Arrest made in 1987 rape

DNA evidence from attack was preserved by doctor

July 29, 2008|By Kevin Rector | Kevin Rector,Sun Reporter

For the second time in two weeks, Baltimore County police have charged a man in a decades-old rape.

Lewis P. Thornton Jr., 38, of the 500 block of W. Lafayette Ave. in Baltimore was arrested and charged with first-degree rape and three counts of first-degree sex offense in a 1987 attack on a 23-year-old Towson woman, police said yesterday.

County detectives revisiting the case sent evidence from the rape to the state police crime lab, where DNA from the sample was checked against DNA on file in CODIS, the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, police said.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about the arrest of a suspect in a 1987 rape incorrectly stated the number of decades-old DNA samples a Greater Baltimore Medical Center physician gave Baltimore County police in 2004. Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker gave police 160 DNA samples.

The search produced a match and a suspect: Thornton, who has been registered as a violent sex offender in Maryland; his DNA has been in the FBI index since he was convicted of a first-degree rape in 1988, police said.

The DNA from the 1987 case had been frozen and preserved by Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker at Greater Baltimore Medical Center's former Rape Care Center - precursor to the center's current Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) Program - at a time when such procedures were uncommon.

Thirty rape and sexual-assault suspects have been arrested in Baltimore County in the past four years through DNA testing of evidence in crimes that were committed years ago, police said.

Last week, Baltimore County police said they had used a similar DNA search to charge a man with the 1980 rape of a 44-year-old Randallstown woman.

Edward Leon Medley, 48, who is imprisoned in the Roxbury Correctional Institute in Hagerstown for the 2002 rape of a Lochearn woman, was charged with two counts of first-degree rape, attempted first-degree rape and first-degree assault in the 1980 case.

Detectives charged Medley after linking DNA from the 1980 rape - also preserved by Breitenecker - to DNA collected after the 2002 rape.

The arrests highlight Breitenecker's pioneering work at GBMC between 1975 and 1997.

In the 1980s, the notion of linking a criminal to a rape through DNA testing was practically unheard of, and many people in positions like Breitenecker's discarded sperm samples weeks after they were collected, he said.

But Breitenecker, now 78 and retired, viewed the evidence he collected from rape victims differently, he said.

"It was against my conviction to throw away evidence," he said. "So many times evidence is discarded when a case is dormant or is a cold case, but I figured it wasn't that hard to save a little tube with evidence at that time because it was something that couldn't be duplicated later. It was something that you had or you didn't have.

"I thought, 'Well, maybe some day there'll be some development that would make the samples useful,' " he said.

Since 2004, when Breitenecker handed his approximately 2,000 samples over to the Baltimore County police, 30 men have been arrested in connection with 49 different cases of rape and sexual assault, said Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman. The arrests were in cold cases that had reached dead ends, Toohey said.

"It's very unlikely that we would have come up with any other evidence or witnesses now, so this is really critical," Toohey said of the DNA.

Linda Kelly, clinical program manager for GBMC's SAFE program, said the arrests are a testament to Breitenecker's forward thinking and belief in medical advances.

"Other jurisdictions don't have the evidence that Baltimore County has," Kelly said. Breitenecker was "very dedicated. We're very lucky that he took care of all these women back then."

Baltimore County police are still going through the DNA samples provided by Breitenecker, looking for cases where the victim is still willing to cooperate with police and press charges, Toohey said. When they find such a case, they send the corresponding DNA to the state police crime lab, where the DNA is compared DNA on file in the CODIS, he said.

"I feel good that we did something valuable for the community beyond the immediate care of the rape victims," Breitenecker said. "To remove some of these perpetrators from circulation in the public, I think, is quite important, because it turns out that many of them are career criminals."

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