopped her from shutting it. “Leave it open,” he said, and stood outside like a sentry.
She grasped the sides of the sink with both hands and stared into the mirror. She didn’t recognize the face, its features distorted by panic, like a woman in a horror movie.
A cold thought occurred to her: I don’t know if I’m going to make it out of here — I don’t know if I’m going to live.
Sandi walked back into the dim light of the basement.
“I’m not going to get out of here until you have sex with me,” Sandi said flatly.
“That’s right,” Will said. “That’s right.”
He told her to strip. She numbly complied, making a neat pile of her clothes — a white T-shirt, faded jeans, her bra and panties — on a low coffee table. Will had returned her phone, and she’d put it in her purse along with her keys. Everything together. Everything in one place.
He ordered her to lie on the bed. She stared up at the drop ceiling, stained with brown water marks. He climbed on top of her. She tried to push him off, but he was so heavy. When she yelled, he pressed her head into the mattress.
“Shut up,” he ordered.
It felt like it lasted forever.
When Will got up and made his way to the bathroom, Sandi seized her opportunity. Quietly as she could, she found her flip flops, purse and folded clothes.
The door was ajar. She could see him at the sink.
Go! screamed the voice in her head. Go now!
Sandi grabbed her things and pounded up the stairs, the voice still screaming: NOW-NOW-NOW!
She reached the side door and fumbled with the handle of the screen. OPEN-OPEN-OPEN!
The night air hit her naked body. She stabbed her thumb into the key fob, unlocking her car. She threw herself and everything she’d been carrying inside.
Sandi scrambled to pull the driver’s side door shut, but he was already on her. He jerked the door open.
"You're not going anywhere," he said.
Sandi jammed the key into the ignition, stomped on the clutch and used the force of her legs to pin herself back against the seat. He was not prying her loose.
She had to make noise. The neighbors had to hear. Sandi hollered and blared the horn.
He clamped his hand over her face. She felt like she was going to suffocate. Then his hand was gone and she gulped air. That’s when she felt her nose break. Sandi heard the bones crack, and an awful, otherworldly keening coming from somewhere, then realized the sound was coming from her.
He was still punching her, detonating bombs of pain in her face, as she turned the key and let her foot off the clutch.
She peeled out of the drive, the door hanging limp, like a broken wing.
Sandi drove. She had no idea where she was going.
Someone shouted at her from a car: “Your flashers are on!”
“He just raped me!” she screamed into the wind, her foot on the gas.
She blew through stop signs, a white lady with no clothes on, speeding through Mount Pleasant after midnight.
If I wreck this car, she thought, at least somebody will know, ‘Something happened to this girl.’
Somehow, she made it to her friend Tiffany’s house. When police arrived, they found Sandi sitting at a dining room table, wrapped in a blanket and sobbing so hard she couldn’t talk.
Sandi was still sobbing when medics loaded her into an ambulance. Her phone rang.
“It’s him,” she said, looking at the number on the screen.
“Answer it,” the cop instructed.
“You raped me,” Sandi said into the phone. “Why did you do that to me?”
We're gunna get you through this
The morning Sandi showed up for her interview with a Cleveland sex crimes detective, she had two black eyes, a bruised lip and a broken nose.
It had been five days, and her head still wasn’t clear from lack of sleep and all the drugs they’d pumped into her at MetroHealth hospital: painkillers, the morning-after pill, antibiotics to protect her from STDs.
She’d surfed potholes on the 30-mile trek from Mentor to the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland on the back of her husband’s motorcycle. They couldn’t drive her Ford Focus; the police had impounded it as evidence. And detectives in the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit didn’t often make house calls. The unit had 13 investigators to field more than 1,000 new cases a year. Detectives shared a handful of cruisers, sometimes just two or three working cars to go around.
But nothing was going to keep her from meeting with Detective Elaine Evans.
This guy had to be stopped before he hurt someone else.
Sandi and her husband, Gabe, made their way through a warren of gloomily lit hallways to the sixth floor.
In her blue uniform, the woman who ushered Sandi into an interview room looked more like a beat cop than a detective. But Evans had been working sex crimes cases for five years. She was promoted into the unit after 17 years of patrol car duty.
When she’d applied to the force, as a young mom not long out of the U.S. Navy, she’d said it was because she wanted to “help to keep the bad guys off the street.”
Evans told Gabe to wait outside in a children’s play area filled with sticky toys and tattered board games.
The interview felt like an interrogation almost from the start. Evans sat across the table from Sandi and turned on a video camera.
“Why was you hookin’ up with Terrance, is my question,” Evans said. “I thought you lived in Mentor. How do you know these people?”
Sandi sensed a thinly veiled subtext: What’s a white lady from the suburbs doing hanging out with a black dude on Cleveland’s East Side?
Sandi didn’t hesitate. “I do live in Mentor. I put myself in a bad situation,” she said.
“I binge — I go on binges.”
“With?” Evans pressed.
“Crack cocaine. Alcohol. I go on binges. So these are people I know through this stuff. Okay?”
Sandi started experimenting with drugs at 14. Addiction ran in her family. But she’d quit using at age 37, Gabe and her daughters cheering on her sobriety.
“I was clean for 10 years,” Sandi said. “Didn’t touch a thing.”
Then her mom died, she told Evans. The detective pointed to an engraved medallion around Sandi’s neck.
“Is that your mom?”
“Yeah, that’s my mom,” she answered, a hint of a smile tugging at her puffed-up lip. “She was my life.”
“I can tell,” Evans said.
It was during one of Sandi’s trips to Cleveland, on a binge in the fall of 2013, that she’d met Terrance. Sandi first spotted him in the garage of a mutual acquaintance, wrenching on a car. Terrance didn’t use, except maybe marijuana, and he never wanted anything from her but conversation. He was easygoing, and they just talked.
Terrance had connected Sandi to Will in a text message. He’d known him since junior high. Will would be fine to hang out with, he told her.
Terrance would know Will’s last name and where to find him. Sandi and Gabe had printed out a record of all the calls flying in and out of her phone the night she was raped, and highlighted Terrance’s number in green, Will’s number in bright yellow.
Will had called her at 1:14 a.m., as she was getting into the ambulance.
A cop even talked to him on the phone. He’d put that in his report: Will was “highly uncooperative and refused to give any information regarding the event or himself.”
“I’m going to use Terrance to help me find out who Will is,” Detective Evans told Sandi. “I’m going to call Terrance, see if I can get Terrance to come in and talk to me.”
In the 45-minute interview, Sandi took every question like a hurdle, clearing one, then moving onto the next before she lost her nerve or forgot something crucial.
In those surreal hours she had been Will’s captive — three, maybe four — he had forced Sandi to eat a meal prepared by his mother. Evans wanted to know more.
“Was it pigs’ feet?” the detective asked. “Was it good?”
Sandi paused, stumbled.
The detective chuckled. “You don’t even know, huh?”
Sandi tried to sail over questions like those, ones that seemed entirely beside the point.
She told Evans she had considered not reporting the rape at all. How guilty she felt putting her family through this. How embarrassed she was.
“I’m humiliated,” Sandi said.
“Don’t be — it’s okay,” Evans reassured her. “We’re gonna get you through this ... We’ll take care of this.”
Evans rattled off the things she’d do to track down Sandi’s rapist.
“Somebody like this can’t be out there,” Sandi said. She couldn’t say it enough: “Some other girl is gonna get hurt.”
“Exactly,” Evans agreed.
“She’s gonna die,” Sandi said, her voice breaking. “Because I didn’t.”
“Exactly,” Evans said. “And that’s why we gonna get ’im.”
Part 2: Fading from view
Fading from view
By Rachel Dissell and Andrea Simakis • Originally published September 29, 2019
There is Sandi Before
and Sandi After.
Sandi Before could talk to anybody — black, white, rich, poor, celebrities or nobodies. On a trip to Nashville, she found herself schmoozing with band members from the Southern supergroup Alabama like they were neighbors from down the street.
The old Sandi was game, willing to try anything. One roller coaster was never enough — she had to ride them all, until she lost her voice from screaming. Once, she ferried a coconut cream pie to a picnic while balanced on the back of Gabe’s bike.
In family photographs, Sandi Before opened her arms wide, taking in all the world had to offer.
In one of Sandi’s favorites, she’d persuaded her mom to strip down and join her in a giant bubble bath, where the two women giggled and posed like girlfriends in a rom-com.
“Nana’s just a big kid,” Sandi would remind her grandchildren. If they passed a playground, it was Sandi who couldn’t resist the slides.
Sandi took a childlike joy in the simplest things. She dressed in ruffles and bows. Maybe that was because her own childhood had felt so short.
Sandi didn’t grow up with her biological father in West Virginia. Her mom, Winnie Mae, left him because he drank too much.
Winnie Mae resettled in Ohio, remarrying a kind man whom Sandi called “Pappaw.” But her mother had developed a prescription pill habit to cope with her ex-husband’s alcoholism.
When her mom was zonked out, Sandi’s older sister Rhonda stepped in as a surrogate parent, making Sandi, the baby of the family, dinner and taking her to school. She’d even drag Sandi along on dates.
It wasn’t all bad; there were lots of good times, too. But some of the bad times left scars.
An older cousin was killed after an argument in a West Virginia pool hall when Sandi was just 14. It was around that time that she first tried drugs with her sister Patsy.
When Sandi was in her 20s, another cousin, Sonja, was murdered in her off-campus apartment in Gainesville. The 18-year-old freshman at the University of Florida was one of five murdered in a killing spree that temporarily shuttered the school and terrified college students and their parents from coast to coast. The serial killer decapitated one of his victims, leaving her head on a shelf.
Horrors like that taught Sandi an early lesson: Monsters didn’t exist only in bad dreams.
And now, she’d met one herself.
Sandi didn’t cry about what had happened, except when she thought of Gabe, walking into her room in the hospital. Her solid, sturdy husband had taken one look at her battered face and had to grab her bed to steady himself.
They’d started dating when she was “pushing 30,” as Gabe liked to needle her. They married in a no-fuss Vegas wedding at the Tropicana Hotel’s Island Chapel. Who wants to spend $14,000 on a wedding when you can say ‘I do’ for $400, they’d figured.
Gabe earned a decent living as a draftsman and freelance photographer. With the extra money Sandi brought in cleaning houses, they were able to afford the rustic two-story in the suburbs with a backyard so generous you could eat breakfast without someone next door peering into your kitchen to see if you took jam on your toast.
The house was big enough to offer Sandi’s aging mom the spare bedroom. Although she hadn’t always been there for Sandi, Winnie Mae beat her addiction in time to be a real grandmother to Sandi’s girls.
Their bond had grown stronger when Sandi, inspired by Winnie Mae’s sobriety, sobered up, too.
But Winnie Mae never moved in. She was 74 when she died in 2011. Sandi put her mother’s things in the spare bedroom anyway and referred to it as “Mom’s room.”
She started drinking again to numb the pain of losing her mother. She was even more crushed when she found her mom’s cursive words scrawled in a family memory book professing her pride that Sandi had overcome her addiction.
Sandi, trim, with perfectly straight black bangs, was as high functioning as it got. Her mania for order had inspired her to start her cleaning business. A way to put her OCD to good use, she joked. Her cream carpets were so spotless they looked new, even after the appearance of Sweetie, a longhaired Shih Tzu Sandi inherited from her mom.
She’d go on solitary, 5-mile walks through her woodsy neighborhood, Sweetie, sporting a “man bow” atop his head, greeting her when she got home.
Sandi would go on binges in the city, then come home to her well-organized life — “get her ducks in order,” the old Sandi used to say. Even her addiction was tidy.
Gabe hated it when she’d disappear for a day, sometimes two. He worried when he couldn’t reach her. But he’d stood by her through it all.
And Gabe was still there, living with the fallout of his wife’s rape, feeling her helplessness.
After the veteran detective promised to catch her rapist, months crawled by.
Sandi would replay their conversation in her head. “It’s OK …” Detective Evans told Sandi. “We’ll take care of this.”
Still, Sandi worried. She remembered how she felt when Evans left her in that interview room and a Cleveland Rape Crisis Center advocate came in to talk to her.
“They’re trying to figure out if you’re telling the truth,” the woman explained. “But I believe you.”
The therapist Sandi later saw at the rape crisis center urged her to give the police time to work the case.
But time wasn’t healing Sandi.
Once the cutup in all those pictures, Sandi now kept her arms pinned to her sides.
It was as if her body had become a sort of antenna that picked up signals that reminded her of him. Men with the same height or build. Men wearing the same clothing. Was it him pushing the shopping cart rolling up behind her? Was he around the next corner at the mall? Sometimes, she couldn’t leave the house.
At home, she drove Gabe mad locking all the doors, then checking them again.
She tried to keep working, but eventually stopped because she couldn’t stand to be alone in somebody else’s house.
They had to pay the bills on Gabe’s income. And there were more costs coming. She’d had trouble breathing ever since Will smashed her nose. Doctors told her she’d need at least one surgery.
Now, she logged miles on her indoor treadmill.
She never knew when something — the blare of a horn, the sound of a voice, cleaning behind the door in a bathroom — would trigger a flashback. Sandi called them her “episodes."
She’d run to the sink and plunge her hands into cold water or rummage in her purse to find a peppermint to pop into her mouth, sensory circuit breakers to keep her tethered to the here and now.
If she was in the car, that was harder. He’d been in the car.
They couldn’t afford to get rid of it. They’d only had the Focus for a year and a few months before Sandi’s attack. She started calling it The Rapemobile. Every time she and Gabe climbed into it, they had a fight.
The longer she heard nothing from Detective Evans, the more Sandi Before faded from view.
“I miss the old Sandi,” Gabe said.
Why didn't they do their jobs?
Sandi was afraid if she called Detective Evans too much, she’d annoy her and the cop might not investigate her rape.
When she did leave phone messages, she’d apologize for bothering her.
Early on, Evans had reassured Sandi: I’m working on the case.
And at first, it appeared she was. She made sure Sandi’s car was dusted for fingerprints, sent her phone to be examined and drove around with her to look for the house where she was raped.
Sandi didn’t hear much after that.
What about the phone numbers? For Will? For Terrance? The ones she and Gabe had highlighted.
Sandi wanted to interrogate the detective.
Once, she tried, but when Sandi got the detective on the phone, she felt the woman’s answers were vague, her tone curt.
Did you call Terrance? Sandi asked.
I did, Evans said. A man answered. He said I had the wrong number.
Sandi asked about Will’s number.
Disconnected, Evans told her.
Sandi didn’t quite believe the detective. But she didn’t say anything.
Eventually, Evans stopped returning her calls.
Maybe Evans had decided she didn’t believe her. Maybe she’d written her off as just another crackhead, Sandi thought.
Finally, in the fall of 2016, more than a year and a half after her rape, Sandi couldn’t take it anymore.
Her therapy sessions at the rape crisis center were Sandi’s lifeline, and she worried they were about to end. The center had already allowed her more than the usual 12 free visits because Sandi’s trauma symptoms were so severe and her case was in limbo.
Her therapist agreed to ask one of the center’s advocates embedded in the sex crimes unit to find out what was happening with her case.
The following week, the therapist had an answer.
Cleveland police had closed Sandi’s case more than six months earlier.
I’m so sorry this is happening, her therapist said.
As she heard the words, her chest tightened. She couldn’t breathe. How could that be true? She had trusted the police to help her.
I gave them everything I had. Why didn’t they listen? Why didn’t they do their job?
'Dirty little secret
The department Sandi believed had turned its back on her had been doing the same thing to women for decades.
Ten years ago, the best opportunity for Cleveland to fix its broken sex crimes unit was handed to them by a serial killer.
Anthony Sowell raped women, murdering 11, and Cleveland let him.
Rapists often pick women who have drug, alcohol or mental health issues, knowing that their stories will be doubted or dismissed.
Sowell counted on a tepid police response, and he got it. He relied on rape reports not being investigated, on victims not being believed. Sowell walked out of jail days after one woman flagged down a cop car. She’d escaped from his home, leaving a trail of blood in the snow. A detective had decided the woman was “not credible” without looking up Sowell’s record or reviewing the officer’s reports.
Sowell killed six women after that.
Community outrage over the mishandled cases prompted a mayoral commission, a 900-page report and so many promises.
Mayor Frank Jackson, elected to his second term in 2009 as women's bodies were still being unearthed from Sowell’s yard, vowed to make every suggested reform, more than two dozen of them.
Cops in the unit got cellphones. Other easy, aesthetic fixes were made, like painting the run-down sex crimes offices. But the larger, more systemic problems persisted.
Taxpayers also paid for the city’s negligence, though police never admitted wrongdoing. As part of a settlement, Cleveland shelled out $1 million to the families of six women killed after Sowell was released from jail. And this July, after an eight-year court battle, the city settled with two women who survived Sowell’s attacks for a total of $300,000.
Women’s rights groups and victim advocates across the country had started pushing in the 1970s for better treatment of women who reported sex crimes.
In Cleveland, members of the newly formed Cleveland Rape Crisis Center set their sights on creating a special citywide unit to investigate sex crimes but only gained political traction after an alarming increase in violent crimes against women and children, including the rape and murder of two teenage girls in the 1980s.
Cleveland’s “Rape and Child Abuse Investigative Unit” was established after a very public nudge from an emergency City Council resolution in 1985. Couched in the bureaucratic language was a clear rebuke:
“Whereas, because of the large number of stolen cars, the Police Department has responded by establishing a car theft unit, yet for violent sex-related crimes against women and children, no such specialized unit exists.”
The sex crimes unit’s first manual instructed detectives that “victims will be treated as you or a member of your family would like to be treated in similar circumstances.”
But almost from the start, the squad was starved of the resources it needed to carry out that charge.
By 1988, the unit’s ranks had been slashed by half. Then, as sex crimes reports spiked, yet another detective was pulled, to serve as a chauffeur to then-Council President George Forbes.
Meanwhile, the ranks of the auto theft and narcotics units grew.
Then-Mayor George Voinovich told The Plain Dealer that he expected that the unit would be “beefed-up” after the graduation of the next police academy class.
Yet, 13 years later, a different mayor made the same promise.
In 2001, fellow detectives discovered one of their own had shoved 51 rape case files, all with named suspects, in a drawer where they sat uninvestigated, leaving victims hanging and suspected rapists free. A year later, Mayor Jane Campbell vowed to add cops and train them better.
One of the county’s chief prosecutors said the problem in the unit ran deeper than one bad apple. The quality of investigations had plummeted because there was an avalanche of cases and too few people to work them.
“For a long time,” he said, “Cleveland’s sex crimes unit has been a dirty little secret.”
But it wasn’t really a secret then, and it isn’t now.
Part 3: How do I find him?
How do I find him?
By Rachel Dissell and Andrea Simakis • Originally published September 29, 2019
After Sandi was raped, she texted her friend Terrance a picture of her beaten face with a message: “Look what your friend did to me.”
Sandi had wondered if Terrance had set her up. If he knew Will, he must have known he was dangerous.
But now, Terrance was the only one who could help her.
She still had his number. It was the same one she’d given Detective Evans.
Sandi sat at her kitchen counter in Mentor and punched in the digits.
Terrance answered right away. “You led me like a lamb to slaughter,” she said.
“No, no, I wouldn’t do that to you,” Terrance replied. He said he was sorry. She wanted to believe him, but that didn’t matter. She got what she needed from him.
Will’s last name: Thomas.
Terrance told her something else. Will was in prison. What he’d done to Sandi, he’d done to another woman. She hung up and pulled out her tablet. How do I find him? Where do I look?
Her fingertips tapped at the screen.
“How do I find an inmate in prison?” she typed. A site called Ohio Offender Search popped up, and she entered his name.
Last name: Thomas
First name: William
His face appeared on the right side of her screen. “Uhhhhh,” she responded, as though someone had hit her in the gut.
There he was.
Sandi’s eyes locked on the prison mug shot. His graying hair. His flinty stare. The yellow background of the website flashing like a warning.
Seeing her rapist’s face threatened to take her back to that day 21 months ago. Back to the basement. Stumbling naked up the stairs. The blare of her car horn. The sound of her bones buckling under his fist.
His low growl: “You aren’t going anywhere.”
Slow down, Sandi told herself.
Sandi willed her thoughts back into the present: April 2017.
She was at home. Safe. From where she sat, she could look through the kitchen window into her backyard, ringed by trees and lit year-round with cheery, white lights.
Everything inside her told her to stop searching, but she needed more. Police had given up. Nobody else was going to do the digging.
She Googled some more and found the local court website for Cuyahoga County. It listed more than 20 men named William Thomas. Young. Old. Black. White.
Her eyes scanned for a birthdate that seemed close. Someone in their 40s or 50s.
This William Thomas had a case from 2015, the same year she was raped.
A rape case.
Details, recorded on the court’s electronic docket, were written in dense paragraphs, the letters all capitalized, a foreign language Sandi didn’t totally understand.
She saw another date: 12/15/15. Had he raped another woman five months after she’d reported her rape?
She’d told Detective Evans — told her three times — this man was going to hurt someone else. Sandi could decipher this much from the records: That woman’s case had put Thomas in prison, but not for long. He’d be getting out in 2019. That was less than two years. She took a deep breath and kept searching.
Another rape. This one in 1989.
Another rape. This one in 1987.
He’d known what he was doing from the second he’d slipped into her car. How to scare her. How to control her.
Now she knew what he meant when he leaned close, his hot breath on her face, and barked: “I’m not going back to jail for you!”
William Thomas had spent nearly half his life in prison.
Court records show his first stint was for petty theft in 1985, soon after he dropped out of John Adams High School in 12th grade. At 20, he did six months in prison for assault and for carrying a gun. Three months after his release, he raped a 21-year-old woman.
The woman had been hanging out on her girlfriend’s front porch when Thomas cruised by. They hopped into his car. Later, he dropped her friend off, took the woman to Woodhill Park and backed into a parking space. Thomas kissed her on her dimple and shoved his hands in her blouse. She asked to go home. He demanded sex. She opened the door to run. He jumped out and pinned her against the car.
“I’m going to bust your face, bitch,” he said and dragged her back inside. He raped her, then said he was sorry.
Police picked her up from a nearby phone booth. She gave them the number she’d memorized from his license plate. Officers traced it to a white house on East 114th Street, a little more than a mile from the park.
Thomas was arrested. He made bail. While he was waiting to go to trial, in May 1988, he raped another woman. He also was giving her a ride. She told police he assaulted her in a parking lot. When she tried to get away, he punched her in the face. A judge sentenced Thomas to up to 25 years in prison for the two sexual assaults.
Ohio’s parole board declined to release him for decades, in part because he refused to participate in sex offender treatment programs. Some 20 years later, he was granted a parole date, but it was canceled after he sexually assaulted another inmate.
On June 27, 2013, after serving his entire 25-year term, Thomas was released. He moved back to his mother’s white house in Cleveland, into the basement where he raped Sandi in July 2015.
Sandi’s search through court records didn’t tell her everything. But now she knew William Thomas was a serial rapist, one who moved on to another victim soon after raping her.
Police had the chance to stop him. But they didn’t.
Why couldn’t I get them to listen to me? The guilt tore at Sandi.
She wondered about this other woman.
Who was she?
Alyssa* took a chance and sent a text message to her mom:
“Love you … if you dont hear from me later something went wrong,” the 23-year-old typed. She made sure her mom had the address: “3662 east 114th street.”
“Phones being watched dont respond and dont call cops unless i dont check in later tonight.”
It was close to Christmas, and Alyssa’s mom didn’t talk to her every day, but she’d learned enough in the eight long years of her daughter’s heroin addiction to be spooked by that cryptic message.
Alyssa didn’t need hand-holding, but her mom tried to keep tabs on her when she was sleeping in a car with her boyfriend. That kind of living had hardened her, a reality that clashed with the soft, round contours of Alyssa’s face and her large, dark eyes. She looked like a woman in an Italian Renaissance painting, the effect marred only by two small piercings in her nose.
The address Alyssa gave was in Cleveland, but her mother called the Parma Heights police because the family had relatives who had once worked there.
Sergeant Steve Scharschmidt took the woman’s worries seriously. He phoned a friend in the Cleveland police narcotics unit. “I don’t know what you can do to help me, but I can’t wait with this,” he said. “We’ve got to go.”
The Cleveland detective checked the address in Alyssa’s text. A sexual predator named William Thomas lived there. Cops pinged Alyssa’s phone to a cell tower 3 minutes from the house.
A small army of police assembled on the porch: The sergeant from Parma Heights; cops from Cleveland’s narcotics and gang units; and patrol officers from the 4th District. Thomas’ 83-year-old mother, Ada, answered the door. Was her son home? She said she wasn’t sure. That’s when they heard noises coming from the basement.
They flooded inside and called down the narrow stairs: “William Thomas!”
Thomas emerged, Alyssa in front of him as a human shield. Police moved in, easily separating the two and tackling Thomas.
Alyssa “looked visibly shaken but relieved that [we] were there,” wrote Detective Scott Moran of the Cleveland police narcotics unit in his report.
She told police she’d been held captive over four days. He’d raped her every day — sometimes more than once.
In between assaults, he’d taken pictures of her — in a thong, rump in the air; on her back, legs spread apart — and posted them on Backpage.com. He drove her to “dates” and pocketed the money when she was done, using it to buy cigarettes, beer and the heroin police found in his basement room.
Before he raped her the first time, he smacked her across the face. That scared her so badly she didn’t try to leave when he would disappear up the stairs.
After her rescue, Alyssa sat in a police car with Sergeant Scharschmidt. He didn’t say it out loud, but Thomas reminded the cop of Anthony Sowell. Both men had served long stints in prison for rape. Sowell, once freed, escalated to murder, killing 11 women in Mount Pleasant, the same neighborhood where Thomas lived.
Alyssa turned to look at the sergeant. “If you hadn’t come,” she said, “I don’t think I would’ve gotten out of there.”
The cop thought the same thing.
*Alyssa is a pseudonym.
Part 4: You're focusing on the negative
You're focusing on the negative
By Rachel Dissell and Andrea Simakis • Originally published September 29, 2019
Nearly two years after Sandi and Gabe first made the trek to Cleveland’s downtown Justice Center, they once again rode the stale-smelling elevator to the sex crimes unit on the sixth floor.
Detective Evans greeted the couple kindly at 8 in the morning on June 14, 2017, but Sandi sensed an underlying tension, as if they were uninvited guests.
They settled at a table. Doors slammed around them. Keys jangled.
“It’s hard to talk right now,” Sandi said, her voice wobbly and unsure. “We have some questions.”
Sandi was nervous about confronting Evans. When she discovered her rapist’s full name, she didn’t tell anyone for weeks. Not Gabe. Not her sisters. Not Kate Biddle, the new therapist she’d started seeing. The knowledge terrified her. It overwhelmed her.
What if she told police and they still did nothing? What if he found out and retaliated?
Sandi wanted to be numb. She went on a binge. Days later, her sister Patsy, who had also struggled with addiction, died. “I can’t live like this,” Sandi decided after her sister’s funeral.
Kate knew the meeting would upset Sandi and that it would be hard to remember all the details, so she suggested Sandi and Gabe record the conversation.
Sandi unzipped a black bag dotted with stemmed cherries. It bulged with notebooks filled with reminders and memories, court documents and medical records from her rape and her recent surgery. Doctors had to re-break her nose, and it was still tender.
She pulled out a folder. The computer printouts inside were from the prison website and the court docket. The results of an investigation. Her investigation.
She handed a creased photo to Detective Evans: “100%, that’s him,” she said.
Evans flipped through the pages Sandi had printed out.
The detective noted what prison Thomas was in and his release date: December 2019.
Sandi's words tumbled out: How easy it had been to find him. How he’d raped other women — not just a long time ago, but soon after he’d raped her.
“Five months, almost to the day,” Sandi said haltingly. “Five months ...”
“Um, ’kay,” Evans mumbled.
Why hadn’t Evans told her the case was closed? Sandi asked.
These cases were never really closed, said Evans, they were just moved off her desk to make room for others.
Sandi’s was one of 88 new cases Evans had been assigned in 2015, not counting older ones she was still working.
“You have to understand the level of frustration we have at this point,” Gabe said.
“I can understand,” said Evans.
“I don’t think you can,” Gabe said.
“Yes, trust me,” Evans said, her voice rising. “The reason I’m frustrated with you is because you’re. . . . focusing on the negative.”
“It’s been 18 months,” Gabe countered.
“Because I had nothin’, ” Evans shouted.
What she’d had, in fact, was a first name, a phone number, a physical description of the rapist, and the name and phone number of one of his friends.
Gabe told Evans he didn’t like that Sandi had to be her own detective.
“Listen,” Evans responded. “I called Terrance. All I had on Terrance is his name. . . . You know how many Terrances [are] in the world?”
Terrance told Sandi he’d never gotten a call from Evans, or any police officer, about the rape.
And nothing in Sandi’s case file mentioned a call to Terrance. Not Detective Evans’ notes. Not the case summary Evans’ boss signed off on. Not the documents presented to a city prosecutor, who decided there was “insufficient evidence” for charges.
In the detective's skeletal case narrative, she described Sandi as a woman out looking for drugs who’d willingly gone into her rapist’s home. The harrowing story Sandi told, captured in her video interview, never made it onto paper.
“The victim wouldn’t give me the name of her friend who she said gave her this suspect’s phone number,” Evans wrote in her 18-line synopsis of the case.
That wasn’t true.
Gabe and Sandi asked the detective for a timeline. Now that Evans knew the rapist’s full name, what was next?
Evans didn’t give them a straight answer.
Prosecutors might even wait until William Thomas served his current term and got out before tackling the case, she said.
Wouldn’t it be easier to get the guy while he’s locked up? Gabe asked.
“I don’t do their job. I don’t know what they do,” Evans said. “They might say, ‘Well, he’s in jail, f--- it, we’ll get him later. . . I don’t know. I’m just throwing stuff out there."
Evans had some advice: Sandi should stick with her counseling. That way, she’d be strong enough to testify if the case went to court.
Counseling? Sandi wanted to scream. I’ve been going to counseling for almost two years.
After 38 minutes, Evans ushered the couple into the hallway, her demeanor softening. She hugged Sandi.
“Your project is my last project before I walk out of here,” Evans promised. The detective was leaving the unit soon. She told Sandi she didn’t want her to have to tell yet another detective about the rape.
And Sandi didn’t.
She had to tell two.
It was a ritual now. Sandi would sit in Kate Biddle’s office, surrounded by warm brick walls, and dial the sex crimes unit. She’d put the call on speaker so Kate could listen as she left polite messages for Detective Evans.
“Please, call me back.”
But Evans wasn’t there. Shortly after she met with Sandi and Gabe, the detective left the unit for a new post at the airport. She didn’t tell Sandi.
Evans also didn’t do the things she’d promised. Never finished putting Sandi’s case together. Never took it to prosecutors.
June. July. August. September. October.
Sandi kept calling, buoyed by Kate’s support. Some days, just showing up to her appointment was all Sandi could muster.
Kate had spent her career working with traumatized adults and children. In the early 1980s, she was part of the first county children’s services sex abuse unit. At the time, it was considered almost revolutionary. Decades later, after a 17-year-old Chardon student shot and killed three classmates and injured others, Kate led the effort to help children, parents and teachers cope.
She was working at Cleveland's rape crisis center when she first met Sandi. The woman was nearly catatonic. She’d sit in a survivors group with her shoulders hunched, her hands neatly folded in her lap and her eyes on the nearest door.
Being raped hadn’t just stripped Sandi of her sense of control — she’d been held captive, brutalized and made to fear for her life. Kate understood that. The cops ignoring Sandi was making the damage worse — and recovery impossible.
Kate told Sandi it was OK to fight for herself. “This is your right,” she’d remind her. “You have a right to the information about what’s going on with your case.”
But pushing Sandi came with risks. Sandi was newly sober and wanted to stay that way.
Therapists like Kate, and rape crisis advocates embedded in the sex crimes unit, are caught in a conundrum: They have to work within the system to support victims, but some detectives welcome their presence and others don’t, forcing them to tread lightly and limiting their ability to help.
They get a close-up view of the flaws: the overwhelmed detectives, the lack of training, the need for accountability. But it’s not like they have a magic wand to fix it, and the intense work runs them into the ground, too.
That’s what frustrated Kate the most.
“The only thing that ever burnt me out,” she said, “is working with the system.”
Sandi cycled through five victim advocates. But at least a few of them told her when they were leaving.
Finally, in November, a new detective called Sandi. They needed to start over, he said.
“Give me some time,” Detective Morris Vowell said. “Be patient.”
Vowell met with Assistant County Prosecutor Jeff Schnatter and showed the seasoned sex crimes prosecutor the thin file Evans had left behind. Her notes on the case stopped a few weeks after Sandi reported her rape in 2015.
Schnatter told the detective he needed to get a search warrant to collect William Thomas’ saliva. The lab didn’t find semen in the rape kit, but there was some DNA that could be directly compared. Vowell also needed to interview Thomas.
To do that, he’d have to get permission from a supervisor to make the 3½-hour drive to the Lebanon Correctional Institution or have Thomas brought to Cleveland.
Sandi talked to Vowell in December, and in January. He was still waiting for permission, he told her. In April, it was the same thing.
It seemed so simple, to go and interview a suspect, especially one who was already behind bars. Isn’t that what they do, Sandi thought?
In May 2018, almost a year after Sandi brought her rapist’s full name to Cleveland police, she got a call from another detective.
Detective Vowell had left the unit to pitch in with murder investigations. Homicide was understaffed, though not as much as sex crimes. But the number of unsolved murders was mounting. That, said Mayor Jackson in an August 2017 news conference, was “unacceptable.”
Detective Michael Moctezuma was assigned five cases along with Sandi’s, all from other detectives who’d left. Some of the cases involved children.
I need time to review your file, Sandi remembered her third detective telling her. “Be patient with me.”
Part 5: 'I got a question'
'I got a question'
By Rachel Dissell and Andrea Simakis • Originally published September 29, 2019
William Thomas sat at a wood table across from Detective Michael Moctezuma, his cuffed hands shackled to a chain belted around his waist.
It was June 2018 when the detective finally interviewed Thomas in prison — nearly 13 months after Sandi had given Cleveland police her rapist’s full name.
Moctezuma told Thomas how he “inherited” the nearly three-year-old rape case. Thomas agreed to talk to him, waiving his right to a lawyer.
“What I’d like to do is show you a photo of someone and you can tell me if you recognize them or not,” Moctezuma said.
The detective slid a color print of Sandi’s driver’s license photo in front of Thomas.
Thomas leaned in, looked down through his wire-rimmed glasses and didn’t hesitate: “Yes,” he said.
“Do you know this person’s name?” Moctezuma asked.
“I don’t remember,” Thomas replied.
Thomas’ version of the story started the same way Sandi’s did. They met through a mutual friend, Terrance.
But Thomas told the detective the purpose for the meeting was a “date.” An exchange of drugs for sex. Not an unusual transaction in the neighborhoods where he hung out.
“It’s really something unspoken but known,” Thomas explained.
Thomas said he and Sandi drove around drinking and smoking pot before returning to his mother’s house.
His mother wasn’t home, he said. Thomas said he gave Sandi some heroin to inject.
“You guys had sex?” Moctezuma asked.
“Yes,” Thomas answered.
Thomas said they fell asleep and Sandi woke up early in the morning, hysterical. “She ran out the side door, undressed.”
“And why do you think that happened?” Moctezuma asked.
Thomas said he figured that she was married and was probably supposed to be home at a certain time.
“I guess she was in trouble,” Thomas said.
He tried to stop her, tried to talk to her, he told Moctezuma.
“At any time did you strike her?” Moctezuma asked.
During the interview, Moctezuma shared a simple sketch of Sandi’s account. The detective didn’t dive into the inconsistencies between Thomas’ story and what Sandi told police - or what the evidence showed.
And there were many.
Thomas mostly listened, blinking. He didn’t react.
At one point, during one long pause as Moctezuma took notes, Thomas spoke up.
“I got a question, though,” Thomas said. “It took you all this long to find me?”
'This is not like TV'
Sandi once described the feeling of trying to get police to respond to her as “pushing against doors that wouldn’t open, over and over again.”
It’s hard to imagine a better way to put it.
Cleveland police won’t say why they did so little to find Sandi Fedor’s rapist or why, once they knew who he was, it took them so long to question him.
The department also won’t allow any of the detectives who worked on Sandi’s case to be interviewed, and if they speak without permission, they can be disciplined.
The city insists that its supervisors review cases with detectives, but did not provide specifics on the process.
Mayor Frank Jackson and Chief Calvin Williams wouldn't agree to sit down and discuss chronic, well-documented problems in the sex crimes unit or long-term solutions.
Instead, Chief Williams parroted assertions that sexual assault cases “remain a high priority” for the department. "We hold our investigators to a very high standard," he said, in an email sent by a spokeswoman.
Williams said sexual assault cases are “very personal and emotional” and that investigators “remain committed to providing the highest level of service while remaining compassionate and understanding to victims and their families."
What is clear, whether the city acknowledges it or not, is that when Sandi reported her rape in 2015, the sex crimes unit was as overloaded and ill-equipped as it had been for decades.
The unit had only 13 full-time detectives to investigate 1,163 new reports of sexual assault and child abuse; 753 of those felony sex-assault cases.
Most of the cases reported that year never made it to court.
Detectives in the unit may well be as committed and compassionate as Williams contends. But they are also swamped with tough cases, and when detectives in the unit are underwater, the stress of it can spill over into their work, into interviews with victims and witnesses.
The day Sandi and Gabe visited Detective Evans, almost two years after Sandi first reported her rape, they’d hoped the cop would take the evidence Sandi gathered and collar her rapist right away. Instead they were lectured.
“This is not like TV,” she told them. “I get one case, I get five cases [the] next day. It’s not one case, we have a bunch of cases. And it’s just not me. It’s 13 of us in there and you’re talking about 13 people with over 1,000 cases, OK?”
Evans had a point. Not counting vacation and sick days, routine updates on policing techniques and time in court, that left her with an average of 14 hours to investigate each of the 88 sex crimes and child abuse cases she was assigned that year.
The detective’s burnout was part of the reason Evans told Sandi and Gabe that she was leaving sex crimes. “That's why I'm ready to go,” she confided. “It's very stressful for us, too.”
The third detective on Sandi’s case, Michael Moctezuma, said the same thing to Sandi’s friend Terrance, a potential witness. Moctezuma was the first detective to interview Terrance, more than three years after Sandi first gave police his phone number.
“That’s part my fault,” the detective said during the recorded phone call. “We’re overwhelmed with work. I had always had intentions on calling you, but it just fell through the cracks because of everything that I was involved with, with this investigation and others.”
Those were the people Sandi had to rely on to put her rapist away.
Details she shared with them became distorted, like in a game of Telephone, forcing Sandi to walk through her brutal assault again and again to correct the errors. In one interview, a detective peppers Sandi with questions she’d answered more than two years earlier. As she struggles to respond, she visibly shrinks in her chair, trying to ward off a flashback. The detective plows on.
Even her last name, Fedor, was misspelled five different ways in the detectives’ reports: “Fendor,” “Fender,” “Fefor,” “Fodor,” “Fedora.”
As Sandi left voicemail messages that were never returned in 2016 and 2017, supervisors from the unit were penning memos to police brass for more resources — begging for bodies and cars — so they could do their jobs. Sometimes a detective or two were added, but it was never enough to keep up with ones who left.
Staffing was a “choke point,” Lt. Daniel Ross wrote in a memo to his bosses. “This is not a complaint; it is a fact.”
In 2018, as Sandi waited for her rapist to be charged, Mayor Jackson held a City Hall news conference, calling the unit’s most recent black eye “egregious.”
The city was disciplining another sex crimes detective, this time for failing to investigate 60 cases assigned to him as far back as 2014. The detective’s supervisors were punished, too. What Jackson failed to mention is that one of those suspects raped another woman as the cases sat. Just like in Sandi’s case.
Flanked by Chief Williams and Michael McGrath, the city’s safety director, Jackson blamed the cops for not following protocol and deflected suggestions of a systemic breakdown. The city had given the cops in the sex crimes unit “all of what we needed to give” for them to do their jobs, the mayor said.
But when a reporter questioned that contention, Jackson pushed back.
“It's not that simple," he said, adding that the chief has to balance the needs of all units, from sex crimes to homicide to car theft.
It was the same excuse the cops gave during the Voinovich era 30 years earlier.
Eight months after that 2018 news conference, a different detective was in trouble for stashing nearly 200 rape evidence kits in a storage room instead of sending them for testing. That detective was suspended for 25 days, a punishment his supervisors argued should be tempered by the enormity of his job: For two years he was responsible for submitting, transporting and logging 10,000 or more pieces of evidence from sex crimes, homicides and other crimes.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Sondra Miller, president & CEO of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, said on the heels of those two scandals. “This unit has not been made a priority.” The squad, she added, “has no more resources to do this work than it did 10 years ago. Until that changes, I fear it is going to be ‘Groundhog Day.’”
The breakdowns were almost unfathomable. The department had spent years following the Anthony Sowell murders emptying its evidence storage shelves of thousands of untested rape kits, many of them decades old. Most were collected before DNA testing was routine.
Once tested, the evidence kits helped identify so many suspects that a task force was formed to review nearly 7,000 cases from Cleveland and the surrounding suburbs. The undertaking also offered a look at how cases were handled in the past and a roadmap for how to do better investigations today.
Some of the cases would never have been solved without DNA testing. In others, hindsight helped. Reports that named the same suspect over the years pointed investigators to hundreds of serial rapists.
But, in many cases, it seemed that the police hadn’t really tried. The question was why.
A team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University’s Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Research and Education took a close look at hundreds of Cleveland’s older, never-prosecuted rape cases.
Half of them were closed after a week or less. A quarter were open for a day or even just hours.
Cleveland detectives had to contend with a “conveyor belt” of new reports, wrote Begun Center researchers in 2017. If there was a “hiccup, difficulty or stall in a case, it would be shunted to the side” to keep the fresh cases rolling down the belt from piling up.
Detectives weren’t told “spend whatever time you need to get the bad guy,” said professor Rachel Lovell, a senior Begun Center researcher. Instead, it was more like, “Get those cases off your plates because here is a new stack for you.”
Cuyahoga County’s Sexual Assault Kit Task Force, the group formed to tackle all those older cases, has been heralded as a national model. The initiative has identified more than 830 serial sex offenders and has resulted in indictments of 754 rape suspects, a jaw-dropping number compared to any other place in the country that has tested older rape kits.
The task force, though, benefited from many things Cleveland’s sex crimes unit — just on the next downtown block — has never had: double the number of investigators and a close partnership with victim advocates who work alongside the detectives and prosecutors as they prepare rape cases for court.
Early on, it created a strict checklist to ensure investigations are thorough. And to keep investigators accountable to their supervisors, who know the public is watching.
Just as crucially, investigators have, on average, almost three times longer to work cases than Detective Evans had to dig into Sandi’s case.
Cleveland detectives still don’t respond to sex crime scenes except in what the department says are “extraordinary” circumstances. That’s in part because the unit has no overnight shift to cover the hours when at least one-third of sexual assaults are reported. That was one of the recommended changes brushed off by the department after a national policing think tank reviewed the sex crimes unit’s operations in 2013, in the aftermath of the Sowell case. Another forgotten post-Sowell promise: bringing in outside experts to regularly review the unit’s case files.
Earlier this year, City Council members pushed Chief Williams about the unit’s anemic staffing during a hearing. At the time, sex crimes had 14 detectives, not the 23 the chief had budgeted and nowhere near the 30 detectives needed to do thorough investigations, at least according to “a workload analysis” shared with council members.
Williams sounded a familiar refrain, saying that he planned to add detectives to the unit just as soon as the next police academy class graduated.
The city said in an August email that the unit has new leadership and the chief will make good on his promise to add new detectives, though it didn’t say how many. As of Sept. 19, no new detectives had been added but a police spokeswoman said interviews were scheduled.
The new detectives will get at least 40 hours of state training in investigations and sexual assault, the city said, instead of only the occasional seminars by rape crisis experts they get now.
Standard training was something suggested six years ago by the policing think tank to replace the department’s informal “on-the-job training” for sex crimes detectives.
Cleveland is hardly the only city failing women like Sandi. Other cities have made public efforts to turn around deeply flawed sex-crimes investigations that result in few prosecutions, though reforms are hard fought and progress comes in fits and starts.
New Orleans and Baltimore, both faced with scathing reports that revealed bias and ineptitude, added new investigators to reduce crushing caseloads. New Orleans detectives were given checklists and told to document each investigative step they took. Baltimore’s department made it policy to respond to the scene of every sexual assault call. Even then, federal officials found that victim-blaming persisted among its detectives.
In Philadelphia, which instituted reforms almost two decades ago, an independent group still reads hundreds of sex-crimes files each year and questions the department about how cases are handled to add a layer of public accountability.
Experiences elsewhere show that while resources and training matter, such oversight is just as pivotal, said Lovell, the Begun Center researcher.
Without sweeping, lasting change, reports like Sandi’s will continue to speed down the rape-case conveyor belt.
Many victims walk away, resigned to numbing their pain, looking over their shoulders and hoping nobody else gets hurt.
Others, like Sandi, risk sanity and safety by taking on the burden of investigating their own rapes. It probably happens more than we think, said Lovell.
In one case Lovell and her colleagues looked at recently, a victim was able to provide police with a first name of her rapist and the location of her attack. But without his full name, first and last, authorities told her the case couldn’t move forward.
So, the woman went back to the house to get her rapist’s last name from the mailbox. He was home. He grabbed her, beat her and held her captive for almost half a day before she escaped.
Part 6: 'I did this'
'I did this'
By Rachel Dissell and Andrea Simakis • Originally published September 29, 2019
The mile-long stretch of beach was Sandi’s happy place, one of the few spots she could let her guard down; listen to the breeze and the Lake Erie waves.
It was a clear day in July 2018, the temperature nearing 90 degrees, when Sandi and her daughter Laura pulled into Headlands Beach State Park.
Sandi’s phone chimed. It was a message from the state’s victim-notification system. Sandi had signed up for the automatic alerts so she’d always know where William Thomas was: He was being moved from prison.
She scrambled to call Bailey Pastva, the fifth and most recent rape crisis advocate assigned to her case. Bailey promised to find out what was happening.
Sandi’s thoughts scattered in every direction. There was a time when news like that would have sent her bolting for home, her fingers fumbling to lock the door behind her. But she was stronger now and 10 months sober.
Mother and daughter headed toward the water, hauling folding lawn chairs behind them. They settled the seats in the brown sand dotted with black pebbles that glimmer when wet, and dipped their bare feet in the water, waiting to hear from the advocate.
Sandi focused on the gentle waves lapping at her toes.
Soon, Bailey called. Thomas was being moved to Cleveland. Two days earlier on July 24, a Cuyahoga County grand jury had indicted him for raping, assaulting and kidnapping Sandi — 1,102 days after she’d reported her rape to Cleveland police.
Sandi knew it wasn’t over. But today was hers. She turned her face toward the sun.
I did this, she thought.
Sandi let the moment sink in.
Seven months later, Sandi was in a suburban Walmart with her sisters, standing in an aisle lined with aquariums and fish supplies, glad for any distraction while she waited for the trial to start. Today was the day jurors would be picked.
Her phone rang, and it was Jeff Schnatter, the county prosecutor assigned to her case. Sandi liked the tall man with a friendly gap in his front teeth. She felt sure he believed her. And he returned each of her worried calls during the drama after William Thomas was indicted: Thomas’ first attorney quit and the trial was delayed by months. Then the judge allowed jail staff to take Thomas to a funeral home to say goodbye to his mother, Ada, who was upstairs in her purple-flowered muumuu while her son raped women in the basement.
He ended up taking a plea just now, Schnatter told her. Thomas had admitted in court to what he’d done to her.
Sandi had fought through binges and breakdowns and flashbacks to be believed. She’d gotten sober and stayed that way, now 18 months and counting. But she didn’t celebrate. Not yet.
It was up to the judge to decide her rapist’s sentence, said Schattner. Somewhere between 10 and 20 years.
“Okay. Sounds good,” Sandi said. But her voice was hesitant.
“We’re gonna argue for 20. … That’s where people who commit murder land,” Schnatter said. “And it’s basically because of your hard work.”
Whenever Sandi felt helpless or small, she remembered something her big sister Rhonda told her: “Remember, you are his wrecking ball.”
A wrecking ball. The description made Sandi laugh. But maybe Rhonda was right. Horrific as it was, her ordeal had revealed a badassness she never knew she had.
The night before sentencing, she barely slept, laboring until 3 a.m. over the statement she planned to read in court. Each word, each sentence, was important to her. She wanted everyone to hear what she had to say.
Sandi walked into Judge David Matia’s courtroom flanked by her three older sisters, two of her daughters, Gabe and her therapist, Kate. She wore a white ruffled shirt and black pants with gold buttons. Girly on the outside. Tough on the inside.
They waited almost an hour. Thomas refused to come out of the holding cell wearing his orange jumpsuit. He threatened to take back his guilty plea if the judge wouldn’t let him change into a white button-down dress shirt and slacks.
When Thomas finally emerged, Sandi tried not to look at him.
Gabe couldn’t look away. He glared, his jaw set.
A deputy placed his rail-thin body in the space between the two men. Schnatter rose, a cross smudged on his forehead signaling the beginning of Lent.
Both Sandi and Gabe wanted to address the court, he said.
“That would be fine, but they come up together,” Matia said.
Gabe read his short, terse statement. He told Thomas he belonged in a cage — not in civilized society. "You are finally getting what you deserve."
It was Sandi’s turn. Before she could speak, Matia cut in.
“Mrs. Fedor, I’ve read your statement in advance,” he told her. The prosecutor had given the judge a copy. “What else would you like me to know?”
Sandi was flustered. She’d had a plan. The plan was to read her statement. Now she had to improvise.
“My life is just not the same anymore,” she said, her voice shaking, words coming slowly. She glanced down at the paper in her hands.
“I’ve waited 3 years, 8 months and 10 days for this … to be here. I found him. ... and I made sure that others noticed.”
She took several deep breaths. She steepled her hands together, a smooth purple stone engraved with the word “Courage” pressed between her palms.
“And I’m here, I showed up,” she whispered. “I showed up today.”
“Is there anything else?” Matia asked.
“There’s so much more. … ”
'Anger is a poison'
Judge Matia sentenced William Thomas to 18 years in prison.
He referenced the inept investigation of Sandi’s case. Another woman had been raped — “a needless victim” he called her — because of what the judge diplomatically described as “less-than-professional standards … by those we trust to investigate these crimes.”
The judge urged Sandi to move on, to let go of her anger, for her own good.
“Anger is a poison that you swallow, expecting someone else to feel the effect,” Matia said. “So, do what you can . . . to let go of it. I can guarantee that this man is not going to be thinking about you in the future, and you’re only harming yourself if you give him attention that he does not deserve.”
The judge didn’t get it.
Sandi’s fury wasn’t just directed at William Thomas. She didn’t care if he felt bad or if he apologized. He was a serial rapist. He’d left her wounded, but that’s what you expect from a monster. Not from the police. The police were supposed to help. Their inaction and incompetence had hurt her and so many other women.
Their broken, messed-up system? It was her monster’s accomplice.
That’s what Sandi wanted everyone in the courtroom to know. That’s what she wants you to know.
Sandi knows people expect her to go back to who she was before William Thomas climbed into her car. Gabe wants that most of all. But it’s not that simple.
Part of her is still trapped in that basement. She hates it, but it’s true.
That’s why she never leaves home without her “kit,” a zippered pouch tucked inside her purse. It’s equipped with peppermints, a whistle and talismans: her "Courage" stone, and silver bracelets from her girls. One reads, “Be strong, be brave, be fearless.”
And why she still checks the court docket. Every day. To make sure judges haven’t granted Thomas’ appeal.
Now, she works slowly on reclaiming bits of Sandi Before and, at the same time, managing the sensations and fears that come with being Sandi After. As for “closure”? There’s no such thing.
When she takes her grandkids to an indoor water park, she can’t help but scan the screamy-shrieky place for danger. But Nana is there with them as they splash and play. She shows up.
Sandi could barely tolerate the smell of cooking sauerkraut. It was one of her biggest triggers. So she bought a jar of Bubbies kraut at the grocery store and ate crunchy forkfuls of it, cold and raw, straight out of a bowl.
One morning after the sentencing, Sandi came home from dropping Gabe off at work to find the garage door open halfway.
That’s weird, she thought. She usually watched it close.
Didn’t he hit the button? Didn’t I?
It didn’t matter. She went into the house. This terrified her, but she did it anyway.
Sandi retrieved a hidden gun.
She had practiced shooting, even though she didn’t like the noisy range or the casings that flew back at her. Once, one landed inside her safety glasses and burned her eyelid.
You got this, she told herself.
She moved stealthily, heading first into the basement. Then upstairs, looking in every closet. Under the high bed. Flinging aside the bathroom shower curtain.
Sandi cleared her house.