Stopping the Next Campus Kidnapper
The prime suspect in a UVA student’s abduction has been linked to a host of prior crimes, from rape to grand larceny. Why his case argues for wider DNA testing.
By now, anyone following the ongoing search for Hannah Graham, the 18-year-old University of Virginia student who has been missing since September 13, is familiar with the supposedly sordid history of the only suspect in her disappearance. Thirty-two-year-old Jesse Matthew, who was arrested in Texas last month on charges of abduction with intent to defile, was accused of sexual assault twice while he was a student and football player at Lynchburg, Virginia’s Liberty University in 2002 and 2003, though no charges were filed in either case. DNA evidence has also linked Matthew to Morgan Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student who disappeared in 2009 and, months later, was found dead on a farm. That link has prompted investigators to look for connections between Matthew and the unsolved cases of four other women, all between the ages of 17 and 20 years old, who were either murdered or went missing between 2009 and 2010 in the same area where Graham and Harrington were both last seen.
Jesse Matthew’s alleged history is horrifying, but sadly, it’s not exactly rare. A quick Google news search for “suspect linked to rape” produces an unending list of articles revealing multiple previous sexual assault allegations tied to men suspected of rape, murder, assault, kidnapping, and other violent crimes.
In addition to the anecdotal evidence provided by news reports, research supports the notion that rapists are serial criminals. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2002 report on recidivism of prisoners released in 1994, 46 percent of rapists in 15 states were rearrested within three years of their release from prison. The same year that report was released, David Lisak, a now-retired University of Massachusetts Boston psychology professor focusing on the motives behind rape and other interpersonal violence, and Brown University’s Paul Miller published the results of a landmark study on undetected rapists—or those who have not been arrested or convicted.
Lisak and Miller had 1,882 male college students complete multiple questionnaires about their personal histories. Each of the surveys included a set of questions specifically meant to identify which participants had ever raped or attempted to rape someone—without using the terms “rape,” “battery,” “abuse,” or “assault.” For example, “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?” Or, “Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?”
Of the 1,882 men surveyed, 120 of them admitted to having committed acts legally defined as rape or attempted rape for which they were never arrested or convicted. Lisak and Miller conducted in-depth follow-up interviews with the “self-reported rapists” to determine how many of them were repeat offenders and whether the scope of their violence was limited to sexual assault. Sixty-three percent of those men admitted to multiple rapes. Of those “repeat rapists,” 68.4 percent admitted to other kinds of interpersonal violence, such as battery, physical or sexual abuse of children, or sexual assault not qualifying as rape. Comparatively, 40.9 percent of the “single-act rapists” admitted to committing other interpersonally violent acts.
In total, Lisak and Miller discovered that the 76 repeat rapists identified out of their pool of 1,882 had committed an average of six rapes or attempted rapes and 14 other acts of interpersonal violence each. The results of the study suggested, as the researchers wrote in their conclusion, that “while victimization surveys have established that a substantial proportion of women are sexually victimized,” it is actually “a relatively small proportion of men [who] are responsible for a large number of rapes and interpersonal crimes.”
So what can be done to catch the relatively few men responsible for so many rapes and violent crimes? According to retired NYPD Detective Joe Blozis, the answer is simple: DNA.
Blozis spent 22 of his 30 years at the New York Police Department working in the forensic investigation division. Today, he uses his crime scene investigation expertise as a forensic consultant and lecturer, advocating for more widespread use of DNA as a law enforcement tool.
In addition to clearing the rape kit backlog—an astronomical bureaucratic pileup that has resulted in an estimated 400,000 untested rape kits, some of them dating back to the 1970s, currently sitting in police storage units across the country—Blozis insists that the key to catching rapists and other violent offenders is beefing up the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System. Better known as CODIS, the forensic criminal database stores DNA from convicted offenders, arrestees, and crime scenes across the country, facilitating investigations by matching the DNA evidence found at the scene of a crime to the DNA profiles of offenders and arrestees in the system.
“There are numerous serial rapists throughout the country, and it’s very common that these offenders have extensive arrest records,” Blozis told The Daily Beast. “DNA is the common denominator to connecting the dots between crime scenes and catching serial rapists. The more entries we get into that CODIS database, the more powerful it will be.”
Right now, 29 states have passed a variety of legislation requiring that DNA be collected upon arrest for certain crimes and entered into CODIS. The crimes that warrant DNA from an arrestee vary from state to state, with some states mandating that DNA be submitted to CODIS from anyone arrested for a felony, while others only require DNA from those charged with a violent felony, such as sexual assault or murder. But Blozis argues that states should think bigger, beyond violent crimes or even felonies, pointing to the success of the NYPD’s “Biotracks” pilot program—of which he oversaw the implementation in 2003—in catching perpetrators of all kinds through DNA collected at the scene of non-violent, no-suspect burglaries.
“What we learned from that was that a lot of people used burglary as a crime of entry before graduating to more violent crimes, like rape or homicide,” Blozis said.
The benefits of employing DNA analysis in ‘minor’ crimes have been seen beyond New York City. In the wake of the Biotracks program, the National Institutes of Justice funded a similar field experiment in Topeka, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Orange County, California, the results of which suggested that “DNA collected from a property crime scene not only has the potential to prevent future property and violent crimes, but more burglars and serious violent offenders can be brought to justice, leading to safer communities.”
A post on the NIJ website, countering the common argument made by state and local police departments that DNA analysis is too expensive to use in minor crimes, cites a Florida study which “revealed that 52 percent of that state’s DNA database ‘hits’ against murder and sexual assault cases matched individuals who were originally placed in the database for burglary convictions.”
Which brings us back to Jesse Matthew.
One often-overlooked spot on Matthew’s rap sheet is a July, 2009 arrest on charges of misdemeanor assault and trespassing, and attempted grand larceny, a felony. According to Charlottesville General District Court arrest warrants obtained by the local NBC affiliate, Matthew was accused of assaulting a person while trying to steal their cell phone. Though the charges stemming from this incident were eventually dropped, the arrest itself might have changed the course of history for Matthew and the women in whose disappearances and deaths he is believed to have played a role.
Virginia is one of the 29 states that requires arrestees to submit a DNA sample to be entered into CODIS. That’s how, following his recent arrest in Hannah Graham’s disappearance, Matthew’s DNA was matched to crime-scene evidence collected in the case of Morgan Harrington. But in Virginia, only certain—mostly violent—felony charges call for a DNA submission to CODIS, and attempted grand larceny isn’t one of them.
In 2010, investigators confirmed that DNA found on Harrington had been matched with that of an unknown man who abducted and sexually assaulted a 26-year-old woman walking home from the grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia in 2005. If Matthew’s DNA had been entered into the national database when he was arrested in July of 2009 and if it had matched the DNA evidence from the 2005 rape (as officials are now claiming it does), Matthew might have been in jail instead of on the streets three months later, when Harrington was abducted.
Meaghan Ybos was 16 when she was raped by a stranger in a ski mask who broke into her suburban Memphis home. Today, a victim of her city’s rape kit backlog, she is embroiled in a lawsuit against the city of Memphis for neglecting to test her rape kit for nine years after she reported the attack. While reading what has been discovered so far about Jesse Matthew, Ybos told The Daily Beast, she was reminded of Anthony Alliano who, nearly 10 years after Ybos was attacked, was arrested while using a credit card he stole from a victim and, thanks to the wonders of DNA, wound up pleading guilty to seven different rapes, including hers.
“I can’t help but wonder, did the lack of law enforcement consequences after his 2002 and 2003 rape allegations bolster his confidence? Did he know he had a good chance of getting away with violent acts committed against women?” Ybos said of Matthew. “Sometimes it seems like committing rape gives you magic power to be free of any credible law enforcement investigation. It’s only when they get caught in connection with non-sexual offenses that law enforcement busts out the due diligence.”