Nearly 50 years ago, Rudiger Breitenecker began a quiet crusade for rape survivors.

A doctor at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and a former assistant medical examiner for the state of Maryland, the handsome Viennese native calmly asked those who had been sexually assaulted if he could collect bodily fluids as evidence and freeze them to help police catch their assailants. Between 1977 and 1997, nearly 2,000 women, men and children, agreed.

Their collective samples became known as the GBMC slides. And after many years of these frozen slides growing ever colder, Baltimore County law enforcement announced Tuesday its laboratory would process the remaining 1,400 slides by the end of 2024.

The work so far has resulted in 49 convictions, said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger at a press conference. He didn’t expect more.

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But late last year, Shellenberger said, law enforcement solved five open rape cases from 1982 to 1986 in Lutherville using a fingerprint that detectives matched to a GBMC, slide. James William Shipe Sr., 71, of Parkville, is in prison now for rape and burglary because of Breitenecker’s forensic evidence.

That convinced Shellenberger to expedite the remaining slides.

“The discovery of that case, and those slides, led us to believe there may be more cases out there and that we can do something about it, so we are doing all the testing,” he said. “We hope when this project is done it will bring a sense of closure to the victims of these crimes.”

Women’s advocates needed no convincing and have been lobbying the county for decades to test the backlog of kits. They pressed for money for testing and to hire additional detectives to help prosecute the cold cases.

Last year, the county received $1.5 million grant from Gov. Wes Moore’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth and Victim Services. The County Council authorized another $500,000, and the private, Baltimore-based Hackerman Foundation kicked in another $500,000. A state law passed in 2023 enabled more testing, too, as it allows county law enforcement to collect the DNR slides without a subpoena.

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“The men, the women, the children who undergo these exams should be seen as heroes,” said Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “They have already gone through trauma and then they go to a doctor or a nurse or a health care professional and they have another invasive exam — so communities can be rid of a sex offender. So that there is some hope of convicting someone who has raped. And when we fail to analyze these kits, because we think they have all been analyzed, we are failing survivors and communities.”

The cold evidence puts a chill on the ability to convict these rapists or exonerate those wrongly convicted of crimes. Many survivors have died, making an already difficult case harder to prosecute, Shellenberger said. Others will not want to revisit an old trauma; in some cases, the perpetrators may be dead, too.

Survivor advocates stressed that the county team will meet those who reach out where they are and offer counseling and an apology regardless of how they wish to proceed with their cases.

Solving sexual assault cases with the GBMC slides dates to around 2005, when Baltimore County Special Victims Unit Sgt. Rose Brady learned of the vast trove of forensic evidence. Unsolved rape cases were piling up in the county, and the understaffed special victims unit detectives routinely discarded evidence that had not yet led to an arrest, according to journalist Catherine Rentz’s reporting in ProPublica. The law to preserve rape kits for 20 years was enacted in 2017.

Among the cases Brady’s squad helped solve was the rape of two women in 1986 in a wooded area of Northern Baltimore County. Martin Fedric Czosnowski, 41, of Essex, and Anthony Klanavitch, 43, of Dundalk, pleaded guilty two decades later, after Brady matched them to the GBMC swabs. They were sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

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Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski reiterated his administration’s commitment to hold perpetrators accountable, “no matter how long it has been.”

Cold cases, though, became an issue when Shellenberger sought reelection in 2022. Shellenberger withstood a challenge from attorney Robbie Leonard for his office, his first, that was close; Leonard campaigned on long-denied justice for rape victims.

The Baltimore County State’s Attorney has said many times that rape cases are among the hardest to prosecute. In 2021, a Towson University student who alleged she was raped by three baseball players from UMBC sued Shellenberger for violating her constitutional rights by trying to stop her from filing charges.

More than 1,000 slides have been sent to a lab for DNA testing and will be continually processed as lab capacity allows. The timeline is aggressive to finish the job by the end of the year.

Amanda Rodriguez, executive director of Turnaround Inc., Baltimore County’s rape crisis center, said she and other advocates have worked as a team with law enforcement to reach this point with the cold cases. It took too long, she said, but at least it had finally happened.

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“I think it is long, long overdue. Survivors have deserved this information for a very long time. And I’m thrilled that we’re at a point that they’re going to start to be able to realize what they had 40 years ago, in some cases,” she said. “I have kind of struggled with the idea that justice delayed is justice denied. And in this case, that is absolutely true. But they had hope in that moment when they said yes to that exam and yes to keeping this evidence, so my hope is that we can bring that back to them, even though it’s so delayed.”

The county is urging survivors to call the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA) at 833-364-0046 or email notification@mcasa.org. The callers can opt in or out of receiving information about their sexual assault evidence.

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