NEW ORLEANS Our report about a local woman's allegations of being drugged and sexually assaulted at a Bywater club brought good news and bad for alleged victim Maria Treme.
First, things were looking up because the New Orleans Police Department reversed earlier decisions Treme had criticized in our Eyewitness Investigation last Thursday.
They let her have her attorney with her while meeting with detectives on Friday, something they previously told her was not allowed. Then, on Monday, they changed their stance from July 28 and agreed to collect evidence from Treme's car, which was stolen from outside The Country Club when someone took her keys at about the same time that she was allegedly 'roofied' inside the club.
WWL-TV doesn't normally name rape victims, but made an exception in Treme's case because she asked us to tell her story. Dozens of people she never met reacted by email and on Facebook, saying they, too, had been victims of drug-facilitated rape but had not been brave enough to come forward as openly as she had. Her friends and the community-at-large rallied around her and helped her raise more than $700 to pay a towing company that had held her car for weeks before police responded.
That was still a sore spot for Treme. Thieves had the car for a week after it was taken July 1, but they ditched it July 7 and Rudy Smith Towing notified police that they had the car on July 10. NOPD didn't respond until Treme got a notice in the mail and called them two weeks later, after the towing company's fees had grown by hundreds of dollars.
In a response late Tuesday, NOPD acknowledged that its Auto Theft Unit is supposed to check notices from towing companies to see if the vehicles had been reported stolen, but did not explain why the notice July 10 did not lead to the recovery of Treme's car.
And then, NOPD frustrated Treme by saying they would not pop the lock to take the cell phone, bolt cutters and air freshener that were clearly visible through the car windows. They also didn't consider the car part of the sexual assault investigation, so declined to seize it as evidence in a major crime.
Still, things were looking up Tuesday when, with a WWL-TV news crew with her at Rudy Smith's, Louisiana Locksmith made Treme a new key for the car and surprised her by waiving the total cost of more than $100.
Victim pleased with response... at first
But as soon as Treme got in the vehicle to head home, things started to go sour again. And the bad news raises serious questions about how NOPD conducts sexual assault investigations and whether the department has adequately addressed well-publicized problems in the sex crimes unit.
Treme said there was no sign that NOPD had dusted for fingerprints in the car. She found rap CDs in her glove box that didn't belong to her, with clear fingerprints on them. And there was a bar of soap in the back, under the driver's seat.
NOPD had just left them there, Treme said.
She picked up the soap to find a short, curly hair on the underside. She promptly recoiled in horror and dropped it.
'That's obviously DNA,' she said. 'It's a hair. They just keep adding insult to injury on it. It's just disgusting.'
Treme's attorney called the NOPD sex crimes unit and they sent a Special Victims Unit sergeant out to see the evidence that wasn't picked up Monday. The mobile crime lab arrived soon after and put the soap and CDs in evidence bags, but a distraught Treme feared the evidence had already been compromised.
'It looks like they just watched the news, saw the cell phone and the bolt cutters, went and got them out and left,' she said. 'I once again had to call them back with new evidence --that I saw. I feel like I'm going to solve this case or it's not going to be solved at all at this point.'
Police offer a response
NOPD spokesman Officer Frank Robertson said the crime lab did dust Treme's vehicle for prints on Monday.
'The vehicle was fingerprinted, processed for DNA, and all unknown property was taken as evidence,' Robertson said. 'At this time, if police are able to make a match on the fingerprints and/or DNA, then the only charge would be Possession of a Stolen Vehicle. If there is a match to DNA from the victim's sexual assault kit or any sexual assault kit, then of course those cases will be investigated with the new findings.'
But he did not say why only some of the items were collected.
Deputy Independent Police Monitor Ursula Price says she's concerned with how the police are handling this case. She says it starts with ambiguous policies on evidence collection.
'For instance, it says evidence should be collected, the scene should be preserved and it says who is responsible for doing that,' Price said. 'But it does not say what is timely evidence collection, how thorough that collection need be.'
But a bigger problem could be the NOPD's decision to treat the auto theft and the sex crime as totally separate cases. A police spokesman told WWL-TV last week that evidence gathered in the investigation led detectives to conclude the two crimes were unrelated. But when Treme met with officers on Friday, she said they told her they simply had no evidence that they were related, not any affirmative evidence that they weren't.
Price is concerned that by severing the car theft and the rape into two separate investigations, the NOPD is not giving all of the evidence the same level of attention.
'Auto theft is not a major crime (so) it does not get the same sort of attention that a sexual assault would,' she said. 'The events were related. I understand separate item numbers for clerical purposes, but the investigation is not separate.'
Price says her office is asking the NOPD's Public Integrity Bureau to investigate and for the federal police monitor, who was brought in to look at problems as a part of the U.S. Department of Justice consent decree, to pay special attention to Treme's case to make sure it is handled properly from now on.
Treme welcomed that news, but feels NOPD has already done too much damage to the case.
'I really would love to go in there and just say, 'Give me everything. Give me everything, and I will sit in this office and solve this my damn self, because you are all useless,'' Treme said. 'And at this point it's hurtful and it's upsetting and I'm sick of it.'