Man who killed Portland activist linked by DNA to decades-old rape

By Ryan Haas (OPB)
March 28, 2024 5 p.m.

Portland police say the agency did not pursue additional charges against Christopher Knipe because the statute of limitations on a 2003 rape case had likely expired.

Warning: This story contains disturbing details of rape, physical abuse and homicide. If you or someone you know may be a victim of sexual assault, confidential support, information and advice are available at the National Sexual Assault Hotline by calling 800-656-4673. Text chat is also available online.

Christopher Knipe evaded justice for nearly three years after he killed a well-known Portland activist with his vehicle in 2019. He may have been dodging charges of sexual assault even longer.

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Christopher E. Knipe, 48, pleaded guilty in 2023 to killing Sean Kealiher, a 23-year-old Portland activist. During the investigation into Kealiher's death, police linked Knipe's DNA to a rape kit collected in 2003.

Christopher E. Knipe, 48, pleaded guilty in 2023 to killing Sean Kealiher, a 23-year-old Portland activist. During the investigation into Kealiher's death, police linked Knipe's DNA to a rape kit collected in 2003.

Via KPTV press pool

Portland Police Bureau records obtained by OPB show that Knipe, who was arrested in 2022 for the 2019 killing of Portland antifascist Sean Kealiher was also linked to a 2003 rape allegation.

Before Knipe’s arrest, Kealiher’s family accused Portland police investigators of slow-walking an investigation because of political bias — which was the subject of OPB’s 2021 investigative podcast “Dying for a Fight,” made in partnership with Sony Entertainment.

Related: Records imply Portland police slow-walked high profile homicide case

Kealiher died in October 2019 in Northeast Portland after Knipe crashed his SUV into the 23-year-old. Knipe and two people he was with that night fled the scene, leaving their vehicle behind. As part of the investigation into the killing, law enforcement collected DNA samples from the SUV.

The Oregon State Police crime lab ran those DNA samples through local, state and federal databases. On Dec. 12, 2019, a state forensic scientist sent a letter to Portland police Detective Scott Broughton, the lead investigator on Kealiher’s death, indicating she had linked Knipe’s DNA from the SUV’s steering wheel to sperm cells recovered in a 2003 rape kit.

A crime scene photograph shows Christopher Knipe's Ford Explorer left at the scene where he hit and killed Sean Kealiher on Oct. 12, 2019 in Northeast Portland. Knipe, who confessed to driving the car and hitting Kealiher, originally claimed his car was stolen and denied being in the area.

A crime scene photograph shows Christopher Knipe's Ford Explorer left at the scene where he hit and killed Sean Kealiher on Oct. 12, 2019 in Northeast Portland. Knipe, who confessed to driving the car and hitting Kealiher, originally claimed his car was stolen and denied being in the area.

Multnomah County District Attorney / OPB

Nearly three years after Kealiher’s homicide, Broughton arrested Knipe in August 2022 and used surveillance footage from the crime collected in the early days of the investigation to elicit a confession. In September 2023, Knipe received a 17-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter.

Portland police did little to act on the DNA evidence linked to the rape case, however. The agency made limited efforts to talk to prosecutors about the evidence and have not contacted the victim more than four years after learning of the DNA connection — a move that a victim advocate said likely deprived the woman in the 2003 case of agency and potential legal protections.

The existence of the DNA link to the older crime also raises questions about whether prosecutors could have pursued a lengthier sentence for Knipe.

2003 investigation

Just after 11 p.m. on March 16, 2003, Portland police received a call about an alleged rape that happened at an apartment on Southeast Cora Drive.

Officer David Bell responded and found a woman who was barefoot, drunk and crying.

She told police that she and her boyfriend had met a man named Chris and another person at a restaurant near Southeast 41st Avenue and Southeast Holgate Boulevard. The group was drinking and smoking cannabis, according to the woman.

Later, the woman said, the group moved to Chris’ apartment, just a few blocks away from the restaurant, on Southeast Cora Drive. The woman’s boyfriend left because he had to work in the morning, according to the police report, and the woman found herself hanging out with Chris alone in his room.

The woman told police Chris forced her to have intercourse without a condom, and she “told him ‘no’ several times” as she kicked and pushed him away. The woman told police she had been married when she was 19 years old, and her husband at that time had severely beaten her. She was stricken with fear again when Chris forced himself on her, she said.

“She was afraid of getting beaten again,” Bell wrote in the police report.

The woman fled from the apartment after kicking her attacker off her, leaving her boots, a backpack and other personal items behind. She said she spent about a half hour at home before calling the police.

The extent of the police bureau’s investigation into the rape is unclear due to redactions in the records provided to OPB. Officers who responded to the scene did not appear to speak to other people who had seen the victim flee Chris’ apartment.

Police took a physical description of Chris, which closely resembles Christopher Knipe. According to the woman, her attacker had short brown hair and was around 5′9, 160 lbs and 28 years old. Arrest records for Christopher Knipe in 2022 list him as 5′11, 185 lbs with brown hair. He was 28 years old in 2003.

Security camera footage shows Christopher Knipe (center) in line at the Bossanova Ballroom on Oct. 11, 2019, the night Sean Kealiher was killed in Northeast Portland.

Security camera footage shows Christopher Knipe (center) in line at the Bossanova Ballroom on Oct. 11, 2019, the night Sean Kealiher was killed in Northeast Portland.

Multnomah County District Attorney

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Officer Bell did run the license plates of vehicles in the parking lot of the apartment complex, but names associated with those vehicles have been redacted from the police report obtained by OPB, making it unclear if any car belonged to Knipe.

The woman gave police the address where she believed she was attacked, which Bell searched in law enforcement databases. The address came back listed to a person not named Chris.

Property records reviewed by OPB indicate that Christopher Knipe lived at the address next door to the address the woman gave to police in 2003.

Though police noted and photographed bruises on the woman’s forearm and wrist, she ultimately told officers she did not want to press charges.

“At first she wanted to prosecute and said she would testify in court,” Bell wrote. “Later, she said she wanted to forget it and just wanted to get her things back from Chris.”

Bell wrote that the victim told detectives on the scene one of the reasons she didn’t want to make a report was because she was worried about paying for a sexual assault exam. Still, Bell took the victim to a local hospital, where she received an exam.

The results from that rape kit were first tested in 2004, according to Oregon State Police. Fifteen years later, Knipe’s DNA pinged as a possible match.

2019 investigation

By the account of Portland police, time had already expired on the 2003 rape case by the time the agency received the 2019 forensic lab report. Until recently, the statute of limitations for first-degree rape cases was 12 years. But in the 2023 legislative session, Oregon lawmakers extended that deadline to 20 years.

That extension would have potentially only left a narrow window to prosecute a rape case against Knipe, according to police.

Portland police spokesperson Sgt. Kevin Allen said in an email that a supervisor for the bureau’s Sex Crimes Unit reached out to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office on Dec. 4 to confirm if the case was beyond a statute of limitations for prosecution. That attempt, however, went nowhere.

When OPB requested comment on the case in March, Allen said the supervisor “realized that there has not been a response to the December e-mail.” Allen said the bureau then learned the prosecutor no longer worked at the district attorney’s office.

Despite knowing about the DNA report since 2019, Allen said the bureau opted not to contact the victim.

“[The Sex Crimes Unit] works from a trauma-informed perspective and has learned through its extensive training that hearing from detectives decades later can reopen painful memories,” Allen said. “It’s not best practice to do that when the statute of limitations has passed.”

Portland Police Bureau, at 1111 Southwest 2nd. Ave., Portland, Ore., July, 2023.

Portland Police Bureau, at 1111 Southwest 2nd. Ave., Portland, Ore., July, 2023.

Caden Perry / OPB

Laura Appleman, a criminal law professor at Willamette University and former public defense lawyer, said she agrees there was no reason to pursue further criminal charges or inform the victim.

“I know it’s all sold to us from CSI and stuff like, ‘Oh, if there’s a DNA match, or there’s this or that, it’s an open and shut case.’ That’s not true,” she said.

Appleman said because the statute of limitations may have been exceeded in the case, there would be very little police or prosecutors could do to bring more charges against Knipe, even if he was involved in the 2003 rape.

Prosecutors also likely would have had a hard time bringing information about the rape case into Knipe’s 2023 sentencing agreement for Kealiher’s homicide, Appleman said, because they are separate crimes and Knipe was never convicted for the earlier case.

Still, the 2003 case likely would have had relevance beyond the criminal realm, even if the statute of limitations had passed, according to Emily La Brecque, a former prosecutor and senior staff attorney at the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center. La Brecque also worked with Kealiher’s family as their victim advocate.

“My recommendation here for best practice would be to absolutely give notice [to the victim],” La Brecque said, noting numerous protections a victim might want to pursue beyond criminal charges.

La Brecque said under Oregon law, sexual assault victims can seek a protective order against an alleged assailant when they are released from prison, or seek input on any parole decision. Victims may also be able to require HIV or other communicable disease testing of an assailant — a right La Brecque noted the 2003 victim was deprived of when law enforcement chose not to inform her.

“When we’re looking at something like this where we are not giving someone information,” she said, “we’re really reducing the situation to just: If it can’t lead to criminal prosecution, then it doesn’t matter.”

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office said it is currently reviewing the 2003 case and is considering the next steps. Oregon law offers prosecutors avenues around the statute of limitations in particular types of sexual assault cases when DNA evidence surfaces.

Knipe’s defense attorney declined to comment for this story.

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