Last 600 untested rape kits in Wayne County sent for processing

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A long unsettling chapter that began when a backlog of 11,000 untested rape kits were lost -- is almost over.

The remaining rape kits have now been sent to labs to be processed.  Years ago it all started in a vacant lot on Detroit's east side in an industrial part of the city. Back in 2009 it was a vacant storage unit. That was when the 11,300 untested rape kits were uncovered. 

Over the next 10 years they started systematically testing those rape kits. And just recently, a milestone - the last 600 kits have been sent away for testing.
"It's difficult to talk about," said Margaret Tallet, Michigan Women's Foundation. "It's difficult to look at and to realize that women were denied justice on that grand scale."

The crimes date back to the 1980s - evidence of sex crimes left to rot in a forgotten corner of Detroit.  Some of the victims assumed justice would never come, but slowly over time what was left to a blind eye, has been shown the light.

"It's the story of a woman who is no longer a name, she is just a bar code on a rape kit that no one cares about," Tallet said. "That just tugs on everyone's heart strings and it was a great emotional way to get people to pay attention to it."

"If you raped in Wayne County people do care and your case does matter," said Kym Worthy, Wayne County Prosecutor, back in 2014.

Back then Worthy was well into her quest to find funding for all 11,000 kits tested. Her path would eventually lead to her to Margaret Tallet, the C.O.O. of Michigan's Women's Foundation.

"She went door to door to try to find influential people," Tallet said. "She knocked on the door of the Michigan Women's Foundation and said 'Oh you guys must care.'"

Testing of the kits ranged from $1,500 to $400 a piece and fundraising became a priority.

"People have given from $5 to $500,000," Tallet said.

The search for justice had a side effect of raising awareness across the nation.

"There are 400,000 untested kits in the United States," she said. "It is not unique to Detroit."

An HBO documentary called "I Am Evidence" highlights the untested rape kits. Back in 2014 one of the producers, actress Mariska Hargitay stood next to Worthy.

"Our hope is that this film will shine a light on the rape kit backlog," Hargitay said.

Almost immediately the testing paid dividends:

Shelly Brooks is serving a life sentence convicted of raping and killing seven women. And Deshawn Starks raped four women and is spending 45 to 90 years for his crimes. 

As for the victims - "They always say the same thing," Tallet said. "I got my life back."

To date more than 120 rapists have been sent to prison.

"When this project came to us we thought, we can really solve something," Tallet said.

And with the help of her foundation the last of 11,304 rape kits will be tested. It could take from two to five years.

It doesn't end there - after the results are revealed, the police and prosecution begin the real work of catching the rapist and prosecuting them.