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'The Mess'

Part 1: Memphis rape victim conducts own investigation decades later, discovers evidence dumped in trash

Debby Dalhoff’s unsolved attack could still be prosecuted today if not for police missteps

"I have hope for justice," Debby Dalhoff says of her struggle to learn who raped her and what happened to her rape kit and other evidence collected at the scene of her assault. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to Daily Memphian)
“I have hope for justice,” Debby Dalhoff says of her struggle to learn who raped her and what happened to her rape kit and other evidence collected at the scene of her assault. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to Daily Memphian)

Debby Dalhoff woke from a deep sleep, startled by the pinch of a knife pressed to her neck and a chilling whisper.

“If you scream,” the late-night intruder told her, “I’ll slice your throat.”

Dalhoff somehow caught a glimpse of her alarm clock. It was 2 a.m. For the next three unthinkable hours, she’d be raped and tortured then left bound with pantyhose to a second victim, her roommate, by an attacker who took time to eliminate evidence of the crime, even vacuuming her Hickory Hill home.

More in this series
Part 1 Extra: Evidence Dumped
Part 2: ‘Raped Twice’
Part 3: Race Against Time
Special audio presentation: ‘The Mess’

More than a year later, police said they were looking for a serial rapist who’d struck at least four times.

No one has ever been arrested.

But as the case lay dormant in police files, its horrid details trailed Dalhoff through life for 35 years. Through a long career at FedEx. Into retirement in 2013. Through her emotional escape playing golf. Through decades of tearful support of a devoted mother whose worry and heartbreak has never faded. And through the discovery of police missteps that may mean she’ll die without justice.

Dalhoff began her own investigation following the Memphis Police Department’s confirmation, in 2013, that it had  opens in a new windowdiscovered thousands of untested rape kits. It would lead her deep into police files and, eventually, to her own discovery: her rape kit wasn’t among those tucked on a shelf and never tested. Instead, Dalhoff learned it was never found. Other key pieces of her evidence — including clothing and bedding —were destroyed by police without her consent or knowledge in the 1990s.

The Institute for Public Service Reporting, working with Dalhoff, located a retired MPD supervisor who said Dalhoff was among many — perhaps hundreds — who may never get justice because critical evidence in their cases was loaded into a van and dumped decades ago in a landfill.

The Institute discovered then-Shelby County District Attorney John Pierotti’s office authorized that action,  opens in a new windowin writing, in numerous uncharged cases, Dalhoff’s among them — though Tennessee could still legally prosecute her attacker today.

“It’s absolutely sickening to me to think that they just literally threw this stuff in the trash. It’s unacceptable. And it’s not just my case, but all the other women’s cases, that evidence was thrown away,” Dalhoff said.

“It’s a very, very sickening feeling. That is why I feel like I’ve actually been raped twice.”

The Institute for Public Service Reporting typically does not identify rape victims. But Dalhoff is among a group of victims who spoke on the record — their names, faces and comments public — because of enduring anger and frustration over the handling of their cases, and the utter indifference in many instances, they believe, by police and prosecutors.

Several of the women are backing class-action  opens in a new windowlawsuits against the city.

Citing those lawsuits, lawyers representing the city, and Mayor Jim Strickland’s office, would not agree to an interview for these stories. MPD responded to some limited written questions about procedures and improvements in its Sex Crimes Bureau, but would not agree to an interview either.

After seeing an online promotion for these stories last Friday, July 31, mayor’s spokesman Dan Springer offered to arrange an interview with Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen, an authority on best practices for the collection and processing of DNA evidence in sexual assault cases. But after a journalist sent a list of questions Springer had requested, neither he nor McGowen responded.

For her part, Dalhoff has hounded detectives and prosecutors for answers. She’s tracked down another of the rapist’s suspected victims as she tries to do what law enforcement couldn’t or wouldn’t do — piece together the identity of her attacker. The Institute has aided Dalhoff as she’s investigated her own rape file and the handling of her case. That reporting hasn’t led to a suspect, but it prompted one former MPD property room manager to admit he led the destruction of evidence in many cases.

And after years of ignoring her, detectives recently began giving Dalhoff occasional updates on her now-reopened case.

This is her story, told from law enforcement files, multiple interviews and even Dalhoff’s wrenching personal journal.

“I’ve lived with it every day of my life.”

"I have hope for justice," Debby Dalhoff says of her struggle to learn who raped her and what happened to her rape kit and other evidence collected at the scene of her assault. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to Daily Memphian)
“I have hope for justice,” Debby Dalhoff says of her struggle to learn who raped her and what happened to her rape kit and other evidence collected at the scene of her assault. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to Daily Memphian)

DESTROYED EVIDENCE DISCOVERED 

It’s a Monday night and Juanita Dalhoff is sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with her daughter, bonded by all those years, and the hardships, they’ve shared. Mom is 88 now, Debby, 65. They live in adjacent, twin homes, on a quiet street.

Tonight, Juanita is making her “baby girl” a favorite meal: smothered steak, broccoli and mac and cheese.

“She wants to make sure I’m good and fed, that’s for sure,” Dalhoff says with a laugh.

But the conversation takes a sobering turn, back to that night 35 years ago when Dalhoff was assaulted by a suspected serial rapist who broke into her house and tortured her and a female roommate before fleeing into the darkness.

The relentless question — who did it — has nearly suffocated mom and daughter. Dalhoff felt from the start she knew her attacker, an odd bachelor who lived down the street.

Thousands of rape kits went untested in Memphis over decades. Many kits held evidence that, when finally tested, led to arrests of repeat offenders. But an unknown number of kits were thrown away. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to Daily Memphian)

But it was only after the  opens in a new windowMemphis Police Department revealed 28 years after her attack that it had failed to test thousands of rape kits that she began to unravel the many missteps in her case.

When she eventually received her case file, three years after asking, Dalhoff learned critical pieces of evidence — articles of clothing, bed sheets and other items potentially containing DNA that could finally identify her assailant — had been destroyed or lost. Her rape kit has never been found.

“They were the key to the whole case,” Debby says.

The Institute found the May 1995 destruction of evidence in Dalhoff’s case followed a controversial legal memo MPD received that March. The memo from the Shelby County  opens in a new windowDistrict Attorney’s Office authorized destruction of older rape kits and related evidence in uncharged cases based on a now-contested theory the statute of limitations had expired.

One former MPD official told the Institute that memo triggered a massive purge — the destruction of evidence in possibly thousands of rape and other sex crimes cases. Former property room supervisor Lester Ditto said a critical shortage of storage space led him to oversee destruction of shelves full of evidence, including rape kits, starting in the spring of 1995.

“We noticed such a backlog. And now we’re starting to run out of room to store that type evidence,” Ditto said.

When they placed that rape kit and all of that evidence up on those shelves, they also put my daughter up on that shelf,” said Juanita Dalhoff. “And she’s still there. With no closure. She has been lost along with all of the evidence.

Juanita Dalhoff

Ditto had said in 2014 he didn’t remember destroying rape kits, but now says his memory was refreshed when the Institute showed him the 1995 memo and copies of Dalhoff’s records.

His reversal counters claims by city officials that MPD’s rape kit backlog was so large because, unlike other cities, Memphis didn’t destroy old kits.

It also troubles a leading expert in Tennessee criminal law who said the 1995 memo was disastrously errant regardless of whether rape kits or only collateral evidence was destroyed.

“There’s no reason to destroy the evidence. It makes no sense,” said Nashville attorney  opens in a new windowDavid Raybin, a former prosecutor who helped rewrite Tennessee’s criminal code in 1989.

Raybin said the aggravated nature of Dalhoff’s rape precluded any statute of limitations under the law at the time; likewise, there was no time limit to prosecute many other cases affected by the memo.

“When they placed that rape kit and all of that evidence up on those shelves, they also put my daughter up on that shelf,” said Juanita Dalhoff. “And she’s still there. With no closure.

“She has been lost along with all of the evidence.”

THE PHONE CALL

Even at 88, Juanita Dahlhoff has not forgotten the agonizing details of the phone call she received early on the morning of May 29, 1985.

Debby Dalhoff, now 65, lives next door to her mother Juanita Dalhoff on a quiet street. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

“It was just a little before daylight. Me and her dad were still asleep. And we had a phone call. And it was Debby.”

Debby, then 29, was recently divorced and had built a house in Hickory Hill where she lived with a roommate. Both were asleep when an intruder broke in, tied them up and tortured them.

The details seem fresh as Juanita recounts the  opens in a new windowstory: Listening in as her now-late husband, Charles, talked to Debby over the phone, she overheard her daughter say:

“Dad, we have been attacked and raped. Please get over here fast.’’

They arrived to find pandemonium: Squad cars and blue lights. An ambulance. Detectives and Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputies (at the time Hickory Hill had not yet been annexed by the city of Memphis). Juanita saw Debby standing in the kitchen talking to investigators. Shattered glass covered the floor. Panty hose used to tie her up still hung from her wrists.

“She came over and hugged me and said, ‘Mom, I’m OK.’ And at that point that released me. Because I knew that she was talking and she was OK,” Juanita said.

Official  opens in a new windowreports describe a sadistic attack: Dalhoff was awakened by a masked intruder — a white male — who held a knife to her throat, blindfolded her, gagged her, forced her to wear high heels and threatened to kill her. He tortured her and her roommate with slaps to the face, pokes of his knife, and pinches with clothes pins he carried in a plastic bag. Before he left, the attacker sanitized the crime scene.

Debby Dalhoff was 29 when the attack occurred in 1985. (Submitted photo)

“He cleaned both girls up in the kitchen sink,” a Sheriff’s Office report reads. “He then vacuumed the residence and cleaned off any items which he might have touched.”

Dalhoff said there was a moment during the attack when she thought she wouldn’t survive.

“I was still blindfolded and still gagged. And I felt him guiding me into my bathroom. And in my mind, all I could think about is he’s going to put me in my bathtub and mutilate me. That was going through my mind. … And I prayed. And all I could think about was don’t let my mom and dad find me dead. Don’t let my mom and dad have to go through this.

“And when he left, he tied my feet to my roommate’s head. He tied her feet to my head with pantyhose around our necks. Left us there on the bed.”

Detectives took photos detailing the injuries to her wrists and torso. Later, she was taken to the Rape Crisis Center, where a nurse examined her for physical evidence. Then, more questioning: Detectives took Dalhoff and her roommate downtown to the Criminal Justice Center.

In 1986, more than a year later, MPD held a  opens in a new windowpress conference to seek the public’s assistance in solving Dalhoff’s attack and three other home-invasion rapes they believed were the work of a single assailant. The Commercial Appeal reported how women in two homes in Memphis, another in unincorporated Hickory Hill, and a fourth in nearby DeSoto County, had been “bound and brutalized by a rapist who apparently chooses his victims carefully, stalking them to learn their habits.”

“He is very selective, there’s no question about it; so that means there’s a length of time that he’s got to be observing the victims. He chooses his victims,” then-MPD Deputy Chief Fred Warner told reporters.

Police released a composite  opens in a new windowsketch made after one victim caught a glimpse of the suspect. Officers said they’d asked the FBI to develop a psychological profile.

Debby Dalhoff (left) and Meaghan Ybos, also a rape survivor, tiptoe onto the edge of a property where Dalhoff believes her assailant once lived. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

EARLY SUSPICIONS

Even then, Dalhoff thought she might know her attacker.

Not long after she moved into her new home, she noticed a man behind her property. He would drive a tractor up and down a field that ran along her back yard. One day after cooking on her grill, she dumped ashes over the barbed wire fence onto the edge of the field.

“Two days later, those ashes were on my back porch. And I thought, what in the world? And I knew it had to be this person who owned the field.’’

Dalhoff’s blindfold had slipped out of position during the attack. She snuck a glance. Though he had a nylon stocking over his head, she saw a dark head of hair and a barrel chest —the same general profile of her neighbor.

Later, she was alarmed to discover that the man she suspected was a Memphis firefighter. It triggered recollections of being tortured with a small rubber hose resembling a paramedic’s tourniquet.

“I always thought it might be someone in law enforcement.”

Dalhoff said detectives told her they were looking for someone in  opens in a new windowlaw enforcement or the medical field. They checked out her veterinarian — and her neighbor. He had a strong alibi. He was working the night of the attack, officers said.

She let it go.

Debby Dahlhoff is moved to tears as she revisits the Southeast Memphis home where she was raped and tortured in 1985. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

NEW HOPE

Dalhoff sensed an opportunity to ease her pain in the fall of 2013 when MPD announced it found as many as 12,000 untested rape kits in evidence warehouses. Having just retired, she had the time and energy to focus on her case. So, she contacted the District Attorney’s Office in April 2014. According to meticulous notes she kept, it took four months to even get a call back.

She finally learned in December 2014 that her investigative file had been located. Still, she couldn’t get a copy.

As her inquiry dragged on, she turned her attention to DeSoto County where she knew her suspected rapist struck 15 months after her own attack. He was suspected of raping a woman there in her home just south of the Tennessee-Mississippi line in October 1986. She wanted more details.

“They were having trouble locating any information from the DeSoto County case,’’ Dalhoff typed in her electronic journal in October 2015 after speaking to the Sheriff’s Department there, “however they were actively pursuing (the file’s) whereabouts.’’

Dahlhoff visits a landfill where she believes evidence in her case was dumped in the 1990s during a massive evidence purge in a Memphis Police Department property room. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

October 22: Dalhoff types a hopeful entry. A worker for the MPD rape kit hotline “advised that she had personally located my kit and had it sent off (for testing) in priority.’’

December 1: Her optimism fades after calling the hotline, again, to check on her case. “She advised they had received the results of the DNA testing on my rape kit and there was no DNA found.

“I lost all hope.”

As Dalhoff was later told, officers made multiple trips to MPD’s massive warehouse in Frayser looking for her evidence. In some cases, boxes of evidence had been moved around through the years. Officers paced the aisles searching for her materials. One even posted information about Dalhoff’s case on a bulletin board at the warehouse as a reminder to be on the lookout for her evidence.

The city’s annexation of Hickory Hill complicated things, as well. Her case was investigated by the Sheriff’s Office before Memphis’ 1989 annexation. But because two of the serial rapist’s attacks happened in Memphis, MPD also worked the case early on. MPD also acted as custodian of the evidence in both the Shelby County and Memphis rapes.

After Dalhoff came forward in 2014, asking authorities to reopen her case, MPD’s cold-case rape unit took charge of the investigation.

It was not until 2017, and after her repeated badgering, that MPD hand-delivered a copy of her case file.

By then Dalhoff learned the man she believed raped her — the firefighter who lived down the street — had died.

A 1986 police sketch resembles a man linked to the assault of Debby Dalhoff and four other women in the Memphis area. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

This time she wrote in red: “This has only made my frustration and aggravation worse as now this suspect will never pay for his crime if he did in fact commit this crime.”

Though Dalhoff lacked concrete proof, she felt certain this was the man. Her confidence grew when a journalist located an old Memphis Fire Department yearbook and laid a copy of the firefighter’s photo next to the police artist’s sketch that ran in the newspaper in 1986.

“That’s him!”

The similar almond-shaped eyes and thin, elongated eyebrows were hardly proof. But the firefighter’s death and the MPD’s slowness to communicate led Dalhoff to join a class action lawsuit now pending against the city for its handling of rape kits.

She wrote: “I cannot describe my emotions as this whole situation has been an emotional roller coaster.”

DESTROYED EVIDENCE

When Dalhoff finally got her file it only posed new questions.

Among 43 pages officers located was a sheet bearing a large ink stamp in capital letters:  opens in a new windowTERMINATE. The stamp bore a date, July 30, 1986. What did it mean?

Even more concerning was a brief report an investigator wrote in April 2014 shortly after Dalhoff asked to have her case re-opened. Despite finding some records, it noted a volume of investigative materials from Dalhoff’s original file couldn’t be located.

This sample rape kit belongs to activist Meaghan Ybos, who was attacked in 2003 by a serial rapist. Thousands of rape kits went untested in Memphis for decades. Many kits held evidence that if tested might have stopped repeat offenders from attacking additional women. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

And though Dalhoff said she’d been told by MPD in 2015 that her rape kit had been located and tested unsuccessfully for DNA, her file told a different story.

“Where is my rape kit?” Dalhoff scribbled on a sticky note she posted beside a passage in the report that said deputies could not find any kits collected by the Sheriff’s Office prior to 1990.

Dalhoff pasted another sticky note alongside a second passage: “Evidence destroyed in 1995??” she  opens in a new windowwrote.

The report indicates a Sheriff’s Office sergeant searched an old MPD database and found articles of clothing and bedding collected from the crime scene had been tagged as evidence but then destroyed in 1995.

One item after another — each potentially carrying hairs, DNA or other evidence that could resolve the case — had been  opens in a new windowdiscarded, according to attached reports:

  • 1 white pillow case: DESTROYED.
  • 1 binding used on victim: DESTROYED.
  • 1 silver pillow case: DESTROYED.
  • 1 top sheet w/beige stripes: DESTROYED.
  • 1 blue full length housecoat: DESTROYED.
  • 1 pr. red ladies shoes: DESTROYED.
  • 1 bedspread blue and pink: DESTROYED.
  • 1 blanket: DESTROYED.

Deciphering how the evidence came to be destroyed is a puzzle that starts with a number — 2198. Over and over, the number appears on evidence sheets listing who destroyed the items.

“It’s me,’’ said retired property room supervisor Ditto, who worked at MPD under employee number 2198 for more than two decades.

The evidence sheets show on May 21, 1995, the items were released to employee 2198 who then destroyed them. The paperwork is silent as to why and how this was done.

Ditto fills in the blanks:

He said he received that now-challenged legal opinion just 12 weeks earlier. The March 1, 1995, memo from then-District Attorney John Pierotti’s office authorized Ditto to destroy “rape kits, records and evidence in unsolved, uncharged and unindicted sex crimes cases” in which it was believed the statute of limitations had run.  opens in a new windowPierotti died in 2015 at age 78.

Ditto said that memo triggered a massive purge involving hundreds — possibly thousands — of old cases.

“We were receiving, as time went on, a multitude of rape kits,” said Ditto, who retired in 2000. There was simply not room to keep them all, he said.

The Institute for Public Service Reporting could not independently confirm the widespread destruction of rape evidence that Ditto describes, yet reports provide at least anecdotal evidence of it.

One such example involves Terry Burks, who was assaulted by three men in 1988 — another aggravated rape that is still prosecutable today if police could ever find the perpetrators. Before Tennessee’s criminal code was revised in  opens in a new window1989, aggravated rape — assaults involving a weapon, multiple perpetrators or serious bodily injury — carried life imprisonment with no statute of limitations.

Reports show critical evidence from Burks’ case was destroyed in 2002.

How could they destroy me?’’ Burks, now 64, said of the evidence destruction in her case and others. “Those were not (evidence) boxes sitting up there. Those were people.”

VISITING THE PROSECUTOR

Dalhoff’s great diversion in life is golf. It’s her “therapy” and she employs it generously, working part-time at Memphis National Golf Club and playing regular rounds with a close circle of friends.

Debby Dalhoff has found peace and a loving and supportive community in the game of golf. She gets a hug between holes from Bo Briggs. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

“She’s an incredible woman,” said golfing buddy Mike Brunk. A construction contractor, Brunk met Dalhoff years ago through a mutual friend, Dennis Beal, Dalhoff’s longtime boyfriend and a champion golfer who died in 2014 after a long struggle with cancer. Brunk promised his friend he would look after Debby, his “big sister,” and help shoulder the emotional weight she’s carried for decades.

A few people that are close to her know the history of what happened,” Brunk said. “Obviously, it was an ugly incident and something that she carries with her, you know, every day. And it never, never goes away.”

When Dalhoff finally scheduled a meeting with District Attorney  opens in a new windowAmy Weirich, she took along her mother and another golfing buddy, Chuck Davis, for support.

Dalhoff had been hoping to make a personal plea to Weirich for years and she finally got the chance in December 2019. Moved by a lengthy, emotional letter Dalhoff wrote last fall, Weirich greeted Dalhoff in a private meeting at the Criminal Justice Center — the same building where Dalhoff first shared details with investigators in the hours after her 1985 attack.

Dalhoff audio-recorded the conversation with the DA’s knowledge then shared it with the Institute.

Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings (left), Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich and Michael Dunavant, U.S. Attorney for Western Tennessee, listen as ATF Special Agent in Charge Marcus Watson (right) weighs in on Memphis' violent crime statistics during a press conference Jan. 17, 2019. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian file)
Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings (left), Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich and Michael Dunavant, U.S. Attorney for Western Tennessee, listen as ATF Special Agent in Charge Marcus Watson (right) weighs in on Memphis’ violent crime statistics during a press conference Jan. 17, 2019. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian file)

“Let me just say how sorry we are,” Weirich said.

On the recording, one of Weirich’s aides, prosecutor Abby Wallace, told Dalhoff how hard MPD officers searched for her evidence. But Wallace confessed, too, she thought MPD was keeping Dalhoff apprised of developments in her case.

“I was told the whole time that they were talking to you,” Wallace said.

It’s unclear, Wallace said, if Dalhoff’s kit was ever tested — or if it even exists.

“At some point, when the case was transferred from the sheriff’s office to MPD, that kit was never tagged. So, we don’t know what happened to it. So, to my knowledge, there is no kit.”

In a statement echoing Ditto’s contention about destroyed rape kits, Wallace said there were “gaps’’ — batches of missing evidence — between the time of the Rape Crisis Center’s founding in 1975 and the 1990s.

“It looks like things were destroyed before they were ever tested or completely tested. And why that is? I don’t know,” she said.

The prosecutors confirmed all the personal items “checked in under Debby’s name have been destroyed.” The attorneys declined to give Dalhoff the names of two other Memphis victims the suspected rapist attacked but confirmed evidence in their cases was destroyed, too.

The revelation triggered Dalhoff.

“For five years, I’ve tried to get something done and try to catch this person, if it was him. And if it wasn’t him, then who was it? And now only to find out. And, I just — I’m just a little stunned.”

Her voice breaking, Dalhoff told the prosecutors how difficult her assault had been on her mother who’d never been able to let it go:

“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to have her. Night before last, she had a nightmare about my attack. She has lived through this for 35 years.”

Without hesitation, Juanita Dalhoff told them just how hard it had been.

Debby Dalhoff has found peace and a loving and supportive community in the game of golf. She gets a hug between holes from Bo Briggs. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

I don’t lay my head on the pillow at night without first thinking about what happened to my Debby in her bed. It’s not an easy thing to take. And it was like no one cared. You know, it’s just another rape kit. Put it on a shelf. When y’all put that rape kit on the shelf, you put my daughter on that shelf. … She’s still, in my heart, still sitting on that shelf, waiting and waiting for 35 years for somebody to care.” 

THE ROOMMATE

Jan Bohnet Carroll thought she had put this all behind her.

But now, here she was, revisiting that horrible night three decades ago when she and her roommate, Dalhoff, were attacked by a masked intruder.

“I have never allowed myself to become his victim or give him power over me,’’ she said. “He cannot emotionally destroy me. He cannot take that away from me because I won’t allow it. That’s my choice. I can be his victim. Or I cannot be his victim. I choose not to be.”

She hadn’t seen Dalhoff in years since moving into the countryside around Lexington, Tennessee, abandoning Memphis for a simpler life filled with family, dogs and horses. So many years had passed since they were both young and single: Both working at FedEx in its vibrant, early days. Making a home together. The athletic Dalhoff heading out to play softball or golf. Carroll manicuring the yard and developing her own interest in scuba diving.

But when Dalhoff called Carroll after meeting with Weirich, it was like nothing had changed. They agreed to meet.

Dalhoff needed to know: Did her old friend refuse to cooperate in the re-opened rape investigation?

Dalhoff’s concern focused on something assistant prosecutor Wallace had told her in the meeting: That an MPD detective and a victim’s advocate recently approached ex-roommate Carroll, but she refused to cooperate.

To make sure Carroll hears it straight, Dalhoff played a portion of her audio recording:

“I know they’ve reached out to your roommate and … she told us not to talk to her again,” Wallace says on the recording. “She wants nothing to do with this.”

Jan Bohnet Carroll (in a photo from around 1985) worked at FedEx with Debby Dalhoff at the time the two roommates were attacked. (Submitted photo)

“That doesn’t make sense,” a disbelieving Dalhoff responds as the recording continues to roll. “That makes no sense. She told me she supported me in what I was doing. And she would be there for me.”

When Dalhoff snaps off the tape, Carroll is livid.

“I am flabbergasted. Nobody has ever contacted me. Nobody has ever asked me that question …

“This is absolutely absurd. Absurd. Unbelievable. And this is who we’re supposed to have faith in to continue and find resolution to this?”

As the two women talk their anger builds.

Some of that anger is directed at the humiliation of that night.

“He put a gag so tight in my mouth I couldn’t breathe,” Carroll said, describing how her assailant then attached clothespins to various parts of her body.

“He put one over my nose and let me gag for air. I could not breathe. I passed out. And as soon as I would pass out, he’d take it off my nose. And then he’d check me. And I’d come back to. And he’d do it again. He did this about three times where I couldn’t breathe. I said, ‘I’m going to die.’”

Debbie Dahlhoff and Jan Bohnet Carroll are bound by the experience they shared in 1985. The two roommates were asleep in the early morning hours when an intruder tied them together with pantyhouse after raping and torturing them for hours. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

But a larger share of their anger is directed at how their case has been handled.

“I’d like to have this thing be closed legitimately, with the truth, and have all this come out. I’d like to see this department clean themselves up,” Carroll said as she enumerates the ways the attack continues to impact her life:

No. 1 – No masks. The intruder wore a mask. To this day she can’t tolerate masks.

“I will never and have never since that day ever participated in Halloween,” she said. “I won’t go to a party where there’s a mask. I won’t have people come to my door on Halloween because you don’t know who’s behind that mask. Because it brings it back to the point where I just shake.”

No. 2 – No surprises.

“Don’t sneak up on me. Don’t touch me. Don’t be quiet coming up here. Because I have actually drawn back to deck people, which I would. I mean, it’s serious,” she said. “I’ll be in my room. My husband’s in there with me. He’ll walk out, come back in. … I’m just screaming. He goes, ‘What? I’m right here.’ You know, I keep telling him, I don’t know if this will ever go away. This is your cross to bear with me. You have to deal with this because I have no control. But that’s the two things that this has left me with to this day and probably always will.”

And now there’s this third thing — the police.

“Some of these people involved in this case need to go on to find another career and make sure that this doesn’t happen to other ladies that this happens to every single day. If this continues, or has with all these cases, who is there to protect us?”

MEETING THE MISSISSIPPI VICTIM

Dalhoff made another appointment. This one made her especially anxious. She finally sat face to face with her suspected rapist’s fifth victim.

“I have chills right now,” Dalhoff said moments after the two women embraced.

“For me, it was like an immediate sisterhood,’’ the other woman said.

They marveled at their “surreal” unification.

“The first thing I thought is she favors me,” Dalhoff said.

Both blonde. Both petite. Both quick with broad smiles.

“It’s horrible to have a bond for this reason,” Dalhoff said, “But we know what each other’s been through, and the struggles.”

Debby Dalhoff was raped and tortured in her home in 1985 by a masked intruder. The case has never been solved. When she finally got her file from Memphis police recently she found several pieces of evidence potentially containing DNA had been destroyed. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)

She’d first heard the woman’s name years earlier. Though the news media generally doesn’t report the names of victims of sexual assault, word had gotten around that the fifth victim was the wife of a popular politician in North Mississippi. The two women were united by an intermediary. (The Institute attended the meeting but is not using her name because she’s chosen not to speak publicly like other victims.)

First, it was a phone call. Then, the heart-stopping embrace followed by the heartbreaking details of their assaults.

“I was entering my bedroom. He was hiding behind my bedroom door,” the fifth victim said. “And I noticed the door was coming toward me.”

At first she thought it might be her husband.

“What are you doing?” she called out.

In the darkness, the rapist lunged. He hit her on the back of the head with an unknown object.

At one point, she caught a glimpse of her attacker — the sighting that led to the 1986 police artist sketch.

When I was in the kitchen, he had wrapped a gown of mine around me to blindfold me. And I could see out above the top of the gown,” she said. “And he was over going through a drawer in my kitchen and I saw him. Because I’m thinking, who is this person? And looking at him I said, ‘I don’t know this person.’ Who is this?”

Both women had lived in recently constructed houses with unfinished second floors. There was no sign of forced entry in either place.

“It makes me wonder if he had a side job in some kind of construction,” Dalhoff said. “Did he have a side job of painting or, you know, doing something inside of houses? He could have had keys made to those locks.”

And the attacker vacuumed floors in the Southaven victim’s home, too. It was a critical detail omitted from the public back in 1986 to deter copycat crimes.

Now, Dalhoff and her guest dissected the meaning of his puzzling behavior. DNA testing was only in its infancy then. But trace evidence — the transfer of fingerprints, fibers and hairs — has a longer history.

“That’s why he vacuumed,” Dalhoff said. “Who back then would know anything about DNA (or trace evidence) other than possibly somebody from law enforcement? He knew what he needed to do to cover his tracks.”

“He sure did,” the other woman said.

As the night wound down, they agreed to keep pressing for answers. Dalhoff spoke of contacting other law enforcement agencies for answers. Through her pressure, the Sheriff’s Office has rejoined the investigation. When she mentioned the FBI, which was asked to conduct a psychological profile decades ago, her guest lit up.

“If they contact the FBI,” the woman said, “if there’s been any rapes after mine, if the mode of operation was the same…”

“That’s right,” Dalhoff said, finishing her sentence. “It could be evidence there.”

“And even if it’s a different state the FBI would know,” the Mississippi woman said.

She was uncertain she’d ever go public. But she said she hopes “something’s going to come from all this” and that the many victims may eventually find closure.

“Maybe we will get to meet the other victims and find out something,” she said.

“I just feel like this is for a reason.”

Dalhoff was more emphatic.

 “I have hope,” she said. “I have hope for justice.”

Debby Dalhoff has found peace and a loving community in the game of golf. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Marc Perrusquia
Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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