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Former detective destroyed evidence in sex assault cases, review finds

Fairfax County police said 10 cases from the mid-1990s may no longer be solvable. The review was prompted by a victim.

(Fairfax County Police)

A former Fairfax County police detective improperly destroyed evidence in 10 unsolved sexual assault cases that date from the mid-90s, likely meaning the perpetrators in the crimes will never be brought to justice, an investigation by the department has found.

County police initiated the review of cases probed by Detective Cynthia Lundberg after a rape victim discovered in 2019 that the investigator had disposed of the rape kit, clothing, knife and other evidence from her 1995 attack, rendering the case all but unsolvable.

The Washington Post first publicly revealed the destruction of evidence in Gretchen Van Winkle’s case in an August article that detailed how Lundberg and her partner had accused Van Winkle of making up her assault before Lundberg later ordered the evidence destroyed.

County police say they now believe Van Winkle’s assault account and have apologized for their handling of her case.

Police accused her of making up her rape and then destroyed the evidence

“The improper destruction of evidence makes it extremely difficult to hold offenders of crimes accountable,” county police Maj. Ed O’Carroll said in a statement. “The victims in these cases deserved better, and the Fairfax County Police Department deeply regrets the actions of the past. Steps are now in place to prevent such errors from ever repeating.”

Lundberg did not respond to a request for comment.

The review examined 93 cases assigned to Lundberg between 1994 and 1997 when she worked as a sex crimes detective in the department. Police said Lundberg labeled evidence as destroyed in 46 of those cases, which were all sexual assaults.

Police said two detectives looked at the old files and determined that Lundberg had disposed of evidence in accordance with department policy in 38 of those cases. Police said some of the cases were closed by arrest and fully adjudicated, the victims did not wish to proceed with them or had died, or an initial investigation found there was not evidence to support that a crime had occurred.

In nine cases that remain unsolved, the review found that Lundberg had improperly destroyed evidence, police said. There is no statute of limitations on felony sex assault prosecutions in Virginia, so department rules require that evidence be held indefinitely in cases that remain open.

Police declined to release details about those nine assaults but said all of the victims are still living. Police said they do not plan to notify the victims that evidence in their cases had been destroyed, saying the department does not give victims updates on cold cases unless an update provides a clear path toward a prosecution.

“The fear is causing additional emotional harm,” said Howard Ludwig, a spokesman for Fairfax police.

Victims may contact the department’s Victim Services Division for updates on their cases.

Police said the review also found that Lundberg improperly investigated a 1996 case as sexual battery, when it was actually a case of object sexual penetration. Police said evidence in the case was destroyed when the sexual battery charge was disproved, but police may contact the victim and are reopening the case.

Van Winkle said she was attacked at the Vienna-area apartment where she was living in August 1995 by an unknown intruder, who threatened her with a knife and bound her before carrying out a brutal sexual assault. Van Winkle said her attacker fled after she managed to grab the knife and fought with him. Neighbors called police. Van Winkle was 24 at the time.

Lundberg and her partner, June Boyle, began investigating the case, but about six months after the probe began they asked Van Winkle to meet them at Fairfax County police headquarters, Van Winkle said.

During a harrowing interrogation, the detectives accused her of making up the story and asked her to take a lie-detector test, Van Winkle said. While some police agencies at the time asked victims to undergo lie-detector tests, Fairfax police and other departments have discontinued that practice.

Van Winkle said the detectives told her she failed the test, and that was the last she heard from them. Van Winkle said it was doubly traumatizing to suffer a sexual assault and then be disbelieved by authorities.

Van Winkle said she struggled to move on. In 2019, she said she was finally ready to contact police again about her case. She wanted investigators to retest genetic material collected in her case, but a detective couldn’t find the evidence and told her it appeared to have been destroyed.

Van Winkle was incensed and filed a public records request seeking to find out whether Lundberg had destroyed evidence in other cases. She was shocked when the records showed that evidence had been destroyed in other cases as well. The records request prompted the police review of Lundberg’s cases.

Van Winkle also requested an internal investigation of her case, which found that Lundberg had improperly destroyed the attack evidence. The department determined that Lundberg marked the evidence for disposal in 2005, shortly after a department-wide email went out asking officers to dispose of unneeded evidence.

Lundberg had retired from the department by the time the internal affairs probe began, so officials said there was little they could do to hold her accountable. Police said she has not agreed to answer questions from the department about destroying the evidence in Van Winkle’s case.

Fairfax police said they have established safeguards to try to prevent evidence destruction in sexual assault cases. Detectives can no longer unilaterally request the disposal of evidence and the department has new rules requiring that rape kits be held longer in all cases and regardless of whether the cases remain open. In addition, Virginia has created a website that allows victims to track their rape kits.

Van Winkle said in a text message she was happy that the department was instituting new rules to prevent evidence from being destroyed, but she was still not satisfied with the department’s response to its failings.

“This is not good enough — there is no amount of apologizing that they can do that will make it right,” Van Winkle said. “And that there is no consequence for Lundberg is unacceptable. She alone prevented eight people, possibly more, from ever having justice served.”