A girl we will identify as “Michelle” said she was molested by her stepfather for years, starting when she was in the second grade. She said she reported the crime to San Jose police after gathering the courage to speak out.
Then she waited. And waited.
Michelle finally turned to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit for help nearly two years after filing her police report. She said the police and the Santa Clara District Attorney failed to protect her and she didn’t know why.
“I thought no one was going to help me,” she said.
But after this television station called to inquire about the case, the Santa Clara District Attorney’s office realized it had “misplaced or misfiled or lost” the case, issued an arrest warrant, and apologized to the teen.
“It was human error,” assistant district attorney Terry Harman said. “A tremendous apology is owed to the victim. I apologize to her.”
Harman said a prosecutor in her office “feels terrible about what happened” but declined to say if any disciplinary action was taken against him, noting he is “an exemplary employee and has taken responsibility.”
As a result of this case, 50 active sexual assault cases are now under review to make sure no others are languishing or lost, according to Harman.
“This is really serious and we recognize this and we feel very badly about what happened. Her case is going to be handled with extreme professionalism,” Harman said. “I have every expectation that when the case is concluded that she will feel that justice has been served.”
HISTORY OF ABUSE
Michelle, whose name we changed to protect her identity, said her stepfather molested her too many times to count until she became a teenager.
She says she was seven the first time it happened.
“We were playing hide and go seek with his grandkid. I remember when I went to go hide under the bed and he came in the room. When he found me, he was touching on top of my clothes. From then on, this happened every day.”
The alleged abuse made her question her value.
“Why go on with life? Like what did I do to deserve all this,” she said, fighting back tears. “For seven years I hid. I wanted to speak up so bad but I was scared.”
Michelle said she was afraid that if she told anyone what was happening, her stepfather would carry out his repeated threats to hurt her mother and deport her family. But finally, she found the courage to confide in her mother.
“I felt that I was going to die. I believed her right away,” her mother said. “At first he (the stepfather) denied it, but then he said, “Tell me how much. Tell me what you want and how much money and I’ll give it to you. But don’t report me.”
Police records show mother and daughter reported the crime to the San Jose Police Department in July 2014. Eleven months later, detectives submitted the case to the Santa Clara DA in June 2015. The DA requested an additional interview, and records show SJPD resubmitted the case in August of 2015.
Nothing happened for seven months.
When Michelle called the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit to share her story, the Unit contacted the District Attorney on March 23, 2016. The DA issued an arrest warrant two days later on March 25, 2016.
The stepfather is now in jail, facing 11 felony counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a child. He plead not guilty.
Harman said the DA’s office was aware of the case before the Unit called, because SJPD followed up with DA in February 2016 to inquire about the case status. It is unclear why the DA did not expedite the case or issue an arrest warrant in February. Sometime between then and March 23, prosecutors realized they lost Michelle’s file.
QUESTIONS ABOUT OTHER DELAYED CASES
An NBC Bay Area review of records for child molestation cases submitted to the district attorney from 2013-2015 revealed this was a rare, but not isolated delay. Records show, on average, the DA files charges within a month (26.6 days) of receiving a case. But at least 19 cases took anywhere from six months to more than three years before the DA took action.
Harman reviewed those cases and told NBC Bay Area the delays were warranted due to the circumstances and investigative process. When asked how confident she is that no other cases are lost like Michelle’s, Harman responded, “I'm confident in the quality of the people that work in this office. I'm extremely confident in the intelligence, the work ethic, and the commitment to justice.”
SAN JOSE POLICE UNABLE TO PROVIDE RECORDS
The San Jose Police Department was unable to provide similar records showing how long it takes for the department to investigate reports of child molestation.
“We don't track the time because the time is really not a priority for us,” said Lt. Jason Ta, who oversees the Sexual Assaults Investigation Unit at SJPD.
“We do a thorough investigation and that investigation done thoroughly takes an hour, ten hours, or several years,” Ta said. “We don't look at and measure how effective we are on how quickly a case is done because we don't want to put a deadline or a time limit on a case.”
Other police agencies, including Campbell, Gilroy, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale, provided data showing the time elapsed between when a person files a report of a child molestation case to the time that case is sent to the DA.
Ta said SJPD is the largest agency in Santa Clara County, “I think our department is unique in the sense that we are the largest agency in the area. Having 2,100 cases and managing the data for 2,100 cases is a lot different than managing data for a small agency.”
Ta said it’s possible to look at the timelines for specific cases, but that the department does not use length of time as a metric to measure whether its sex assault investigations are effective or conducted in a timely manner. He said he personally reviewed Michelle’s case, and does not think 11 month investigation took too long.
“The detectives did a very good interview on everybody involved in the case. It is a good case,” Ta said. He indicated cases can take longer to investigate when the alleged acts occurred in the past, over a multi-year time period.
“It's a little disappointing that it took that long,” Howard Blume, training manager for Bay Area Women Against Rape, said.
“I think it's important for [survivors] to have their cases resolved because it gives them a sense of personal justice and more importantly I think it's about having their voice heard. I think especially if molestation happens when they’re very young, children don't really have a voice,” Blume said.
For Michelle, reclaiming her voice has given her back some power, after her trust in her stepfather, the police, and the justice system took it away.
“As soon as I spoke about this, I felt relieved,” Michelle said, sending a message to other survivors of abuse, “I know there's girls that have been through this and I know how they feel. I want them to know that you're not alone and you could speak up any day. You have a voice.”