Police officials were investigating a serial rapist among their ranks six weeks before he assaulted his final victim but allowed him to remain on regular duty during the inquiry, according to a lawsuit seen by the Guardian.
A jury convicted former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw on Thursday of raping or sexually assaulting eight women, all black, between late 2013 and 18 June 2014.
Legal documents seen by the Guardian appear to show that the Oklahoma City police sex crimes unit began investigating Daniel Holtzclaw before his final assault, on 8 May 2014.
Their investigation would eventually link Holtzclaw to 13 separate incidents of rape or sexual assault. Five of those occurred in the 41 days after they opened their investigation.
Jannie Ligons, a 57-year-old daycare worker, was Holtzclaw’s final victim before his arrest. In the early morning hours of 18 June, Holtzclaw pulled Ligons over as she drove home from a friend’s house and forced her to give him oral sex. Holtzclaw was convicted of several charges related to that assault.
A lawsuit Ligons has filed against Oklahoma City claims that in spite of the investigation, the department “left him working as a police officer without supervision or monitoring”.
Police could not be reached on Friday night for comment on the lawsuit’s allegations.
Oklahoma City detectives have been portrayed as acting swiftly and deliberately upon receiving a complaint of sexual assault against a police officer. Detectives arrested Holtzclaw hours after Ligons reported the crime. In pretrial testimony, police investigators said they interviewed every woman Holtzclaw had contact with in order to identify other victims.
Prosecutors say that when Holtzclaw pulled over Ligons, “he messed up”.
But at least one other woman, identified only as TM, had previously made an official report that a police officer had sexually assaulted her. At trial, Detective Rocky Gregory testified that TM made her report on 8 May, the same day police appear to have opened their investigation.
Ligons lawsuit notes that another woman described her assault in detail to detective on 5 November 2013. Police investigators later linked the assault to Holtzclaw. But it is not clear if the victim initially described her assailant as a police officer.
At a Friday press conference held by Ligons and another of Hotlzclaw’s victims, Benjamin Crump, their attorney and a prominent civil rights lawyer, promised that a string of new lawsuits would shed light on whether the city acted too slowly.
“We understand that there were other women who called before [Ligons], whose calls went unanswered,” Crump said. “We need to find out how aggressive [investigators] were. We need to find out, how could this happen so many time and nobody see what was going on? … It’s mind boggling how nobody would catch this.”
“We are not totally satisfied,” said the father of one of the victims. “I don’t understand how this officer could operate for months [with] it going unnoticed by somebody above him.”
The demand for answers came Ligons and another of Holtzclaw’s victims spoke about their assaults for the first time in public.
“I was out there alone and helpless,” said Ligons. On Thursday, the jury convicted Holtzclaw for forcing her to perform oral sex at a traffic stop. “The only thing I could see was my life flash before my eyes and the gun on his right hip … As I tried to look up at his name, I was afraid to. I said, if I know his name I know he’s going to kill me.”
Still, Ligons made a report to the police immediately after the assault. “He just picked the wrong lady to stop that night.”
Another of Holtzclaw’s victims, Sade Hill, spoke about going into “survival mode” as Holtzclaw raped her while she was handcuffed to a hospital bed.
Holtzclaw, Hill testified at trial, implied that he could have drug charges against her dropped if she cooperated. “I just couldn’t believe it. I was speechless. I was scared,” Hill said. “I felt like I was in survival mode. I had to do what he was making me do.”
Holtzclaw was convicted of 18 counts of rape, sexual assault and sexual battery, out of 36 total charges. He will be sentenced in January.
His conviction is a rare moment of accountability for officers who abuse their position: out of the hundreds of police officers terminated for sexual abuse in recent years, an AP investigation found, only a small number faced criminal charges and even fewer were convicted. Black women are especially liable to be their targets.
Rachel Anspach, of the African American Policy Forum at Columbia Law School, noted that his conviction was still an anomaly. “We should take it as a sign of progress that Holtzclaw was convicted,” she said. “This was not a new or unique form of violence. Black women, and particularly black women who have other vulnerabilities, continue to be left out of the mainstream view of who is victimized by rape … I would hope that this case would be an important step toward raising their visibility.”
Friday’s press conference was also marked by strong rebukes for the media from activists who sought to raise the profile of the case. The trial did not attract sustained attention from national advocacy groups or media outlets. On the night the jury returned a verdict, few news networks carried any live coverage.
“I am ashamed at the lack of coverage,” said Tezlyn Figaro, a former Oklahoma City resident and a media consultant who helped raise the profile of the trial. “I don’t want to play a game to make you feel comfortable. I want to be clear that I am ashamed.”
On Thursday night, Holtzclaw’s verdict had the highest visibility on Twitter, where local activists had labored to keep the trial in the public eye. One of them, Grace Franklin, appeared beside the women on Friday morning. Crump praised Franklin and her group, OKC Artists for Justice, for “helping to tell America about the biggest rape case that none of them had heard about”.
“There has to be a conversation about sexual assault, about rape, and about the specific care that black women and women of color need when these situations happen,” Franklin said. “There is a tendency not to believe black women. There is a tendency not to value black women the way other women are valued.”
Franklin also expressed disappointment that the jury acquitted Holtzclaw of several charges brought by five women out of the 13 who accused him of sexual abuse. “The 18 counts that were guilty are important,” she said. “The 18 that were not guilty are reflective of an issue we have in this country.”
Molly Redden is a senior reporter focusing on gender equality. She previously reported for Mother Jones, the New Republic and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow her on Twitter: @mtredden