AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas’ top forensic experts want answers about how the Austin Police Department handled nearly 850 sexual assault kits found covered in mold. According to a city memo, mold was recently discovered on DNA samples dating back to the 1990s and early 2000s at an evidence storage facility.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission sent a letter to APD outlining 15 questions needing answers by next month to figure out what went wrong. This is the same forensic group of experts that determined the DNA lab had improperly trained staff and was using outdated methods after an audit.
The commission wants to know if APD contacted forensic scientists before trying to clean up the mold on the rape kits and whether any of the kits were so badly damaged that a suspect can’t be identified or prosecuted in the future. APD said Chief Brian Manley has provided some answers into the investigation. A nationwide request has been sent out seeking information on the best way to address the mold issue.
During the Travis County Commissioners Meeting on Thursday was the first time pictures of the apparent mold were shown. In the pictures, you can see a black dust-like substance.
“No one has done any testing to determine that it is actual mold,” said Gregg Cox, director of operations with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.
The District Attorney’s office, some APD officers, a member with the Capital Area Private Defender Service (CAPDS) and a doctor with University of North Texas toured the sexual assault kit storage facility to see some of the damage.
“We are confident at this point that this did not affect actual cases,” said District Attorney Margaret Moore.
Out of caution, the 849 affected boxes are getting wiped down with a 10 percent bleach solution, repackaged and sealed before being sent to the lab. Now, if a mold-like substance is found, APD will put a label on it warning the lab to be on the lookout inside and report anything suspicious.
For Judge Sarah Eckhardt, there’s a bigger issue.
“There was about a two month lag between APD finding out about this concern and appropriately remediating it and then telling the stakeholder committee which meets every week,” Eckhardt said.
A lab contracted by the city told APD they found mold inside at least one sexual assault case in April. The department didn’t tell the District Attorney what was going on until June.
“This should have been discussed with them and notified so we are looking at best practices,” said Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay.
State law requires all kits to be tested for a DNA profile, even if the victim is missing or unwilling to prosecute. Since the apparent mold was found, APD has installed a humidifier in the warehouse and replaced the refrigerators’ seals.