Topeka police chief identifies suspect in decades-old rape that sent innocent man to prison

The Shawnee County district attorney Thursday issued an arrest warrant for Kansas inmate Joel L. Russell, 46, in a 27-year-old sexual assault for which another man was wrongfully convicted.

Joel Russell, 46, already incarcerated for a sexual assualt, was identified earlier this year as a suspect in a 1985 rape and kidnapping of a Topeka woman. Joe Jones, a Topeka man, had been convicted of the crime, but was released when DNA evidence showed he was innocent.

Russell, who is currently serving prison time for two other sexual assaults, was identified as a suspect in the Aug. 24, 1985, rape and kidnapping of a Topeka woman following DNA testing. The arrest warrant was for a single count of rape.

Topeka resident Joe Jones originally was convicted of the 1985 crime, but was exonerated in 1992 after DNA evidence excluded him as the rapist. Jones’ struggles after his release were highlighted in an October Journal-World article. While reporting that story, the Journal-World discovered the evidence that exonerated Jones had been preserved by a California lab that initially performed the testing. The discovery prompted the Topeka Police Department’s Cold Case Unit to reopen the case.

“It’s a good day,” said Topeka Police Chief Ronald Miller, who announced the arrest warrant Thursday afternoon. “We got the right guy. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Now we’re going to seek justice in this case.”

In addition to the evidence in California, the Cold Case Unit found testable evidence from the case at the Kansas Bureau of Investigations. That DNA was tested and matched Russell’s DNA profile in the Combined DNA Index System, the national DNA databank commonly referred to as CODIS.

Russell was convicted in 1986 for a string of assaults in the Topeka area that had similarities to the crime for which Jones was wrongfully convicted. In three crimes in November and December of 1985, Russell threatened women with a knife, as in Jones’ case. One of the incidents also occurred at the Bare Essentials nightclub at 916 Kansas Ave., the same location from which the victim was abducted from in the case that sent Jones to prison.

Russell spent six years in prison and was released in 1992. He was arrested again in Reno County that year and convicted of rape, aggravated sodomy and indecent liberties with a child. Russell received an indeterminate sentence and is eligible for parole in June.

Jones’ original conviction was based primarily on the eyewitness testimony of the victim and two witnesses to the abduction. Jones convinced lawyers at the Kansas University Defender Project to take his case, and his exoneration in 1992 was just the seventh such DNA exoneration in the country at the time. It was the first in Kansas.

In 1992, no DNA databank existed for the information to be enter into, and the evidence had not been retested until recently.

Jones has been in contact with police, receiving updates on developments in the case.

Notified of the news Thursday, Jones said, “I’m really pleased. I’m going to treasure it for a while.”