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 properly sealed. The evidence was destroyed, tainted or open to allegations of tampering.
      Goddard, 74, formed and led a Chicago organization she called the Citizens Committee for Victim Assistance. She embarked on a pavement-pounding odyssey to make the kit a reality.
      She visited hospitals to learn about procedures. She met with sheriffs, states attorneys, prosecutors, scholars, judges and politicians. She sat down with members of a nurses' association and waltzed into every police precinct in the Chicago area. She was on a mission -- "16 hours a day," she says -- to learn what was needed to best collect evidence in a uniform way and "wanted the brains of people who knew what they were doing and were frustrated."
      Because she had a friendship with Christie Hefner, Goddard says, initial funding for the kits came from Hugh Hefner's Playboy Foundation.
      The kit was first utilized in September 1978, according to a 1980 Chicago Tribune article, when 26 Cook County hospital emergency rooms made it part of their standard practice for gathering trace evidence when rape victims came through the doors.
      Less than two years after the kit's introduction, the Tribune reported, 215 hospitals across Illinois were using it.
      It became known as the "Vitullo kit" because forensic experts had "the final say-so for a lot of the design features," says Marian Caporusso, who worked with Vitullo and was quoted in his Chicago Sun Times obituary.
      Louis Vitullo appears with the rape kit that bears his name in the January 1979 edition of the Chicago Police Star.
      Goddard brought on staff to train law enforcement, hospital clinicians and prosecutors across Illinois. Later, she was tapped by the Department of Justice to help on a national scale.
      One of her Chicago hires, who acted as her assistant director, was Susan Irion.
      Irion, now 61, was a young, disenchanted public relations worker who derived meaning through volunteer work -- offering support to rape victims in emergency rooms. She was counseling victims when the Vitullo kits were being beta-tested. That's how she met Goddard.
      "The presence of the kit, and the fact that it rolled out statewide, created a snowball effect," remembers Irion, who became an attorney and now professionally trains other lawyers. "It raised awareness about how to have an effective prosecution, which included properly supporting a victim. It gave legitimacy to the whole area of sexual assault, recognizing it as a serious felony that had to be handled properly."
      The rape kit, Irion says, is as important as it ever was -- which is why headlines about untested kits bother her so much.
      "It's nothing short of a tragedy," she says, "because what that means is that those cases can't be successfully prosecuted and those offenders are still out there offending."
      Goddard, who gave so many hours and years to the rape kit, wasn't privy to the recent headlines and only learned about the backlog problem from CNN.
      She says she doesn't own a television or a computer, and she no longer subscribes to any newspapers. That there are backlogs doesn't surprise her; there were when she was a crusader for the cause. But the sheer volume today? That is something else.
      "They were catching up at one point," she says. "I'm sorry to hear it is worse than I thought."

      A 'life-altering' contribution

      If Vitullo knew of the backlog problem, "he would roll over in his grave," says his daughter, Joanne Antosh.
      She remembers her father as overprotective, which made sense given the lens through which he saw the world.
      Antosh, 54, grew up in Cary, Illinois, about an hour outside Chicago. For 18 years, she only saw her father on weekends; he stayed with his sister in the city during the workweek. Chicago made him so nervous he didn't let his daughter go there by herself until she was over 20.
      He may have been steeped in blood and violence on the job, but at home he was someone else.
      Antosh recalls a story from her adolescence.
      "I was playing softball, and I cut my lip open," she says. "I thought he was going to lose it. He was shaking, and it wasn't even that much blood."
      He didn't talk about his work. Details about rapes, murders and serial killings weren't really fodder for dinner-table conversations or bedtime stories. She doesn't remember how old she was when she learned about the rape kit, though she knows she must have been old enough to know what it was for.
      After her father died, Antosh's own daughter determined that, like him, she wanted to live a life that mattered. Who he was and what he accomplished shaped the woman Tristin Engels became.
      She earned a doctorate in psychology and now works as a forensic psychologist in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
      She says her grandfather dealt with criminals who he often saw reoffend. She decided to focus on the underserved, incarcerated population, many of whom have mental health issues, to try to prevent crimes.
      Engels, 32, works with convicts to determine who's fit to stand trial and who needs medical attention. She sees all types -- parole violators, murderers and, yes, rapists.
      She and her mother marvel at the fact that Vitullo didn't speak about the contribution he made.
      "I would be boasting about it if it was me, but he never did," Antosh says. "It is a big thing if you think about it."
      It certainly is, says Linda Fairstein, a former prosecutor -- and a best-selling novelist -- who headed up the sex crimes unit at the New York County (Manhattan) District Attorney's office from 1976 to 2002. She never met Vitullo face-to-face, but she says she knew of his work, his contribution to getting rape kits in the system and spoke to him by phone.
      "It was life-altering for the survivors of the crimes because for the first time it ensured there was a way to get physical evidence from a doctor's office to a police department," she explains.
      Fairstein and former District Attorney Robert Morgenthau teamed up to eliminate backlogged rape kits in New York City, of which there were once 17,000.
      Today, she serves on the board of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which works to end sexual assaults, domestic violence and child abuse. Through the foundation's ENDTHEBACKLOG program, it is helping lead the fight for rape kit reform. She says anywhere between 400,000 and a million kits in the United States remain untested.
      In September, the foundation applauded the earmarking of nearly $80 million in grant money -- $41