Police never found who shot and raped Susan Schuenemann, but she hopes science might

More than 30 years after she was attacked in Savannah and left for dead, she still has faith that DNA profiling will identify her assailant.
Susan Schuenemann
Susan Schuenemann

Photograph by Bryan Meltz

It was late on a sticky summer night in 1985 when Susan Kendrick Schuenemann, then 19 years old, came home to her basement apartment on the edge of Savannah’s historic district. A cosmetology student, she had just returned from a weekend trip to Atlanta and was eager to see her younger sister, Christa, who was visiting. As she opened the door, she saw her sister’s suitcase overturned on the floor, clothes tumbling out. Had an intruder been there? The thought spooked her. Susan didn’t have a telephone, so she walked to the closest pay phone a few blocks away to call Christa and her roommate, who were at the Who’s Who, a Savannah bar near the riverfront nightlife.

The summer of 1985 had been a violent one, part of a yearlong crime surge that would make the Savannah metro area the country’s murder capital. In the first six months of the year, 26 people were killed in Chatham County—a pace of one murder per week. The rate of sexual assaults also climbed, with more than two rapes reported each week.

Susan glanced around nervously as she walked across darkened Chatham Square, shrouded in leafy live oaks and Spanish moss, then two more blocks to a pay phone affixed to a metal pole. A couple of young guys rode by on bikes and shouted, “Hey, Cotton Top!” Her two-tone hair was black and buzzed short underneath, with floppy pure-white tufts on top. Annoyed, she turned toward the phone and put in a dime. When the bartender answered, she asked him to find Christa and put her on the phone.

As she began talking to Christa about the scene at the apartment, a man walked up and asked how to get to Bolton Street, a few blocks away. She brushed off the interruption, barely glancing at him: “I don’t know.”

Susan saw the man walk about 20 or 30 yards, then snap his fingers and spin on his heels, as if he had forgotten something. He headed back toward her, but she turned into the phone to argue with her sister, who was reluctant to leave the bar and come home right away. Later, she would feel too uncertain to describe the man in any detail.

In a moment, he was beside her, holding a gun to her head. “Hang the phone up, bitch,” he said in a raspy voice. He grabbed the receiver out of her hand and slammed it down. On the other end, Christa heard only a dial tone. Somewhat unsettled by the abrupt end to the argument, but not really worried, she returned to her table.

The hours that followed have played and replayed in Susan’s memory, in her nightmares, in her PTSD therapy sessions. She can still feel the muzzle of the gun, pushed under her shirt and pressed against her chest. His big, sweaty palms squeezing her close as he pushed her along the sidewalk, as if they were lovers. His rancid smell, his hot breath on her neck.

He told her to keep her eyes closed or he would kill her. “I’m gonna f–k you, then I’m gonna blow your f–kin’ head off,” he said into her ear.

Susan stumbled as he forced her toward West Gwinnett Street, through an alley and behind a gray clapboard row house. It looked weathered, abandoned. They were just down the street from the grand Victorian-era fountain of Forsyth Park, but Savannah could slide from tony to seedy in the span of a block.

He forced her to undress. Next came a deafening blast, a burning sensation in her abdomen, a scream. Her thoughts moved slowly, cushioning her from the shock. That was her scream, she realized. “I’m sorry. I had to shoot you,” he said in a flat tone, and then he pushed her deep into the home’s crawl space.

As he repeatedly raped her, Susan felt numb, disassociated from the horror of what was happening to her body. He punched her in the face several times, then lit a match and held it near enough for her to feel its heat. He was assessing the damage.

She had cash in her purse, meant for rent. He took it and vowed to come back and finish her off. He slammed her head into the ground and growled, “Don’t f–kin’ breathe.” Then he left.

She held her breath, listening intently. She became acutely aware of her body: something crawling on her in the trash-strewn underbelly of the house, searing pain at the base of her spine, and a clammy, icy feeling inside, despite the torrid summer heat.

“I started praying, which is not something I did much then,” Susan says. “I prayed for God to protect [my loved ones] and for them to find my body early.”
In that moment, she heard a voice inside her head. It felt like a message from God: Get up now. She summoned the strength to crawl out from under the house, climb over a four-foot wall and an eight-foot fence that bordered the alley behind it, and walk up three flights of steps to a neighboring apartment house. She tried the door; it opened.

Susan Schuenemann
Susan (right) and her mother a few weeks after the assault.

Photograph courtesy of Susan Schuenemann

The police thought she was going to die, and initially the Violent Crimes unit of the Savannah Police Department worked the case. But though she spent two and a half weeks in the hospital, Susan recovered. She went to stay with her parents at their home in Thomson, a town of 6,800 about 30 miles west of Augusta, where she slept with the lights on and wouldn’t leave the house alone, even to go to the mailbox.

Hospital staff had administered a sexual assault exam when Susan first arrived, though she was unaware, drifting in and out of consciousness. The Savannah police then sent the rape kit—swabs of fluid and scrapings of skin and hair—to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Detectives found Susan’s shoes, underwear, shirt, and pants under the house and a black patent-leather belt in the yard. Amid the piles of trash in the crawl space, it was hard to even know what might be evidence connected to the crime.

With no leads, the investigation was closed administratively—essentially put on hold—about three weeks after the attack. In the following months, the Savannah Police Special Victims Unit, which handles sexual assaults, picked up the case. It had been a full moon, but one shadowed by Savannah’s canopy of trees. Susan had clamped her eyes shut, in fear of her life. She wasn’t able to identify anyone in the photo lineup they showed her. Hypnosis didn’t do much to help.

Two short articles appeared in the Savannah Morning News, including one announcing a reward offered by her father. As the case languished, Susan returned to cosmetology school in Savannah and tried to reclaim her life. But emotionally she was still reeling.

“If a crime lasts an hour, that’s just the beginning,” says Susan, who now directs the Piedmont Rape Crisis Center in Hoschton, an exurban town about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta. “Everything that comes after is way worse. It touches you to the very core of who you are and steals your soul.”

For years, Susan lived with a hyperawareness of her surroundings, an obsession with safety. A slamming door would bring her back to the sound of the gunshot and that fetid crawl space. She would wake from a nightmare, heart pounding, listening for unexpected sounds in the house.

She yearned for healing. Then in 1999, at the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory University, she enrolled in an unusual therapy called EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Participants rapidly move their eyes back and forth while recalling disturbing memories, which can help lessen their impact, and eventually her PTSD receded. But a deeper ache remained: Her assailant had never been caught.

By 2001 Susan was a professional hairstylist, married with two small children. The day she and her husband signed a contract on a house in Winder, she turned on the evening news and learned that a serial rapist was loose in the area. Her mother called, crying, begging her not to move there.

“Mom, do you not get it?” she responded. “There are rapes occurring every single day. I’m not going to allow another rapist to keep me from doing what I feel I’m supposed to do.”

After moving in, she decided to volunteer at a rape crisis center—but there wasn’t one in the semirural enclave just down the highway from Château Élan winery. So she began attending meetings of the new Barrow County sexual assault task force. When grant money came through about six months later to hire a coordinator for a rape crisis center, Susan applied.

She started with little more than a desk and a telephone, and it took some time for word to get out. But once the phone started ringing, she listened as women told of being assaulted by ex-boyfriends or neighbors or strangers, of being drugged or overpowered or beaten. She held their hands, recognizing in them the same fear and shame and self-blame that she had carried for so long.

One September day in 2004, Susan was in the district attorney’s office looking up information for a client. A friend in the office was on the phone with someone at the GBI, and for the first time Susan realized that—though no one connected with the investigation had ever mentioned it—a rape kit exam had probably been performed on her at the hospital.

She asked the friend whether her GBI contact could look up a victim: Susan Kendrick, her name at the time of the crime. It popped up in the agency’s database, which meant evidence in her assault had at some point been sent to a GBI lab.

“I went back to work, and I couldn’t quit thinking about it,” says Susan. The anger came back, along with the first glimmer of hope that she might track down her rapist. I’m gonna find that damn rape kit, she thought.

Susan Schuenemann

Photograph by Bryan Meltz

From time to time over the years, Susan and her parents had called the Savannah police, asking about progress on her case. There wasn’t any. Eventually her friends and family urged her to move on, and that’s what she tried to do in her recovery. But once she learned that her rape kit had gone to a GBI crime lab, she filed Open Records requests for her police report and hospital records.

Until 1998 the GBI tested sexual assault evidence only if police had a suspect; they had limited ability to compare DNA with known sex offenders in the state or nation. Savannah police sent Susan’s rape kit swabs and bullet fragments to the GBI lab anyway. But Susan was disappointed at how little she learned from the brief GBI report from 1985, which noted the receipt of the swabs and bullet fragments but made no mention of any blood typing or ballistics tests.

In the 1980s the GBI did not foresee the future potential for biological evidence, and Georgia state law didn’t require law enforcement agencies to retain DNA evidence until 2003. By the time Susan went looking for her rape kit, in 2004, it had disappeared. There was no paper trail documenting its disposal, but in 2012 a GBI spokesman responded to questions about Susan’s case by telling the Savannah Morning News that the crime lab had had a storage problem at the time.

Typically, the GBI would contact the local law enforcement agency before getting rid of old evidence, but no such documentation ever turned up in Savannah or at the GBI.

Susan was devastated by the bureaucratic dead-end. “What is sickening to me, what still makes my stomach hurt—had they kept the evidence, all of it, just several years after the fact, we would know by now [who the rapist was],” she says.

In 2005 Susan told her story at a training session meant to help police officers in their work with PTSD sufferers. A Savannah–Chatham County police captain sat in the front row, and afterward he asked then sergeant Mike Wilkins to take another look at the case.

Wilkins found the crime scene film in a storage unit of the police Forensics Department. It had never been developed. The case file was missing.

“I don’t think anybody in the police department minimized the crime, minimized her as a victim,” says Wilkins, who left the force in 2013 and who calls the original investigators “very passionate detectives.” But he acknowledges the case fell through the cracks. The current police chief, Jack Lumpkin, declined to comment.

In 1985 the Savannah police weren’t yet using computers to keep records. Wilkins painstakingly paged through ledger books looking for an evidence number that matched Susan’s case number. Eventually, in late 2005, Wilkins located a sealed bag in an off-site storage unit that contained the clothes Susan was wearing that night: a white, safari-style shirt, a black patent-leather belt, cigarette-style pants, and panties.

As relieved as Wilkins was to find evidence from the case, he wasn’t sure how it would move the investigation forward. At the time of the crime, those items didn’t provide much of a clue. Even after DNA testing came on the scene in Georgia in 1991, the process required body fluid, such as blood or semen. But technology has advanced, and today the clothes could yield traces of genetic material, left behind when the attacker grabbed her 30 years earlier.

To understand DNA testing, think back to freshman biology and the double strands of nucleotide base pairs labeled AT and CG. The human genome is made up of more than 3 billion of these base pairs, repeated in various sequences. More than 99 percent of that genome is identical from person to person. DNA profiling examines the tiny portion of genetic code that makes us unique, targeting repeated sequences that are unlikely to be the same in unrelated individuals.

At a single spot on the genome, one in 10 people may have a particular pattern of repeated sequences. But compare more locations and the odds of a match decline dramatically. Think of how difficult it is to match every number on a lottery ticket. For many years, DNA tests measured the pairs of sequences at 13 locations on the genome.

While the exact probabilities vary, the likelihood of a DNA profile matching that of another random person at all 13 locations could be one in 10 trillion. (There are only 7.3 billion people on the planet.) The GBI currently tests at 15 locations, and in 2017 the national standard will shift to 20.

Yet even as DNA profiles become stronger, their analysis grows more complex. As labs are able to detect ever smaller amounts of DNA left behind at a crime scene, the likelihood increases that technicians will find genetic material from someone not involved in the crime. If you shake a person’s hand and they walk away and touch a doorknob, it could transfer a few of your cells onto that knob, says John Butler, a leading forensic DNA expert with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“You have the problem of, what does the result actually mean?” he says. “If I left five cells behind on a surface two weeks ago and a crime happened after I was there, what does that mean?”

Blood and semen contain a lot of DNA, and their presence is likely to indicate a clear link to a crime. “Touch DNA” (also known as “trace DNA”), on the other hand, can be extracted from just a few cells from the skin’s outer layer. If the DNA degrades over time, through exposure to heat or humidity, it becomes even more difficult to obtain those repeated sequences at all of the required locations. And if multiple people touched an item, technicians must figure out how to analyze a mixed DNA sample, which can be difficult to interpret.

At the GBI’s Coastal Lab in Savannah, a new genetic analyzer enables lab workers to process samples quickly, with greater sensitivity and minimal human contact, which reduces the chance of contamination.

Technicians place snippets of rape kit swabs into a tube and squirt in a chemical solution that breaks up the cells. Biorobots, devices that look like microwaves or dehumidifiers, then extract the DNA. A thermal cycler heats and cools the sample, amplifying it and making millions of copies. Even one-tenth of a nanogram of DNA could produce enough copied genetic code to place into an analyzer. (A grain of salt is about 58,000 nanograms.) The test results are reported in a chart that resembles the spikes on an EKG and shows the number of repetitions in the sequence of base pairs at each targeted location. That is a person’s DNA profile.

Yet even government labs as sophisticated as this one often lag behind their private counterparts, as the technology continues to evolve. It wasn’t until 2007, two years after Wilkins found her clothing, that Susan first heard of touch DNA, after a reporter told her that two Dutch scientists, Selma and Richard Eikelenboom, had successfully extracted DNA from skin cells left behind on crime evidence.

She contacted the Eikelenbooms and asked for their help, but she couldn’t convince the Savannah-Chatham police to relinquish the shirt to a lab outside the U.S. Instead, the GBI took possession of Susan’s clothing, though their lab was unable to obtain DNA from it. They did find a single suspect hair on the clothing, but tests yielded no usable information and destroyed the hair in the process. (The GBI declined an Atlanta magazine request for information, stating that the investigation was still open.)

Once again, Susan tried to accept that her case had hit a dead-end. “I was tired of being knocked down,” she says.

Then, starting in 2009, the discovery of untested rape kits in police storage units around the country—11,000 in Detroit, 12,500 in Los Angeles, 5,200 in Cleveland—generated national headlines. Susan joined the Rape Kit Action Project and became a vocal advocate for testing the backlog, speaking out when almost 1,500 untested rape kits turned up in storage at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.

That’s when she visited a private genetic testing lab and learned about the newest technology for extracting touch DNA, which uses M-Vac, a kind of mini wet
vacuum that detects more DNA than the typical method of swabbing a surface. She was haunted by the thought that a vital clue could still be retrieved.

Susan wrote to Savannah District Attorney Meg Heap and Police Chief Jack Lumpkin, asking them to authorize and fund private testing of the shirt, which the rapist had touched repeatedly with his sweaty hands. “My greatest fear has always been the possibility that this monster is still committing these heinous crimes,” she wrote. “Sexual predators do not stop until they are stopped.”

Heap, who worked as a victim advocate before attending law school, was sympathetic. Lumpkin arranged for Savannah–Chatham County police to pay the $8,440 fee for private testing.

Sorenson Forensics in Salt Lake City, Utah, used M-Vac technology to retrieve DNA cells from the shirt, and in December 2015 the lab reported a profile, which was sent to the GBI.

This time Susan believed that an answer was at hand. The sudden turnaround—the involvement of a private lab and the detection of DNA—felt like the hand of God.

But in forensics, detection is only step one. The analysis is what yields answers. For months, Susan waited to find out if the DNA profile would be uploaded to the FBI’s national database of convicted felons, known as CODIS—the best possible way to find a suspect in a cold case like hers. In late May she went to a meeting on Georgia sexual assault response, where she saw Savannah Assistant District Attorney Frank Pennington. He gave her the bad news: The GBI decided the profile was not “CODIS-eligible.” The agency wouldn’t submit it.

The GBI would not comment on the specific reasons for their refusal, but bureau forensic biology manager Cleveland Miles notes that the agency strictly follows the National DNA Index System criteria. “We don’t get a lot of leeway when it comes to what can be put into the database,” he says.

When a sample is rejected, “the first question that you have to answer is whether it is crime scene–related,” he says. “Is this evidence that’s part of a crime? It’s not just something random not related to the incident?”

Susan’s own DNA clearly would be found on the shirt, and the rapist would have left some DNA as well. But others, including law enforcement officers, could have handled the shirt without wearing gloves, because no one in 1985 worried about genetic contamination.

“The other thing that can make a profile ineligible is the amount of data that’s obtained,” says Miles. Sometimes the DNA sample isn’t robust enough to create a complete profile, or the testing may indicate that DNA from more than one person is present. DNA mixtures and partial profiles are allowed but have to meet minimum requirements. The GBI is currently validating new software that assists with the interpretation of DNA mixtures, however, and it could eventually be used to reanalyze the profile in Susan’s case.

For now, she is trying to come to terms—yet again—with the idea that she may never learn the identity of her assailant. Believing in the possibility of a breakthrough only made her vulnerable to a new round of disappointment. But ever the fighter, Susan retains a sliver of hope that further analysis might yield a DNA match.

Even if a suspect is never found, she wants to know that law enforcement has followed every possible avenue to solve her case. More than three decades on, it’s been tough to keep pushing. But she is determined to be heard.

“The injustice of it haunts me,” she says. “[But I’ve learned that] the only justice that victims are ever going to get, that mirrors what they deserve, is within themselves, through healing and forgiveness.”

July 1, 2016. Thirty-one years since the rape. Susan’s cellphone rings and she answers: “Piedmont Rape Crisis Center.”

Seven hundred calls a year come through this line, and Susan takes most of them herself. Recently she heard from a middle-aged woman who was beaten with a rock and sexually assaulted by someone she knew. The Banks County newspaper ran a report with a headline that asked, “Was it ‘rough love’ or rape?”—even though the article noted that the victim was bleeding from the mouth, nose, and ears and drifting in and out of consciousness as she was transported to the hospital.

On another day, Susan is about to get dressed for church when her phone rings. A woman is cowering in the closet. Her husband, who repeatedly beat and raped her the night before, has gone to the store. Susan stays on the phone with her for an hour, trying to help her devise an escape plan. She asks the woman to call her back. (Advocates are advised not to call victims in case the attacker intercepts the call.) She misses church. The woman never calls again.

Many days unfold this way. It’s a life interrupted, a staccato of entreaties from women who are endangered, dazed, disbelieved. Although she can relate, Susan is careful not to conflate her own experience with those of other victims. Each person possesses her own story.

She still loves Savannah, and she travels there a few times a year with her second husband, Robert, a retired police major who works as a deputy at the Barrow County courthouse. She sometimes even drives by the row house where she was assaulted and marvels at how much the neighborhood has changed. The once-dilapidated house has been renovated, the crawl space bricked in.

Robert supports her work as a rape victim advocate, even when she takes a call in the middle of the night or their weekend plans derail because she has to meet a victim at the hospital, regular occurrences that strained her first marriage and led to her divorce in 2009. He knows at times she’s dog-tired. “But when a victim calls, she’s on it. Somebody’s got to be there,” says Robert. “Somebody’s got to care.”

Together, they believe that God has a plan, and this is all part of it—even the latest and possibly final obstacle to identifying who did this to her.

On the 30th anniversary of the attack, a Braselton community newspaper published an open letter that Susan wrote to her assailant. “I have often wondered if I ever cross your mind,” she wrote. “If you ever knew that I lived, survived your wrath that fateful night. Whether you do or not, I write this to inform you that not only did I physically survive you, I have overcome the hell and utter destruction you caused . . . By the grace of God, I lived to tell.”

To learn more about the Piedmont Rape Crisis Center, or to help support their work, go to piedmontrapecrisiscenter.org.

This article originally appeared in our December 2016 issue.