Ketchikan police have made an arrest in a 28-year-old rape case. Police credit a recent push to end Alaska’s sexual assault kit backlog with identifying the suspect.
On a dark evening in January 1993, a 14-year-old girl noticed a man following her.
Afterward, she told investigators that he pulled her behind the dugouts at Ketchikan High School’s baseball field and raped her. She told police the man threatened to kill her if she said anything about the assault.
She called the police anyway. But Ketchikan’s acting deputy police chief, Andy Berntson, says the assailant was a stranger — making the investigation much more difficult.
“Ketchikan Police Department worked it diligently — ran down every tip, every suspect, every subject that they could develop as a suspect or a potential suspect and just weren’t able to get anywhere with that investigation,” Berntson said in a phone interview.
It was a shock to the community — Berntson says attacks like that are rare, especially in a small island town like Ketchikan. But the crime went unsolved for decades.
Now, police say they’ve cracked the case with new DNA evidence. Michael J. Williams, a 52-year-old Saxman man, is accused of raping the unnamed teenager on Dudley Field.
“This is as serious as it gets,” District Attorney Timothy McGillicuddy said during Williams’ first appearance in court Friday.
Williams faces two charges: first-degree sexual assault and second-degree sexual abuse of a minor. He has not yet entered a plea.
So how did police come to believe Williams was behind the 1993 assault?
As part of the initial investigation, medical professionals collected samples from the survivor’s body in a rape kit. Some 11 years later, in 2004, after advances in DNA forensics, KPD’s Berntson said the kit was tested at the Alaska state crime lab.
“And it was essentially reanalyzed to the point where they (could) actually develop a full genetic profile,” Berntson said.
While police say the sample did turn up male DNA, it didn’t match any profiles in the FBI’s database, the Combined DNA Index System. A dead end.
Another 17 years passed.
Then, this year, Berntson says a years-old DNA sample collected by another law enforcement agency was tested as part of a statewide push. The named suspect in that case was Michael Williams.
And this time, there was a hit: That DNA was similar to the sample collected in the 1993 Dudley Field case, according to court filings.
Since 2007, Alaska law has required violent offenders and those arrested in felony cases to submit DNA samples, though the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica reported earlier this year that many law enforcement agencies had failed to collect and test samples. Williams has not been charged with a violent offense or felony since 1994, when he pleaded guilty to a fourth-degree drug charge. Berntson said Williams was not charged in the case that resulted in the second DNA sample being collected.
After getting a search warrant, Berntson said he took a sample from Williams last week, and it matched the 1993 profile. Williams was arrested the next day.
Berntson says it’s the first time in his 20-year career he’s seen an arrest in a case this cold in Ketchikan. He says a recent effort by the Alaska Legislature to test backlogged rape kits around the state made it possible.
“This is the best-case scenario: that you can solve these cases that victims have not been able to see justice,” Berntson said.
And he says he hopes ending the backlog of rape kits and other DNA evidence can help provide justice for sexual assault survivors and other crime victims.
“And that’s, that’s the goal here — when people go through a situation like this, sometimes the person is known to them, sometimes they’re not, and sometimes this is the only way to provide any form of identification in this type or other types of crime,” Berntson said.
Advocates are applauding the arrest. The executive director of Anchorage-based Standing Together Against Rape, Keeley Olson, says it’s validating for anyone who’s come forward to report sexual assault or rape.
“I just think this is fantastic news,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s got to be really powerful for the survivor to know that this person has been identified and is no longer a potential threat to them.”
She says she’d like to see the state shorten the time it takes to test each kit, and she says she supports the state Department of Public Safety’s efforts to create a rape kit tracking system to provide optional updates for survivors.
Williams has not yet entered a plea. During his first appearance, he said there’s little chance of him leaving town pending trial.
“There’s no flight risk — I have too strong of ties to the community. My mother lives here, nieces, nephews,” he said.
Prosecutors asked Magistrate Judge Amanda Schultz for $500,000 bail; she set it at $350,000. Williams is in custody pending a bail review hearing, which is currently scheduled for Wednesday.
Williams did not address the sexual assault allegations at his first court appearance — that’s typical for felony cases. A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday.
Resources are available for survivors of sexual assault. To reach the crisis line for Ketchikan-based Women in Safe Homes, call 907-225-9474 or 800-478-9474. On Prince of Wales Island, advocates from Helping Ourselves Prevent Emergencies are available at 907-401-1611. RAINN, a national domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy group, also operates a crisis line at 1-800-656-4673.