The story behind the first rape kit

Rape evidence kits are stacked in storage at the Cleveland Police Department.

Story highlights

  • Rape kits keep making headlines, as they're discovered untested, backlogged and even destroyed
  • CNN finds the faces and forces behind the very first rape kit, which was created in Chicago in the 1970's
  • The rape kit was "life-altering" for survivors and helped prosecutors and law enforcement seek justice

(CNN)The first time Tristin Engels realized her grandpa was a big deal, she was about 8 and on the side of a road in Wisconsin. A flat tire interrupted a drive home from a family fishing trip, and the police officer who pulled over to help her grandfather became starstruck when he learned his name.

"Why does he know Papa?" she remembers asking her mother. The answer was vague. "He is well known," she thinks her mom said, leaving it at that. She was too young to hear more.
Fast-forward a couple of decades: Engels' boyfriend, a paramedic and registered nurse, spotted in her home a framed photograph of her Papa. He knew who the man was, assumed she was a closeted science nerd, but still asked: "Why do you have this?"
    "That's my grandpa," Engels answered, proudly.
      Louis Vitullo was a Chicago police sergeant who became the chief microanalyst in the city's crime lab. He worked on high-profile cases, like Richard Speck's mass murder of eight student nurses in 1966. In the black and white photo she had on her wall, he was inspecting Speck's knife.
      But Vitullo's biggest career legacy is this: He was credited with developing the nation's first rape kit, the standardized tool to gather forensic evidence after sexual assaults. In the beginning, in fact, the cardboard box that held instructions and items like swabs, slides and a small comb was known as the "Vitullo Evidence Collection Kit."
      First used in Illinois and then across the country, rape kits haven't had his name attached to them in decades. But they are making headlines as hundreds of thousands of them are being discovered backlogged, untested and, in some cases, destroyed.
        New reports about rape kits crop up in the media each week.
        What Vitullo accomplished in his lifetime is a source of great pride for his granddaughter, whom he called "Cetriolo," cucumber in Italian. They spent weekends and summers together. When they went fishing, he wore a hat that read "Captain" while hers said "First Mate."
        Vitullo died in 2006, one year after Engels graduated from college. Her late grandmother shared condolence cards that came in after news of his death. They included notes from grateful survivors who had been victimized years earlier. Because of her Papa, she remembers reading, their rapists had been convicted.
        "I was an activist for women's abuse issues in the '70s and '80s," says one card, preserved in a family scrapbook. Vitullo's work "was indeed revolutionary. He deserves to be remembered with great respect and gratitude."
        Yes, he does. But as the saying goes, behind every successful man is a formidable woman.

        On a mission

        Martha Goddard was a survivor of sexual assault who took up the charge to create a comprehensive rape kit -- and to lobby hard to get it into circulation.
        It was the 1970s, and the women's movement had found its footing. Women were finding the courage to report their sexual assaults, and the crime of rape was, at last, getting media attention.
        But there was no standardized protocol to collect and share forensic evidence, nor was there an understanding of the psychological trauma attached to these crimes. If a woman didn't appear sufficiently traumatized, her claims were often dismissed, explains Susan Irion, who advocated for rape victims back then. If emergency room personnel bothered to gather evidence, she adds, it often wasn't preserved correctly. Slides were co-mingled. Packages containing evidence were not pro