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Local police deal with open cases, some take years

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | MARCH 11, 2009 7:17 AM

In May 2008, UI senior Brian LaGro was rushed into surgery after being nearly beaten to death.
Ten months later, his case remains open.

Between October 2006 and July 2008, almost 40 women were reportedly sexually assaulted on the UI campus and near downtown. Almost two and a half years after the attacks began, only one has resulted in an arrest.

Law-enforcement authorities have stressed that they’re pouring resources into solving these cases, but that doesn’t mean victims and concerned community members aren’t frustrated.

“The main problem is that the case is not being given high enough priority, not given enough of a push, and not given high enough urgency,” said Phillip LaGro, whose son’s case has been open for almost 10 months. Both the elder and younger LaGro are frustrated by the lack of progress and communication.

The then-22-year-old was attacked in the early hours of May 3, 2008, in front of the L&M Mighty Shop, 504 E. Burlington St. A group of people across the street saw Brian LaGro fall to the ground, and they called the police, but it is unclear how many individuals were involved in the assault.

Doctors said LaGro was lucky, in a sense. Had he not been taken to the hospital as quickly as he was, he likely would not have survived.

Iowa City police Lt. Jim Steffen, who is in charge of investigations, and Iowa City police Investigator Jennifer Clarahan insisted that the case is being given a high priority in the department. And while Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said frustration is understandable in a case such as this, he has more than 40 pages of reports requiring considerable follow-up.

Authorities said witnesses in the LaGro case have been “less than cooperative.”

But an open case means there are still leads to follow and still people to talk to, officials said. In many cases, police are waiting for evidence to be processed at the crime lab or searching for witnesses, suspects, or even the victim.

Though a majority of cases are closed by the department, police suspend a case when no more information is available, Steffen said.

This is what happened with Cody Kiroff’s case. The UI law student was attacked in September 2008 by a still-unidentified group of men, and he suffered extensive injuries to his face. Though Iowa City police conducted an investigation, the case has been declared inactive, unless police receive additional information.

Many members of the Iowa City community were outraged when authorities were unable to stop a rash of sexual assaults that began in October 2006 and increased after September 2007.

But Kelsay said the police force employed numerous investigative techniques to catch the man, or men, many refer to as “the groper.”

Iowa City police, among others, noticed a pattern: A male assaulted a young woman walking alone but fled as soon as the woman resisted.

Besides a well-publicized attempt at putting decoys on the streets, officers initiated surveillance of specific locations and shifted patrols to put more officers in a position to catch the perpetrator or perpetrators.

People should remember there’s a cost for these sorts of measures, Kelsay said. Days off were denied to officers, the department had to pay overtime, and because the police had to focus efforts in one area, they perhaps left others vulnerable.

Kelsay said it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how much money the department spent on the groper case, but senior officers earned as much as $40 per hour in overtime pay. And surveillance can involve numerous officers spending hours at one location, he said.

Overall, Iowa City police spent “thousands and thousands of dollars on this case,” and many other agencies also contributed officers, Kelsay said.

One arrest has been made in connection with the attacks on women. On July 19, 2008, Iowa City police arrested Jonathan Schiefer in connection with an assault Kelsay called “an escalation of what we’d seen in the pattern.” Police charged him in one case; no similar assaults have occurred since his arrest.

The rest of the cases remain open.

Having investigations stretch over long periods of time is “more common than people realize,” investigator Clarahan said.

Iowa City police investigations had 163 active cases as of Monday, Steffen said. These cases range in seriousness and include burglaries, assault, child abuse, domestic violence, and drug cases.

Generally, investigators will only take on a case that is at least a serious misdemeanor — such as possession of marijuana, assault causing injury, second-degree harassment, and fourth-degree theft.

Steffen said the most severe active investigations include some child-pornography cases.
Statistics on unsolved cases are “difficult to sort out,” National Center for Victims of Crime spokeswoman Elizabeth Joyce said, because separating routine cases from long-term investigations reported to national agencies is almost impossible.

Steffen could not say how many local cases have been open more than six months.

It’s challenging to determine whether a time lag affects the likelihood a case may be solved, said Kevin Winker, assistant director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, which handled more than 100 cases involving deaths in 2008. “Time,” he acknowledged, “can challenge the memories of most people.”

It’s typically easier if the police department has all the information up-front, Clarahan said. But over time, police can find new evidence, new witnesses can come forward, and relationships preventing a witness from speaking with police can end.

“The goal is a fast but thorough investigation,” Winker said. While a quick investigation is ideal, authorities need to ensure they have the evidence for a successful prosecution once charges are filed.

Despite some cases taking longer than others to solve, “there is no set timeline,” Steffen said, pointing to what has become known as the Jema Court case as an example.

“I don’t think the media and general public appreciated how brutal and violent this attack was,” Kelsay said about the kidnapping and sexual assault.

Closing arguments concluded before noon Feb. 19 in the trial, which lasted three days. But it was the culmination of an eight-month police investigation and a year of briefs and motions.

Police arrested Micah Matthews, 33, only after fingerprints and DNA were taken from an unrelated burglary arrest matched evidence left from the assailant in the Jema Court incident.

A 6th District judge found Matthews guilty of first-degree and second-degree kidnapping and first-degree burglary Feb. 25.

The DCI provided assistance in the case, in addition to processing forensic evidence in its crime lab.
Winker said that in 2008, the DCI resolved 60 percent of cases it assisted on in fewer than 30 days.

As of Feb. 25, 80 percent of the DCI cases opened in 2008 had resulted in an arrest.

According to experts, victims in cases in which arrests have not been made suffer, knowing their attackers are still out there.

There are always unresolved feelings after a trauma, said Kelly Willson, a senior staff psychologist for the University Counseling Service. But they increase if an arrest hasn’t been made.

“If people have been able to press charges or file a report, they’re already saying, ‘I’m ready for this to be recognized or resolved,’ ” she said.

Victims may be fearful their attacker will return, and many times offenders threaten their victims, Rape Victim Advocacy Program Director Karla Miller said.

“I think victims would say if the perpetrator gets caught or they know their identity, that goes a long way,” she said. Otherwise, the victims aren’t able to focus on one person who they know is being held accountable.

Beyond that, there is the psychological nature of “having something hanging over you,” she said.

“Concerns about the offenders being out there somewhere and knowing they’re not somehow dealing with the criminal-justice system would be a terrifying thing,” Miller said. “And from what victims report, it is.”


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