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20 years after stranger raped Minnesota woman, a suspect is charged

Robert Anthony Bradfield os currently in custody in Wayne County, Mich. Bradfield, 38, was recently charged in Ramsey County District Court with one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly raping a woman in St. Paul in 1998. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Wayne County Sheriff.

ST. PAUL—It was a summer day in 1998 when a man offered to help a woman he just met fix her phone.

He followed her to her apartment just blocks from St. Paul's Cafe Latte, the woman told police at the time. Once inside, he raped her, authorities say.

Nearly 20 years later, charges finally have been filed in the case.

Robert Anthony Bradfield, 38, was charged via warrant Feb. 23 with one count of first-degree criminal-sexual conduct for the alleged 1998 assault.

Part of the reason for the case's long dormancy is that, for reasons not entirely clear, the DNA collected at the time from was not submitted for testing until many years later, according to St. Paul police.

"We are happy that the suspect in this case was identified and is being held accountable, but the route we as a department took to get to this point was not perfect," said St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Mike Ernster.

The woman, who is now 48 and still lives in the Twin Cities, was shocked to learn a suspect has been charged all these years later, Ernster added.

"(She) didn't think it would ever get solved," Ernster said, citing information given to him by investigators. "She was happy he is caught."

It was just before midnight July 4, 1998, when St. Paul police responded to a report of a sexual assault.

Officers met there with a 29-year-old woman who said she'd been raped by a man she invited into her home, according to the criminal complaint. The man subsequently fled.

She just met him outside after he approached her and her friends as they stood in a group talking, she told police. At some point, she mentioned her phone was broken and the man said he could fix it.

He followed her into her nearby apartment to take a look at it and soon started trying to kiss her, the complaint said.

The woman told him to stop and he refused, according to the complaint. The more she tried to fight, the "rougher" he became, the complaint said. At one point he bit her inner thigh as she tried to ward off his advances.

He ran out of her apartment after the rape, according to the complaint.

The woman was taken to Regions Hospital for a sexual-assault examination and a vaginal swab. Medical staff observed a bite mark on her thigh, the complaint said. The woman told officers the man who raped her had a tattoo on his forearm that said "Rhea."

That's where the case went cold, Ernster said.

The investigator who worked on it at the time is long retired and his investigative notes were taken with pen and paper, making it difficult to ascertain why the woman's DNA wasn't immediately submitted to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for analysis.

"Some of the paperwork in this case ended up missing and the (sexual-assault kit) involved ... was sitting in the property-room fridge and wasn't being processed," Ernster explained.

That's where it remained until a department administrative decision in 2012 called for submitting to the BCA all past sexual-assault kits that had — for a variety of factors — sat untested in the St. Paul police department's storage refrigerator.

The cases were sent in batches of about 10 at a time, Ernster said.

The woman's 1998 case arrived at the BCA on Jan. 24, 2014. About four months later, a major male DNA profile had been obtained that matched an Illinois convict named Robert Anthony Bradfield, according to the criminal complaint.

"In the end, we don't know why it took so long to (submit it)," Ernster said. "All we know is that it wasn't tested and it sat there unrecognized for however many years until we sent it over."

In explaining the lag time between 2014 and when charges were filed against Bradfield this month, Ernster said St. Paul police needed to do some further investigation and work with out-of-state jurisdictions to connect with Bradfield. They also initially had trouble tracking down the victim.

He added that changes to the department over the years have helped ensure other cases don't encounter the same fate.

"The process for handling of these kits and all evidence by the police department has dramatically modernized since 1998," Ernster said. "We do not have any untested sex assault kits now and all of our sexual assault kits get tested. ... Our evidence system is (also) now managed electronically and every piece of property in there is accounted for and shared with all investigators."

Bradfield is in custody in Detroit on charges of first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct as well as kidnapping out of Wayne County.

That case stems back to 1997, according to Maria Miller, director of communications for the Wayne County prosecutor's office. Bradfield pleaded guilty to the charges Tuesday.

No details about why that case also sat idle or what events led to the charges can be released to the public until after Bradfield is sentenced in mid-March, Miller said.

A Wayne County detective interview Bradfield about the 1998 attack, on behalf of St. Paul.

Bradfield told the detective that while he didn't remember the assault taking place, he acknowledged that he had been in St. Paul around that time, the Ramsey County criminal complaint said.

The detective also noticed that Bradfield had a tattoo on his forearm that spelled "Rhea," according to the criminal complaint.

It's unclear when Bradfield will answer to the charges facing him in Ramsey County, but it won't be until after he has served his sentence in Wayne County, according to a spokesman for the Ramsey County attorney's office.

He has yet to be be assigned or retain an attorney in that case. The attorney who represented him in Michigan, Christopher Quinn, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reached in Chicago, where Bradfield grew up, his sister and mother said they are still trying to comprehend the accusations facing him in Minnesota.

"I just find all of this so hard to believe, because this is not my son," said Karen Bradfield, Robert Bradfield's mother. "If you were to tell me he conned someone out of something, I would say 'Yeah, that's probably Robert,' but for him to rape someone ... that's just not him."

She added that Robert Bradfield was raised in a good family with lots of support and "never wanted for anything."

His sister, Brittany Bradfield, described an artist who loved to sketch and is very "musically inclined." He also has two "beautiful daughters," she said. Based on the man she knows, she said she also does not believe the allegations.

"I can sit here and tell you 1,000 good things and then you can look at a sheet of paper and say, 'I don't see those things,' but I know him ...," she said. "I just don't understand why this is happening 20 years later. ... I am still just shocked."

The identity of the victim in St. Paul was not disclosed in the criminal complaint, so she could not be reached for comment.