Almost seven years ago, a troubled 11-year-old girl reported that she had been raped — twice — in her Northwest Washington neighborhood. Despite medical evidence of sexual assault, records show that no suspects were arrested and the cases were given only sporadic attention by the police . Instead, in the second case, the police had the girl, Danielle Hicks-Best, charged with filing a false report.
After Danielle’s family agreed to what her parents say was a poorly understood plea, she was convicted and made a ward of the court. She spent the next few years in and out of detention and secure treatment centers between episodes of running away. She never finished high school, had a baby at 15 and is struggling to move forward with her life.
“After 11, she lost the rest of her childhood,” said Danielle’s mother, Veronica Best, who campaigned for years with her husband, Mayo, to get the police to focus on the assaults, contacting officers all the way up the chain to D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and her deputy, Peter Newsham.
Last fall, after inquiries from The Washington Post, the department launched new investigations into the cases and the way they were handled, according to the Bests and a law enforcement officer familiar with the matter.
Danielle and her parents have spent years urging the police to charge the suspects and seeking an explanation for the way the criminal justice system treated an already disturbed young girl who was sexually assaulted.
At 11, Danielle had severe behavioral, academic and mental-health issues rooted in the drug exposure and physical abuse she suffered from her birth mother, a crack addict. The Bests, her adoptive parents, struggled to handle those issues, turning to but not always following the recommendations of the school and psychiatric communities. The couple and other supporters say the cases are complicated by Danielle’s instability.
But after Danielle reported the rapes, the police interviewed her in a manner that violated guidelines for handling child sexual assault cases, records and interviews show. They delayed analyzing DNA evidence — and then analyzed only some of it. An officer misled her to get her to contradict her account, and then had her charged with lying, according to police reports. And many officers treated her with extreme skepticism; in one internal e-mail, a lieutenant called her “promiscuous” and the “sex” consensual.
Yet Danielle was just 11 years old, well under the age of consent, which is 16 in the District. The suspects in the police reports obtained by the Bests were described as being in their late teens or early 20s.
The Bests say that after The Post approached the police, Lanier telephoned the family to apologize.
Lanier would not confirm either the new investigations or the phone call, citing the confidentiality practices governing cases involving juveniles. But she said, “If there is a case that has not been handled properly, I think it’s important that that victim or that family hear from the chief of police that we screwed up and we want to fix it.”
She added: “Obviously we cannot turn the clock back and fix things that have happened in the past. . . . The best I can offer the hypothetical victim from six or seven years ago . . . is to make sure if there were any investigative leads that were never followed or things that should have been done that they are done. It’s never too late to try to correct things.”
The new investigations, confirmed by the law enforcement officer who is not authorized to speak on the record, have left the Bests with mixed emotions. “I was desperate for the police to do their job six years ago and get those guys off the street and away from Danielle,” Veronica Best said. “It’s hard not to be angry when she was the one locked up and labeled . . . a delinquent.”
Police documents say Danielle was charged with filing a false report because her recounting of the rapes shifted and she acknowledged lying about the identity of one of the abductors, who claimed the sex was consensual. Danielle said she cannot recall exactly what she told the police about the alleged abductor; experts say inconsistent accounts by rape victims are not uncommon but do not mean that rape did not occur.
Furthermore, Danielle’s age at the time of the assaults raises the question of why, when there were two medical reports detailing the sexual injuries she suffered, the police did not at least look into statutory rape charges.
The Bests’ is not the first criticism of the police department’s handling of rape cases. Last year, the D.C. Council passed the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act, which gives victims the right to have a trained advocate present during police interviews and medical exams and provides for oversight of the department’s handling of sexual assault cases, among other measures.
Veronica Best testified during a public hearing on the legislation, which was introduced by then-Council member Tommy Wells. The family’s story is “hard to listen to,” Wells told The Post. “It’s painful. And you think about the terror and bewilderment of the parents, who are trying to keep their child safe.”
This story is based on legal, medical, police and psychiatric documents provided by Veronica and Mayo Best, police records that Danielle Hicks-Best obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, and interviews with police, the Bests, and experts in child psychiatry, juvenile justice and law enforcement.
Veronica, 66, and Mayo, 69, live with Danielle, her twin brother, David, and her son, Levi, in a modest rambler in Temple Hills, Md. The dining room table is surrounded by boxes of documents related to Danielle’s case, including a collage she created in therapy when she was 12 or 13. The word “water” represented when Danielle “got into hot water,” she explained to a reporter. A picture of a derelict building portrayed “how I felt about the police — as though everything was coming down on me like it was my fault.”
Danielle has an engaging smile and often sports flamboyant hairstyles and long, elaborately painted nails. She displays a tattoo of a pistol and the words “Boss Lady” on her chest — warnings, she says, not to “mess with” her. “I walk through the streets with so much hatred, and I do not care anymore,” she said. “I feel like everything’s taken from me.”
Danielle says she is studying for her GED and that she would like “to become a lawyer or work with social services and help victims of sexual assault.” At other times, she says she wants to leave her parents’ home with 2 1/2 -year-old Levi — but doesn’t have a coherent plan. She argues frequently with her parents, then apologizes in calmer moments — at which point they try to coax her to get back on medication for anxiety and depression and visit her therapist.
Danielle hopes that speaking out will help her move forward, and others as well. “A lot of this same stuff happens to young girls and they just keep it within themselves, sometimes for a long time. But if you bottle it up, you don’t get anywhere. If you can talk about it . . . people will understand better where you’re coming from and maybe you can get some closure.”
Although The Washington Post usually does not identify rape victims, Danielle has chosen to go public. “I used to be very closed off about it all,” she said, “but I’m not ashamed anymore.”
The first rape took place Saturday evening, April 19, 2008, Danielle said, not far from her house in the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.
Her parents had put her in a timeout for coming home late from a nearby playground. “I got angry,” she said, “so I went out secretly.” On the street, she ran into young men from the neighborhood hanging out, “like always.” The family estimates their ages ranged from the late teens to early 20s.
One of the young men started talking to Danielle, and “I walked with him, I wasn’t forced,” Danielle said.
They walked to a house several blocks away. Danielle said the young man asked her to come inside to watch TV in what seemed to be a basement apartment. “I went in and I didn’t like the vibe,” she said. “I saw how dirty it was.”
Two other young men were there, and she thinks the man she walked in with left. The two who remained locked the door. She remembers a bare mattress on the floor and a gun beside it. She said both men raped her repeatedly overnight.
On Sunday afternoon, another man burst in waving a flier, saying, “They are looking for her; she is missing,” and the two young men ordered her to leave, she said. Danielle walked home in a daze and arrived disheveled. D.C. police had been summoned, and a female officer and Veronica Best found blood on the 11-year-old’s underwear. Detective Kenneth Carter of the Youth Investigations Division retraced Danielle’s steps with her. She said he took her back to the exterior of the house where the attack occurred “and I was scared.”
In Carter’s report, obtained by Danielle through a FOIA request, the two suspects are described as “18-19 yrs. old” and one is called a “friend of a month and a half.” Danielle recently said to a reporter that she did not recall telling the officers he was a “friend.” In the report, Danielle gives a confusing description of the sexual assault, at one point saying she was thrown over a suspect’s shoulder and carried up and down the neighborhood.
Experts say that trauma often causes rape victims to give inconsistent accounts, which should not be used to determine credibility. They suggest that police investigators’ initial interviews with young victims be brief and involve only minimal facts, with follow-up interviews conducted by specialists. The D.C. police signed a best-practices memorandum to that effect in 2003.
Using specialists is especially important in the case of children who have suffered prior abuse, according to Cindy Bridgman, director of clinical services at Safe Shores, the D.C. Children’s Advocacy Center. A child “who reports sexual assault and has a history of trauma should be taken as soon as possible after the incident to . . . a child-friendly setting to be interviewed by a trained forensic interviewer,” she said.
After speaking with Carter, Danielle was taken to Children’s National Medical Center to be examined. In the medical report, a copy of which was obtained by the Best family, the doctor wrote that she had vaginal tears, cuts and scrapes. She had scars on her left leg and thigh from “burns when younger.”
“Patient, raped in vagina and anus by [name] and another male last night after leaving home in anger. One held her while the other raped her. Also oral sex . . . Rape kit specimens collected.” The report includes a first name Danielle gave the doctor, but The Post is not reporting it because no one was charged.
Over the next few days, Veronica, a retired hospital administrator, and Mayo, a retired letter carrier, waited for news of the investigation. When none was forthcoming, they said, they made calls to the Youth Investigations Division and went to the police station to try to speak to Carter, with no success. (Carter, who moved to the department’s Internal Affairs Division last July, referred requests for comment to the D.C. police’s media office, which declined to comment on a case involving a juvenile.) Danielle was an emotional mess, her parents say — often crying or withdrawn, not eating or sleeping — and they kept her home. The only exceptions were school and a visit to the District’s Children’s Advocacy Center.
On Monday evening, May 12, the Bests made a decision they said was a mistake: They let Danielle visit her uncle across the street. He sent the 11-year-old to the corner store. As Danielle passed an alley, she recalled to a reporter, she was pulled into a vehicle full of young neighborhood men, including one from the first rape. She said she was driven to a parking lot, where that man raped her again, then back to the grubby basement apartment, where, she said, she was raped by both of the young men from the first incident.
Later that evening she was let go, then picked up by passersby who told her they would take her home. Around 11, before reaching her house, the car was stopped by police who were searching vehicles to try to find her.
This time, she was interviewed by Detective William Weeks of the Youth Investigations Division, who consulted with Carter. Weeks, who left the youth division in 2008 and as of last fall has been assigned to the Property Division, declined to comment.
A copy of Weeks’s report, obtained by the Bests, said he tracked down and questioned a 21-year-old man Danielle had identified as the man who had abducted her that evening. According to the report, the 21-year-old said he hadn’t seen Danielle since a month earlier, when he had taken a flier for the missing 11-year-old to a basement apartment where “she was in the back bedroom offering to have sex with any number of a group of young men, telling them she was 16.”
In the District, sex between anyone younger than 16 and someone at least four years older, whether coerced or willing, is first-degree child sexual abuse, a felony punishable by up to life in prison. Mistaking an underage victim for a 16-year-old is not accepted as a defense.
Weeks went to the hospital to interview Danielle again. It was now after 5 a.m. May 13, according to his report; Danielle and her parents recalled that she had been up all night. In his report, Weeks said he “confronted the Complainant with a ruse” — he told her that he knew the man that she had identified was in a restaurant at the same time she claimed he had abducted her. Danielle admitted that the man “did not abduct and then forcibly rape her . . . she fabricated the report,” according to Weeks’s notes. When asked why, Danielle said the man was a drug dealer “headed to prison anyway,” the report said.
“Over the next three-hour period, the Complainant proceeded to tell Detective Weeks a myriad of stories. . . . In the presence of her parents the Complainant continuously changed her stories whenever confronted with inconsistencies from the previous tale. It became apparent that the Complainant was determined to get any story across that she could, regardless of how incredible it might be,” Weeks’s report said.
“I don’t remember giving lots of different accounts,” Danielle said recently. “What I remember was being confused, and I was exhausted, and I was still wearing the same clothes and I felt horrible.”
Weeks and the Bests took Danielle to a doctor at the hospital for a forensic rape exam. Weeks’s report said that he informed the doctor “of the early morning antics of the Complainant.”
That exam, like the first, determined that Danielle, who at that point was “barely comprehendable,” had been sexually assaulted, according to a copy of the medical report kept by the Best family.
Weeks concluded his report, dated that same day, by noting that he had decided to ask the Office of the Attorney General for a custody order so Danielle could be charged with making a false or fictitious police report. He then marked the child sexual abuse case “closed.” Eleven days later, a supervisor signed off on the report.
Advocates for rape victims say victims should not be challenged by the police. “The victim’s response to the trauma of a sexual assault shall not be used in any way to measure credibility,” reads the 2005 Model Policy for Investigating Sexual Assault from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, an Alexandria, Va.-based organization that develops guidelines to assist police departments in establishing their own policies.
Six days after the second incident, Danielle was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Children’s Hospital as a suicide risk. Her evaluation report reads: “Pt stated that she was going to kill herself with a knife. . . . she is fearful of remaining at home b/c the boys who raped her have been watching her & threatening to harm her again.”
On June 20, 2008, two months after the first reported rape, Weeks and prosecutor Joshua Henline, who had been with the Office of the Attorney General for two years, met and requested an order for Danielle’s arrest, which was issued by D.C. Superior Court Judge Anita Josey-Herring, according to a police document obtained through Danielle’s FOIA request. The report’s conclusion read: “Based on the Complainan/Respondent’s admission of lying to Detective Weeks, and her subsequent arrest for filing a false police report. It is recommended that this case be classified as ‘Unfounded’ for sexual abuse.”
Henline, who left the attorney general’s office in 2012 and is the assistant general counsel at the D.C. Fire and EMS Department, said he cannot comment on a juvenile case. Spokespersons for the attorney general’s office and the Superior Court also declined to comment, citing confidentiality issues.
On June 28, after the family was told by Weeks that there was a warrant for her arrest, Danielle, who had recently turned 12, went with her parents and turned herself in to police.
Her mother said she felt her heart breaking as she watched her daughter shuffle into court in shackles.
That was the start of Danielle’s legal problems, but her life troubles began before she was even out of the womb.
Danielle and her twin, David, were born in 1996 to a crack addict named Marquise Hicks. The family believed their father was Hicks’s boyfriend, Emmanuel Brooks, Veronica Best’s brother.
At 4 months old, Danielle was rushed to the hospital “suffering from second-degree burns on her buttocks, vagina, left leg and foot,” according to court records.
The authorities think Hicks dunked Danielle in a scalding bath and said there had been reports of other abuse.
It was Veronica and Mayo who came to the hospital to see Danielle, scoop up baby David and take him to their home. The Bests, who had two grown children, adopted the twins — although it turned out that Veronica’s brother was not the father. The twins’ biological parents have since died.
A 2000 pre-adoption report by the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, kept by the Best family, praised Mayo and Veronica’s parenting and described the twins as happy and playful. But it also concluded that Danielle had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and reactive attachment disorder, which is typically caused by abuse as a baby and inhibits normal relationships.
Her emotional instability appeared to be greatly exacerbated in 2005 after an elementary school friend was fatally shot while playing in front of his house a few blocks from hers. Already in therapy, she began more intensive treatment.
But by the time she was 10, she had cycled through four schools. At 11, she underwent two psychological evaluations. One report ascribed the “fragility of Danielle’s functioning” to drug exposure in utero and abuse as an infant. The other said she drifted into trances at school, became overwhelmed by anxiety, had been roughed up by peers and had no friends. Her mental abilities were evaluated as borderline to low average. The reports said Danielle displayed behavior that included being disruptive, disrespectful and combative, yelling, lying, throwing things, using profanity, throwing herself to the ground, banging her head into a locker, fighting and arguing.
Both reports, issued approximately six months before the first rape, recommended full-time special education and suggested she would benefit from medication to treat ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Bests did not pursue the recommendations, saying they were satisfied at the time with her therapy and with her individualized education plan at her public charter school.
When Carter came to Danielle’s house to investigate the first sexual assault, Veronica Best said, she warned him that her daughter was unstable. He included Danielle’s age and key points about her mental-health history in his police report.
There are no documents in the materials Danielle received through her FOIA request that detail how the police conducted the April rape investigation. “I’m not sure they ever really did much,” Veronica Best said. The family said Danielle continued to spot the young men she thought had been involved in the rapes in the neighborhood, which they reported to the police.
Roger Canaff, a former prosecutor in Alexandria who has worked as an adviser to the U.S. Army on prosecuting sexual assault, said he is puzzled by the police actions. “I understand why the police may not have believed Danielle’s version of events, because it was unreliable; the account of what happened is so mixed up,” he said. “But she’s 11, and you have strong medical evidence that she has been sexually assaulted, and she has a history of mental-health problems. I don’t know if they could have prevented the second rape, but the police could have worked with Danielle to develop suspects and, if nothing else, warned them away from her while they were conducting their detailed investigation.”
The decision to close the second sexual assault case and charge Danielle with filing a false report “was reckless and ill-advised,” Canaff said.
“This case renders me speechless,” said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia. “At no point should a child who said she was raped at 11 have been arrested. That is inexcusable.”
Lanier said that in circumstances such as Danielle’s today, the victim would “absolutely not” be charged with lying. She said that since 2011 she has “completely revised” the department’s handling of sexual assault for adult and youth cases, improving the treatment of victims and the way files are classified, tracked and reviewed throughout the investigative process.
But, “even in 2008, the process was not to arrest a victim for discrepancies in reporting,” she said.
“There is no rationale for that.”
Danielle faced probation or commitment to a youth rehabilitation facility if convicted. Her court-appointed lawyer, Madhavan Nair, informed her by letter in July 2008 that prosecutors had offered a plea deal: If she admitted guilt, they would not oppose probation.
Danielle refused to plead guilty, she and her parents said.
But her parents said her behavior deteriorated markedly. Sometimes she was withdrawn, other times she was wild and belligerent. She started running away from home. She was hospitalized several times and put on antianxiety and antidepressant medication. In the fall of 2008, Danielle initially reported another sexual assault. But, her parents wrote at the time to the police, “our daughter has been so mentally traumatized as a result of the first 2 rapes” that they had decided she could not participate in an investigation and had “reluctantly” agreed not to go forward with the charges.
On Jan. 3, 2009, Danielle ran away for almost two weeks. When she was located, according to the police report, she told them that during that time she had “engaged in a sexual act with six or seven unnamed males.” She was taken to Children’s Hospital and admitted to the psychiatric wing, according to police records obtained through the FOIA request.
Bridgman, of Safe Shores, said: “Research indicates that children who have been sexually assaulted have a higher rate of risky sexual behaviors, contrary to what people might expect. Especially ones who feel disbelieved or not protected. The reason why you might repeat what happened is because you don’t believe you deserve any better and you report it as a sexual assault because there is a part of you that knows it’s wrong, or you may be being coerced or threatened into participating.”
Danielle’s therapists were also concerned about the risky behavior in which she was engaging. While she was missing, they sent a letter to Danielle’s probation officer requesting residential care for the 12-year-old, who by that time had also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, mixed with psychotic features.
“Although Mr. and Mrs. Best have been responsible and reliable . . . they are incapable of ensuring their daughter’s safety at this time and they need the court’s urgent assistance,” the therapists wrote. “Due to Danielle’s severe impulsivity, fragile emotional functioning/mood lability, delusional thinking, non-compliance with medication, severe insomnia, traumatic flashbacks, multiple elopements, sexual promiscuity, and profound poor judgment, she is now in urgent need of residential care placement.”
Other action was taken while Danielle was missing: After consulting with Court Social Services, the D.C. Family Court’s probation agency, prosecutors decided to go ahead with the false-report charge against her, citing the fact that she had violated the terms of her pretrial supervision by running away from home. One legal official familiar with the situation, who is not authorized to discuss it on the record, suggested prosecutors proceeded with the case against Danielle to “get her into the system” to obtain additional therapeutic services. “There’s not a lot of funding available for youth that are not charged,” the official said. “You have to be neglected or a juvenile delinquent.”
Ted Gest, a spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General, said that although the office could not discuss specific cases, “we often bring juveniles into the juvenile justice system when they can benefit from services that the system has to offer.”
That explanation baffles the Bests. “Why the heck would you want to do that when we already had things in place?” said Veronica, referring to the therapy and other treatment Danielle was receiving.
On Feb. 13, Danielle passed a second evaluation of her competency to stand trial, but her parents worried that she was too unstable to endure a trial. Instead, she entered an Alford plea, according to her parents and a person who is not authorized to speak on the record. The plea meant that she would acknowledge that there was enough evidence for a conviction — in effect, consenting to the court’s finding of guilt — while maintaining that she was actually innocent.
“We never really understood the plea very well,” Mayo Best said. Nair, Danielle’s attorney, has declined to comment.
On Feb. 23, Danielle was declared a ward of the District by the Superior Court. The Bests were shocked. Veronica and Mayo said they wish they had pushed their attorney for more help and had been more familiar with court procedures. “I feel guilty. I do,” Veronica said.
“She would say, ‘Daddy, I got raped and I got locked up,’ ” Mayo said. “I still hear her voice today saying that to me.”
Danielle spent much of the next 21/2 years in residential mental-health facilities as a ward of the District.
The Bests continued to try to find out from the police what had become of the physical evidence collected during the two forensic medical exams.
A series of e-mails between police officers discussing the case and the evidence, which were obtained through the FOIA request, includes this from one lieutenant to another on July 27, 2009:
“Danielle was convicted of lying. No other evidence, so I’d suspect therefore based on poor victim credibility all other cases she reported were suspended. . . . All sex was consexual. Parents are unable to accept the fact of this child’s promiscuous behavior caused this situation.”
Only one e-mail in the documents obtained through the FOIA request noted that Danielle was a minor and sought to know how old the suspects were. No follow-up e-mail was included in the documents.
In November 2009, the Bests left the District. Veronica and Mayo had lived at various addresses on the same block for 30 years but were hit by rising interest rates and fell behind on their mortgage payments. With their house under repossession and Danielle still traumatized by seeing her attackers in the neighborhood, they decided to move to a rental in Temple Hills.
In May 2010, the Bests wrote to Lanier complaining about the continuing silence. They also appealed to their D.C. Council member, Jim Graham, who e-mailed Lanier — copying the Bests on the message — saying, “I am deeply concerned.”
Lanier wrote back to the Bests promising answers and asked Newsham, her assistant chief, to follow up. Later that day, according to documents received through the FOIA request, Newsham got an e-mail from colleagues saying the April rape kit had been tested by a private contractor on an undisclosed date “as part of the FBI backlog project.” The swabs of Danielle’s body had not found semen, the e-mail said, while two semen stains on Danielle’s underwear had yielded DNA without sufficiently clear profiles. The May rape kit hadn’t been tested, the e-mail continued, because Danielle had been charged with filing a false report.
Newsham e-mailed the Bests saying that neither rape kit had been entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. “There are very stringent rules regarding the entry of DNA profiles into CODIS,” he wrote. “The two cases you have inquired about were not entered for the following reasons:
1. Evidence analyzed — profiles obtained were not CODIS eligible.
2. Case was unfounded.”
The e-mail confused the Bests, who remained unclear about the status of the investigations.
Meanwhile, Danielle continued to run away. Her parents sent her to a residential mental-health facility in Utah for almost a year. Then, after her return to the Washington area, she became pregnant.
In September 2011 the city eased its supervision of Danielle, under conditions that included obeying her guardians, avoiding drugs and keeping her appointments with her social worker. After a few months with a foster family, she was allowed home. She had her baby May 16, 2012, shortly before she turned 16.
She named him Levi because, she said, “I like the jeans.”
When Danielle is not out with friends, she plays with Levi and reads nonfiction, particularly young women’s stories about overcoming adversity. She spends a lot of time on the Internet, looking especially at fashion Web sites. She prefers the computer to television, although when she does watch TV her favorite shows are “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “CSI.”
She has oscillated between periods of emotional calm and turbulence. Since the summer, her worried parents said, Danielle has settled into more regular hours and is studying for her GED, but she still isn’t in therapy or on medication.
“I think she ties it in with when she had no choice, when they stand over you while you take your pills and you have to attend therapy, and now she is free she’s making a choice not to; it’s part of her empowerment,” Veronica said. “But I wish she would.”
Danielle and her family said she has had some meetings with the police. But she is worried about the emotional effect the new investigations will have on her.
“I’ve held it in for so long,” she said. “I walk around seeming like I’m strong, but deep down inside I still feel helpless.”
Walters is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the Observer and Marie Claire, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @joannawalters13.