The Decisions That Led the Police to Release a Rape Suspect

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One frigid morning in January 2019, a New York University student woke up in her apartment near the school’s Manhattan campus to find a masked man standing over her in bed. He told her not to scream, she told investigators, and then he held her down and raped her.

Two months later, the police matched fingerprints found on an unopened condom wrapper in her room to those of a 22-year-old man named Tyler Lockett, who happened to be in jail on charges of having committed three burglaries in Brooklyn.

What should have been a lucky break for law enforcement, however, soon turned disastrous. Instead of being charged with rape, Mr. Lockett was released from jail in July and the authorities said he attacked three more women over two weeks before he was caught.

Investigators in the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Division made a series of errors leading up to Mr. Lockett’s release, including failing to inform prosecutors he was a rape suspect after his fingerprints were found, according to several law enforcement officials, the student’s mother and a police document.

Those errors underscored a longstanding problem identified in a scathing city audit in 2018: Some of the division’s detectives, facing heavy caseloads and a lack of resources, discourage rape victims from cooperating and push to close cases without a full investigation.

The audit was only one of several recent signs of trouble inside the Special Victims Division. One of its detectives was found to have mishandled the investigation into sexual assault allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, leading to a key charge’s being dropped.

The sergeant who supervised that detective is among several division commanders who are being investigated on allegations of high-level misconduct concerning offenses such as stealing time and failing to turn over rape kits for processing.

Since the audit, the Police Department has overhauled the division, replacing its longtime commander with Deputy Chief Judith R. Harrison, a former Queens precinct commander. Officials also added more detectives, expanded trauma-sensitive training and made public overtures to victims.

Commissioner Dermot F. Shea, when he was chief of detectives last year, denied the rape investigation involving Mr. Lockett had been mishandled. Last summer, he blamed Brooklyn prosecutors for the fiasco, pointing out they let Mr. Lockett plead guilty and enter a diversion program rather than insisting on a jail sentence.

Chief Harrison, in an interview, said the investigation stalled because the victim does not want to testify and officials do not want to pressure her.

Still, some investigators, rape victims and their lawyers say the handling of the Lockett case suggests that the underlying problems in the division have not been fixed.

“They got a fingerprint hit back and did nothing with it?” said Jane Manning, a former sex crimes prosecutor who is the director of the Women’s Equal Justice Project. “It’s of a piece with the systemic problems that we’ve been complaining about for years. But this case shows the worst-case scenario of what can happen when those systemic problems are allowed to persist.”

The N.Y.U. student’s mother, who was with her daughter at the police questioning, said a senior sex-crimes detective, William T. McLaughlin, doubted her daughter’s story of being raped and talked her out of cooperating with the investigation by telling her — falsely — that her identity would become public if she did.

“All she got from them that night was, ‘You’re guilty,’” her mother said, requesting anonymity to protect her daughter’s identity. “She felt like they were trying to pin it on her, like they didn’t believe her at all.”

Detective McLaughlin did not respond to several requests for an interview.

Chief Harrison said in an interview in November that she was not aware of the allegation that Detective McLaughlin had discouraged the victim from going forward. She said detectives are taught to tell victims they will do everything they can to protect their privacy.

The young woman and her parents decided against going forward and continuing to help detectives. “That night was terrifying the victim’s mother said. “We just wanted to get out of this precinct.”

State civil-rights law guarantees a sexual assault victims’ rights to privacy and anonymity. Victims’ names are withheld in court documents, and most professional news organizations do not identify victims without their permission. New York’s rape shield law also forbids defense lawyers from asking a victim about unrelated sexual activity.

Chief Harrison said that investigators began considering Mr. Lockett as a possible suspect in the rape soon after he was arrested on burglary charges in Brooklyn. They believed he had followed the rape victim home from Williamsburg, and investigators noted Mr. Lockett had also followed young women home at night from Williamsburg when he committed the burglaries.

Still, the police had no evidence placing Mr. Lockett inside the victim’s apartment until March, when lab technicians matched fingerprints collected from the condom wrapper to Mr. Lockett’s, Chief Harrison said.

On March 14, Detective McLaughlin created what is known as an investigation card and indicated there was “probable cause” to arrest Mr. Lockett, according to a copy of the form obtained by The New York Times.

The document, called an “i-card” for short, acted like an arrest warrant and appeared on Mr. Lockett’s criminal record. The next day, officers in a fugitive warrants squad noted on the i-card that Mr. Lockett was already in custody in Brooklyn.

Law enforcement officials said the fingerprint match should have triggered several investigative steps, but Chief Harrison said they were not taken. No one visited the victim to persuade her to go forward. Nor did the police call the Brooklyn prosecutors overseeing the burglary cases. In addition, investigators did not ask corrections officials to inform them if Mr. Lockett was released from jail.

Chief Harrison said a police officer did call the victim to ask if she knew Mr. Lockett and she said she did not.

On March 29, Detective McLaughlin downgraded the status of the rape case on the i-card, and it disappeared from Mr. Lockett’s rap sheet, which prosecutors review before deciding whether to offer a plea deal to a defendant.

Chief Harrison said she did not know why Detective McLaughlin had changed the form, but it was probably because there was not enough evidence to arrest Mr. Lockett. The condom wrapper containing Mr. Lockett’s fingerprint was unbroken, she said, and his DNA was not found on the victim’s body, nor on a used condom that the police found in the apartment but do not believe was used in the attack.

Investigators also decided against speaking to Mr. Lockett about the rape while he was in jail, Chief Harrison said, because Manhattan prosecutors advised them Mr. Lockett had a right to have a lawyer present.

Mr. Lockett and his defense lawyers declined to be interviewed by The Times. He has been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, according to the authorities and an aunt, who said he moved to New York from Louisiana about three years ago to find work.

On June 14, Detective McLaughlin closed the rape case, marking it “C-4,” a code meaning all investigative leads had been exhausted, Chief Harrison said.

That meant when Brooklyn prosecutors looked at Mr. Lockett’s rap sheet during plea negotiations a month later, the rape allegation did not appear. As a result, prosecutors offered Mr. Lockett a no-jail plea bargain reserved for first-time, nonviolent offenders, said Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.

Mr. Lockett pleaded guilty on July 23 to burglary and petit larceny charges and was diverted to a program run by the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that provides former inmates with health care, counseling and jobs, Mr. Yaniv said. Mr. Lockett was released from the city’s Rikers Island prison complex the same day, but he never showed up for counseling.

Instead, the police said, Mr. Lockett attacked a 22-year-old woman inside her apartment on East 12th Street three days later, then punched and robbed a woman in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, two days after that.

He was finally arrested on Aug. 2, shortly after the police said he tried to rape a 32-year-old woman in her Williamsburg apartment.

Mr. Lockett was charged with burglary, sexually motivated robbery and attempted rape in the three attacks; he has pleaded not guilty. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office rescinded his plea deal.

Prosecutors said Mr. Lockett identified himself in surveillance video from the victims’ buildings. Manhattan prosecutors said in court papers that he made incriminating statements, admitting he pushed the woman on East 12th Street and apologizing to his victims. “I’m sorry for what I did to them,” he said, according to court papers.

Mr. Lockett denied raping the N.Y.U. student, though he admitted he had robbed her, Chief Harrison said.

The day before Mr. Lockett was arrested, a female Special Victims detective, Shantai Vasquez, went to the rape victim’s family’s home in New Jersey to try to persuade her to go forward with the case. Chief Harrison said officials hoped the victim might feel more comfortable with a detective who was a woman.



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