Richland detective uncovers botched rape investigation of teen girl, brings it to light

Joseph Hall RPD

RICHLAND, Wash. — When Sarah* was 14-years-old, she moved back in with her mother after living in a youth shelter in Kennewick for several months.

On Sept. 9, 2016, Sarah missed the bus that would have taken her home; she walked to a nearby Richland library, thinking she’d catch a ride at the next stop.

Soon, according to her statement to police, a man named ‘Joe’ would offer to smoke marijuana with her at a nearby park, lead her to a secluded trail below an underpass and rape her.

Sarah’s fate became intertwined with two Richland police detectives: one who failed to properly investigate what happened on the worst day of her life and another who discovered the failure years later and worked diligently to put her alleged rapist behind bars.

Now, nearly four years later, a level three sex offender is behind bars after being charged with raping Sarah.

Current Richland Police Chief John Bruce sat down with KAPP-KVEW for an exclusive interview about the case.

While Bruce was not involved with the initial investigation and came into power years after it was closed, he said the detective in 2016 did not do right by the victim.

“To the best of my knowledge is that the detective did not do their job to the normal standards of this department — that they did not seek the truth and justice for our victim, and for that, we are sorry,” Bruce said.

The following investigation is comprised of two months of examination by KAPP-KVEW, as well as an interview with Richland Police Chief John Bruce.

*KAPP-KVEW does not identify victims of sexual assault, but for the purposes of this story, will be referring to the victim as Sarah to protect her anonymity.

Here’s what Sarah said happened, starting with the initial incident and leading up to the arrest of the alleged rapist:

THE RAPE: Sarah recounts the events of Sept. 9, 2016 to police

On Sept. 9, 2016, Richland officer Chris Mason was called to Kadlec Regional Medical Center for a possible sexual assault report. The victim was 14-year-old Sarah.

Mason interviewed Sarah about the sexual assault and compiled her answers into an incident report obtained by KAPP-KVEW.

In the incident report, Sarah told officers she had been living at a shelter in Kennewick for several months, but had recently moved back in with her mother.

She told Mason that she’d been on her way home that day when at about 2:45 p.m., she missed the bus and started to walk to the nearby library to wait for the next one.

Sarah told Mason that she met a man while walking towards the library. According to the report, the man said his name was “Joe.” He asked her if she smoked and said he had a bong and pipe to smoke marijuana out of; Sarah told the man she smoked and followed him to Howard Amon Park, according to the report.

Joe said he had a shortcut to the park and took her through a trail. According to Sarah, Joe told her he was 17-years-old and a “super senior.”

In her interview with police, Sarah described the man as 5’9”, average build with yellow teeth; he also had a distinct “509” tattoo on his right forearm.

Sarah told police she got suspicious and that when she accused him of lying about his age, Joe then admitted he was 19.

As they walked through a nearby underpass, Sarah said Joe grabbed her from behind and raped her.

When she tried to get away, Joe allegedly pulled her back and stated “30 more seconds” while raping her again, the report said.

            “[Sarah] stated she was unable to scream for help because she was in shock.”

After the rape, Joe reportedly ran off, while she got on a bus and went home.

Later that day, as her mother was getting ready to leave the house, Sarah told her mom she had been raped.

THE EVIDENCE: Ofc. Mason interviews Sarah, goes back to the scene of the crime

“My conversation with [Sarah] was brief and relatively casual considering the circumstances,” Mason said in the report.

“In [Sarah’s] statements she appeared calm and collected, nor bothered by the event.”

Mason then spoke with Sarah’s mother. She told police that “it was not beyond reason to believe that [Sarah] may be making up the story of her rape,” the report said.

Ofc. Mason went to the area of the alleged crime and took pictures of the area, including footprints.

In the report, he said one matched Sarah’s shoes and the other was unknown. The officer also collected cigarette butts near the footprints.

Rape kit

Back at the hospital, a sexual assault kit was collected and sent the Washington State Lab for testing. The cigarette butts were also sent with the kit. A sexual assault kit collects physical evidence from a victim, such as DNA, in hopes of identifying who assaulted the victim.

THE SUSPECT: Police identify registered sex offender Joseph A. Hall as a potential suspect

Ofc. Mason ran a search for men in a police database that matched the description Sarah gave him

In his report, Mason identified 19-year-old Joseph A. Hall as a potential suspect; his height, hairstyle in a previous booking photo and distinct forearm tattoo all matched Sarah’s description.

Richland sex offender

In addition to matching the description, Hall was a registered level one sex offender; he’d been convicted of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes in 2010.

Since then, Hall has been convicted twice for failing to register as a sex offender: once in 2015 and again in 2019, after pleading guilty to lewd conduct for another incident.

Officers created a photo lineup, putting pictures of Hall and five other similar men together to see who, if anyone, Sarah might identify as her rapist.

In the report, Mason said when another officer showed Sarah the photos, she was unable to positively identify a suspect.

However, Sarah “advised that she thought #4 kind of looked like the suspect, but she was maybe only 15% sure it was him.” The report does not state if Joseph Hall was #4.

THE INITIAL INVESTIGATION: Det. Athena Clark takes over case, interviews Sarah at her school

On Sept. 12, 2016, Richland Det. Athena Clark was assigned the case. According to the report, Clark was familiar with Sarah because of a previous Child Protective Services referral.

Two days later, Clark met with Sarah’s mother, who told Clark her daughter had a history of mental health disorders and high-risk behaviors such as skipping school, having sex with multiple people, smoking cigarettes and using marijuana, the report said.

“According to [Sarah’s mother], counselors and probation officers of [Sarah], she is known to be very manipulative and tells very elaborate and convincing stories.”

Detective Clark talked to Sarah at her school. She said in the report that Sarah’s demeanor was “bubbly and she did not seem bothered by the topic of the conversation.”

After having Sarah describe the rape again, Clark asked her if she had smoked marijuana, adding that if she had, she wouldn’t be in trouble.

The report states that Sarah appeared to think about her answer before saying “Well” followed by “no.”

            “It was clear to me that [Sarah] was not being honest in her response,” Clark said in the report.

Sarah reportedly told Clark she wanted to say no but didn’t when the man allegedly raped her the first time.

The second time, when Joe pulled her back after she tried to get away, Sarah told Joe, “This is not okay,” according to the report.

Sarah asked the detective that if she thought about saying no, but didn’t verbally or physically resist, doesn’t that still make it rape?

Clark responded and explained that when Sarah said, “this is not OK” and he didn’t stop, that could be viewed as rape.

When Sarah asked the detective if she had any idea who Joe was, Clark told her she thought she had a good idea about who he may be based on the description Sarah provided.

According to the report, Sarah kept asking questions about Joe and said she was upset that he “just had sex with me and then ran off.”

The detective asked Sarah if she reported the rape because she actually was raped or just because she felt used. Sarah replied, “both.”

Clark wrote in her report that she told Sarah that based on what she’d told police, what happened to her “did not meet the criteria necessary to prove the crime of rape had been committed.”

The detective told Sarah’s mother that the case would be documented as “closed/unfounded.” Clark told Sarah’s mother that if any additional information became available to let her know and it could be reopened.

The case was closed/unfounded Sept. 27, 2016.

THE SEXUAL ASSAULT KIT: Years later, the results confirm Sarah was raped

Rape kit

On Feb. 9, 2019 — exactly two years, five months and one day after Sarah was raped — police officers received the results of her sexual assault kit back from the Washington State Patrol crime lab.

“We did get the sexual assault kit back and yeah, it contained suspect information of a different DNA other than the primary victim,” said Richland Police Chief John Bruce, who sat down with KAPP-KVEW for an exclusive interview about the case.

Eventually, the unknown male’s DNA was actually known to police. When they compared to previous samples on file, they confirmed that DNA matched that of Joseph Hall, the suspect they’d identified nearly four years prior.

On Oct. 28, 2019, [Det. Sgt.] Drew Florence was contacted by two detectives investigating someone who failed to register as a sex offender — Joseph Hall — concerned about what they’d seen in the files for the initial investigation.

Florence reviewed Clark’s report and came to a conclusion: “it was not properly investigated at the time.” By this time, Clark had left and was no longer employed by the Richland Police Department. Bruce did not disclose how or why her employment with the department ended.

KAPP-KVEW reached out to the West Richland Police Department, where Det. Clark currently works. They department declined out requests for an interview or comment.

In his report, Florence identified at least two issues. When Clark closed the investigation, she told the victim that her case, “did not meet the criteria necessary to prove the crime of rape had been committed.”

However, Florence said because the suspect was significantly older than the victim — at 14, Sarah was not of age to consent to any sexual activity — the age difference alone should have been enough to pursue third-degree child rape charges.

“It is clear from this report that even if the sexual contact was consensual (which it was reported not to be) it was illegal based upon age alone and this case should have been investigated at the time,” Florence explained in the report.

According to Florence, despite Hall being identified as a potential suspect, there’s no indication detectives had ever reached out to talk to him about the incident, let alone obtain any statement from him.

“In reviewing the report, it does not appear as though there were any attempts to contact Joseph and that he had been identified as a possible suspect by Det. Mason (then Ofc. Mason) as the responding patrol officer by physical description and a tattoo on his arm, described by the victim,” Florence said in the report.

Florence determined it was necessary to reopen the case and assigned the follow-up investigation to Det. Mason.

THE ARREST: Joseph Hall taken into custody following 2019-20 investigation 

On Oct. 30, 2019, Mason contacted Sarah’s mother, wanting to get in touch with Sarah about the new information in her case.

Sarah’s mother told police that she believed her daughter was raped in 2016 and that “she was disappointed by the disposition of this case.”

Officers attempted to contact Sarah for several months. She reportedly moved to another state. Mason attempted to follow up with Sarah’s mother in January, but could not reach her. A few weeks later, Mason got in touch with Sarah.

He told her that the sexual assault kit came back with a positive DNA match for Joseph Hall.

            “[Sarah] stated she is still willing to be called upon as a victim in reference to this case and has agreed to meet with me in the upcoming week for an additional discussion about her case,” the report said.

Prior to contacting Sarah, Det. Mason applied for a search warrant for Hall’s DNA to compare to the WSP sample identified by the crime lab. In January, detectives applied for the same search warrant as the other one expired. Meanwhile, Det. Mason served Joseph Hall with a search warrant for his DNA on Jan. 17, 2020.

His DNA was taken. Hall was informed by detectives that his sex offender status was re-evaluated and that he was now a level 3 offender, requiring him to be verified more frequently.

Hall was previously a level one sex offender. In Washington state, level one offenders are the lowest risk to the community and the likelihood to re-offend is low. Level three offenders are a high risk to sexually re-offend within the community.

Hall was asked if he would be willing to do an interview with detectives about their open investigation, to which he agreed.

On Jan. 20, 2020, Hall was taken to the Benton County jail on a 72-hour investigative hold, meaning the prosecutor’s office has 72 hours to officially charge someone with a crime while someone is being held in jail.

Hall said he was concerned for his safety because his sex offender status was on Facebook recently. On Jan. 17, 2020, the Benton County Sheriff’s Office notified the public that Hall had moved to the Richland area and released the information to keep the public informed. Multiple local media outlets reported the residence change of Hall.

Deputies said he had been trespassed from all schools, parks, libraries and public swimming pools in Benton and Franklin counties.

THE INTERVIEW: Joseph Hall tells his story, claims nothing happened

Detectives told Hall he was being questioned in connection with a 2016 rape.

Hall told investigators he was confused, lost and didn’t know Sarah or anyone who went by the same name as her. Detectives showed him a photo of Sarah. Hall said he never saw the girl before and that he would take a polygraph.

During the interview, Hall was adamant that he was only intimate with his girlfriend, who he’d been with since his freshman year of high school, according to the incident report.

“That’s the only woman I have been with ever since I was out of jail just for this exact reason, so she was always with me,” Hall told detectives.

Detectives told Hall they didn’t believe he was being honest with them and asked him what happened during an April 2019 case where Kennewick police witnessed him having sex with a woman in public. Hall pled guilty to lewd conduct.

Investigators asked him about the “509” tattoo on his arm; he said he got it 3 ½ years ago while in jail for a probation violation.

Detectives asked why his DNA would return as a positive match from the sexual assault kit. He said,

            “No. That’s why I’m getting at. That’s why I always have someone around me, no matter what ever since I was 13-years-old, I have always had someone around me. I knew that this is not possible what-so-ever.”

According to the Benton County Prosecutor’s Office, Hall is charged with second-degree rape and third-degree rape of a child. He’s being evaluated for competency at Eastern State Hospital, which was requested by the defense.

The process involves evaluating the person’s mental health, education and work history, according to the Department of Social and Health Services. The person being evaluated is also interviewed by a psychologist.

Evaluations determine if they are found competent to properly participate in their own defense due to mental health.

No trial date has been set.

THE REVIEW: Chief addresses issues with the 2016, 2019 investigations

At the time of the initial investigation, Chief Chris Skinner was in charge of the Richland Police Department.

Chief John Bruce was sworn-in as the department’s new leader in May 2019 and had no involvement with the initial investigation, but spoke on this case with KAPP-KVEW.

He said this wasn’t necessarily a cold case, a term usually reserved for cases with less information and less evidence.

“A part of that definition is we don’t know who did it, and unfortunately, we did know,” Bruce said.

Det. Sgt. Florence said in his report there was a crime committed, despite what the original detective reported. Bruce agrees with Florence.

“This detective [Clark] failed to do their job,” Bruce said. “And had an opportunity to work with one of the harsher persons crimes with a member of our society, or our community and help them through the process and none of the occurred.”

He added, “Utter failure and as the Chief, I take responsibility for that.”

The age difference

At the time of the crime. Sarah was 14 and Joseph was 19. Now, Sarah is 18 and Hall is 22. Florence said the age difference constitutes the crime of rape of a child in the third-degree.

Failure to question Hall

When asked about why Joseph Hall wasn’t contacted when he was identified by police as a possible suspect he responded, “To the best of my knowledge is that the detective did not do their job to the normal standards of this department — that they did not seek the truth and justice for our victim, and for that, we are sorry.”

Sex offender status change

After Hall was identified as a suspect in the case, he was bumped up to a level 3 sex offender – the highest level.

“There’s plenty of evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he did this – that it would satisfy moving it up to a level 3,” Bruce said.

Sexual assault kit issues

“Our process has failed us here,” Bruce said. “And you know, one of the things that I talked to our employees here is we’re gonna say we made a mistake when we made a mistake.”

According to Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, as of April 6, 2020, there are 5,110 rape kits that haven’t been tested out of 9,760. In a press release from Ferguson’s office, of the 4,650 kits tested, 690 have matched DNA from the evidence database.

They have also launched a website for the public, which will provide information about the status of testing, the initiative to end the rape kit backlog and resources for sexual assault survivors.

A grant was awarded to the state in order to test more rape kits along with $2.24 million Ferguson committed to the testing, according to the press release. The crime lab expects to test all the backlogged rape kits by mid-2022.

Timing of follow-up

One question raised to Chief Bruce is why the sexual assault results took nearly nine months to follow up on when they came back.

Bruce said their system does not notify them when results come back, and their records management system is older.  The records department needs to notify the sergeant that there is new information. Bruce explained the department is addressing this issue by improving the system. He said it’s being updated regionally.

“No one was really re-examining that information,” he said. “We’re now in the process of changing our practice so that when new information comes into a case, it has to be reviewed through the investigation unit to see if there’s — sometimes there’s information that comes back from a lab, but there’s still not enough information to investigate and solve a crime.”

He did say, in this case, the results matched information they had on file and it confirmed a DNA match to Hall.

THE FUTURE: How the police department is making changes

Chief Bruce is working to make sure something like this never happens again at the Richland Police Department.

“As an agency, we’re looking at all of our practices, our policies, our procedures, how we do things, and making sure that policy procedures marry up with practice to ensure that we’re always taking care of our citizens at the very best possible service level that we can,” he said.

Chief Bruce confirmed with KAPP-KVEW that his department is now reviewing other closed or unfounded cases investigated by Det. Clark. Florence is looking back at other unfounded cases with similarities.

“We made a mistake as an organization — A complete failure, and we’re just trying to pick up those pieces and we’re trying to put practices into place so that we can prevent this from occurring again,” Bruce explained. “We have to work even harder to be transparent, to be genuine, to demonstrate to our community that we’re capable of conducting investigations and seeking resolutions, seeking truths, seeking justice for our victims.”