DULUTH – A coalition of local agencies is receiving federal funding to investigate previously untested sexual assault kits, building on work started five years ago, when Duluth reported the highest number of untested kits in the state.

In May 2018, the Duluth Police Department announced it had submitted more than 400 kits for laboratory testing, becoming the first agency in Minnesota to eliminate its entire backlog.

Now, the local Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) program — a collaboration between Duluth police, the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA) and the St. Louis County Attorney's Office — has been granted $727,651 from the Department of Justice that will assist officials continuing to work toward bringing cases to justice.

Testing Duluth's kits has already led to five sexual assault convictions — three from plea agreements and two from jury trials, said Mary Faulkner, the city's SAKI site coordinator. Thirteen suspects have also been charged using results from the previously untested kits.

So far, there have been 126 hits on the tested kits with criminal suspects in the FBI's DNA database — a number Faulkner said could grow as more kits are tested statewide and more profiles are added into the system.

The grant will allow Duluth police to hire an investigator dedicated to building on those cases to bring to the St. Louis County Attorney's Office and will continue to fund positions created with the money from previous grants.

"Continued funding is more important than ever as the SAKI caseload moves from investigation to the prosecution stage," St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said in a statement.

In 2015, when the Legislature ordered a one-time audit of untested kits held by Minnesota law enforcement agencies, Duluth police had 578 — the largest number reported at the time.

Minneapolis officials revealed last month, however, that the city's police department turned up an estimated 1,700 untested rape kits from as far back as the 1990s.

Since the audit, Duluth has sent 444 of those untested kits to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) for testing. The hundred or so kits remaining are restricted and cannot be turned over to the BCA without victims' approval, which Faulkner said the city and its partners are working to seek.

Last week, Minnesota was also awarded a $2 million grant from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance to test sexual assault kits and aid victim-advocacy groups. The money will be split between several local and state entities, with more than half going to the BCA.

Duluth's local agencies are among the few in Minnesota that have received their own separate federal funding to help speed their efforts to process untested rape kits.

Faulkner said the most recent SAKI grant funds the local program through September 2022.

"We think about it a little bit as working ourselves out of jobs," she said. "We want to make sure these cases and the survivors who are affected by the backlog have the opportunity to participate in the process if they want. But then we want to strengthen the system for survivors who are now coming forward and make sure that this doesn't happen again."

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478