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Eric Walker / For The Post

Local police credit rape kit testing initiative for arrest in serial rape case

At a press conference Tuesday, officials credited DNA evidence with the arrest of a suspect in a serial rape investigation that spanned over ten years.

The case came to a head yesterday after Shawn Lawson’s DNA was tested in Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn’s office.

“He was brought in for a random drug test that was not so random,” Blackburn said.

Lawson was arrested in Blackburn’s office. He is being held in Southeast Ohio Regional Jail on a $3 million bond, and Blackburn said Lawson is expected to remain there until the trial. He has been charged with three counts of kidnapping, three counts of felonious assault, two counts of rape, two counts of aggravated burglary and one count of attempted rape. Blackburn said Lawson’s DNA was also linked yesterday to a sexual assault examination kit from Springfield, but Fairfield County has not yet charged him for anything.

Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle announced at a January 2016 press conference that DNA evidence had linked three separate sexual assaults in uptown Athens, according to a previous Post report. He said those three attacks occurred in June 2006, June 2015 and December 2015.

In each of the three attacks, a man targeted a woman who was walking home at night from the Uptown Athens area.

DNA evidence first linked the two June attacks, APD Lt. Jeff McCall said. After DNA linked the December 2015 attack, the case picked up and drew significant media attention.

APD received about 150 tips from the public in relation to the case, Pyle said. McCall said the department collected DNA evidence from more than 30 people before Lawson’s arrest.

Pyle said the agencies that assisted with the case were “too many to name.”

Lawson graduated from Alexander High School in Albany, and Blackburn said he worked as a tree-trimmer, but that he moved around often for work. He added that there might be victims outside Ohio.

In 2006, Lawson was charged with operating a vehicle under the influence. Officers found a gun in his car, which resulted in a felony charge because he was intoxicated. Lawson was placed in a diversion program after the incident, and no DNA evidence was collected from him.

The 2006 rape Lawson has been charged with occurred while he was a minor, but Lawson will be tried as an adult. The juvenile court loses jurisdiction over offenders when they become 20 years old.

The 2006 incident remains within the statute of limitations for sex crimes. Sex crimes can be tried up to 20 years after they are committed.

Blackburn said all three of the victims are relieved that Lawson has been apprehended. He said it took courage for the women to come forward and that the people of Athens owe them a “debt of gratitude.”

Pyle credited success in the case to an initiative by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and a decision by McCall.

In 2011, DeWine launched an initiative to collect and test untested sexual assault examination kits from law enforcement agencies in Ohio. His office collected 13,931 kits from 294 different agencies, according to the Ohio Attorney General website.

The 2006 evidence kit was not tested until that initiative began, Pyle said. DeWine said his office has about 1,200 untested kits remaining. Those that have been tested have had DNA matches 38 percent of the time.

“It reinforces, frankly, what I think every prosecutor knows intuitively, what every police department, police officer and sheriff’s deputy knows,” DeWine said. “That is (that) many times, rapists are serial rapists.”

McCall, the lieutenant in charge of investigations at APD, made the decision to collect touch DNA to investigate the case.

Touch DNA is a form of trace evidence that people leave behind when they touch surfaces. It involves very small amounts of biological matter, such as skin cells. Touch DNA is sometimes criticized as an unreliable form of evidence because the DNA is so easily transferred between objects.

Previously, APD also used DNA to create a composite image of the suspect. DeWine said the DNA composite did not directly lead to Lawson’s arrest, but it did help narrow down the suspects based on appearance.

The investigation into the case still continues, and additional charges may follow. Blackburn said rape is typically an underreported crime and encouraged any other victims to come forward.

McCall said investigators are looking into Lawson’s whereabouts throughout the years.

Blackburn didn't speculate when he was asked whether there was any chance for Lawson to be found not guilty now that DNA has linked him to three incidents.

“Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty, and he’ll have his right to a day in court,” he said.


— Eric Walker contributed to this report

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