Health Hero: Speaking Out Against Sexual Violence

When the Robbins, Illinois, police lost her rape kit and dozens of others, Rosa Pickett refused to stay silent. 

Posted: 10/07/2013 10:43 AM EDT

While one in four women in the U.S. will be a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime, Rosa Pickett, 52, never thought that it would happen to her.

One night in 1977 when Pickett was just 17, she decided to walk to her sister’s house for a party in her hometown of Robbins, Illinois, a predominantly Black suburb of Chicago. That night she decided to walk. A while into her trek, a stranger came up behind her, wrapped a belt around her neck and brutally raped and attacked her. Her attacker told her he was going to kill her, but Pickett pleaded for her life, telling the attacker that because he had broken her glasses and she was severely nearsighted she had no idea what he looked liked, therefore she couldn’t identity him to the police. He believed her and left her there alive.

“I never would have thought that not being able to see would have saved my life one day,“ Pickett told BET.com.

Hours later, with her face bloody and swollen, she stumbled out of the weeds onto the street where a good Samaritan drove her home to her mother. From there, Pickett did everything that experts tell women to do after being raped: Go to the police, make a report and let a doctor examine you. Yet, her attacker was never found or arrested.

“I knew they were going to get him after seeing what he did to me, but unfortunately, a day went by. A week went by. A month went by. A year went by. Five years went by. Ten years went by,” Pickett says. She adds, "To make matters worse, my rape kit was never mentioned, never brought up. It was just like it never existed."

Feeling emotionally and spiritually devastated from her attack, she dropped out of school, became rebellious and turned to drugs to cope. Thankfully, Pickett beat her addiction and put her life back together, but she never stopped thinking about her case and how poorly it was handled.

What she didn’t know was that she wasn’t the only one.

Thanks to a new 2010 law requiring for police stations to send all rape kits to be tested, an investigation by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office was launched in 2012 when they noticed that Robbins hadn’t turned in any kits. As they dug deeper, they discovered the problem was bigger than they thought: More than 200 rape kits collected over 50 years had never been tested and in an evidence room at the Robbins’ police station, 51 rape kits were thrown all over, clothes and items were tossed everywhere and barely anything was tagged.

As an attempt to match victims with items, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office held a town hall meeting in Robbins. Pickett made sure she was there and as the meeting wrapped up, she made sure the detectives heard her story.

Detectives were concerned and wanted to help, but explained to Pickett that even if her kit was found and tested, her attacker could never be arrested. In the state of Illinois, there is no statute of limitations for rape cases reported from 1986 to the present. But for attacks older than that, the old statute of limitations applies.

But even with the statute of limitations serving as a barrier, detectives swore to Pickett that they were going to go above and beyond to find her kit. And while she scoured through hundreds of untagged items, nothing was hers.

However, one day, Cara Smith, aid to the Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and the overseer of this investigation, found a card in a catalog among hundreds of other cards that had Pickett’s name, address, a case number and the word “rape” on it.

Smith told BET.com, “I remember calling Rosa in tears, telling her that I found this card.”

To this day, that card is the only evidence in her 36-year-old case.

“I honestly think my kit just got thrown away,” she says sadly. “But having this card is proof, it’s some sort of validation of having my attack on the record.”

Even in the harsh reality of knowing that justice will probably not come her way, that doesn’t stop Pickett from recruiting other victims in Robbins to speak to the Cook County Sherriff’s office about their case. Also, she is one of 40-plus identified victims that speaks to the media about her ordeal. She hopes by doing so she can raise awareness about her attack, but also about the injustices done to women in her neighborhood by the hands of the police. Mainly she wants for other victims in her town and around the U.S. to know that they are not alone.

“My advice for other women is don’t be ashamed of what happened to you. Stand up and face your assaulter and don’t let him rape you twice in life. Report him and make sure that your police in your village do their job in turning in your rape kit, having it processed and investigated.”

Pickett stresses the responsibility she believes victims have to going to the police.

“Don’t let that man get away with it because he might rape you and you might survive but that next person, that next woman, maybe even a child, would not have that chance to live their life and be able to tell about it.”

BET News will continue to follow the Robbins missing rape kits story and provide update when possible. Learn more about sexual assault and seeking support at rainn.org.

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(Photo: courtesy of Benjamin Breit)

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