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"Just Tell the Truth": Retired MPD Worker Says Evidence Destroyed in Sexual Assault Cases

Lester Ditto give Deposition
Karen Pulfer Focht/Karen Pulfer Focht
Karen Pulfer Focht
April 12, 2022- Rape survivor Debby Dahlhoff introduces herself to Lester Ditto, a retired Memphis Police Department evidence and property room manager. Ditto gave a deposition at the office of Gary K. Smith, who is the attorney for the plaintiffs suing the city of Memphis over the rape kit backlog. The suit accuses the city of negligence for failing to test rape kits. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Institute for Public Service Reporting)

Nearly a decade ago, rape victims in Memphis first learned that thousands of sexual assault kits collected by Memphis police had never been tested. But new depositions in an ongoing lawsuit have resulted in unsettling discoveries for some victims.

This radio story is a collaboration between WKNO and the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Listen to our 2020 special report on the rape kit backlog here.

Here in an East Memphis law office, Debby Dalhoff and Lester Ditto are crossing paths for the first time, though their lives have been linked by decades of trauma.

"I don't hold you personally accountable, but I just..." Debby says through tears.

"I'm so sorry," Ditto replies.

It was a rare moment of personal -- if not official -- accountability for Dalhoff. Back in 1985, she was raped and tortured in her home by a masked intruder whose identity is still unknown.

Then, in 2014, when she learned of what MPD called a “backlog” of untested rape kits, she started her own investigation into what happened to her evidence. Enter Lester Ditto.

"You just tell the truth," Ditto says. "You Just tell what you know. Hey, I can make a mistake, anybody can make a mistake."

He’s retired now. But in the late 1990s, he was the MPD’s evidence room manager. Two years ago, Ditto told the Institute that his department received a now-contested 1995 legal memo that led him to discard evidence in thousands of unsolved and uncharged sex crimes before he retired in 2000.

Victims were never told of the destruction. That changed earlier this month, on April 12, when Ditto testified about how he tossed possibly thousands of rape kits and collateral pieces of evidence like bedsheets and undergarments into a local landfill.

A memo by the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office contended that the statute of limitations had expired for these cases. But that wasn’t true for Dalhoff’s case. It could still be prosecuted today if police could only identify her attacker. DNA testing has improved significantly since the 1980s.

Dalhoff joined scores of women in a still-ongoing 2014 lawsuit alleging negligence by MPD. That suit led her to sit through Ditto’s testimony this month – testimony that adds a new twist to the case. Ditto’s account contradicts the city’s official narrative that its rape kit backlog – one of the largest in the country at the time -- was so extensive because, unlike many police agencies across the country, it didn’t destroy evidence.

Back home, Dalhoff, 66, and her mother Juanita say they’re still haunted by all the missing rape kits.

"If you say they found 12,000 [rape kits], I will assure you there's more than 12,000 women that have been raped in the city of Memphis over a period of time. So, there could be thousands and thousands more. There could be more than 12,000 that got destroyed. Who knows?" she says.

"There's no words to express what it does to you every day." adds Juanita Dalhoff. "You know, you can't even imagine. And it's something you'll never get over. You won't. You can't solve it in yourself.

"And that's my mother speaking at ninety years old, and this impacts her as well," Debby says. "It's it's just a sad situation."

It’s unclear if evidence was destroyed in other cases that are still prosecutable. But Dalhoff and other victims will be watching for answers as their lawsuit continues to unfold.