01 UAC0020718001Last year, Deanne Gerdes, executive director of Rape Crisis of Cumberland County, spearheaded an effort to change North Carolina’s law regarding untested sexual assault kits. She was supported by Lt. John Somerindyke, Fayetteville Police Department’s Special Victims Unit commander, and state Rep. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland. July 1, 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Gerdes’ House Bill 731. Thursday, Feb. 22, the Fayetteville chapter of the National Organization for Women will honor Gerdes and Somerindyke at its 18th Susan B. Anthony Birthday Celebration. The honorees will speak about why they worked so hard for the passage of this bill. The event takes place at VFW Post 6018 from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

When asked about his role in getting House Bill 731 passed, Somerindyke said all the credit goes to Gerdes and Richardson. “I was really just along for the ride,” he said.

“He was not along for the ride; he was the bus driver,” Gerdes said.

In the spring of 2015, Somerindyke called Gerdes with a question: Was there any funding available for shelved sexual assault kits? “I have to be honest; I didn’t know there was an issue with shelved kits,” Gerdes said. She learned that thousands of sexual assault kits were sitting on shelves at law enforcement agencies untested. She also learned that Vice President Joe Biden had just released $72 million to test backlogged kits.

“Part of my job is to go with victims to the hospital when they have a rape kit done,” Gerdes said. “That experience can be humiliating and very, very difficult. And it’s re-traumatizing. So to have this kit performed to only sit on shelves is wrong. Why are we even asking victims to do it if nothing’s going to be done with these kits?”

That’s what Somerindyke was wondering when he called Gerdes. He’d recently been transferred to FPD’s investigative bureau and had started reviewing old sexual assault files to see if there were enough to justify forming a cold case unit. He noticed there were several unsolved rape cases for which evidence had been discarded without being tested.

“Nobody realized how many kits had been disposed of over the years,” he said. “In many cases, they were just being cleared out to make more space in the evidence room.”

He informed then- FPD Chief Harold Medlock of his findings, and Medlock immediately ordered a complete audit of all the department’s sexual assault kits. The cold case unit was formally instituted under Somerindyke’s leadership a month later.

When the audit was complete, the FPD discovered more than 300 kits had been disposed of through the years. It was devastating. Rather than covering it up, the department held a press conference informing the public.

That same month, September 2015, the FPD received a $363,090 grant to conduct DNA testing on the nearly 650 previously un-submitted sexual assault kits still in the FPD’s possession. Somerindyke had written the grant proposal after his phone call with Gerdes that spring. He applied again the following year and received $793,372. That money was shared with RCCC so Gerdes was able to hire two victim advocates to contact and work with the survivors whose kits are finally being tested.

“It all originated with that grant,” Gerdes said.

“(Somerindyke) brought this issue to my attention.”

In February 2017, two years after Somerindyke first called her, Gerdes attended the North Carolina Council for Women’s legislative day in Raleigh. The event is an annual chance for attendees to network with state lawmakers and learn about state government.

She was armed with information packets and a desire to discuss her findings with someone who could help bring statewide attention to the issue. She found herself talking with Richardson.

“Honestly, I thought Billy was going to be the last person to have interest in what I was going to say,” she said. “I profiled him because he was a defense attorney. But within 30 seconds of the conversation, he was onboard.

“After our conversation, Rep. Richardson said to me, ‘OK, now what I need you to do is … I need you to draft the bill.’ I was thinking, I couldn’t even find parking at the legislative building!”

Luckily, Gerdes’ daughter, Kathryn, had been an FPD cold case intern a few years back and had just graduated with a degree in political science. “She said, ‘I got this, Mom.’”

Over the next few months, Gerdes worked with her daughter, Richardson, Somerindyke, Fayetteville NOW vice president Roberta Waddle, and legislative draft writers in Raleigh.

“We got a lot of information from researching how other jurisdictions in other states had gone on their own similar journeys,” Gerdes said. “We read a lot about what the state of New York was doing.”

That is how Gerdes and her team successfully drafted House Bill 731, which was passed only six months after her conversation with Richardson.

Waddle said Fayetteville NOW loves to honor people whose impact is unique or achieved in unusual ways. “As far as people who propose laws, it’s usually lawyers or legislators who have an idea of what they want done,” she said. “I think it is quite remarkable that we have two people who are not political – this is not what they do, they don’t lobby the legislature, they don’t work on campaigns. They do their jobs (at RCCC and the FPD), and they saw a need and went to work on it and got this law passed.”

Gerdes and Somerindyke both said that, though the bill is a win for sexual assault survivors, it’s only a first step. The bill, passed last July, required every law enforcement agency in North Carolina to count how many untested sexual assault kits they had in their possession. The deadline for those numbers to be turned in to the North Carolina Attorney General’s office was Jan. 1 of this year.

“But lawmakers in this state need to go all the way with this and find the funding to support a law mandating testing of all sexual assault kits,” Somerindyke said. “If we get to a point where we are doing that in this state, cases will be solved and rapists will go to jail. And most importantly, survivors of rape will get the closure and justice they deserve. Then we can talk about a positive impact. Until then, I’ll just say it’s a nice first step.”

Gerdes encouraged those who see an issue they want changed to start having conversations about it and making an effort with the resources they have.

“It’s kind of like the #MeToo movement,” she said. “I’ve been fighting in this area and having the same conversations for 10 years, but now, with #MeToo, the whole nation is having conversations. We’re not in this fight alone.”

Past Fayetteville NOW Susan B. Anthony Birthday Celebration honorees from Cumberland County include Joyce Malone, the first African- American woman to earn Airborne Wings in the U.S. Army Reserves; Jeanette Wallace Hyde, former ambassador to seven Caribbean countries; and Dr. Naveed Aziz, a physician, activist and candidate for the North Carolina Senate in 2016.

The Feb. 22 event will include a basic reception and meet and greet, heavy hors d’oeuvres and speeches by Gerdes and Somerindyke. VFW Post 6018 is located at 116 Chance St. Paid reservations must be made by Feb. 17 and are available by calling Sharon Johnson, Fayetteville NOW president, at 910-489-0100.

Visit https://now.org/chapter/fayetteville-now/ to learn more about the organization.

Photos: Deanne Gerdes (left) and Fayetteville Police Department Lt. John Somerindyke (right) worked together to change North Carolina’s law regarding untested sexual assault kits.

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