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Investigation Shows DPS Forensic Scientist Hid Backlog Of Cases

Published: Monday, May 22, 2017 - 3:21pm
Updated: Monday, May 22, 2017 - 10:52pm
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(Photo courtesy of 12 News)
In 2009, Melissa Rukstelis called police to report she had been sexually assaulted. Her case was part of a years-long backlog in the state crime lab.

A recent 12 News investigation uncovered a concerning pattern at Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) crime lab: A forensic scientist intentionally hid her backlog of cases for years, failing to test DNA evidence in dozens of cases and keeping evidence from those cases in her possession.

Investigative reporter Wendy Halloran found a state audit showing that Kathy Press, then a supervising forensic scientist at the lab, hid evidence from her supervisors to cover up a backlog of cases. In all, the audit found 40 cases assigned to Press in which she failed to complete the scientific analysis process.

But, this wasn’t a story that started with the records. Instead, it started with one woman’s case.

I talked with Halloran about this story just after it aired and she said that she came across the case when Melissa Rukstelis wrote to her, upset that the Maricopa County Attorney's Office had declined to prosecute the suspect in a sexual assault she had filed with the Tempe Police Department almost seven years earlier.

Halloran thought it was odd they hadn’t prosecuted the suspect in this case because they had, in fact, found a DNA match to the suspect in the case, but, she also noticed it had taken a really long time to get that match.

Halloran also told me that DPS does do things differently now, and this is a problem that’s probably in the past for them.

She said DPS Director Frank Milstead deserves credit for implementing audits like the one she uncovered that addressed the backlog at the lab but, she said, there are still questions about how overwhelming the caseload is for criminologists like Kathy Press.

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