In 2017, Michael Brooks Jr. was arrested for kidnapping, assaulting, and raping an elderly woman. Now, after testing evidence from a sexual assault kit that went untested for three years, police say they believe Brooks committed another rape a year earlier.
Brooks, 45, is one of three men Durham police suspect of committing multiple rapes after evidence in old sexual assault kits revealed DNA matches in separate crimes.
After discovering a backlog of over 1,700 untested sexual assault kits in 2018, the Durham Police Department has begun to pull those kits off the shelves and test their contents. Now, just over one year into the process, police have made their first three arrests connected to the testing of old kits.
In March 2018, the North Carolina State Crime Lab announced that law enforcement agencies had 15,160 untested sexual assault kits across the state. That discovery prompted movement in the capital and among individual law enforcement agencies. After decades of stasis, police and sheriffs’ offices began sending in their untested sexual assault kits.
So far, North Carolina law enforcement offices have submitted over 8,000 kits to the State Crime Lab for testing. Cities from Winston-Salem to Charlotte have reopened cold-case sexual assaults and charged suspects.
The Durham Police Department — the jurisdiction with the largest backlog in the state in 2018 — is joining those cities by charging three suspects identified through the testing of old kits.
Brooks was served an arrest warrant for a 2016 rape while in jail, where he waits to stand trial for rape and assault charges from 2017. Police also arrested Isiah Anthony Townes Jr., 22, and indicted Ronnie Porter, 45, for rapes committed in 2016 and 2014, respectively.
“We’ve had some good success stories,” said Lieutenant Stephen Vaughan, assistant commander of the Criminal Investigations Division. “We’re looking at sending every kit we can.”
Vaughan estimates that the Durham police have sent in around 400 kits for testing so far. But the process is complicated by the different statuses of kits in the police inventory. 192 of Durham’s 1,711 kits are related to cases that have already been resolved in court, and 166 are marked as “unfounded.”
Kits marked as “unfounded” means that the officers who originally investigated the case believed that no crime occurred. But Vaughan and his team are still reviewing those cases to make sure the original designation was correct. “If there are any questions, we’re going to reopen that case and send the kit as well,” he said.
Police are even looking through cases that have already been resolved in court. In some cases, defendants who faced multiple charges accepted a plea deal that did not involve any sexual assault charges. Now, they could be held accountable for those crimes, too.
Sending kits for testing at the State Crime Lab is just the beginning of the process for clearing the backlog at the Durham Police Department.
Take Brooks’ case. The State Crime Lab checked DNA evidence from the sexual assault kit with a federal database that contains DNA profiles from convicted offenders across the country. That’s when they found a match: the unknown DNA profile from the kit matched Brooks.
After that, the Durham Police Department reopened the cold case and got to work. But they haven’t been working alone.
Durham’s Sexual Assault Response Team also includes the Durham Crisis Response Center, the District Attorney’s Special Victims Unit, and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program at Duke Hospital.
“When the Police Department started getting to the point where information from the Crime Lab was coming back, they realized they needed to have a plan for how to contact the victims,” said Charlene Reiss, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Response Team at the Durham Crisis Response Center. Her team helps police form relationships with victims who may experience trauma from reliving a sexual assault.
“We sit in a room and go through these cases as a group,” Reiss explained. “We really try to figure out how to keep the victim’s needs at the forefront as the Police Department figures out how to move forward.”
The Police Department still has hundreds of kits to prepare for testing, including some that date back over thirty years. But the Sexual Assault Response Team is determined to clear the backlog.
“These are the cases that most need to be prosecuted,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, lead prosecutor in the Special Victims Unit. “We’re getting CODIS hits on serial rapists.”
Even so, she knows that the process is only just beginning. “I think the goal for this is roughly six years,” she said. “And that’s only to test them all. If the last cold case kit gets tested 5 years from now, it’ll be 7 years from now before it goes to trial.”
Brooks’ case will also likely take years to reach its conclusion. This week, the District Attorney’s office will meet with Brooks’ victims to attempt to work out a plea deal for both the 2016 and 2017 rape cases. Brooks is currently in jail on a $1,750,000 bond. His lawyer estimates that both cases will come to trial in the summer of 2020.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about Smoot being charged.
Durham police arrested a security guard in connection with a shooting at the HomeTowne Studios hotel on Highway 55 in South Durham on Aug. 23.
Reginald Smoot, 24, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, according to Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael. He served three days in the county jail before posting a $100,000 bond.
Michael said Smoot was employed as an unarmed security guard at the extended-stay hotel but was not on duty when the shooting happened.
According to a search warrant, witnesses told investigators the security guard shot Vincent Smith, 45, on the third floor of the hotel. Smith was found with a single gunshot wound in his left chest. No information on his condition was available.
Before and during the shooting, Smith used his iPhone to record a fight with the guard, the warrant said. He began recording after the security guard pulled a gun on him, according to Smith.
Managers at the hotel declined to comment on the shooting.
The HomeTowne Studios hotel, located in the 5000 block of Highway 55, has been the site of two other shootings this year. On August 9, a man was shot in the arm at the hotel. And in January, 28-year-old Wallace Hayes was found shot to death inside his room.
When Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis stood before the City Council for the first time in May 2016, she introduced her plan to revamp a police department in turmoil.
Davis vowed to address the “alarming increase in violent crime” that rattled the city in 2015 and 2016, and she promised to immediately begin rebuilding strong relationships with community and business leaders.
Thirty months later, Davis has delivered on most of her promises, particularly on limiting violent crime. She has also appointed liaison officers and cooperated with Durham’s Misdemeanor Diversion Program, which helps decriminalize first-time minor drug offenses, but racial disparities in traffic stops and searches are still concerning for minority groups in Durham.
Making Durham safer
Davis took charge of a department on its heels when she began her job on June 6, 2016 after serving as a deputy chief in the Atlanta Police Department.
There were 37 homicides in Durham in 2015 under “won’t-be-missed Jose Lopez,” as longtime former News & Observer columnist Barry Saunderslabeled the former chief. Lopez was forced to resign at the end of that year, but homicides kept increasing to 42 in 2016, the most since at least 1980.
That trend immediately stopped in Davis’ first full year as police chief, as homicides were cut in half to 21. Overall violent crime remained relatively flat in 2017, but it was down 17 percent through three quarters in 2018.
“I give her a huge amount of credit, and not only is violent crime down 17 percent, but crime with a gun is down 26 percent,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said. “We are in a very sweet spot right now. We are reducing violent crime at the same time as we’re increasing the trust within the community.”
Council member Charlie Reece noted that the drop in violent crime is particularly impressive in a city with a rising population like Durham. But the population growth could also work in Durham’s favor — many newcomers are wealthier than previous residents and are gentrifying downtown apartment complexes and condos.
Some of the violent crime seems tohave moved to poorer surrounding areas, where crime rates have grown in the last two years, though Davis insisted her department deserves credit for catching and imprisoning repeat offenders.
“It didn’t just happen. We moved some staff around, more visible, paying really close attention to hot-spot areas and being laser-focused at individuals committing violent crime and catching up with them,” Davis said after her third-quarter crime report at a City Council meeting last month. “That’s what it really takes is for us to look at the few people that are committing the most violent crimes.”
More lenient, but far from perfect
Questions about racial profiling linger. A March 2016 report by the independent research firm RTI International found that the odds of a male driver stopped by police being black were 20 percent higher during the day — when officers can more easily determine drivers’ races — than at night in Durham between 2010 and 2015. The report did not find similar disproportionate treatment of black drivers in Raleigh, Greensboro or Fayetteville.
The RTI report confirmed what community leaders in Durham had long suspected, providing data to support concerns of racial profiling. A month after it went public, the Durham Police Department took its first major step in repairing its image by hiring its first-ever African-American woman chief.
“Anecdotally, the people with whom I’ve spoken, they feel that it’s easier to ride around now without getting hassled by the cops, because I think that’s pretty much what led Lopez to being ousted,” Saunders said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “At least I think people are optimistic now, which I don’t think they ever were under Lopez.”
Davis appears to have addressed the outcry over racial profiling on the roads by deemphasizing traffic stops altogether. Durham police conducted 44.2 percent fewer stops in 2017 than in 2015, representing a sharp drop from 20,780 to 11,587 in just two years.
“It’s just about shifting the culture for all of us to be involved in community engagement,” Davis said. “If it’s just introducing yourself, if it’s just giving a person an opportunity to speed one time and just get a warning, it works. It helps people to think twice the next time they’re lead-footed.”
Fewer stops doesn’t mean racial profiling has been solved, though. In 2017, 58 percent of drivers stopped were black, more than their 41 percent share of Durham’s population. Once drivers have been stopped, they are also far more likely to be searched if they are black — 79.9 percent of searches in 2017 were conducted on black drivers.
“I didn’t expect her to come in and work miracles in that regard. I think most people are willing to give her time because they realize it wasn’t just about one bad officer. Durham has some of the greatest police officers I’ve ever met, and they’ve also got some assholes too,” Saunders said. “Institutional change isn’t going to occur just because you change the leadership. She’s got to get her opinion and her thoughts to the rank-and-file officers.”
Schewel said Davis has appointed community liaison officers for veterans, Hispanic people, the LGBTQ community and low-income areas in Northeast Central Durham. Those officers have built better relationships with people who were previously wary of the police. He also commended her for doing away with random traffic checkpoints last year, which often got undocumented drivers tangled up in the immigration system.
Schewel praised Davis most for improving relationships with African-Americans in Durham with her changes in drug enforcement. He noted that drug arrests were cut in half last year from 1,200 to 600, with marijuana possession accounting for most of that reduction.
“Instead of arresting people, they’re referred to the misdemeanor diversion court where they’re given community service or treatment or whatever it is that they need,” Schewel said. “They don’t get a criminal record, which is really important, especially for a young person starting a career.”
The Parlour in downtown Durham is a happy place where the line for ice cream often overflows out the door. Children enjoy their cones on the plaza outside and chase each other around the city’s landmark bull statue as their parents look on.
Those parents probably don’t know they’re about 16 times more likely to be robbed and eight times more likely to be murdered on that plaza than the national average. At least, that’s what it says in Crime and Place, a remarkable new iPhone app that tells you the risk of crime for your location.
Sorry for ruining dessert.
Crime and Place calculates the likelihood of murder, rape and assorted other crimes by distilling reams of data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. It simplifies that data into a score from 1 to 10 for every census block group in the United States. The app uses maps and a “Crime Compass” with shades of red, orange, yellow and green that tells users not only how safe they are, but essentially how to escape high-crime areas.
That approach bothers some policy experts, including Robert Korstad, a Duke professor of public policy and history who has researched Durham extensively, and Martine Aurelien, policy fellow at the North Carolina Justice Center. They say the app has some useful features but fails to account for fluctuations in crime during different seasons and times of day. They’re also concerned that it can reinforce stereotypes about race and crime and that it fails to account for users’ race and gender, which influences how likely they are to be the victim of crimes.
Korstad called the app “both impressive and horrifying.”
Pointing you to safety
For just $15 plus $5 for a year’s worth of data, Crime and Place will tell you where the crime is.
As you drive through Durham (or any other city), the app’s compass changes colors, giving you an escape route to get away from the bad guys. Drive around Durham and you’ll see it go from green (“low”) to yellow (“average”) to light orange (“elevated”) to red (“high”). When areas of the compass start to turn yellow or green, you can follow them to escape to safety. (For more details, see A trip through Durham with the Crime Compass.)
The app’s user manual offers some advice for road trips: “Try to stop for gas, meals, etc. when the compass shows green. Avoid stopping when the compass shows red.”
Most of Duke’s campus is in a yellow “average” zone, but walk to Ninth Street for brunch at Elmo’s and the crime level becomes “elevated.” That’s still a safer meal than in the heart of downtown at Pompieri Pizza or The Pit, where it’s “high.” Hope Valley Country Club is in a “low” region, but that isn’t true for all of Durham’s wealthy neighborhoods — crime is “elevated” at Croasdaile Country Club.
If you want the app to keep you safe without having to watch it constantly, you can set a threshold for notifications that shout, “Entering high crime area!” whenever the rating rises above your chosen number.
The people who created Crime and Place say its meticulous data modeling makes it better than other crime apps. It reflects long-term crime trends with separate models for all nine census regions in the country and for the seven types of personal and property crimes.
Indeed, the app does some impressive math. For each area, it calculates a separate number for murder, rape, robbery and assault to create an overall personal crime score. It also tallies a property crime score using burglary, larceny and auto theft. It shows those scores relative to the national average, which is 4.0.
Each additional point on the scale doubles the likelihood of crime relative to the 4.0 national average. So at the Durham Bulls’ ballpark and the Durham Performing Arts Center, the 8.1 robbery rating means you’re more than 16 times more likely to be robbed than the national average.
Crime and Place’s lead developer, Jolly Salehy, said the app is primarily intended to inform people visiting unfamiliar cities or looking to buy a home, but he acknowledged it could change how people view their own hometowns.
“A lot of us had similar stories of business trips where you’re sitting in a rental car or you’re in an unfamiliar city and you end up somewhere that is unsafe, and then you start to get that panicky feeling,” Salehy said. “Living in a place for a while, you get a feel for where is generally safe and where is generally unsafe, so it possibly has limited use in those cases, although we have had some people that end up being kind of surprised.”
Avoiding the red in Durham: An impossible challenge
In front of the Duke Chapel, the personal crime score is 4.9, just low enough to sneak into the average range, and most of the compass is yellow except for one orange slice in the southern tip of campus.
The maps on the app show how arbitrary the differences between those labels can be.
The border between “average” and “elevated” crime is roughly the 50-yard line at Wallace Wade Stadium. Visiting teams looking at the compass from their locker room would feel less safe in Durham than Duke’s players in the home locker room on the other side of the stadium.
Drive across Cameron Boulevard to the Duke Faculty Club or go for a run around the Al Buehler Trail and you’ll be in an “elevated” orange region throughout your workout. The Duke professors and physicians who drive a couple of miles down Academy Road to drop their children off at the Durham Academy middle school may be alarmed to see that their 10-year-olds are walking on the sidewalks to class in an “elevated” region, too.
The darkest shade of red in Durham is around Durham Tech Community College and the McDougald Terrace public housing complex southeast of downtown. The personal crime score is as high as 7.3, and murder and robbery ratings are 8.3. The Crime Compass calls it “high.”
That red region borders North Carolina Central University, a historically black public college, and roughly correlates with the old Hayti neighborhood when the city was segregated. Today, the area is home to much of Durham’s low-income housing.
“Looking at that app and understanding the history of Durham, I think it just helps just to corroborate an unfortunate narrative that has already been in place,” Aurelien said.
Other crime apps have been driven out of existence after being labeled as racist. SketchFactor, a crowdsourcing app in which the public could assign subjective ratings to points on a map and submit comments — The Washington Postreported that one comment criticized “homeless crackheads” — was rebuked upon its launch in 2014 and is no longer available.
Aurelien said Crime and Place is more reputable because it uses pure data, but she acknowledges it could provide more nuance to help overcome stereotypes if it presented the rate of change of crime.
Since predominantly black areas often overlap with low-income areas in Durham, wealthier white neighborhoods already have a head start with a lower initial crime rate. But if people can see that the crime rate in a poor community is decreasing, they might be more encouraged to shop, eat or even buy a house there.
The app’s emphasis on longer time periods makes it more resistant to outliers and randomness from quarter to quarter, but with such a large time range, users don’t know whether an area is red because of something that happened two months ago or two years ago.
“Although it might be red, if the app provided how this changed from five years ago, two or three years ago, sometimes people aren’t just interested in knowing and understanding whether crime is prevalent but also understanding if it’s growing, decreasing or remaining stagnant,” Aurelien said.
Salehy said the app’s creators talked about the influence of racial stereotypes before launching Crime and Place in 2016 and called it a “touchy subject,” but decided there was no harm in repackaging public information.
“That was one of the things we kind of struggled with early on — how is this going to be interpreted by the public? Will this be kind of taken the wrong way? Will this seek to reinforce stereotypes?” Salehy said. “At the end of the day, all we’re doing is facilitating visualization of some data. We can’t control how our customers choose to interpret that or the decisions that they make based on that.”
Criminals come out at night
Aurelien noted that the app doesn’t change based on the time of day, but crimes do. Many crimes are more likely to occur when it’s dark.
“There are some areas where there’s only a handful of petty crimes that occur during the day, but the mood completely changes at night,” Aurelien said.
The app’s ratings also do not shift by season even though some crimes are more common during the summer when more people are outside.
Korstad’s biggest qualm with the app is that it doesn’t have any way to evaluate how susceptible each user is to crimes.
He said it would be useful if he could punch in demographics such as, “White college professor with a PhD driving a big car that has plenty of speed and plenty of gas,” and the app would customize a prediction on his likelihood of being a crime victim.
Korstad said using objective data instead of anecdotes also does not make the app immune to claims of prejudice.
Although the first sentence of Crime and Place’s methodology page boasts that it presents “well established, long term trends in criminal activity in the United States,” Korstad said there is a difference between criminal activity and crime rates. Criminal activity is not always caught or enforced by police, who often monitor and arrest people in minority communities at a disproportionately high rate.
“If I was interested in criminal activity around drugs, I know that one of the major places for criminal activity involving drug possession, drug sales and drug use is the Duke University campus,” Korstad says. “Because the police aren’t enforcing the law and they aren’t arresting or trying to arrest Duke students, it skews these numbers.”
That raises another issue that makes the app’s data incomplete: Crime and Place doesn’t include data on drug crimes at all. The seven crime categories it tracks make up Part I of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, and drug offenses all fall under Part II, making the app’s claim that it “paints a more accurate picture of overall crime levels in a given area” only partially true.
The Crime and Place app’s “Crime Compass” tells you where the danger is and how to get away. The colors change as you drive through the city. Here’s how the compass looks at different locations in Durham. (For more details about how Durham is portrayed in Crime and Place, see our full report.)
Emily K Center: At the Emily K Center on W. Chapel Hill Street at the edge of downtown, the crime level is “high.” The only safer region within a half mile is a yellow “average” slice toward Duke’s campus.
Elmo’s: Crime is “elevated” at Elmo’s Diner, a popular breakfast joint on Ninth Street. There are “average” regions to the north and south, marking Duke’s East Campus and the Hillandale Golf Course, and a “high” region toward Northgate Mall in the northeast.
By the bull: At the bull statue next to The Parlour downtown, crime is “high” with no easy escape route in sight.
Academy Road: Durham Academy’s middle school is in an “elevated” crime area on Academy Road, but if you hop on 15/501 on the way home from school, you’ll be in the clear in an “average” zone.
Near 15/501: University Tower, better known to Durhamites as the Pickle Building, sits in an “average” region, but the grass is finally green in a “low” zone to the north and west on Pickett Road.
Durham Tech: The crime level is highest near Durham Technical Community College and the McDougald Terrace public housing complex, southeast of downtown.
At a meeting last month, City Council members heaped praise on Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis for a dramatic drop in violent crime.
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel interrupted her presentation to express his glee.
“I want everybody in this room and everybody who’s watching this at home to wrap their mind just for a minute around that 28 percent figure,” Schewel said. “That is a big number. I just want to congratulate you.”
Davis attributed the drop to the department’s focus on more uniformed police on patrol, an emphasis on catching repeat criminals, more coordination with prosecutors and better engagement in the community.
But she left out what criminologists say is probably the biggest factor.
N.C. State criminologist James Brunet said the biggest influence in the drop in crime isn’t about cops or uniforms: it’s a decline in poverty.
And Durham’s good news came with an asterisk: Although robberies declined by 36 percent and aggravated assaults fell by 25 percent, homicides rose from 10 in the first six months of 2017 to 14 in the same period this year.
Durham police said they did not think the rise in homicides indicated a concerning long-term trend, noting that last year’s mark of 10 killings was a particularly difficult figure to beat after it fell from 21 homicides in the first half of 2016. Brunet cautioned against reading too much into quarterly statistics when the numbers are small, but acknowledged that poverty’s effect on different crime categories can vary.
“In the worst situation, you could have a shooting situation, a domestic violence situation where three or four individuals are killed, and that could really move the quarterly numbers pretty significantly, but it’s not indicative of the public safety within a city,” Brunet said. “The factors that lead to those different types of crimes are very different, like an assault versus a drug homicide.”
Criminologist Barry Latzer wrote in an analysis in the Daily Beast last October that crimes like murder are quarrel-based, stemming from anger or gun-fueled disputes. Robberies are often more correlated with economic factors, when poor people resort to stealing money and property by force out of desperation. And Durham’s poorest residents are often being pushed out by the rapid redevelopment of the city.
The Herald-Sun reported this year that the median household income in Durham County has increased 8.1 percent since 2010, and it has risen by more than 40 percent in six of the county’s 60 census tracts. As home prices and rents have soared, people who could no longer afford to live in Durham may have moved to poorer neighboring areas like Person County to the north and Chatham County to the south.
Cities in those counties have not been as fortunate with the direction of their recent crime rates. Lieutenant Shorty Johnson said the Pittsboro Police Department had nine violent crimes in 2017 and has seen seven through the start of September this year, on a similar pace for the full year. Roxboro does not differentiate between violent crime and property crime and does not track quarterly statistics, but total crime in the town rose nearly 10 percent from 2016 to 2017.
But even if the economy is the driving force in the declining crime rate, Brunet said police may deserve a little bit of the credit. He noted that police initiatives in community support have been shown to have a measurable impact in cities like High Point, N.C., and Boston, Mass., and may have contributed to some of the drop in Durham.
“Police can have a role in curtailing crime. It may not be the most important factor. Poverty and other conditions would be more prevailing,” Brunet said. “But if they’re instituting a new program that’s directed at gang violence, that could potentially impact violent crime rates.”
Davis revealed that a new community engagement unit assigning 10 officers to McDougald Terrace this year helped cause a 62.5 percent drop in violent crime in the southern Durham public housing complex. The officers in the unit hosted a community clean-up event to increase visibility, and they also ran safety education programs and intervention initiatives.
“Sometimes you hit a sweet spot,” Davis told the City Council. “Officers have been remaining vigilant and visible.”
Councilmember Mark-Anthony Middleton asked Davis how to replicate that unit and assumed the answer would be more money and staff. Davis pushed back on his cynicism.
“I don’t think it’s money,” she said. “It’s individuals that know how important it is to have good relationships with the community members that live there and those little kids that live in that community, who in another five to 10 years will be adults and have some impression of who police are.”
A series of armed robberies targeted Hispanic victims last month, the Durham Police Department said.
Police said no victims were seriously harmed in the incidents, which occurred in “parking lots of apartment complexes with a large number of Hispanic residents,” and usually involved two or three suspects.
Crime data on SpotCrime.com showed six armed robberies were reported in Durham on the morning of Aug. 20, the most of any day in the last month.
According to a police report, a 39-year-old Hispanic man reported on Aug. 20 that one or more robbers armed with a handgun stole an iPhone, $400 in cash, two credit cards and his wallet. The crime occurred at an apartment complex on Lednum Street in North Durham.
A 40-year-old Hispanic man reported being robbed at gunpoint of an iPhone and $700 in cash at a nearby apartment complex on New Castle Road about 30 minutes later the same morning. The six robberies were all reported in an 82-minute span from 5:18 to 6:40 a.m.
The crime spree marked an unusual spike after the number of reported robberies in the city fell 36 percent in the first half of 2018 compared with the same period a year earlier. Sharp drops in robberies and aggravated assaults accounted for most of a 28 percent decline in violent crime in the first six months this year.