Two months later, 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, Lockett was released from jail in July, and 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 to 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 long-standing 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 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 Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, leading to a key charge being dropped.
The sergeant who supervised that detective is among several division commanders who are being investigated on allegations of high-level misconduct for 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 Harrison, a former Queens precinct commander. Officials also added more detectives, expanded trauma-sensitive training and made public overtures to victims.
Commissioner Dermot Shea, when he was chief of detectives last year, denied the rape investigation involving Lockett had been mishandled. Last summer, he blamed Brooklyn prosecutors for the fiasco, pointing out they let Lockett plead guilty and enter a diversion program rather than insisting on a jail sentence.
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 said 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 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 NYU student’s mother, who was with her daughter at the police questioning, said a senior sex-crimes detective, William 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.”
McLaughlin did not respond to several requests for an interview.
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Harrison said in an interview in November that she was not aware of the allegation that 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.
“What we don’t want to do is revictimize a victim ever,” she said.
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A ‘Terrifying’ Night
After the assault Jan. 12, 2019, the student immediately ran out of her East Village apartment about 3 a.m. and called 911 from a Papaya Dog shop.
Police officers took her first to a hospital for a medical examination, then to the Manhattan Special Victims squad, where she was interviewed by McLaughlin, an experienced investigator who joined the Special Victims Division in 2013.
She told the detective her attacker had raped her and then bound her hands with duct tape before making off with her laptop, cellphone and debit card.
The detective, however, seemed skeptical of her account, asking her whether she knew her attacker or had let him into her apartment, the victim’s mother said.
“He was really going after our daughter,” the mother said. “ ‘You sure you don’t know him? Are you sure you didn’t bring him in and maybe open the door and didn’t remember?’ And stuff like that.”
When the victim’s parents asked about privacy, the detective told them that he could not prevent their daughter’s name from becoming public, saying, “You’re going to have the news all over you,” the mother recalled. She said the detective told them the only way to avoid publicity was “to close the case.”
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.
A Lucky Break
Harrison said that investigators began considering 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 from the Williamsburg neighborhood, which investigators noted was a similar method he had used in the burglaries, catching the door behind young women coming home late at night.
Still, police had no evidence placing Lockett inside the victim’s apartment until March, when lab technicians matched fingerprints collected from the condom wrapper to Lockett’s, Harrison said.
On March 14, McLaughlin created what is known as an investigation card and indicated there was “probable cause” to arrest 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 Lockett’s criminal record. The next day, officers in a fugitive warrants squad noted on the i-card that Lockett was already in custody in Brooklyn.
Law enforcement officials said the fingerprint match should have led to several investigative steps, but Harrison said they were not taken. No one visited the victim to persuade her to go forward. Nor did police call the Brooklyn prosecutors overseeing the burglary cases. In addition, investigators did not ask corrections officials to inform them if Lockett was released from jail.
Harrison said a police officer did call the victim to ask if she knew Lockett, and she said she did not.
On March 29, McLaughlin downgraded the status of the rape case on the i-card, and it disappeared from Lockett’s rap sheet, which prosecutors review before deciding whether to offer a plea deal to a defendant.
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Harrison said she did not know why McLaughlin had changed the form, but it was probably because there was not enough evidence to arrest Lockett. The condom wrapper containing Lockett’s fingerprint was unbroken, she said, and his DNA was not found on the victim’s body, nor on a used condom that police found in the apartment but do not believe was used in the attack.
Investigators also decided against speaking to Lockett about the rape while he was in jail, Harrison said, because Manhattan prosecutors advised them Lockett had a right to have a lawyer present.
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Lockett and his defense lawyers declined to be interviewed by the Times. He has been found to have a psychiatric disorder, according to authorities and an aunt, who said he moved to New York from Louisiana about three years ago to find work.
On June 14, McLaughlin closed the rape case, marking it “C-4,” a code meaning all investigative leads had been exhausted, Harrison said.
That meant when Brooklyn prosecutors looked at Lockett’s rap sheet during plea negotiations a month later, the rape allegation did not appear. As a result, prosecutors offered Lockett a no-jail plea bargain reserved for first-time, nonviolent offenders, said Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
Lockett pleaded guilty 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, Yaniv said. Lockett was released from the city’s Rikers Island prison complex the same day, but he never showed up for counseling.
Instead, police said, Locket attacked a 22-year-old woman inside her apartment on East 12th Street three days later, then punched and robbed a woman in Williamsburg two days after that.
He was finally arrested Aug. 2, shortly after police said he tried to rape a 32-year-old woman in her Williamsburg apartment.
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.
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Prosecutors said 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.
Lockett denied raping the NYU student, though he admitted he had robbed her, Harrison said.
The day before 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. Harrison said officials hoped the victim might feel more comfortable with a detective who was a woman.
“The tone really changed, and we felt like they were on our side,” the victim’s mother said.
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Still, the young woman ultimately decided not to participate in the investigation, and the Manhattan district attorney said it would not pursue a case without her testimony. Her mother said her daughter was focused on finishing college and was also going to therapy to help her cope with the rape and her treatment by police.
“She’s just beginning her life,” her mother said, “and for this just to keep coming back like that is not good.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .