LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — There are many reasons why a case can go cold.
It could be police mistakes in the investigative process, a district attorney declining to prosecute, a DNA testing backlog... but regardless of the reason, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's Cold Case Sex Assault unit works diligently to bring justice to victims that could come decades after the crime.
Their work bridges the gap of time, but we've learned their time may be running out.
"When I went to go open my door, he came up with a gun and took me in his car."
"My whole world turned upside down."
"He made me pull off my clothes and that's when that happened."
Sharon, Sabrina and Jessica share a traumatic bond.
"You think this couldn't be happening to me. This isn't going to happen to me. Ever," said Sharon.
The three women are beyond tears over the unthinkable things that happened to them.
And for years, they were beyond hope that anything would be done about it.
"Over the years I just wondered and wondered..." Sharon said.
Decades later, we can put faces to the crimes thanks to detectives in Metro's Cold Case Sexual Assault unit who refused to give up.
"It's almost emotional to talk about what my detectives put into their cases... to have a victim hang up the phone and say the officer didn't care about me 20 years ago, why do you care about me now?" said Lt. Rick Meyers.
Lt. Meyers says one of his unit's biggest challenges is breaking through that doubt and long-simmering mistrust.
"I can't make up for what our detectives did or what our agency did or another agency did 20 or 30 years ago."
It was 26 years ago for Sharon Mangum.
She was kidnapped by a stranger off her own doorstep after a night out celebrating her daughter's birthday.
"I didn't get the chance to get the door open. He was there with the gun."
Police records show he forced her into his car to drive to the empty parking lot at the Broadacres Swap Meet.
"And he raped me and stole what money I had and when he got through with me, he climbed out of the car and I climbed out of the car and I ran. I just ran. At that moment I thought, I know he's going to shoot me because he held the gun at my head (during the rape.)"
Sharon threw herself into a culvert and hid.
She got away that night but has never truly escaped.
"It puts a fear into you that -- it's really hard to lose. And sometimes when I'm alone, I get scared."
Scared because the man who raped her had gotten away with it.
When she reported her assault to the police, she says the officer doing the interview made her "feel like a slut" and says she heard nothing from the police after that.
13 investigates learned, DNA wasn't analyzed, leads led nowhere and the case went cold.
Singing helps Sabrina Lavelle stave off the anguish of the night that changed her life.
It was 25 years ago at her high school graduation party at Harrah's in Laughlin.
"Apparently, I passed out. But I really hadn't drank that much."
She woke up the next morning partially undressed.
"I had no idea what had happened. It was super, super disconcerting. My best friend called the cops."
She says it got worse from there.
"Reporting a rape is -- at least for me it was more traumatizing than the actual event. I wasn't conscious for the event."
Police arrested a classmate, but police sources say the District Attorney denied the case, wanting more evidence despite how the young man reportedly described the incident.
"He kept saying, 'I didn't force her, and she didn't say no.' Well, how can someone who's unresponsive say no?" said Sabrina.
Ten years later, "He sent me a Facebook friend request. I literally threw my phone across the room. It was... sorry... it was hard," Sabrina said as tears welled in her eyes.
"It's probably not the department's favorite thing to admit it had people who screwed this case up all those years ago and that's why it didn't go forward," Darcy Spears said to Lt. Meyers. "So that's got to be one of the fine lines that you have to tread."
"We're not perfect," Meyers admitted. "We're humans and we make mistakes. But if you own your mistake, you can only move forward from there."
Then there's Jessica Kibler who was also victimized by someone she knew.
Her case is an example of how complex these cases can become.
Police records show she was raped by an acquaintance at knife-point in an apartment at Shelter Island.
"I thought he was going to kill me so, I just laid there and I did what I had to do to survive. I just froze."
Jessica's paralyzing fear stayed with her to the point where she didn't even feel safe moving forward with the case right away.
"I knew him personally and I was scared he was going to come after me. And so, I needed time to figure out if I was going to go through with the charges or not."
Time passed and the police couldn't find her.
"I didn't have a phone and I wasn't stable. I didn't have a home, really," Jessica explained.
What she did have was the lingering pain and confusion.
"It felt like my own self was being taken away from me."
Five years later, a DNA match came through Metro's backlog reduction program for testing sex assault kits.
"I was shocked. So many emotions, but I was ready. Finally, ready."
Andre Lamont Asbury was charged in her case in May.
He has since been convicted and is serving a 5-12-year prison sentence.
Court records show after raping Jessica, he went on to commit more crimes including felony theft and robbery with a deadly weapon.
Earl Lee McMillian had been in prison for 20 years when a DNA test kit linked him to Sharon Mangum's case.
Police call McMillian a serial offender and say when they confronted him about Sharon, he admitted to raping her and more than 20 other women during the time he was out of prison between 1992 - 2001.
"God only knows how many more than that," Sharon wonders.
In Sabrina's case, her former classmate, Enoch Jeremy Spina, was arrested earlier this month in Arizona.
He's awaiting extradition to answer the sex assault charges in Clark County.
"Even if he's not convicted, knowing that they tried, that's... that's everything," said Sabrina.
LVMPD knows each case is an "everything" case for the victim.
And there are so many.
With 6,700 backlogged rape kits that have now been tested, investigations come next.
"We've done approximately 1,000 cases," said Lt. Meyers.
About 500 hit dead ends again due to no new leads.
They've cleared 173 with arrests or warrants and secured 26 convictions.
Lt. Meyers says it's just a sliver.
"It will take a number of years for us to continue to work these cases and hold the suspects accountable."
And they're doing it with a small staff that's getting even smaller.
Recent budget constraints at LVMPD have led to some hard decisions.
"I lost one of my detectives in Cold Case. That person retired and the budget position was moved back to Patrol."
With pending retirements in December, the unit could be down to just one full-time detective at the start of 2021.
And a new backlog of current cases is building.
"From the end of 2019 to the cases in 2020, we have approximately 500 kits that are still waiting to be tested through the lab," Meyers said.
Without more funding, some insiders say the unit's work could slowly grind to a halt.
"It would be an absolute travesty if this department was disbanded!" exclaimed Sabrina. "They need to figure this out because we're getting old abusers off the street. We're helping people heal."
Lt. Meyers says the desire is still there, even if the dollars are not.
"What the future holds for our budget? We're not exactly sure."
He pledges to never give up.
"If I'm a sexual assault victim, I live that trauma for the rest of my life. And this is the one small piece that we can give them to stop that trauma."
Sabrina adds, "And everybody who has been hurt like that deserves that. They deserve to feel heard. They deserve to feel like they're getting some kind of justice."