LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – A mother and daughter who have tried for 10 years to get answers in the daughter's unsolved rape investigation may have been misled about whether testing of evidence which could provide detectives with new leads was actually done as they were told, multiple records obtained by the WHAS 11 News iTeam suggest.
When Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear announced $4.5 million being allocated to help clear Kentucky's backlog of untested sexual assault kits, Cheryl Ellis and her daughter, Salisa Luster, thought it would help find out who raped Luster in 2008.
In a four-month investigation, the iTeam traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas to meet with the women who described those horrible days in Luster's apartment near Interstate 64 and Hurstbourne Parkway.
"I laid there for two days," Luster recalled, "I hadn't been to work and I hadn't called into work and my co-workers know that's not me."
Bloody and bruised, Luster was somehow able to answer the phone and tell her friends she needed help. Then she answered a call from her mother.
"I would ask her was she okay and she would say, 'No,' and I would ask her what happened," Ellis said, "'I don't know,' Is somebody there with you? 'I don't know,' so none of that was making sense to me, that was not my daughter.
"I said are you hurt, she said, 'Yes,' and that's when I started reaching out to the police department.
Ellis said she had a mixture of heartbreak and rage and wanted to confront the person who attacked her daughter.
The rage would only get worse because of what she said happened next.
It started with a complaint she and her daughter filed against the detective who was assigned the case. The complaint was filed with the Louisville Metro Police Department Professional Standards Unit in 2009.
"Ms. Luster believes the responding officer(s) failed to perform an adequate investigation," a summary of the complaint obtained by the iTeam reads.
"[The detective] told [my friends] it looked like I had a fight with my boyfriend and that I was fine," Luster said, "It looked like I was crying."
The women provided photos of Luster from her hospital room which showed her right eye swollen shut and discolored as well as other bruising on her face.
"He couldn't make that assessment, I mean, I can't move," Luster paused, "You just walk in and you leave me, so why would you do that," she asked.
Months later, the LMPD Chief at the time, Robert White, sent an internal memo alerting staff the detective could not be investigated because he had retired.
"I have determined to "Clear by Exception" the above cited investigation…due to his retirement," White wrote, "No further action need be taken."
As for the rape investigation, it too would be closed because of a lack of evidence as referenced by current LMPD Chief Steve Conrad in a May 2012 letter to Ellis.
"I apologize for his behavior! Your daughter deserved better!" Conrad said of the detective.
"It was useless," Ellis said, "I was offended by the fact that you would said, 'I'm sorry,' but you're not saying, 'I'm going to take this a step further to find the person who committed this crime and make it right;' making it right is not apologizing in a letter."
In the letter, Conrad also told Ellis a second investigation would not be "any more fruitful or successful than the first one," citing a poor initial response, lack of possible suspect DNA, information about the attacker, lack of a witness and significant passage of time.
"I realize this response fails to provide closure for either you or your daughter. Once again I apologize!"
"You can't tell a mother whose daughter has been beaten and raped that you're closing the case and it's done," Ellis said, "Because as a mother, I have an obligation to my daughter to make sure I do everything to get justice for her; so nothing is going to be closed until mom says it's done."
Ellis kept pushing and hoping.
In December 2016, eight years after the crime, a new letter came from LMPD. The head of the department's Special Victim's Unit, Lt. David Allen, told the family the state crime lab was asked to do new testing on items found in the investigation by using more advanced technology than was previously available to develop a suspect.
"Unfortunately," the detective wrote, "that evidence testing has not provided us with any further information," apparently suggesting the testing had already been done. "With that information, combined with the insufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution, we are closing this case again."
"He said there was no DNA, which I do not believe," Luster countered.
Skeptical and not accepting no for an answer the women contacted the iTeam to find out the reported new testing had actually been done.
The iTeam investigation discovered an additional letter from the Kentucky State Police crime lab to that same SVU detective dated six weeks before the LMPD letter to the family.
Lab Supervisor Whitney Collins informed Lt. Allen the crime lab needed written permission to move forward with the new testing because the testing would consume the entire sample of 17 hairs in the case. Collins cited state law as reasoning for requiring documented authorization.
"We request that written authorization for testing be provided by the prosecuting attorney or investigating officer to the laboratory including acknowledgment that the entire sample may be consumed and that there is no suspect in this case," Collins wrote.
Multiple open records requests sent from the iTeam to LMPD yielded no documents written by detectives granting Collins' request. Additionally, spokespersons for the Jefferson County Attorney and Jefferson County Commonwealth's Attorneys Offices told the iTeam in emails no records from prosecutors could be found granting Collins' request.
"I knew this 10 years ago was going to lead up to them making a fatal mistake and that's what he did when he put it in writing," Ellis said, "he knew, in fact, it had never been tested. He had never signed off on it."
Also alarming was the iTeam's discovery of internal crime lab files documenting each contact it had with LMPD on the Luster case at the time. The records were obtained through an open records request and provided to the iTeam on December 6, 2017.
"[A sergeant] called me back and said that he had received a "cease-and-desist" order from HQ, but that he would speak with his Lt. to give me a definite answer on whether to have the hairs tested or not," a lab analyst wrote in an entry dated March 6, 2017.
"Lt. David Allen, the head of SVU, then called me back and let me know no further analysis would be pursued on the hairs, and that I could send the evidence back to the agency," the lab analyst wrote, "He apologized for not informing me when the communication from HQ came."
Ellis and Luster said they were not surprised by the records.
"[LMPD is] trying to bury this case again and the road leads back to the first mistakes," Ellis said.
"Just knowing the person that's supposed to be there to protect you, did not," Luster added, "They've actually made the situation worse."
"This is what the city of Louisville is paying these guys for?" Ellis asked, "This is the type of behavior they exhibit for crime victims? This is going to stop with us."
The iTeam sent multiple requests to LMPD's Public Information Office asking to sit down with Chief Conrad and Lt. Allen about the discrepancies. A department spokesperson twice declined the requests.
"It shows all the mistakes they made, it shows negligence, the incompetence," Ellis added, "It puts these guys in a light the city should be looking at them thinking, 'You know what, we need to go into that office and we're going to have to clean it out starting with Conrad, from top to bottom.'"
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