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In Robeson County where teen was killed, many rape cases go unsolved

Many residents of Robeson County are still reeling from the death of Hania Aguilar, the 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered last month while waiting for a ride to school.

The news stung more deeply after last week’s revelation that the sheriff’s office failed to act on DNA evidence linking suspect Michael Ray McLellan to an earlier and unrelated rape — information that might have kept Hania alive.

But a close examination of crime data from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation shows that many rape cases go unsolved in Robeson County, about 100 miles south of Raleigh. In the last five years, the sheriff’s office reported clearing 26 of the 86 reported rape cases — 30 percent. In 2015, the clearance rate sank to 18 percent: three cases cleared out of 17.

By contrast, the average percentage of rape cases cleared statewide regularly topped 50 percent for the same period of time, rising as high as 62 percent in 2012.

Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins, elected in November, declined to comment on the statistics Wednesday, noting that he has spent just 16 days in office.

“We have been hit hard with crime since my first day and have made many strides in clearing these recent cases up,” Wilkins said in an email to The News & Observer.

To compile crime data, the SBI relies on law enforcement agencies to accurately report the number of offenses and arrests. A “cleared” case is defined as having at least one arrest — or an extraordinary circumstances that make an arrest impossible, such as the suspect’s death.

ROBESON COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Number of rapes1821171713
Number of rape cases cleared75734
Percentage cleared in Robeson3924411831
Total cases statewide1,9481,7701,7411,8982,067
Total cases cleared statewide1,2261,0749901,0281,205
Percentage cleared statewide6360575458

Robeson is the largest county in North Carolina by square miles, a sprawling and swampy outpost with Interstate 95 running through its middle. Despite its geographic size, the county is home to only 133,000 people, fewer by far than the town of Cary in Wake County.

Robeson has the highest concentration of Native Americans in the state: 39 percent. Though it lacks a reservation or federal recognition, the Lumbee Tribe dominates Robeson’s landscape. The rest of the county’s population breaks down as 26 percent white, 24 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic, according to census reports.

Robeson’s unique demographic may make crime-solving trickier, said Deanne Gerdes, director of Rape Crisis Volunteers in nearby Cumberland County. Gerdes said she belongs to the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of the Chippewa Indians in Michigan, and that nobody there speaks candidly to anyone off the reservation.

“The Native American community is very close-knit at times,” she said. “They’re more self-contained.”

Another distinction is Robeson’s tendency toward violent crime — its per-capita crime rate ranks among the highest in the state, said Johnson Britt, the longtime district attorney who is leaving office this month.

Though much smaller than Wake County, Robeson has a murder rate that is nearly eight times as high and a rape rate that is 11 percent higher. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, Robeson reported 17 murders and 13 rapes.

Funding for prosecutors, police and defense attorneys has not kept up with Robeson’s crime rate, Britt said.

The sheriff’s office had to rebuild itself after a 2006 corruption scandal nicknamed Operation Tarnished Badge, Britt noted, in which 16 Robeson deputies were accused of drug, kidnapping and other felony charges. Federal officials also kicked the sheriff’s office out of an asset forfeiture program, meaning the office no longer collects any proceeds from property seized from drug dealers.

“Literally, there were millions of dollars lost annually when the sheriff’s department was prevented from participating, or stopped from participating,” Britt said.

Hania disappeared the morning of Nov. 5 from outside her family’s home. About three weeks later, after an exhaustive search led by the FBI, investigators found her body in a swampy area roughly 10 miles away.

Robeson officials later conceded that for at least a year, the sheriff’s office had DNA evidence connecting McLellan to a rape in 2016 but didn’t pursue the case further. Britt said telling Hania’s mother about the gap in the investigation was one of the hardest tasks he faced in office.

Going forward, Britt said he has recommended the new sheriff form an investigative team focused on sexual assault cases with a social worker assigned to help victims.

“Perhaps the lead detective on that team should be a woman, someone that presumably a female victim will be more comfortable talking to,” Britt said.

Advocates point to a general lack of urgency in rape cases, not just in Robeson County. To date, the stockpile of untested rape kits statewide tops 15,000, according to the nonprofit End The Backlog.

The forensic match on the 2016 rape surfaced again when investigators found DNA in the SUV used to abduct Hania. Last week, Wilkins described the mishandled DNA evidence as a “breakdown.”

“It angers me and I’ve got to deal with it,” Wilkins told ABC11, The News & Observer’s media partner, on Monday. “To know that that happened, to know the reports didn’t follow the proper channels, that further investigation wasn’t done, interviews weren’t done properly — I have a major issue with that.”

In nearby Cumberland County, Gerdes at Rape Crisis Volunteers wondered why such a valuable puzzle piece was ignored.

“Why isn’t rape in general being taken more seriously in Robeson County, in Cumberland County, in North Carolina?” she asked. “This is the big fight.”

Staff writer Carli Brosseau contributed to this report.

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.