Man accused in 2007 sex assault case in Minneapolis may soon finally face trial

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office is going to great lengths to hold an accused sex offender accountable for a violent Minneapolis assault 15 years ago.

The case is legally complicated. It involves a jogger allegedly attacked at gunpoint by a stranger on Boom Island and a suspect who would spend years in federal prison for a separate, unrelated crime.

However, prosecutors never let the case against him go, despite some long odds.

It was March 23, 2007, a Friday evening, when an unsuspecting female jogger ran into a nightmare on Boom Island. According to court documents, an unknown assailant startled the woman on a path.

The armed suspect would eventually force her down some stairs at gunpoint, threatening to shoot her if she did not comply. Held against a retaining wall, the man sexually assaulted her telling her to "stop crying, I’m gonna rape you, you know what I want."

He then told her to close her eyes and count to 1,000. The alleged victim would rush to a nearby relative's house where she was able to preserve some forensic evidence that would match to a known suspect in the national DNA index system: Robert Allen DeLong, then of Blaine.

DeLong would be arrested days later after robbing a Lakeville bank. FOX 9 was there soon after DeLong fled right into an unrelated law enforcement saturation sting on I-35. Lakeville Police Officer Greg Jensen made the stop.

"I'm sure he was surprised there were so many so quickly," Officer Jensen explained at the time. "A lot of it was luck. Luck for us, not so much for him."

While DeLong would eventually spend years in federal prison for the bank robbery, Hennepin County prosecutors were forced to drop the sex assault charges against him at the time when the woman he allegedly attacked suffered even more catastrophic harm. She was involved in a life-altering car crash and never recovered to the point where she could participate in the criminal justice system.

Robert DeLong (Supplied)

The law 15 years ago made it impossible for the state to press on with the case.

"The issue becomes this alleged victim, in this case, are her statements coming in here or not?" explained criminal defense attorney Debbie Lang. "And if they are suppressed, is there still enough to move forward?"

Lang is a Twin Cities criminal defense attorney who is not involved in this case, but well versed in the laws surrounding a U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Crawford v. Washington. The ruling would transform how prosecutors are allowed to get statements admitted into court if a witness, or a victim in this case, is "unavailable" and therefore, unable to have their claims cross-examined by the accused's counsel.

Those questions might include what the woman reported to 911 in the heat of the moment, how do we know he was armed with a firearm, and what did she tell friends and family at the time?

As the law evolved surrounding whether certain out-of-court statements are admissible in criminal proceedings, veteran prosecutor Amy Sweasy kept assessing the situation and re-filed the case against DeLong in 2016, two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, even with the woman still unable to take part in the proceedings.

"Initially, when Crawford came out, everyone viewed it as a bright line," said Lang. "Any out-of-court statement from a non-available witness was not coming in. That has unquestionably, unquestionably been chipped away."

When DeLong's federal sentence for the bank robbery expired recently, Sweasy and her complex prosecution unit pounced. The now-62-year-old suspect was transferred to the Hennepin County Jail on July 1 where he remains locked up as the sex assault case against him plays out.

While DeLong's alleged victim still cannot participate in the legal proceedings because of the devastating consequences of the crash, she is still alive and there remains long-sought justice to be served on her behalf.

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office declined to participate in this story citing the ongoing litigation as well as respect for the alleged victim in the case.

Robert DeLong is due back in court for his next hearing in September.