COLUMBUS — More than 40 unsolved rape cases in Ashtabula County now have new evidence after a statewide backlog in rape kits has been cleared. 

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office announced last week the state finished testing all of the almost 14,000 “backlogged” rape kits held, in some cases, for years by law enforcement agencies across Ohio.

The AG’s Sexual Assault Kit Testing Initiative, started in 2011, sought to close sexual assault cold cases. In March 2015, a state law took effect requiring law enforcement agencies to submit all backlogged kits within one year. It also established a 30-day deadline to submit newly received kits.

Ashtabula County law enforcement agencies submitted 154 of those kits, resulting in 46 matches to the state’s DNA indexing system as of Feb. 1, according to the AG’s office.

Ashtabula City Police Department submitted the most kits since the initiative began: 114 kits — some backlogged, some current — resulting in 38 DNA “hits.”

The Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Department submitted 32 kits in that time, leading to seven hits. Andover Police Department submitted six kits, none of which matched. And the Geneva city and Geneva-on-the-Lake police departments each submitted one kit, which returned one match for village investigators.

Statewide, about 8,600 new DNA profiles were uploaded to the database with more than 5,000 database matches, resulting in new charges against “hundreds of attackers,” according to a release from the AG’s office. Some of the kits tested during the initiative dated as far back as 1971, according to the release.

“The testing of these nearly 14,000 kits has changed the culture surrounding rape investigations in Ohio,” Attorney General Mike DeWine said in the release. “The culture today is that every single rape kit needs to be tested. Because of the spotlight on these cases and the results that have followed, the value of testing these kits has been accepted.

“When agencies submit kits for testing without delay, suspects can be identified faster, future attacks can be prevented and other crimes can be solved.”

County Prosecutor Nicholas Iarocci said local law enforcers receiving new rape evidence must still see those investigations to the end.

“It’s just part of the investigation. We’ve now got completed rape kits and now there’s a lot of follow-up that’s going to have to be done by these law enforcement agencies to confirm these sexual assaults,” he said Wednesday. “They’ll submit the reports, then we review them for charges and, yes, then we’ll prosecute the case.

“This just means 46 cases are now continuing.”

Ashtabula City Police Chief Robert Stell said his department is still working through the new evidence.

“It’s a lot of cases, a lot of man hours. We are looking into every one of them,” he said. “It certainly is helpful to us. We can solve some unsolved cases. ... Those decisions are still being made on those cases.”

County sheriff’s investigators are reviewing three cases pushed along by the new kit testing, but it’s unclear how old they are. 

Most of the rape kits submitted by the department didn’t match to the state’s DNA database, meaning the offenders in those cases have never been caught and profiled, Sheriff William Johnson. In other cases returning a match, the department hasn’t produced any suspects.

“It’s like anything else — we’ll follow up whatever we can follow up,” Johnson said. “If we can get evidence to arrest somebody and make them stand trial ... we would do that.”

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