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Police Chief Sued Over Handling of Violent Rape Case

A federal lawsuit claims that Asheville, North Carolina’s interim chief, Robert C. White, prevented a rape victim from filing a complaint against an officer when he led the Louisville, Kentucky, department.

Chief Robert C. White. Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from the Denver Police Department Facebook.

On April 27, 2008, Salisa Luster Harrison was sexually assaulted, strangled, and viciously beaten in her Louisville, Kentucky, home. After the attack, the 28-year-old lay gravely injured on her couch, unable to move or call the police. Later, when Luster Harrison missed work, concerned co-workers initiated a search. Soon after they saw Luster Harrison’s car parked outside her home, they knocked on her door and called her phone but didn’t get an answer.

At 11:12 a.m. on April 29, Luster Harrison’s co-workers called the Louisville Metro Police Department for help. At 11:27 a.m., Officer Rick Woolridge arrived at Luster Harrison’s apartment and went inside briefly. About five minutes later, Woolridge exited the apartment and told Luster Harrison’s co-workers that he talked to Luster Harrison and a man inside the home and determined that everything was fine, even though she had visible injuries, including a black eye, abrasions on her face, and blood in her eyes. 

Woolridge told Luster Harrison’s co-workers that she was simply upset and had been crying because she had been fighting with her boyfriend. Woolridge said he talked to the “boyfriend” inside her home who confirmed the dispute. The officer said everything was fine, but then allegedly prevented the co-workers from entering Luster Harrison’s apartment to check on her.

Woolridge got into his squad car and drove away. At 11:36 a.m., he closed the “check welfare request” for Luster Harrison. The case was open for 24 minutes.

On June 19, 2018, Luster Harrison filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky against the City of Louisville, Woolridge, and a handful of other police officials, including then-Chief Robert C. White. 

Luster Harrison alleges that Woolridge “essentially left [her] for dead after a brutal attack in her home.” She claims officers “intentionally mishandled and ignored crucial physical evidence at the crime scene,” deliberately failed to investigate her violent assault, lied to her about the testing of her rape kit, then actively covered up the department’s missteps.

“We want her to be able to achieve justice,” Luster Harrison’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, told The Appeal. The Florida-based civil rights attorney is known for taking on high-profile cases and has represented the families of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old murdered by George Zimmerman in 2012 in Sanford, Florida, and Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. He also represented the family of Botham Jean, a Black man who was murdered in his own apartment by a white police officer in Dallas.

“The damages she suffered are some of the most horrendous that I’ve ever seen in my 25 years of practicing law,” Crump told The Appeal. “When you think about how she was left—raped left for dead in her apartment—for the police to then show up and say I don’t see any evidence of anything criminal here, this is just a domestic situation, and leave? Her co-workers who were there were outraged at his conduct. And were it not for her mother, refusing to let this malfeasance be swept under the rug, it would have just been swept under the rug, as if Salisa’s life didn’t matter at all.”

On Sept. 20, 2018, the Louisville Metro Police Department filed a motion to dismiss the case. But on June 12 this year, a U.S. district judge rejected most of the department’s arguments, allowing Luster Harrison’s case to move forward. Since then, the defendants have all filed responses to Luster Harrison’s complaint that deny any wrongdoing and demand a jury trial.

On Aug. 13, Magistrate Judge Lanny King entered a scheduling order that requires both parties to submit all discovery materials by June 15, 2020. Motions relating to discovery and other issues in the case are due by Feb. 15, 2021, so a potential trial may be years away.

In her complaint, Luster Harrison claims that White actively prevented her from making a complaint about Woolridge and allowed him to retire early. (Louisville police told The Appeal that the department does not comment on pending litigation.) On Sept. 27, former chief White became interim chief of police in Asheville, North Carolina.

“I am aware of the allegations contained in a pending lawsuit filed against Robert White and 20 other current and former members of the Louisville, KY police department. My research into this matter did not reveal any information that led me to believe he will be anything but effective in his role with the Asheville Police Department,” City Manager Debra Campbell said in a statement to The Appeal. “Interim Chief White has more than 40 years of experience in law enforcement and is committed to ethical and professional policing. I am confident that he possesses the experience to lead the Asheville Police Department in the interim.”

Police often mishandle rape cases. In New York City, detectives with the NYPD’s Special Victims Division have coerced victims to close their case by getting them to sign a form stating they no longer wish to cooperate with the investigation. In 2014, a detective put off making an arrest in a violent sexual assault—despite getting a recorded confession from the assailant—for so long that the man was able to sexually assault another woman. And a detective involved in the Harvey Weinstein investigation has seemingly put the case at risk by allegedly encouraging witnesses and victims to hide certain information and waiting months to memorialize the steps he took to investigate the case.

Across the country, sexual assault victims have filed lawsuits against local governments and police departments for failing to investigate their cases. Yet on Oct. 8, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by Heather Marlowe, who sued San Francisco in 2016 alleging that the city’s failure to test her sexual assault kit was part of the police department’s pattern of treating sexual assault with “deliberate indiference.”

“I just want them to be held accountable for what they didn’t do for me,” Luster Harrison told The Appeal. “I hope this will show officers and citizens that this shouldn’t happen and that this is not OK. And they need to see that justice can be served.”

Soon after Woolridge left Luster Harrison’s apartment on April 29, 2008, her worried co-workers called the police again and got a building manager to let them into her apartment. There, they found Luster Harrison lying motionless on the couch in bloodstained clothing. She had a huge welt on her face, blood in her eyes, bruises all over her face, and was unable to speak coherently. They later found out that the man in the apartment was not Luster Harrison’s boyfriend as Woolridge said, but her attacker, and he had fled the scene. 

Paramedics then arrived, administered emergency medical services, and determined she had also been sexually assaulted. Shortly after arriving at the ER, Luster Harrison had a seizure. When she was stabilized, hospital staff administered a sexual assault kit and photographed her injuries. Then they realized she needed brain surgery, according to her complaint. 

Luster Harrison submitted to a sexual assault forensic exam, but in her complaint she claims that despite reassurances from the police department, the rape kit was never tested. 

According to Luster Harrison’s complaint, the failure to test her rape kit was compounded by misconduct in her case. Less than 20 minutes after Woolridge left Luster Harrison’s apartment, Officer Brian Tucker arrived and opened a criminal investigation. But Luster Harrison claims Tucker didn’t interview witnesses or take statements from her concerned co-workers, though he later claimed he did.

The complaint also alleges that Tucker didn’t dust for fingerprints, collect DNA, or take a knife found in Luster Harrison’s bathroom and place it into evidence. He allegedly didn’t talk to people who worked at Luster Harrison’s apartment building, and he didn’t try to identify the “boyfriend” who spoke with Woolridge. In his report, Tucker said he interviewed Luster Harrison’s co-workers while they visited her at the hospital, but Luster Harrison’s attorneys say that never happened.

“Tucker’s report was not only unreasonably scant and omission-riddled, but it contained false information, insofar as Tucker claimed that he had interviewed [Luster Harrison’s] coworkers while at ULH ER, which he most certainly did not,” the complaint states. “Stating in an official LMPD report that he had interviewed witnesses when, in fact, he had not, was an affirmative act of fraud and deception.” 

Instead of testing Luster Harrison’s rape kit, the Louisville police removed it from the Kentucky State Police lab, where it joined thousands of other neglected cases.

According to Luster Harrison’s complaint, even though police knew Luster Harrison’s kit hadn’t been tested, they lied and told her and local prosecutors that it was tested and yielded negative results. 

In October 2008, Luster Harrison and her mother told Chief White that they wanted to file a citizen complaint against Woolridge. The police said they could not do so over the telephone, and by this time, Luster Harrison had moved back to her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, to get medical treatment.

In February 2009, Luster Harrison made the 520-mile trip from Little Rock to Louisville with her mother to file a complaint against Woolridge. But police told them that White had allowed Woolridge to retire early, in January, so a complaint would be pointless. 

“White stalled and placated [Luster Harrison], which served to protect Woolridge until White could authorize his early retirement,” violating the department’s standard operating procedures, the lawsuit states. “White denied [Luster Harrison] the fair opportunity to file a citizen’s complaint against Woolridge for his April 29, 2008 investigatory misconduct and thus conspired with other defendants to conceal facts incriminating Woolridge from [Luster Harrison] and her mother for over ten years.”

On April 13, 2009, the Jefferson County attorney’s office declined to prosecute Luster Harrison’s case because the police reported negative results from her rape kit. 

In December 2017, a reporter who was covering untested rape kits in Kentucky for  WHAS-TV, an ABC affiliate in Louisville, contacted Luster Harrison. She was informed  that the DNA testing that David Allen, then head of the Louisville police’s Special Victims Unit, told her was performed on her rape kit had never happened. 

WHAS obtained communications between the Kentucky State Police crime lab and Louisville detectives, including a March 6, 2017, memo from a lab analyst stating that “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.”

Although the local reporter uncovered emails showing Luster Harrison’s rape kit hadn’t been tested, Luster Harrison still doesn’t know who attacked her or why Louisville police failed to investigate her case, then misled her about it.

Not long after allowing Woolridge to retire early, White moved to Colorado to head the Denver Police Department. In Denver, White was the subject of three investigations into his conduct. 

First, he was investigated over allegations he improperly denied a public records request. In June 2016, then-District Attorney Mitch Morrissey sent White a letter criticizing Deputy Chief Matt Murray for his role in overseeing the investigation of a Denver police officer for sexual assault.When the police union president tried to obtain a copy of the letter, his request was rejected. In 2017, White was investigated for chasing a driver who hit his vehicle while off duty. 

The following year, a high-ranking Denver officer, Commander Magen Dodge, filed a gender discrimination complaint against White. Dodge alleged White joked that she should “prostitute” herself to earn $50,000 for the department and suggested she get “knocked up” by a specific billionaire so she could be “set” monetarily for the next 18 years. When Dodge told White that his comments were sexist and inappropriate, he allegedly called her “emotional” and “immature.” 

On April 9, 2018, Mayor Michael Hancock cleared White of any wrongdoing in all three cases, but also did not permit an independent monitor to review the allegations.

A few weeks later, White retired

White took over the interim chief job in Asheville in late September after Chief Chris Bailey resigned for “personal reasons” after just two months on the job.

“To find out that he was able to get another police chief job bothers me very badly,” said Luster Harrison. “His behavior—he should not be over at any police department. He let this officer retire early. He received no type of punishment. He retired early and got his pension. I don’t believe that’s fair to me or fair to your citizens if they were in the same situation.”