In Detroit, women like Ardelia Ali, who have survived sexual assault, now know they are not alone thanks to a large scale effort to uncover secrets hidden for years in thousands of untested rape kits
The memory of Ardelia Ann Ali’s rape sticks to her like plaster.
She works hard to peel off the thick depression, anxiety and fear her rapist left after gripping her neck, sliding a knife against her face and violently raping her in November 1995 when she was 18. She says he stripped away her self-esteem, and as a result, she can’t seem to move on.
The sexual assault has impaired her physical and emotional well-being, plaguing her with an inability to engage in a normal sex life in addition to an array of life-threatening challenges: morbid obesity, diabetes, hypertension and congestive heart failure.
Not knowing who the tall, skinny Black man was who so deeply damaged nearly half her life ago has haunted her because she had no idea whether he was a neighbor, friend or foe. Now, Ali, 38, can say his name—Marshall Alan White—and she finally is working on the healing she so desperately desires.
“It made me close myself in,” says Ali. “I stayed home and never went out. I didn’t even go to the movies. I missed my 20s and most of my 30s.”
Ali is one of more than 11,000 people in Detroit whose rape kits—DNA, sperm, hair and other specimens—sat untested and collecting dust on racks in a vacated Detroit Police Department evidence storage unit for decades before being discovered.
Some of them had been sitting more than 35 years. Each represented a woman—or a man—whose violent crime had never been investigated. The rape kits remained untested and the perpetrators remained free to rape again. Hundreds did. Like Ali, 81 percent of the victims were African-American.
But the chance discovery of the kits and a community-based initiative to raise the needed funds to get the kits tested and find justice for the victims has slowly developed and has given people like Ali hope.
The story behind the finding of the kits began in August 2009, when Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy assigned then-assistant prosecutor Robert Spada to help find some missing ballistics evidence that was to be transferred from Detroit Police Department to the Michigan State Police. During a tour of an old, annexed overflow property storage unit, he noticed stacks of banker’s boxes in the property room.
As he walked with the group of police officers, he asked what was in those boxes. Rape kits, someone answered.
Curious about whether the kits had been tested, Spada fell back from the group, walked over and opened a box. The rape kits inside were sealed, meaning nobody had bothered to test or investigate them. He opened another box and another.
All the kits inside were untested.
“I thought, ‘My God! How could there be that many rape kits?” says Spada, now the deputy chief of the Special Victims Unit for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office, charged with heading task force to investigate and prosecute the sexual assaults. “That’s a person who has gone through an invasive exam. I was just shocked. It was just unbelievable.”
He began estimating how many there were—at least 10,000. He called Worthy on his cellphone to share the disturbing news.
Spada’s disbelief was more even profound after some rape kits were tested and prosecutors realized hundreds of the perpetrators were serial rapists, some whose DNA has been linked to more than 10 cases.
The discovery sent Worthy on a mission to get each of the 11,341 kits tested. She estimated she needed at least $17 million, $1,000 to $1,500 for each kit. (The price was later down to $490 per kit.)