By Jim Walsh
GSN Staff Writer

Sexual assault victims from the East Valley and throughout the nation are finally getting justice – even though they had to wait far too long.

In Maricopa County alone, an exhaustive quest to test a backlog of more than 4,500 sexual assault examination kits dating back 27 years is finally winding toward an end early next year with about 200 kits to go.

In Phoenix, the person who spearheaded this four-year campaign to right a wrong was Gilbert’s Jon Eliason, a former Mesa city prosecutor who served as division chief of the Special Victims Bureau at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office at the time the campaign began.

“You have all these women who went through an exam fully believing that the police would analyze it,’’ said Eliason, now chief of the County Attorney’s Major Crimes Division. “I can’t imagine there was a victim who went through the examination who expected it would not be tested.’’

“It’s doing the right thing, bringing closure to victims and arresting bad guys for violent, intimate crimes,’’ Eliason said.

Defendants who might have thought they got away with felonies a decade or more ago are going to prison instead, thanks to the inexorable trail of DNA evidence and a more enlightened approach by police and prosecutors.

These criminals include Michael Joseph Paladino, 30, who was linked to sexual assaults involving six victims about 15 years ago, when he was a minor, in Chandler, Gilbert and Mesa. One victim was 13.

Paladino was indicted in December 2017 on six counts of sexual assault and was sentenced in June to five years in prison and lifetime supervised probation as part of a plea bargain that spared the victims from testifying.

Another man who had skated was Nur Muktar. He was linked by DNA from an untested kit to a sexual assault inside a vacant Tempe apartment in 2002. Eventually, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

With the approval of then-County Attorney Bill Montgomery, it was Eliason who saw a moral imperative for his office to participate when one of his prosecutors came back from a conference in 2015 and told him about an exciting – and generous – project launched by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.

Vance, the son of a noted U.S. diplomat, launched a national campaign to eliminate the backlog by passing out $38 million in grants to police and prosecutors, including $1.9 million to Maricopa County in October 2015.

Vance’s grants came from forfeiture funds seized from banks accused of violating U.S. sanctions. It was enough money to test 3,100 out of the 4,530 rape examination kits that had accumulated in Maricopa County since 1989.

Tempe police, one of the first Phoenix metro law enforcement agencies to embrace the program, obtained a $369,000 grant independently from Vance’s office and tested 546 kits that had accumulated since 1993.

At a New York press conference in March attended by a Tempe victim, Vance said he had obtained a promise from the U.S. Department of Justice to match his “investment’’ in testing the grants – greatly expanding his program’s impact in eliminating an alarming backlog of rape examination kits.

Eliason said this teamwork paid off in Maricopa County, with his office receiving a $1.2 million federal grant in 2016 and $1.7 million in 2017. That money went toward finishing the testing and hiring two detectives to assist in the project.

Among the detectives’ duties was combing through old police reports to prepare the kits for testing to determine which evidence would be most likely to return a “hit,’’ a DNA sample matching one already in the federal system.

Eliason said about 230 kits still need to be tested by two labs that were approved nationally to handle the testing, Sorenson Forensics in Utah and Bode Technologies in Virginia.

“With our $38 million investment, we have begun to rectify what has been a tragic failure of government and law enforcement at all levels – a decades-long, systemic denial of equal rights for women in the justice system,’’ Vance said.

Since Vance’s attack on the backlog started in September 2015, more than 55,000 kits have been tested in 32 jurisdictions in 20 states, with 18,803 new DNA profiles developed.

As of March, there had been 186 arrests nationwide and 64 convictions, including 47 for sexual assault.

Murder cases may be solved

The efforts have paid off in Maricopa County as well, with 12 arrests and seven convictions on Tempe cases. Eliason said more than 800 kits from the East Valley cities of Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert were tested, generating 172 hits.

The majority of those were in Mesa, where 602 kits were tested, generating 134 hits, Mesa police Sgt. Matt Lawes said.

Sgt. Mark Marino, a Gilbert police spokesman, said all of his department’s backlog was tested as of 2018, but he said he did not know the number.

Sgt. Dan Mejia, a Chandler police spokesman, said 120 Chandler kits were tested. He said 80 cases were reviewed and closed, while 40 are pending review.

Chandler police re-evaluated three cases for potential charges. One case was dropped when the victim did not wish to pursue further investigation, while the two others are awaiting additional DNA testing.

“Chandler detectives throughout the years have submitted cases for testing appropriately when DNA became readily available,’’ Mejia said. “So, in most of these cases, DNA was not a factor with regards to substantiating some of the elements required in a sexual assault.’’

In the West Valley, the grants paid for police departments to get 467 kits tested, with 87 DNA hits obtained.

Eliason, now division chief of the Major Offenders Bureau, said the 14 convictions stemming from testing the kits so far have been on relatively obvious cases and that the DNA information obtained from other kits may eventually lead to additional arrests years into the future.

He said he anticipates that the DNA trail from the kits will eventually lead to arrests in two homicides.

“I am confident in the next 12 months, we will be talking about a murder case,’’ Eliason said.

He said that overlooking the unexamined kits – a potential source of incriminating evidence – makes no sense from a prosecutor’s point of view.

“Here’s a way to develop cases,’’ he said. “It’s a lot like, you go to an old gold mine, the first place you look is the tailings.’’

Future better for victims

In several incidents, the old rape examination kits helped police establish a pattern of behavior, identifying a serial rapist, Eliason said.

“If you have three of them, they become a lot more powerful than one by itself,’’ he said.

While police and prosecutors dug into the backlog, they also sought to make sure the same mistake was never repeated by establishing the Maricopa County Sexual Assault Kit Protocol Work Group.

The study group included police, prosecutors and victims’ rights advocates who established protocols for investigating sexual assault cases.

“Every victim counts,’’ Eliason said. “It was setting standards. We want to make sure this never happens again.’’

The Legislature also passed a law in 2017 requiring all rape kits to be processed within 15 days.

Tasha Menaker, co-CEO of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, praised Eliason’s efforts, but she said more work is needed for the legal system to treat victims with respect.

“I think it’s a positive thing,’’ Menaker said. “I’m pleased the kits are being tested now and I’m glad we have protocols in place.’’

But she said the backlog also demonstrates why many victims – an estimated 70 percent to 80 percent – don’t report sexual assaults to police, believing that the criminal justice system will ignore them.

“If you went through the effort to go through the exam and nothing happens, you feel your voice wasn’t heard,’’ Menaker said. “It’s a bigger issue than just the kits. At the end of the day, we still blame and stigmatize sexual assault victims.’’

While a sexual assault leaves an indelible scar on a women’s psyche, undergoing the 13-step rape kit examination can also be humiliating.

Throughout the metro area, victims are brought to facilities such as the Mesa Family Advocacy Center, where they can be interviewed by a detective and examined by a forensic nurse, who administers the sexual assault examination kit.

“If they have the courage to come forward, it’s a one-stop shop. You can tell the story once,’’ Lawes said.

For many years in Mesa, the sexual assaults kits had been sent to the Mesa Crime Lab the next day, with results generally coming back in about two weeks, he said.

“The backlog is not recent cases. It’s older cases when DNA testing was expensive. They were very judicious about which kits they tested,’’ Lawes said.

Many of these untested kits were on “he said-she said” cases in which a victim identified her attacker and consent was the key issue, Lawes said.

In some cases, DNA might tend to confirm a victim’s identification of a suspect, but it might not necessarily lead to an arrest because of the consent issue, he said.

“Evolution of DNA is part of the puzzle. Then, you have to overcome customs,’’ he said. “It was not possible to test everything back then. It was cost prohibitive.’’

Police understand DNA evidence much better today and take a broader approach, realizing it can not only identify suspects, but also link them to more than one incident, including cases in other states, through use of a federal databank, Tempe Det. Greg Bacon said.

“It’s something that will never happen again,’’ he said. “When you look back at the grand scheme of DNA, there may have been a disconnect on what DNA could do.’’

‘The power of DNA’

Paladino’s case seems like a classic example. In a sentencing memorandum, Jesus Acosta, his defense attorney, outlined a series of allegations that never resulted in sexual assault charges.

Gilbert police referred Paladino to juvenile authorities. He was placed on intensive probation for three years and received mental health treatment, according to a pre-sentence report.

But testing the old rape kits, dating back to 2003, linked Paladino to the series of assaults in which the victims told similar stories. The victims included a 13-year-old girl and a 14-year-old girl.

A 17-year-old victim said Paladino dropped out of high school at the time because his nickname was “The Rapist,’’ according to a pre-sentence report. In Arizona, the age of consent is 18.

In the report, Paladino claimed that he had sex with more than 200 women and had difficulty recalling details.

“He commented that his sex drive was ‘pretty high’ when he was younger and he was ‘a little rough,’ but he denied intending to hurt the women,’’ it said.

Paladino generally claimed the sex acts were consensual, even though any sex act with an underage victim in Arizona is considered a sex crime.

“The defendant commented that when girls get upset, they accuse you of raping them,’’ the pre-sentence report said.

Acosta argued for leniency, saying that Paladino had given up drinking and had become a family man, running his own landscaping and auto repair businesses.

“The defendant is deeply and sincerely sorry for his actions,’’ Acosta wrote. “Mr. Paladino has a conscience and he knows there is no excuse for his actions.’’

But a probation officer viewed Paladino much differently after reviewing reports of how his victims were traumatized, with one reporting anxiety, depression and a hospitalization.

“The defendant’s actions demonstrated he was more concerned with fulfilling his own personal sexual interests and desires than for any negative long term emotional or psychological impacts his actions could potentially have on his victims,’’ the probation officer wrote.

In the end, Paladino pleaded guilty on June 12 to one count of sexual assault and one count of attempted sexual assault. He was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Warren Granville to 5.25 years in prison and lifetime supervised probation. He also must register as a sex offender.

“Now, we understand the power of DNA,’’ Bacon said.