WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. — Gretchen Van Winkle was transfixed as the hit Netflix series “Unbelievable” played across her TV screen in 2019. The dramatized version of a true story of one woman’s rape and betrayal by police was so similar it could have been hers.
Just like the protagonist, Van Winkle was sexually assaulted in her apartment by a knife-wielding intruder, who bound and gagged her. Van Winkle remembered the same kinds of searing questions lobbed at her, as detectives accused the woman on screen of making up her assault.
“Unbelievable” ends with a measure of justice: A partial DNA match helps identify the victim’s rapist and proves she was telling the truth all along. That moment had eluded Van Winkle for more than two decades.
Van Winkle had already asked Virginia authorities to take a fresh look at her 1995 assault case, and now she pressed for new DNA testing. But any hope of an “Unbelievable”-style ending was soon dashed by a stunning series of calls and texts from a Fairfax County police cold-case detective.
Van Winkle’s rape kit had been destroyed, in what police officials later concluded was aviolation of department policy. So had the knife, her bloody bedsheets and the clothes she wore when she was attacked. In fact, police said detectives scoured the property room and found that every bit of physical evidence in her case was gone.
Then the detective wrote in a text that she had discovered more missing evidence in another old case. Van Winkle responded in disbelief: “Wow. This has left me kind of speechless.”
“Me too,” the detective punched out.
The best chance for bringing Van Winkle’sattacker to justice was gone, but the detective’s words put her quest for answers on a new path.How could a department trash evidence in a sexual assault? How many other victimswere in her shoes?
What Van Winkle worked to uncover was worse than she had imagined — an accounting by Fairfax County police found that the same detective who investigated her casehad marked evidence for destruction in dozens of unsolved felony sexual assault cases. Victims remain unaware.
Why it happened, whether the evidence was improperly destroyed and what impact it had on the cases are still not fully known. Fairfax County police have begun a review of each one to see what evidence remains and what can be salvaged, but they have refused to release many details about the cases or what the reexamination has found so far.
Van Winkle’s case is part of a broader but little-known problem: Hundreds of rape kits have been destroyed at police departments across the country in recent years.
A top police commander in Fairfax now says the department believes Van Winkle’s account of her sexual assault, and police have apologized to her, but it has brought her little comfort. She decided to speak publicly because she thinks the reckoning within the department is not yet complete.
“What the police did was worse than the rape,” Van Winkle said.
A stranger in the dark
Van Winkle collapsed into bed after a night out in August 1995.
She had just moved to Vienna, Va., after a stint with the Peace Corps in Antigua. At 24, she had a new apartment and a new job, and she had enrolled at the Corcoran school of art in D.C. She said the fresh start was thrilling.
As Van Winkle drifted off to sleep, she heard a rustling. Suddenly, she said, a man was crawling up her bed. The intruder punched her in the face twice and started choking her. She recalls he gave her a gruff warning as he pressed a knife to her throat: “Don’t scream or I’ll kill you.”
The man bound Van Winkle’s hands with her nightgown and stuffed underwear in her mouth.
She said a harrowing sexual assault followed.
She can’t forget small details. Van Winkle can still see the man’s intense, wide-set eyes. She said the blue light that filtered through her bedroom window would be a recurring theme in her paintings for years.
When the man set the knife down, Van Winkle said, she knew she had to act. She said she wriggled her hands free, snatched the blade and cut him. He bolted from the bedroom, and Van Winkle said she followed, slashing at his back.
In the dining room, the man fell to his knees and Van Winkle thrust the blade at him one more time, she recalls. Instead of wounding him, the flimsy kitchen knife snapped on his back. Van Winkle screamed in terror and tried to run, but he tackled her onto her couch.
The man choked Van Winkle before, she said, she managed to push him off.
“I remember distinctly saying, ‘I don’t want to die,’ ” Van Winkle said. “ ‘Please don’t kill me. Just leave.’ ”
The man made her promise to tell no one about the attack, before slipping out a sliding door into the night.
Van Winkle was in shock.
She remembers walking into the bathroom and pulling on a robe. She caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror. She recalls telling herself: “This really happened.”
Neighbors called police and the investigation unfolded in a blur.
Still in her robe, Van Winkle said, she was whisked to the hospital by officers for a sexual assault exam. Hospital workers swabbed her for blood and semen. Police said DNA was recovered.
Van Winkle’s boyfriend arrived and she was introduced to Fairfax County police detective Cynthia Lundberg. She would investigate the case with her partner, June Boyle.
Lundberg explained how officers had found a banana peel in Van Winkle’s trash. Van Winkle said she was chilled and disgusted by the thought that her attacker had apparently snacked while waiting for her to come home.
Lundberg was sympathetic as Van Winkle described what happened, Van Winkle said, adding that shefelt a sense of reassurance that two women would handle the investigation. They seemed to take her case seriously.
“I trusted her,” Van Winkle said of Lundberg.
Van Winkle said she worked with an artist to develop a sketch of her attacker the next day. A brief about the sexual assault ran in the Washington Times with the drawing. DNA testing was done at some point.Lundberg gave Van Winkle periodic updates on the investigation, but detectives had no solid leads.
Roughly six months after the sexual assault, Van Winkle said, detectives asked her to meet with them one evening. Van Winkle was excited, assuming they had made a breakthrough.
This account of what transpired during the 1996 meeting is based on interviews with Van Winkle and notes that she said she made the day after it happened. Lundberg and Boyle, who have since retired from the department, declined to comment.
Fairfax County police officials said in an interview that Lundberg and Boyle’s handling of the meeting was inappropriate, but declined to discuss specific allegations that Van Winkle made.
Van Winkle recalled that Boyle greeted her as the elevator doors opened at police headquarters.
Boyle led Van Winkle to a small, cluttered room to review a book of mug shots. Van Winkle remembers flipping through about a dozen pages, but the pictures were of Black men. Her attacker had olive skin, and she told detectives none of the photos appeared to be him.
Boyle reached over and shut the book, according to Van Winkle, and offered a rejoinder that made her freeze: You’re making this up.
Van Winkle recalled blurting out that she wasn’t.
A tense, hours-long interrogation followed that Van Winkle described as “being attacked again.”
Lundberg and Boyle told Van Winkle the evidence they had found did not support her account of a rape, according to the notes that Van Winkle made. They said a metallurgist found no blood on the knife and doubted it could have broken the way Van Winkle said it did.
They told her the blood spatter on her sofa and floor were consistent with the scene being staged, according to the notes. Van Winkle said in an interview that they accused her and her boyfriend of getting the blood and semen found in the apartment from a hospital, where he was training to be a doctor.
The detectives told her they thought she fabricated the attack, possibly to get out of her lease, according to the notes.
They said that she was not “the first woman to do this” and that she “hadn’t planned on it getting this complicated,” the notes show. Van Winkle recalls that they asked her what would happen to someone who filed a false police report.
Finally, she said, the detectives asked her to take a polygraph test. Van Winkle agreed, telling them that “she had nothing to hide.”
At the time, polygraph tests were sometimes used in the interrogation of sexual assault victims. It is no longer common.
Victims’ advocates have long criticized the practice, saying the stress of recounting a rape can produce false signs of deception. The Fairfax County Police Department has discontinued the practice.
Van Winkle recalled being hooked up to the polygraph machine. The examiner asked her name, address and other basic questions, before going over the rape detail by detail. Three tests and roughly two hours later, Van Winkle was finally done.
The detectives told her she had failed.
Lundberg asked her to tell them what really happened, Van Winkle recalled. She went over the rape yet again, but the detectives told her it could not have happened the way she claimed.
“Go home, it’s late,” the notes show a detective told her.
Van Winkle had spent hours at the police station. Shaken, she rode the elevator down by herself and trudged across an empty parking lot to her car around 1:30 a.m., she said. She never heard from Lundberg or Boyle again.
The worst part
Van Winkle resolved to move on, but the experience was a raw wound. During the rape, she could fight back,she said, but there was little she could do after her statement was discounted by the police. These were the very people who were supposed to help — whom could she turn to?
“She was just starting off life and it just derailed her,” said Van Winkle’s sister, Mieke Lozano. “It changed her in her core and her soul, and everything she did after that was affected by this.”
Van Winkle said she developed post-traumatic stress disorder and woke up many nights screaming in terror. Others she spent at an all-night Kinko’s copy shop to be around other people. To this day, she checks her closets for intruders when she returns home. Large dogs are her constant companions.
Van Winkle struggled forward, completing art school. She did silk-screens about polygraphs and paintings with shadowy, hovering figures. She married her boyfriend at the time of the attack, Kevin Curtis, and had two children who are now grown. She moved to New England. She got therapy.
By 2014, Van Winkle had earned a master’s degree in social work and begun working with women who were victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. She began to revisit her own experience.
She did a raw dramatic reading about her experience titled “The Worst Part.” “To not be believed,” Van Winkle concluded as the lights on the stage dimmed, “that is the worst of all.”
In the years that followed, she was buoyed by the #MeToo movement and began researching rapes that had occurred in the area near her Virginia apartment for leads on her attacker. In the summer of 2019, she was finally ready to call police about reopening the investigation.
A pair of Fairfax County police detectives and a victim advocate visited Van Winkle in New England in September 2019 to begin a fresh look at her case and hear her account of what transpired during the investigation.
Van Winkle and Curtis, who have since divorced, met the detectives at a hotel. Curtis said Van Winkle answered questions for an hour and a half, before the detectives cracked open a binder of photos from the crime scene for both of them to see for the first time.
Curtis, who had only briefly been in the apartment after the attack, said he was struck by how much evidence there had been: Detectives flipped through images of the disheveled bedroom where the assault occurred, the knife, scattered blood and the broken frame of the apartment’s sliding door, where the attacker appeared to have entered.
“It was exactly consistent with the story she related,” Curtis said.
In the days that followed, Van Winkle watched “Unbelievable” and asked police to retest the DNA recovered in her case. Shortly after the attack, police had used an early, rudimentary version of a DNA test on the genetic material recovered from the scene, but it failed to provide a match, they said. The newly assigned detectives searched the property room and discovered that genetic material had been destroyed, police said.
Angry, Van Winkle fired off a series of public-records requests.
Van Winkle wanted to know whether Lundberg had ordered evidence destroyed in other cases, so she asked police for the disposition of all the detective’s investigations between 1994 and 1997, when Lundberg worked as a sex-crimes detective.
Van Winkle was floored when she got a spreadsheet that showed evidence was destroyed or missing in 47 unsolved cases — roughly half the investigations Lundberg undertook during the period.
Van Winkle then requested an internal affairs investigation of how her rape was handled. The investigation, which concluded earlier this year, found that the destruction of biological evidence in her case was “improper and in violation of department regulations,” according to a letter to Van Winkle that summarized the findings.
Fairfax County police said that they attempted to contact Lundberg and Boyle during the internal investigation of Van Winkle’s case, but that neither gave a statement.
Maj. Ed O’Carroll of the Fairfax force saidthat officials still don’t know why the detectives accused Van Winkle of fabricating the assault, but that aggressive questioning was a tactic sometimes used at the time to try to ascertain if a victim was making up a story. He said nothing in the case file indicates why Lundberg and Boyle disbelieved Van Winkle.
In an interview, O’Carroll apologized for the way Lundberg and Boyle treated Van Winkle and said that “this case breaks my heart.” Some top officials in the department met with Van Winkle. Others, working under a previous chief, sent her a letter saying, “We shared in your frustrations and anger with the handling of the investigation.” Last year, the department put out a press release seeking new leads in Van Winkle’s case.
O’Carroll said that the department has no reason to believe Van Winkle fabricated the assault and that there was substantial evidence corroborating her account. O’Carroll said Van Winkle “was truthful then and she’s truthful today.”
“The department let her down then and let her down a second time when her evidence was destroyed,” O’Carroll said.
The evidence in Van Winkle’s case was destroyed in 2005, shortly after a message went out to staff reminding them to dispose of evidence that was no longer needed, O’Carroll said. The department was running out of space in its property room.
Department policy was then — and is now — to retain evidence in cases that might still be prosecuted, O’Carroll said. In Virginia, there is no statute of limitations on felony sex crimes.
At the time, detectives had unilateral authority to dispose of evidence, O’Carroll said. In response to Van Winkle’s case, he said, the department has instituted a secondary review of any request to destroy evidence to prevent similar errors.
A whole different story
Fairfax County police have not made public the evidence destruction in Lundberg’s cases, and O’Carroll said victims had not been notified. He said the department would decide whether to do so on a case-by-case basis, based on the ongoing review. O’Carroll said the department would do the “right thing.”
Department officials declined to release to The Post what the review has uncovered so far, other than to say a handful of cases need to be examined more closely. They said all of the evidence in some cases had been destroyed, while items remained in others. Police said the destruction of evidence in some cases may not have violated department policies.
Police said the majority of those in which evidence was destroyed are felony sex crimes. They denied a public-records request for additional information.
Van Winkle said that lack of transparency is unacceptable.
She wants to see the victims notified in cases in which evidence was destroyed. And she wants a comprehensive review of sex-crimes cases to see if evidence destruction extends beyond Lundberg.
The Post filed a public-records request seeking to find out if 10 other sex-crimes detectives active in the 1990s had destroyed evidence in cases that could still be prosecuted, but the department said it would cost thousands of dollars to fulfill the request because the records are not digitized and each case would have to be examined by hand. The department did agree to look at 33 randomly selected cases from 1995 and said evidence had been improperly destroyed in one unsolved rape case not handled by Lundberg.
Improper evidence destruction in sex crimes is a wider issue.
Maryland’s attorney general found in 2020 that state police agencies had destroyed nearly 270 rape kits in the previous two years, despite a new law requiring they be retained for 20 years. That year, a Minnesota TV station found that hundreds of rape kits had been destroyed in unsolved cases in the state.
A CNN survey in 2018 found that police at dozens of agencies nationwide had trashed 400 rape kits in cases that could have been prosecuted.
In 2015, Harold Medlock, then the police chief in Fayetteville, N.C., held a news conference to announce that his department had discovered it improperly destroyed 333 rape kits over a 13-year period to make space in its evidence room. The department notified each victim and apologized.
Experts say there has not been a comprehensive assessment on the pervasiveness of evidence destruction in sexual assault cases on a national level. The issue has gotten far less attention than the backlog of untested rape kits that has been publicized in recent years.
Medlock said it’s likely that evidence destruction in sexual assaults remains hidden in some departments.
“I took a pretty good beating from a lot of my peers,” Medlock said. “They chastised me a bit for admitting it publicly when it had not been public. … There were other departments that had done the same thing and didn’t feel the need to acknowledge it.”
O’Carroll credited Van Winkle with bringing the issue to light in Fairfax County and potentially preventing it from happening again. Van Winkle was gratified that police were re-examining her case, but said the department needs to do more.
“I would like this police force to somehow be held accountable for messing up this case and other cases, too,” Van Winkle said. “If I had the evidence, it would be a whole different story.”
Story editing by Maria Glod. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Brian French. Design by J.C. Reed.