By Ashley Fantz, CNN Investigates
Thursday, November 29, 2018
Fayetteville, North Carolina
Natasha told social workers he hurt her. She told them many times.
So that morning in July 2004, the day she said her father raped her, she ran to them once more.
The 16-year-old, whose social services file showed she had an IQ of 69, used child-like language to describe what happened: Her father had climbed on top of her, startling her from her sleep, and forced his “peterwee” inside her.
Social workers took the teen to a hospital where a nurse probed her vagina and swabbed her flesh.
A pediatric doctor said semen was collected during the forensic exam. Fayetteville police sent the teenager’s panties and rape kit to the state crime lab for testing.
With that evidence went a “suspect kit” containing DNA taken from her father.
He willingly gave police samples of his blood, hair and saliva. He let officers search his house, too. After all, he was innocent, he said; Natasha was a thief and a runaway, telling another of her many lies.
He had said this of his daughter often, according to a voluminous child protective services file which details her history of stealing and acting out and her father’s use of harsh physical punishment. Social workers sustained a finding of neglect against him for striking Natasha’s hand and leaving a knot when the girl was 12. Three years later, in late 2003, they found he’d physically abused her by beating her bare legs repeatedly with a two-by-four.
Natasha also told social workers her father had been creeping into her room at night, fondling her breasts and touching her vagina.
He denied that accusation, too, and child welfare workers concluded in December 2003 that there was “insufficient evidence” to make a case against him. According to the social workers’ file, Natasha was “not consistent with her disclosure” and had “smiled and laughed” during an interview — behaviors child trauma experts say should not be used to judge the merits of a teenager’s disclosure of abuse, especially one who is learning disabled.
Nonetheless, a social worker determined that the risk of abuse and neglect for Natasha was “high” if she continued living with her father, and she was sent to a relative’s home.
But when Natasha used profanity in front of their children, family members got fed up and kicked her out. Social workers allowed her to return to her father’s home in February 2004.
Five months later, on July 22, 2004, Natasha reported she had been raped.
CNN does not typically name victims of sexual assault. Though Natasha agreed to be photographed for this story, CNN is not using her real name or the name of her father to protect her identity.
Natasha gave authorities this account of the assault:
She was watching “Snake Island,” a horror movie, with her father. The movie frightened Natasha so much she went into her father’s room to watch “The Lion King.” She fell asleep on the bed and woke to find her father, completely nude, on top of her. He asked if he could suck her breasts. When she told him no, he pinned her arms behind her and did it anyway. He removed her shorts and underwear while she told him to stop. She crossed her legs but he forced them open. For a moment she managed to escape from the bed. He pulled her back and raped her.
The case was assigned to Detective Timothy Tew, who detailed Natasha’s account of the rape in the case file.
He also noted that she repeated allegations that her father previously assaulted her by penetrating her vagina with his finger. She told the detective that on those occasions her father had used a rope to tie her hands and feet to a bed rail.
Tew searched the home but could not find the shirt Natasha said she wore during the rape, nor did he see a bed with rails, according to his report. The detective wrote that he didn’t find rope in the house, but discovered some in her father’s car.
When Tew interviewed relatives, they told him Natasha was a liar.
The day after the reported rape, July 23, 2004, Tew sent Natasha’s rape kit and her father’s DNA to the lab.
The detective’s next entry was nearly a year and a half later, on December 15, 2005, when the crime lab reported it had found sperm belonging to Natasha’s father on her panties and the vaginal swabs in her rape kit.
In the 17 months between the detective’s initial investigation and the lab findings, social workers continued to document their concerns about Natasha.
She cycled through at least a dozen foster and group homes — kicked out of some, running away from many. Social workers feared for her safety. She was cutting and threatening to kill herself. One social worker wrote that Natasha was “incapable of living independently.” A social services document dated December 2005 listed the teen as a “runaway.”
It was nearly two months before Tew followed up on the lab’s DNA report, according to the case file. The detective wrote on February 1, 2006, that he called social services and received a phone number for a relative of Natasha’s. That relative, however, told Tew she hadn’t seen the teenager for a couple days.
Natasha “is known to be running around the city,” the detective wrote in his report, “and no one can determine her whereabouts.” He didn’t know whether the teen wanted to pursue the case. But she had his phone number and pager, he noted, so until she called, he was ending the investigation.
Nine years later, in the fall of 2015, the Fayetteville police chief held a brief press conference, announcing that his department regrettably had destroyed more than 300 rape kits.
One belonged to Natasha.
Tew had authorized the destruction of Natasha’s rape kit the same year he closed the case, records show.
Police also destroyed the DNA samples taken from her father.
In interviews after the chief’s press conference, police told CNN that many of the investigations that ended in kit destruction were so poorly conducted, they couldn’t be revived. An estimated 85% of the destroyed kits were never tested.
But Natasha’s case was different. Though her kit was gone, police had the lab report showing the DNA match.
Her case might offer a win, they believed, a chance to right their wrong.
But they would need Natasha’s help.
Natasha sat in the Cumberland County Jail in Fayetteville a month after the chief’s press conference. At 27, she had pleaded guilty to possession of a stolen vehicle, a felony, and was preparing to do time.
In her adult life, she’d worked as a prostitute, she said, struggled with drug addiction, had four children — and lost custody of all of them. She had little hope and trusted no one. So she was suspicious when someone said a man was at the jail and wanted to talk with her.
Fayetteville Detective John Benazzi was assigned to a new unit charged with reinvestigating the cases in which his department had destroyed rape kits. He tried to explain to Natasha why he was there.
Her father’s DNA was found in her rape kit, he told her. That evidence had been “disposed of to make room for other evidence,” he wrote in the case file.
Natasha remembers that he told her that her case had gone “cold” because police could not find her.
“He was like, ‘Well, I’ve been looking for you,’” Natasha recalled. “I’m like, ‘Looking for me for what?’”
She found it hard to understand what he was saying — and what he wanted.
“He was doing a whole lot of talking,” Natasha remembered.
Benazzi told CNN that Natasha “burst into tears” when he visited, grateful that someone had finally believed her.
The detective asked her about the history of abuse documented in Tew’s interview with her, including whether her father tied her to bed rails. She said she was not tied to rails, but that her wrists and feet were bound.
Benazzi reassured her he could reopen the investigation without the evidence, he wrote in the case file, and asked Natasha if she wanted him to do so. He noted that she said she was unsure.
Before Benazzi left, he gave Natasha the number of a rape crisis center and advised she get counseling when she got out of prison.
Benazzi began to work the case and interviewed Natasha’s 62-year-old father, who denied raping her. But the detective didn’t believe him. The father was arrested on February 26, 2016, and charged with second-degree rape, incest, sexual battery and first-degree kidnapping for allegedly restraining Natasha and preventing her from leaving the room.
A reporter found the father sitting on his front porch a few months later, an electronic monitoring device strapped to his ankle. He was out on bond and said the police got everything wrong. He called Natasha a liar.
Fayetteville police refused a reporter’s request for the case file. Natasha’s father provided it and other documents his attorney obtained.
He also shared his theory as to how his sperm wound up on his daughter’s panties and the vaginal swabs in her rape kit.
He said he “did the man thing” a lot, meaning he frequently masturbated.
“I think that she went in the bathroom,” he said, “and she could’ve got it off the sink and put it up in her.”
Defense attorney Allen Rogers said he had no intention of presenting that theory to a jury.
He planned to argue that destruction of the rape kit denied his client his constitutional right to have his own experts test the evidence. The lab report alone was not enough, and he said he would object to it being admitted as evidence.
Natasha’s father “would’ve had a right to have that kit tested to ensure that (the state lab’s) process was correct,” Rogers said. And without the kit tying his client to the crime, he felt confident he could swat away a prosecutors’ claims.
He also said he would use Natasha’s criminal record and addiction to attack her credibility — even though those are common issues for sexual abuse victims and do not undercut DNA evidence.
Tew, the detective at the center of the case, retired from the department in July 2016. He declined to be interviewed, but a reporter texted him parts of Natasha’s case file and asked why he did not pursue her father after receiving the lab report.
Tew responded by writing that he would have charged Natasha’s father if he “felt like it was a strong case.”
He did not say why a DNA match wouldn’t be strong enough.
As her father awaited trial, Natasha faced a backlash from some family members.
They didn’t believe her, she said, and directed their anger toward her instead of her father. They saw her as a troubled woman accusing an innocent man.
Sitting in her apartment after a brief stint in prison, tears streaming down her face, Natasha mixed stories about the present with stories about the past. Why hadn’t social workers rescued her the first time she told them her father hurt her, she asked.
“I mean, actually nothing was done. It was like even then, nobody didn’t believe me.”
She’d thought a lot about what she was told about her case, about why police didn’t act on the evidence in her rape kit and why all the pressure was now on her.
“Why would it go cold? … Just ’cause you can’t find me, and you saying y’all got the proof. Y’all got evidence,” she said. “I been thinking about that. … You need me or do you need him?”
She went on, speaking as if she were talking directly to police.
“Just leave it alone. If y’all going to do something about it, it should have been done then,” she said.
The anger she once had for her father was now aimed at police. She felt she’d already done what she could to help them, and they’d thrown the evidence away.
“Whatever happened with the rape kit, however it got destroyed, when it got destroyed, y’all should have closed it down. It went cold anyway. Should have left it ice cold.”
The case against Natasha’s father ultimately crumbled.
The Cumberland County District Attorney’s office dismissed all charges in September 2017. The reason, according to court documents, was that Natasha was subpoenaed but failed to show up, and she told a prosecutor she would not testify. District Attorney Billy West declined to speak with CNN.
The attempt to achieve justice in a case that was botched more than a decade ago was over. The teenage victim who had been willing to help police had become a young woman who no longer was.
Natasha was living on the street in Fayetteville when CNN tracked her down outside her cousin’s home. She wanted to be left alone.
“I am about to hit 30,” she said. “My life has moved on since this incident. So why not leave it alone, okay?
“What happened, happened.”
She said those three words over and over, yelling them as though she were desperate to finally be heard.
She leaned over a car like an exhausted fighter who wanted out of the ring.
“I don’t want to remember what happened.”CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this story.