TOWSON, MD—County Executive Johnny Olszewski and Baltimore County Police Department Chief Robert McCullough on Wednesday announced a new commitment to aggressively expedite testing of cold case sexual assault forensic evidence preserved by GBMC since the 1970s.
Baltimore County plans to complete testing of all remaining GBMC slide cases by the end of 2024 in order to support cold case investigations and aid survivors of sexual assault thanks to a combination of newly announced awards, including a $1.5 million grant from the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services and a generous grant of up to $500,000 from the Hackerman Foundation.
“Every resident in Baltimore County deserves to feel safe in their community. Ensuring that our police department has the tools, resources and support needed to analyze this unique forensic evidence is a critical part of our work to serve, protect, and seek justice for our residents,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. “We hope that this expedited testing process brings that justice – as well as long-awaited closure – to any victim of sexual assault and we are grateful for GBMC’s tireless commitment to preserving this evidence along with the generous support of the Hackerman Foundation and our partners in State and local leadership.”
“The GBMC Slide Project speaks to the Baltimore County Police Department’s level of commitment to deliver justice on behalf of all survivors of sexual assault,” said Police Chief Robert McCullough. “In August, that commitment resulted in the arrest of 70-year-old James Shipe Sr., a serial rapist whose crimes date back to the 1970s. One month prior to that announcement, I created a temporary position in my office to oversee the GBMC Slide Project and coordinate the transfer of all GBMC slides to the Department. As a result of this project, we have already transferred 500 GBMC Slide cases to the Department since October 1. By December 2024, the Department expects to have all GBMC slides tested.”
In the 1970s, GBMC emergency room physician Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker recognized the value of evidence from sexual assault survivors and preserved evidence of more than two-thousand sexual assaults on microscope slides. The late Dr. Breitenecker continued this collection practice into the early 1990’s when his efforts led to the formation of the GBMC Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence (SAFE) program, one of the most robust and respected programs of its kind in the nation.
These slides have been maintained at GBMC and have proven viable for DNA testing which have led to the conviction of several offenders for decades-old crimes. For example, in August 2023, Baltimore County detectives made an arrest in the rape investigations of five Baltimore County women utilizing forensic evidence collected under the GBMC slide project.
“Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker’s foresight in preserving this evidence before DNA matching became common practice was revolutionary. Many sexual assault victims have found justice and closure decades after crimes were committed against them, thanks to his innovative mindset,” said Dr. John B. Chessare, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center HealthCare System. “At GBMC HealthCare, we are proud of his work and to continue a legacy of supporting and caring for sexual assault and domestic violence victims through our SAFE and Domestic Violence Program.”
In 2019, Olszewski formed the Sexual Assault Investigations Task Force to examine investigation and prosecution policies. Since then, the administration has worked with state and local partners to implement Task Force’s recommendations, including increasing capacity to test SAFE kits, establishing a cold case investigations squad within the Police Department’s Special Victims Unit, and seeking funding sources to assist in these efforts.
While the County has made significant progress to date, numerous factors including the disruption of the COVID-19 and external testing capacity, have resulted in a continued need to advance this work.
Under the leadership of Baltimore County State Senator Shelly Hettleman and other leaders in the General Assembly, earlier this year, the state of Maryland updated the definition of a SAFE kit to include the GBMC slides, creating new legal pathways for Baltimore County to take a more holistic approach of obtaining and testing these slides.
“I am proud to have played a part, along with my General Assembly colleagues, to pass legislation to protect and preserve the GBMC slides,” said Senator Shelly Hettleman. “In partnership with the State, County Executive, and the Hackerman Foundation, I am thrilled that there are now resources available to finish testing the slides because we know that DNA collected from sexual assault survivors decades ago might hold the keys to solving crimes — because they already have.”
As a result, GBMC’s Pathology Department began a comprehensive accounting of remaining Breitenecker cases in order to facilitate the complete transfer of all remaining materials. This accounting allowed for more accurate project management and has led to the efficient, rapid, valid transfer of those materials. In partnership with GBMC and the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office, Baltimore County is now in the process of transferring all remaining cases and slides from GBMC to the Baltimore County Police Department, which will further expedite the county’s ability to efficiently log and test samples.
“Dr. Breitenecker’s groundbreaking work collecting forensic evidence has empowered our office to identify and obtain at least 49 criminal convictions in sexual assault cases — including in the case of serial rapist Alphonso Hill,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger. “By obtaining all remaining slides, Baltimore County will be able to more effectively test evidence and our office remains ready to work with our partners in the Baltimore County Police Department to aggressively pursue cases and seek justice for victims.”
Baltimore County will leverage an existing agreement with forensic labs vendor Bode Technology to support increased testing of all remaining slides. Under the revised agreement, Bode has agreed to accept and test these slides in higher volumes. This project will result in testing all of the remaining approximately 1,400 cases by the end of 2024 — years ahead of when previously thought possible.
To enable this work, Baltimore County announced today it has received a $1.5 million supplemental appropriation from the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services which will be utilized for the outsourced testing of these slides.
“We’re proud to be a part of any efforts that bring justice to Maryland survivors,” said Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services Executive Director Dorothy Lennig. “GBMC, Baltimore County, and all of its state and local partners have done a phenomenal job continuing the work of Dr. Breitenecker. We look forward to bringing this long overdue project to fruition.”
In addition, the Hackerman Foundation, in partnership with Season of Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to providing funding for investigative agencies and families to help solve cold cases and bring resolution to those impacted by unsolved violent crimes, today launched the “BreitLight Justice Fund” to administer private philanthropic funding to support this testing effort.
The Hackerman Foundation is providing a generous commitment of up to $500,000 to the newly-created “BreitLight Justice Fund.” Individuals interested in supporting the “BreitLight Justice Fund” can visit https://www.seasonofjustice.org/breitlightjusticefund for more information.
The Hackerman Foundation had previously awarded Baltimore County $300,000 in grant funding to Baltimore County and the Baltimore County Police Department to support cold case sexual assault investigations and improve current and future investigations. This previous grant funded much of the investigative work that has laid the foundation to this expedited transfer and testing process.
“Baltimore County’s new partnership with Season of Justice is a testament to the impact a private foundation can have on the advancement of change where it is needed most,” said Nancy Hackerman, President of The Hackerman Foundation. “Our initial $300,000 grant to Baltimore County led to the arrest of one individual now charged with five rapes, and the work has only just begun. We are proud to partner with Season of Justice and the County once again on the creation of the new BreitLight Justice Fund to help expedite testing on the remaining sexual assault slides, so thoughtfully cared for and protected by Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker, a forensic pathologist, whose vision for change challenged how sexual assault victims were treated in the ’70s and 80’s. His advanced foresight on DNA sequencing, and his desire to bring justice and social change, is a charge The Hackerman Foundation is proud to stand with.”
Baltimore County will utilize a combination of general funds and up to $500,000 in federal ARPA funds to support completion of this effort.
The new grant from Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services is expected to go before the Baltimore County Council in December 2023.
Video from Wednesday’s announcement can be viewed below.
Photo via Baltimore County Police Department