CROWN POINT — As she approached her front door on the night of March 20, 1984, a woman felt a gun pressed into the back of her head.
She and another woman who had been with her then were forced inside the home in the 2000 block of East 39th Avenue by three unknown men, according to court records.
Upon entering the Hobart residence, the group of men found a third female, raping each at gunpoint. No suspects were charged at the time.
For three decades, the evidence — the women’s rape kits — sat, gathering dust until May 1, 2018, when they were forwarded to the state crime lab for review, records state.
On Jan. 18, 2019, DNA from one of the unearthed kits returned the name of Joel Williams Jr., a convicted felon, tying him to the 35-year-old crime.
Williams’ arrest is one of many made during the past year following a commitment by the prosecutor’s office to test all non-anonymous rape kits backlogged in Lake County.
In 2017, a statewide audit revealed nearly 5,000 untested kits across Indiana, with 238 of those in Lake County.
“It’s a nationwide problem with hundreds of thousands of kits across the country untested,” Deputy Prosecutor Nadia Wardrip said. “We knew that before the report came out.”
Wardrip said the audit served as an opportunity to revamp how crimes involving sex offenses or intimate partner violence are prosecuted by the county, leading to the creation of the Special Victims Unit.
The all-female, four-member team is composed of Wardrip and fellow Deputy Prosecutors Maryam Afshar, Infinity Baulos and Jessica Arnold, with each representing one of the four felony courtrooms.
Since forming, the SVU handles all reports of crimes involving sex offenses or intimate partner violence before charges are filed until the final resolution. The process removes discretion from police on whether the case has sufficient evidence for prosecution, creating department-wide consistency.
If a rape kit is done, police must collect it from the medical facility within 72 hours and then forward it to Indiana State Police within 30 days of pickup. Once finished, the information is presented to the SVU, whose members handle the case from that point and decide if charges are appropriate.
“We wanted to make sure that each and every one of these victims had an opportunity to have their case looked at,” Wardrip said. “Prior to this unit, prosecutors would change — the files could change hands. You have every prosecutor trying every type of case. But now, every case is handled by one of us. And that’s how we can get that uniformity.”
In the past year, they have sent all backlogged kits performed on or after Jan. 1, 2008, to the state crime lab, Wardrip said. Nearly all of them have been tested, with some of the completed kits already being prosecuted by members of the SVU.
Recent cases — each involving a victim reporting that she/he was raped by a stranger — have ended in arrests after the associated kit returned a DNA match with a person in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a nationwide database of DNA profiles that includes samples taken from all people arrested in Indiana on felony offenses.
Just before Williams, 53, of Gary, was taken into custody in March, police arrested 27-year-old Christopher R. Bias, of Hammond and East Chicago, on Feb. 25 after DNA tied him to a rape that occurred in August 2018, according to court records.
The alleged victim told police her car had broken down at a gas station in Munster. When she began to walk home, Bias approached under the guise of offering help and later sexually assaulted her, records state.
She told police he had put his hand over her mouth and threatened to kill her if she screamed.
Bias is facing four felonies and a misdemeanor, including strangulation and battery by bodily waste, stemming from the August incident.
Before Williams or Bias were arrested, police nabbed Willie L. Dixon, of Gary, charging the 51-year-old with rape, kidnapping and four other felonies related to a crime that occurred in January 2018, records state.
Dixon admitted in a plea agreement he dragged a woman into an abandoned Gary home, where he stabbed and sexually assaulted her. He pleaded guilty to rape May 10 in exchange for the other charges being dropped. His sentencing is scheduled for June 25.
“These three cases are all really terrible crimes that would’ve quite honestly never been solved,” Baulos said. “We wouldn’t have even known they existed (without testing the specific rape kit).”
With these and other backlogged cases involving CODIS hits, Afshar said they’ve had victims come forward, saying, “Wow, I can’t believe you found this person. I never thought you would find them.”
The unit's one-year anniversary also coincides directly with the implementation of a new state law aiming to better help rape victims.
The law allows victims and prosecutors to track rape kits through the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute database, assigning each kit a specific number.
Individuals then will be able to see the date the kit was received, processed, examined and finalized.
The program, which is expected to be fully operational July 1, also provides reimbursement to those providing the medical exams and additional forensic services to protect victims' identities.
“This important new law will bring peace of mind to victims of rape who choose to have their kits tested,” state Rep. Carolyn Jackson, D-Hammond, said in a news release May 30. “It is my hope that this new law will prove to help rape victims successfully move through the recovery process, while also protecting their identity.”
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said he believes the law will improve accountability statewide and empower victims — a sentiment Wardrip echoed.
“It’s not just out there somewhere; (victims) can get on their computer and see exactly what is going on with their kit,” Wardrip said.
In the coming years, the group hopes to expand the unit to include additional prosecutors, social workers and victim advocates to improve their response to these types of cases.
“(Victims) need places to live. They need counseling. They need people to watch their kids, so they can come to court. It’s life-altering. They need a lot of services that we can’t provide them at that point,” Baulos said. “The more people we can get involved, the more people we can help.”
“We’re realizing, in doing things differently, it requires a village to really prosecute these awful crimes,” Wardrip added.
Baulos said they also want to continue educating all levels of law enforcement — including themselves — and making progress on their promise to test the backlogged rape kits.
Originally, Baulos said they planned to only send kits performed in the past decade to the state’s crime lab. But now, they plan to send older kits — some dating back to the early 1990s — due to the progress made within their first year.
“It’s nonstop, it’s very busy,” Wardrip said. “But it’s been very successful."