Meaghan Ybos was 16 years old and her body was a crime scene. In 2003, a rapist attacked her at knifepoint in her family’s suburban Memphis home. She never got a good look at him; he was wearing a ski mask and covered her face with a blanket during the assault.
But he did leave behind one thing that would ultimately lead to his identification: DNA.
For the next nine years, Ybos said her life was a “nightmare.” Trapped in a permanent “survival mode,” she was scared to even talk about her rape, for fear of being seen as an “attention-seeker.” She was also worried her rapist was still out there, always remembering his threat to return and kill her.
“I was on edge all the time. I didn’t know what the man looked like, so I couldn’t protect myself,” Ybos said. “He could be anywhere, he could be anyone.”
The Department of Justice estimates that there are 400,000 rape kits that have been left untested by police departments across the country. In Detroit, police found 11,000 untested kits. Cleveland had 4,000 and Phoenix had 3,000.
The city of Memphis recently announced it failed to test more than 12,000 rape kits, some dating back to the 1980s.
A C Wharton, Jr. has been the mayor of Memphis since 2009. He’s taken the lead in responding to the rape kit controversy on behalf of the city and the police.
According to Wharton, there are several reasons the kits went untested. He says kits from the city and county were often poorly catalogued and stored. In other cases, he says state law prevented DNA from being extracted and submitted to CODIS. He also blames a culture among police that leads to doubts about reports of rapes.
Asked by America Tonight what he would say to victims who feel they’ve been treated unfairly, Wharton says, “There’s no way in the world I will stand here and tell them, ‘No you shouldn’t feel that way.’ All I can say is, ‘Watch us, day in, day out.’ If a victim wants a weekly report, or a daily, or whatever, they’re going to get it.”
Wharton says the city has undertaken an ambitious plan to test all of the 12,000 kits. So far, some 2,500 have been sent to laboratories, resulting in the opening of at least 90 cases and more than 14 indictments.
Wharton says the city will not rest until any and all criminals have been caught and brought to justice.
To Meaghan Ybos, that assurance is cold comfort.
“You start to wonder, is rape really illegal?” Ybos said. “Apparently, it was not a big deal for the nine years Alliano was on the loose. The law says it’s illegal, but in practice, if nothing’s done, I have to wonder, is it really illegal?”