Sexual assault advocates say the revelation that thousands of rape kits have been left untested in Oklahoma is serving as a catalyst for reform within a state that is finally joining a national movement towards justice for victims.
Imagine being violently raped, left to pick yourself up off the ground and call the police. You are taken to a hospital where a lengthy and intrusive forensic exam is performed to ensure medical treatment, disease prevention and DNA collection and then you leave the hospital with no assurance that your accuser would be found or that the medical examination would even be used in the search for him. For more than 7,000 women who were the subjects of backlogged and untested rape kits in Oklahoma, that is their reality — even if they are unaware of it.
“No assurance is given to the victim that what they just went through during their exam will be used for anything at all,” rape survivor and victim advocate Danielle Tudor said. “Most people, both non-victims and victims alike, assume that of course the DNA samples will be used but it’s obviously come to the surface now that that’s not the case.”
After a rape, victims who seek help are directed to a specialized nurse, known as a sexual assault nurse examiner [SANE], who performs a sexual assault forensic examination that results in a rape kit, examiner Cathy Bell said.
The exam takes anywhere between four to six hours, she said, and requires the victim to undress on a long white sheet of paper so that any evidence left on clothing can fall on the paper and be collected.
Photos are taken of bruises, cuts, bite marks and other wounds. Swabbing for DNA occurs on the victim’s vagina, anus, skin and fingernails while a thorough combing of the victim’s hair is done to determine if evidence was left on the head or scalp.
Rape kits are then sent to one of three criminal DNA testing laboratories in the state: Oklahoma City Police Department, Tulsa Police Department or Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI).
Testing is usually only done if the suspect is a stranger to the victim or if the district attorney otherwise believes a strong case could be brought against the alleged perpetrator.
“When victims come to see me, they are scared and confused,” Bell said. “As much as we try to support them and take care of them we can’t do or say anything that’s outside of the law.”
There is no state law that requires a rape kit to be tested. Tudor said with some help from law enforcement and the legislature, she plans to enact a law that would mandate rape kit testing for all victims who undergo an exam, excluding only those who request that their rape kit not be tested.
Oklahoma law states that the statute of limitations for an adult victim to press charges against a rape suspect is 12 years. Tudor hopes to increase that time to match the national standard of 50 years.
She also hopes to institute an annual audit of each laboratory’s rape kits and a statewide tracking system that victims can use to monitor the status of their rape kits.
Tudor familiarized herself with state and national rape laws during a long journey that took her from Oregon to Oklahoma and from survivor to advocate.
“I never expected that my life would turn out like this,” she said.
Tudor also didn’t expect Richard Gillmore, a stranger to her and known only as the “jogger rapist” in Oregon in the 1970s, to break into her family’s home in a safe, middle-class neighborhood and beat and rape her in 1979, when she was only 17 years old.
“I was a good kid and somewhat naive,” she said. “I was dreaming of a prince charming who would one day knock on my front door and sweep me off my feet.”
A devout Christian, Tudor said she was a virgin at the time of her rape and saving herself for marriage.
“I was so confused,” she said. “I didn’t even know what happened to me.”
Tudor underwent a forensic exam, but her rapist didn’t see a jail cell until eight years and at least seven known victims later. Oregon investigators later told Tudor they believe Gillmore raped anywhere between 50 and 100 women.
To ensure his continued incarceration, an Oregon district attorney called Tudor and asked if she would testify at his parole hearing in 2008, when no one other than her immediate family and husband knew she had been raped.
“I told no one for a long time,” Tudor said. “Not even my parents knew the details of what happened to me. I guess I felt ashamed.”
The stakes for testifying were high, she said, as one of the victims who previously testified against Gillmore committed suicide shortly thereafter and the rapist later threatened revenge on all of his victims.
Tudor turned down the DA’s request in a decision she said she later regretted.
“After I was raped, I remember lying in bed sobbing and just asking God to help me get through this and to help me to somehow prevent others from ever experiencing it,” she said.
Not long after Gillmore’s parole hearing, Tudor said she realized that the DA’s call was more than just a reminder of her past, she said. It was an answer to the prayer she made all those years ago.
“That was it for me,” Tudor said. “I wasn’t going to live my life in fear anymore. If God wants me in this fight, I’m in this fight.”
Tudor went on to testify against Gillmore in a later parole hearing and has since shared her story with countless rape survivors and lawmakers in an effort to advance seemingly draconian rape laws into legislation that conveys respect and justice for victims.
By collaborating with her home state’s legislature, Tudor helped established new laws in Oregon including one that mandates rape kit testing, she said.
Through joining forces with Law and Order: Special Victims Unit actress Mariska Hargitay and her Joyful Heart Foundation, which works to end the backlogging of rape kits across the country, Tudor became aware of the need for advocacy in other states including Oklahoma, where her son, daughter in-law and three grandchildren live.
In 2016, Tudor and her husband Gary made the move to the Sooner State, where they now reside near Tulsa. She said her experience as a victim’s advocate in Oklahoma has not always been a pleasant one.
“I don’t think this should be a political issue,” Tudor said. “This is a human issue that’s somehow turned political. I have gotten a lot of pushback here and I was not expecting that from a red state.”
A registered Republican, Tudor said she was treated kindly and fairly by most Republican and some Democrat politicians in Oregon and is hoping for the same experience moving forward in Oklahoma despite sensing initial tension between law enforcement, victims and lawmakers.
“This is a huge undertaking,” State Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Ada, said. “It’s justifiable to be outraged upon learning there are thousands of untested rape kits within our state, but it’s important that we don’t direct our anger towards one another.”
Floyd authored a bill with Tudor last year that paved the way for Governor Mary Fallin to order the counting of all untested rape kits in the state.
As the only rape survivor on the governor’s sexual assault task force, Tudor travels once a month to meet with lawmakers in Oklahoma City.
Funding is needed, she said, to test the backlogged rape kits and to move forward with a 2017 law that requires that all felons undergo DNA testing through a mouth swab.
National grants are one means of funding that Oklahoma agencies have not pursued, Tudor said.
“We can get the funds,” she said. “It comes down to whether or not we care about this enough to try.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of rape or sexual assault visit ywcaokc.org for a list of support services in Oklahoma City or ocadvsa.org for statewide service providers. Also, call Oklahoma City’s YWCA sexual assault hotline at 405-943-7273.