Thousands of defenseless, unsuspecting women are raped and brutally beaten each year.
In Louisville, Kentucky, the vicious attack of Salisa Luster, an unassuming, highly educated young professional, placed her among the many thousands attacked annually by predators.
More than 212,000 women over 14 years old nationwide were sexually assaulted in 2006, statistics show, and one in six females in the United States have been sexually assaulted, according to a United Nations report. More than 25 percent of all college aged women say they have been raped.
Luster’s story, though, is more than an account of a brutal beating and rape. It is also about stoic strength; of battling a cold, callous police department seemingly intent on protecting itself from legal liability and the glare of probing media.
But without crucial assistance from Policeabuse.com. For almost a year, however, Luster’s pain and suffering would not have drawn much, if any, attention–like the countless women who suffer in silence without activists to seek justice for them.
Policeabuse.com is a component of the Police Complaint Center, in Washington, D.C. The Center was founded in 1994, by Diop Kamau, a former Hawthorne, California, police sergeant.
Since 1988, when several white officers forced his late father, a retired, 65-year-old Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy, out of his vehicle and beat him unmercifully, Kamau has pursued justice for victims of police abuse, irrespective of race or ethnicity.
In Louisville, the search for justice for Luster began the day after she was raped, on April 30, 2008. Along the way, she has been stymied by gross police negligence, flagrant misconduct, a fistful of errors and a series of transparent untruths.
This horrific combination traumatized Luster and angered and bewildered her family and close friends.
Just as painful for them, Luster’s family and friends say, was the failure of perhaps the most culpable Louisville Metro Police Officer, Rick Woolridge, to arrest, question, detain or label as a person of interest “an unidentified black man”–believed to be the suspect–when Woolridge arrived at the crime scene.
Increasing the pain of family and friends was the alleged indifference of then Chief Robert C. White, a black man, who refused to use his authority to open an
official investigation into Woolridge’s misconduct.
Had Luster been a white woman, critics charge, Woolridge’s policing would, without a doubt, have been aggressive. Luster’s attacker is a light complexioned black man with a goatee.
This alleged indifference, critics maintain, obstructed justice and shielded Woolridge, a white officer, from accountability.
Since Luster’s attack, her mother and chief advocate, Cheryl Ellis, has waged an ongoing campaign to obtain justice for her daughter. Her efforts, Ellis said, have been routinely blocked by Louisville Metro’s chain of command.
Worse still, Ellis told BlackAmericaWeb.com, “all the attorneys I approached to represent Salisa against the Louisville Metro Police Department “offered a variety of excuses, ranging from fear of police retaliation” to the belief that Luster’s case wasn’t “strong enough to prevail in litigation.”
Luster’s nightmare began on the afternoon of April 29, 2008: A maintenance man, employed by East Chase Apartments, owned by Sentinel Real Estate Corporation, arrived to repair the toilet, but, after fixing it, returned hours later.
While Luster slept on a sofa, he used a pass key (only maintenance men and management executives had access to them), to open the apartment’s front door. Undetected, he entered her apartment. After creeping in, he began raping her.
When Luster awoke, the maintenance man, whose green uniform she later remembered, was choking and raping her.
Soon he was hitting her on her head “so hard I could barely think,” she said. Then the rapist, in a bizarre twist, according to Ellis, “used a solution to wash her hair, took several pieces of clothing from her closet, drenched them in water and threw them on the floor.”
The rapist, Ellis told Policeabuse.com, did not leave the apartment after attacking Luster, but stayed through the night. Luster, only semi-conscious after the attack, was beaten so severely that her left eye was shut, both eyes were blackened and blood clots formed in both.
Despite her battered condition, Luster managed to call 911 and say, “there’s a strange man in my apartment; I’m having trouble breathing,” yet the operator who received her plea failed to alert paramedics.
In the morning, when Luster didn’t answer her telephone or report to work, five young colleagues, all women, went to her apartment to see if she “was okay.”
Luster’s car was parked in front of her apartment building, so they believed she had not left it, but was still inside her unit.
Without a key to Luster’s door, they were forced to wait outside.
Officer Woolridge, a 20-year Metro Louisville veteran, was dispatched to the scene and arrived soon after the young women, but would not allow them to go inside with him.
After “less than six minutes inside” Luster’s apartment, according to Ellis, Woolridge left and locked the door behind him, leaving the five young women without access to the apartment.
No one knows what Woolridge said to the suspected rapist, if anything, but Ellis believes the “unidentified black man” told Woolridge that he and Luster had had “a lover’s spat,” which Woolridge officer apparently believed or deemed inconsequential.
Although Luster’s face bore all the earmarks of a brutal beating, Woolridge didn’t call emergency medical assistance. Nor did he file a police report or record any notes regarding his observations, if any. Woolridge would later claim that he “saw no injuries.”
His one single action was to advise another Metro Louisville police officer that he was not needed at the crime scene. After giving that “advice,” Woolridge walked away. Although the women say they begged him to open the apartment door, he turned, walked to his vehicle and drove off.
“He told us Salisa was okay,” said Julie Kraemer, one of the five friends. “We don’t believe that,” one of the young women responded, according to Kraemer.
As Woolridge drove away, one of the young women ran to the apartment manager’s office and said, “I know something is wrong. Please open Salisa’s door, so we can go in and see her.”
When the friends finally got into her apartment, they were horrified by the damage from the beating. One of them cried, another began praying. “We’re here for you, you’re safe now,” a third friend said, as she called 911 for an emergency response. Luster, in a daze, was unable to speak.
“She just stared when we asked what happened and who did his to her,” said Julie Kraemer, one of the five friends, in an interview with BlackAmericaWeb.com.
A detective, Brian Tucker, eventually arrived. He accompanied the paramedics and the friends to the University of Louisville Medical Center’s Trauma Unit. Nurses in the sex crimes section, who photographed Luster, said Woolridge “would have had to be blind not to see her injuries.”
Tucker later told Emergency Medical Services personnel that Woolridge claimed that “an unidentified black man told him: “There are no problems, everything is alright.” In September, Tucker also alleged that he interviewed all five friends who accompanied Luster to the hospital the morning after she was attacked. The women, however, flatly deny that Tucker ever interviewed them.
Two unidentified white officers, however, did interview two of the women in the interview room at the University of Phoenix, in Louisville, where they were enrollment advisers. The officers conducted the two-hour interview with a tape recorder, which they placed on a table and took notes. When Ellis asked for a copy of the interview, she was told there was none. Although Tucker’s negligence was apparent, he was not warned, suspended or diciplined.
Ellis said she learned of the interview only when the women asked if Tucker had told her about it, although as the victim’s mother, he should have shared that information with her. Had Tucker reported Woolridge to his superior officer, as he was obligated to do, a record of his misconduct would have compelled an investigation.
Meanwhile, the blows Luster suffered were so powerful that opthamologists filled one eye with a special solution to extract a contact lens that was imbedded by the force and wouldn’t come out.
For eight hours, Luster received treatment in the emergency room. Two months later, to relieve pressure on her brain exacerbated by the blows from the attack, she needed a five-hour surgery, at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, in Litte Rock, to halt her seizures and repair other injuries. The damage from the attack componded a pre-exisitng tumor, Ellis said.
She flew to Louisville, from her home in Omaha, Nebraska, the day after her daughter was attacked. Within hours after arriving, she asked a detective for the police report about the brutal beating.
Although Woolridge had not filed a report nor taken notes on which to base one, the detective responded with an untruth. “We’re in the process of working on it,” Ellis said he told her.
Weeks later, when Ellis asked for Woolridge’s notes, another officer admitted that “none exist” and that “there is no file.”
Several months later, in January, 2009, Ellis was slapped by yet another depressing blow when she sought to file a misconduct complaint against Officer Woolridge. “Your daughter will have to file a complaint in person,” Ellis said an officer told her. “You can’t file it over the phone, by mail, e-mail, Fax or with a Fed-Ex. She was assured, Ellis said she was told that the deadline for filing the complaint was February.
Although Luster and her grandmother, Frances Fairmon, returned to Louisville (having driven hundreds of miles from Little Rock, where Luster had relocated) well before the February deadline, they weren’t told that the deadline for filing expired in January.
Luster, her grandmother and Ellis were also unaware that Woolridge had already been allowed to retire on January 31. It was thus pointless to file a misconduct complaint against an officer no longer employed by the department.
All three women learned about Woolridge’s through a letter sent by Chief White in September. Ellis filed an appeal in October, but White’s decision allowing Woolridge to retire without scrutiny was upheld.
Woolridge, meanwhile, had already retired with his pension intact. Then beyond the reach of accountability, departmental officials told Ellis he no longer could be charged with misconduct.
Ellis, continuing her quest for justice, received no assurances of accountability from Chief White, who currently presides over the police force in Denver, Colorado. White, citing Woolridge’s retirement, told her that nothing could be done to hold him accountable.
White declined to comment for this article. Through his Chief of Staff, Lt. Murray, he referred all questions to his successor in Louisville, Chief Steven Conrad.
Kamau condemned White’s refusal to investigate Woolridge’s alleged misconduct. “Chief White had nine months to punish, fine, suspend or fire Woolridge, but chose not to,” said Kamau, who did not limit his criticism to the then chief executive. “Not only did Chief White fail to exercise his duty, Woolridge’s
superior officer failed as well,” he said.
“The superior officer was obligated to either sign off on the police report Woolridge should have submitted, or, absent a report, indicated his objection to the subordinate’s failure or refusal to have written one,” Kamau continued, “so he is as responsible for the obvious misconduct as is Woolridge.”
In addition, Kamau said, “I don’t believe that forcing rape victims to file misconduct complaints in person is the Louisville Police Department’s policy now, or that such was the policy in 2009.” To demand that rape victims file misconduct complaints in person, Kamau added, “is unconscionable.”
Ultimately, Kamau said, “Chief White should have been sanctioned for condoning the refusal to act, he was responsible for what began as Woolridge’s determination to do nothing and became a cover-up.”
Moreover, Kamau explained, “Chief White didn’t need a complaint to conduct his own investigation; the department had more than enough evidence to open one.”
The chief’s failure was not only “deliberate,” Kamau charged, “it also bought Woolridge plenty of time to retire, with his pension secure for the future.”
Kamau scoffed at the apology Ellis received from Chief White’s successor, Steven Conrad. In a May 22, 2012 letter, Chief Conrad claimed that he was “truly at a loss to explain retired officer Woolridge’s actions and inactions in this matter.”
Chief Conrad claimed that “they (Woolridge’s alleged misconduct) do not represent our department’s standards or values. I apologize for his behavior! Your
daughter deserved better!”
His apology omitted any mention of his predecessor’s failure to investigate “Woolridge’s actions and inactions,”despite the clear authority to do so. Instead, Chief Conrad appeared to support former Chief White: “In regards to the internal investigation (which Ellis sought), Officer Rick Woolridge retired before that investigation even started. Woolridge’s retirement left Chief White with no opportunity to hold him accountable for his poor behavior.”
Meanwhile, he contended, “between the poor initial responses, the failure to recover any possible suspect DNA during (the) post sexual assault examination, the inability of your daughter to provide information about her attacker, the lack of a witness and the significant passage of time, I do not believe a second investigation would be any more fruitful or successful than the first one.”
In conclusion, he said: “I realize this response fails to provide closure for either you or your daughter. Once again, I apologize!”
Ellis, like Kamau, was unimpressed with Chief Conrad’s apology. “Chief Conrad ought to be fired, he’s had ample opportunity to correct Chief White’s refusal to act, but has not.” The city of Louisville, Ellis said, “ought to be held liable for officer Woolridge’s misconduct and utter refusal to do anything to aid Salisa, who was battered and bruised almost beyond recognition.”
Luster, despite her trauma and years in recovery, was surprisingly upbeat and cheerful when reached by BlackAmericaWeb.com.
Without apparent bitterness, she said, “through it all, I manage to hold myself together with faith in God and support of my husband, parents, other family and friends. I love them all and see and feel their love for me.” Luster still has nightmares in which she sees her attacker. Therapy, though, helps counteract their effects, Ellis said.
Luster’s strength, she said, “comes from knowing that this situation will be taken care of in due time. God never puts more on me than I can bear. What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.”
Bitterness, Luster said, “is not going to help. I have learned that things happen for a reason. Although it was hard going through this and still is, I know the person who did this to me will get his, even if it is not here on Earth.”
If not for the attack in Louisville, Luster said, she “would not have moved back home and met my husband there. Sometimes bad things happen for good reasons. You might not be able to see that right away, but eventually, you will,” she said.
Kamau, though, seeks justice for Salisa now. “Chief White and Officer Woolridge have moved on to other things,” he said. “Yet Ms. Luster and her family have been traumatized by the complete collapse of the justce system before their eyes. I do not believe Chief White should be allowed to move up to higher office,
given the serious crimes perpetrated against Ms. Luster on his watch.”
Policeabuse.com, Kamau said, has established a website, “chiefrobertcwhite.com,” to direct the public to information about Ms. Luster’s case, which we hope will help protect citizens in cities served by Chief White. We also hope to develop new leads about the crimes committed against Ms. Luster in the arrest of a possible