It was a phone call that Brooke Morath had stopped waiting for. She had given up hope long ago, she said, that police would ever catch the man who raped her in a frozen parking lot five years ago.
When Minneapolis police told her Friday they had made an arrest, Morath said she was speechless.
“Part of me still is in disbelief even though they’re telling me it’s the guy,” she said in an interview. “It’s surreal.”
A 34-year-old Ham Lake man was arrested at an Anoka County home Friday morning and booked on probable cause of burglary and rape, dating to incidents last year.
At a news conference Sunday, police said they linked the man to “multiple” sexual assaults since 2013 — the last known one just last month — ranging from rape to other forms of sexual assault. The attacks occurred mostly in the Marcy-Holmes and Dinkytown neighborhoods near the University of Minnesota.
Morath’s anguish over how police handled her rape investigation led to the Star Tribune’s 2018 “Denied Justice” investigative series, which exposed widespread failings in how sex assaults in Minnesota are investigated and prosecuted.
The series sparked numerous reforms, including Minnesota’s first-ever statewide protocols for investigating rape and sexual assault. It also led to major changes in how Minneapolis police approach sexual assault cases.
At the news conference, police said that criminal charges will be filed in the next few days and weeks. The Star Tribune generally does not name suspects who haven’t been charged.
Until charges are filed, police said they could not provide much detail on the cases and what exactly led them to the suspect. They said it doesn’t appear he has ever been arrested before for criminal sexual conduct. Public records show he has a history of traffic violations and low-level drug offenses.
Deputy Chief Erick Fors said they started looking at him only last week, and that he didn’t “come to the forefront” until Friday.
They also would not confirm that Morath was one of his victims.
Morath, however, said detectives told her Friday that they had arrested her suspected assailant and told her he was linked to about nine cases.
Mayor Jacob Frey thanked the officers for the “extraordinary amount of work and perseverance” that led to the arrest, calling the city safer because of the department’s work. After the most recent known attack, which occurred March 1, police formed a task force with the University of Minnesota Police Department to analyze mounting evidence. A number of other agencies, including the FBI, were involved in the effort.
“To survivors, we hope this brings some form of closure to everything that you’ve been through,” Frey said. “This is a clear and salient reminder that while this pandemic is occurring we still have extraordinary first responders who are doing their job day in and day out.”
Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo also thanked the victims for their courage. He said the detectives who worked the case kept them in mind at all times.
A step forward, one back
The Star Tribune’s investigative team analyzed more than 1,500 police reports of sexual assault and found that only 13% resulted in criminal charges being filed, and only 8% of the reports ended with a conviction.
The series was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. In its aftermath, Minneapolis police added a sexual assault victim advocate and dedicated prosecutor from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office to the department’s sex crimes unit.
Despite the strides, advocates for sexual assault victims suffered another setback.
Last year, following the series, Minneapolis police revealed the department had a backlog of more than 1,700 unexamined rape kits sitting in storage facilities that should have been sent for testing but weren’t, for a number of reasons. That’s far more than the 194 untested sexual assault kits the department reported during a statewide audit in 2015.
Mayor Frey called the discovery an “unjustified mistake.” Chief Arradondo called it an “unacceptable” failure.
More analysts were sent to help the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension laboratory analyze the DNA from the backlogged kits, some of which dated back 30 years. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office has dedicated two investigators to help prioritize the unsubmitted kits for testing, reopen old cases and help investigate any emerging suspects.
Police said Sunday that results from the new kit testing effort did not lead them to their suspect.
However, Artika Roller, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said she thinks “some of these connections would have been made sooner” if the department had been aggressively processing rape kits over the years.
From 2013 to now is “a long time for a suspect to be out in our community doing harm, and a great deal of harm,” she said.
Roller said it’s likely the suspect arrested Friday has many other victims who never reported their attacks to police.
Still, Roller said she was excited by the news of the arrest and is optimistic about how the sex crimes unit is changing.
“The Minneapolis sex crimes unit has a history of not being able to resolve these cases and of not being responsive to victim survivors,” Roller said. “We definitely see this as progress. We know that they’re turning a corner, but it’s a large ship to turn.”
A victim’s determination
Morath, now 25, lives in Eagan and works in a clinical research lab at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She was a 20-year-old student at the U when a stranger blinded her with pepper spray and raped her as she walked to her car from her Dinkytown apartment one night. Morath did everything sexual assault victims are supposed to do following an attack.
But she had doubts that police were doing everything they could to catch her assailant. For example, the detective on her case told her that the surveillance videos from the nearby businesses didn’t reveal anything useful. Then she discovered he had been looking at the wrong time stamp, and that the video did show a hooded man following her on the sidewalk. They also failed to collect surveillance videos in time from three stores directly across from her building. After a few months, work on her case appeared to taper off. “I heard nothing,” she said.
Then, after another attack last month, Minneapolis police in mid-March called a news conference to ask for the public’s help identifying the assailant, releasing sketches of a man they suspected had been targeting young women in the Marcy-Holmes and Dinkytown neighborhoods for several years. They said that on March 1, a man grabbed a woman from behind as she walked just after 6 p.m. near the University of Minnesota campus, but she fought him off and he ran away.
Morath said that police contacted her before that news conference to let her know it was coming and that they’d be releasing the sketches.
“That was the first I had heard from anyone for years,” she said of the police.
Morath called it “confirmation of what I always knew.” That the man who attacked her was skilled and dangerous — and that there were others.
During that conversation, Morath said she told the detectives that when she combed through her own investigative file she found even more surveillance video that showed multiple images of her attacker — images she had never seen before, even though the previous detective insisted he had gone through them all. Morath said the detectives said they hadn’t seen the images either.
She still feels a sense of betrayal, she said.
“It’s validating to now know that all those gut feelings I had about the investigation were real,” she said. “I wasn’t just a crazy, hysterical victim. There were merits to my concerns.”
Police spokesman John Elder said he couldn’t comment because the investigation of the cases is ongoing.
Now, Morath said she is working through a range of emotions: relief, a sense of uncertainty around all the unanswered questions, even hope.
“I do have faith in this new investigative team,” she said.
Morath said she’s been working remotely in recent weeks due to the coronavirus lockdown, sheltering with her parents near Rochester. They’ve been processing the news together.
“There’s lot of tears,” Morath said. “But good tears, I would say.”
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683