Prosecutors could have dropped their rape case against 35-year-old Tyron Stapleton.
After all, the child he raped when she was 13 had killed herself while Stapleton’s sexual assault trial was pending.
And the first reaction inside the Douglas County Attorney’s Office was concern: Could they convict Stapleton without the victim’s testimony? Deputy Douglas County Attorney Molly Keane further evaluated the case and determined that prosecutors had enough to move forward.
Turns out, it was fortuitous they pushed on. A jury convicted Stapleton; he was sentenced to 25 to 30 years in prison.
And this month, prosecutors reaped another benefit of that conviction. Upon his arrival at a Nebraska prison, Stapleton was required to submit a DNA swab.
Entered into the state DNA database, the sample turned up a match to the brutal, unsolved, 10-year-old rapes of two Omaha women.
In turn, earlier this month, prosecutors charged Stapleton with two counts of first-degree sexual assault and two counts of robbery of two women in northeast Omaha.
“It just shows how important it is for people to do their job at the state and take DNA upon (a felony) conviction,” Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said. “The other important thing here is the wherewithal to make sure we obtained the conviction in the first place.
“Now, there will be justice for these two victims from a case that dates back 10 years.”
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It is the second major unsolved crime where Omaha police have made an arrest since The World-Herald revealed in 2017 that state officials weren’t requiring felons to submit a DNA sample as required by state law.
The newspaper’s 2017 investigation showed that more than 70 prisoners had refused to submit a DNA sample. For nearly 20 years, if prisoners said they didn’t want to submit their DNA, corrections officials did little to enforce the DNA collection, despite state law and despite judge’s orders that required such collections.
A push by Kleine led state corrections officials to commit to enforcing the law. A few months later, it led to the arrest and conviction of Brandon Weathers in the early 2000s unsolved rapes of at least four women in northeast Omaha.
According to the sworn affidavit of Omaha Police Detective Sarah Spizzirri, Stapleton’s and Weathers’ case have some similarities.
They both have been accused of terrorizing women after break-ins. Weathers broke into homes, cut telephone lines, bound women with duct tape and sexually assaulted them for hours while their children slept in another bedroom.
In the allegations against Stapleton, Spizzirri gave the following account:
After 11 p.m. on May 4, 2009, someone knocked on the door of a home near 48th and Wirt Streets in northeast Omaha.
A then-22-year-old woman answered the door. The man brandished a gun and forced his way past her.
“Where’s your money at?” the gunman barked.
The other woman in the home, then 27, told police that the intruder stole $20 from her dresser.
The man asked the two women where their car keys were. They told him.
He demanded that they unplug the television in the living room and take it toward the car, through the back door.
As the 27-year-old woman carted the TV to the door, the intruder “touched her on the buttocks, then grabbed her by the underwear and pulled her to him,” Spizzirri wrote.
He reached down her pants and molested her, then dropped his own pants.
The intruder ordered the women to disrobe — then, at gunpoint, took turns raping both of them.
He then made them dress and finish carrying the television to a Saturn sedan owned by one of the women. He stole their cellphones, too, and took off in the Saturn.
The two women ran to a neighbor’s house to call 911.
Omaha police arrived and collected evidence from the scene. The two women also went to a hospital to undergo sex assault examinations.
Police booked evidence from both the scene and the sexual assault kits into the Nebraska Medical Center DNA lab.
On June 30, 2009, a Nebraska Medical Center DNA analyst called Spizzirri and told her that they had tested the victims’ underwear and uncovered the DNA profile of an unknown male. At the time, that profile did not match anyone in state or national DNA databases.
Ten years later, on July 23, 2019, Spizzirri received a letter from the Nebraska State Patrol saying that Stapleton’s DNA matched the profile of the unknown intruder 10 years earlier. Confronted by police, Stapleton denied involvement.
In time, authorities allege, Stapleton settled on a different way of forcing himself on females, just as Weathers had. In the years following his rapes of strangers, Weathers had turned to sexually assaulting foster children after he and his wife were approved as foster parents by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
It was his conviction in the repeated sexual assaults of his 13-year-old foster daughter that eventually led to the DNA collection that tied him to the serial rapes 15 years earlier. Weathers, 43, is now serving 210 to 280 years in prison.
Stapleton never officially became a foster father. He just played one in his neighborhood in 2014.
He befriended Sarah — a then-13-year-old neighbor whose mom reeled from addictions to drugs and alcohol. (Sarah is not her real name; The World-Herald doesn’t name victims of sexual abuse, unless they want to be.)
Stapleton saw an opportunity, authorities said. Unemployed, he watched after Sarah and her siblings, befriended her and began grooming her. He talked about his own difficult childhood, later claiming that he had been in “22 foster homes, six group homes, Boys Town and a kiddie prison in South Sioux City.”
Sarah, in turn, told Stapleton that she cut herself. Sometimes, she wanted to kill herself.
“All I want is someone to be concerned about me, to love me, to worry about me,” Stapleton said Sarah told him.
That someone became Stapleton. When Stapleton and his girlfriend failed to pay their utility bills, they moved in with Sarah and her family. Several times in 2014, Stapleton raped the 13-year-old girl while her parents slept and his girlfriend was at work.
Sarah finally broke down and went to her mother in May 2017. In hysterics, she spilled everything. Her mother did little. Two months later, after the children were temporarily removed from their mother’s house, police interviewed Sarah. She told detectives that Stapleton raped her.
“I told him to stop — he kept saying, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK,’ and put his hand over my mouth,” she said in the interview.
Six months after that police interview, Sarah committed suicide. Keane, the prosecutor, scrambled to salvage her case.
Combing through the evidence, Keane found that Stapleton couldn’t shut up. He begged his girlfriend not to leave him, while acknowledging he had sexual contact with Sarah seven times. He told police that Sarah would “follow me around and follow me around and follow me around.”
“It’s more to the story than you guys understand,” Stapleton told a detective. “If I was to come tell you that somebody made a move on me, who’s going to believe me?”
At trial, he took the stand and said that Sarah was the instigator — performing sex acts on him while he slept. Jurors deliberated less than five hours before convicting him of sexually assaulting a child.
Now, Stapleton will be tried for the rapes of two other women.
At his sentencing for Sarah’s rape, Stapleton lamented his conviction — and Sarah’s suicide.
“There’s no punishment you can put on me that’s worse than the one I put on myself,” he said.
Now, there is. If convicted of the four new felonies against him, Stapleton faces another 200 years in prison.