Inside the NYPD's Special Victims Division

Top left inset: A New York Post cover.; Main: Detectives Sandomir and Lane, the lead investigators on the Strauss-Kahn case. Antonio Bolfo / Getty Images for Newsweek

When the spokesman for the New York City Police Department wants to say nothing—and everything—about the most sensational alleged sex crime the NYPD has handled in years, he tells you in his best authoritative voice, "Experienced detectives found the complainant's story to be credible and continued to find it so."

Translated, what he's saying is that when a 32-year-old African-immigrant maid at the luxury Sofitel Hotel in midtown Manhattan claimed on the afternoon of May 14 that the possible next president of France ran at her naked, grabbed her, groped her, and forced her to perform oral sex, the cops believed her story. On her word, the NYPD pulled the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, off a plane at JFK airport. They accused him of criminal sexual assault, attempted rape, and unlawful imprisonment. Strauss-Kahn firmly denied the charges, but just days later he resigned from the IMF. His presidential hopes in France are finished.

Why were the detectives of the NYPD Special Victims Division—the cops who specialize in sex crimes, child abuse, and hate crimes—so quick to believe the maid's story? They are prohibited from talking about the case itself, which is still under investigation. And a number of questions remain unanswered. Strauss-Kahn wasn't on IMF business in New York, so why did he come to town? "We still do not know why he was here, and we really would like to know," says Lt. Adam Lamboy, commander of the Manhattan Special Victims Squad, the unit handling the case. Other sources say Strauss-Kahn spent part of the evening before his arrest with a slender blonde. On that, no comment from the detectives.

But in a series of exclusive interviews with NEWSWEEK, Special Victims cops laid out in painstaking and painful detail the way they investigate all their cases. Theirs is a world of far more monstrous stories than just Strauss-Kahn's. Their daily ration of cases are called, oddly, "the daily unusuals." But they're not unusual at all: they're a chronicle of brutal perversion and coy deception, unspeakable violence, and damning self-delusion. Some make headlines for their horror: the Columbia Journalism School graduate student who was raped and tortured for 19 hours in 2007, her eyelids slit, her body blistered with boiling water by a homeless man who followed her to her apartment. Others inspire headlines because of celebrity, like the Oscar-winning songwriter Joseph Brooks ("You Light Up My Life"), who committed suicide last week rather than face trial for luring at least 11 women to his apartment to rape and sexually abuse them. But most of the cases, even some of the most gruesome, don't make the tabloids.

The detectives' candid talk about their jobs reveals not only how they assessed the credibility of Strauss-Kahn's accuser, but how these men—and they're almost all men—deal with some of the most emotionally grueling police work around. How soon does the victim/complainant, as she (or he) is called in the reports, reveal what's happened? Is she crying? That's important. But sometimes the crime was committed months or years before. Sometimes the emotions run a gamut in the space of minutes, from cool and rational to hysterical then back again. Does a woman who claims to have been raped ask for a female detective? That's taken as a sign of possible deception. "I am betting nine out of 10 times, when a woman asks for a female detective the story is going to be untrue," says Lamboy. The operative theory is that women who are lying think female cops will be more receptive to their stories.

Understaffed, underfunded, and overworked, Special Victims detectives often sleep on grimy mattresses or cots in the office and can seem like victims themselves. As one put it, "Picture people swimming in a pool and we keep throwing cinder blocks on them." Inevitably, some detectives sympathize with the accusers. "People with power take advantage," says a detective in Brooklyn who is not part of the Strauss-Kahn investigation but finally couldn't resist making a point about it. "The defense is always that those people are a target because they have money. Well, I am glad that a victim who has no power, an underdog in society, is being believed."

Over long years and hundreds of cases, compartmentalizing emotions is tough. "There's very few people who can do this job, who should do this job, who want to do this job," says 54-year-old Alan Sandomir, one of the two lead detectives looking into the maid's allegations against Strauss-Kahn. Sandomir has been on the Special Victims squad for 16 years, and on the police force for 27. He could have retired seven years ago. He studied anthropology in college and then served with U.S. Army intelligence spying inside East Germany in the early 1980s. Raised in a Yiddish-speaking household, proud of his Jewishness, his Zionism, and his secularism, of his guns and his suspenders (to hold up his guns), not to mention his skill analyzing DNA evidence, Sandomir is one of those detectives who can't get enough. "Doing this job is truly fighting the good fight," he says. "If you want victims, witnesses, informants, blood, semen, saliva, video—if you want to be Dick Tracy, this is the squad to be in."

In sex-crime cases, victims often tell only part of the story. Or they make it up altogether. If they're drunk or drugged, they often don't remember enough to make a case, as prosecutors learned last week when they failed to convict two NYPD cops on the beat accused of raping a young woman they'd escorted home.

The last thing any detective wants, says Lt. Robert Johnson of Brooklyn Special Victims, "is to paint someone with that rapist brush and find out they are not, because the paint never comes off." Even when they make successful cases, the cops in Special Victims can end up haunted by what they've seen and done. Take the case that Sandomir worked a few years ago. He busted a father who liked to have sex with girls ages 9 to 13. When one of that father's daughters reached that age, he began raping her regularly. When she got older, he moved on to her younger sister. Sandomir, who has two young daughters of his own, put the father in jail. But "it tore the family apart because they still loved him," Sandomir says. "It bothered me. I shredded the family. But should I blame myself, or him?"

Strauss-Kahn is now out of jail on $1 million cash bail and a $5 million bond, living a luxurious version of house arrest in a Tribeca townhouse that rents for $50,000 a month. Meanwhile, the cops who arrested him are still pulling together evidence in the same grungy corner of a Harlem police station where they took Strauss-Kahn the day they arrested him.

The door on the second-floor office bears a fading poster: "Manhattan Special Victims Squad, MSVS, Home of the World's Greatest Detectives," but it opens onto piles of cardboard boxes filled with files and a motley collection of clothes on hangers. This is nothing like the sets for the television drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and ironic, slightly sad smiles break out among the cops whenever you mention the show. There used to be 28 detectives here, doubling up on desks. Now, thanks to budget cuts and jurisdictional changes, just nine Special Victims detectives cover all of Manhattan. One woman detective, since transferred, put up holiday decorations last year, or was it the year before? Nobody's taken them down or remembers exactly when they went up. Over the door to the conference room, cutout paper letters proclaim "Happy Halloween."

One afternoon last week, a Mexican immigrant arrested for sexually molesting his 7-year-old stepdaughter sat in "the box," as the detectives call their interview rooms. He was at the same round table with two mismatched office chairs where Strauss-Kahn spent his first night in custody, and one detective asked another if he should be moved to the holding cell on the other side of the office. "Leave my perp alone," said Liz Gutierrez, the only woman detective left on the squad.

Gutierrez keeps her tightly curled hair cropped close around her head, wears little makeup, and carries a gun, of course, under the jacket of her pantsuit. She's single, she says, but doesn't volunteer more. She always wanted to be a detective in Special Victims because it was the place she thought she could do the most good, she says. But Gutierrez works to control her emotions, her guesses, her gut feeling on each case. "When you go in that box, you've got to have a clear head," she says. "You have to keep an open mind."

So now she wants to leave the Mexican man alone in the box, not the more sinister steel-barred cell. "He's crying. He's going to cry on video soon," says Gutierrez. If she gets a confession, that's the cleanest way to nail a case, and as a Brooklyn Special Victims detective told me, compassion gets better results from people who want to explain away—indeed, to expiate—their crimes. "I've seen people admit to the most heinous things," says the detective, "and then just go to sleep."

When Strauss-Kahn got to the box, he'd already asked for a lawyer, he made no statements, and faced no questioning as that first night dragged on. He eventually accepted some scrambled eggs and a ham-and-cheese sandwich. He visited the fetid bathroom where the urinal and the floor beneath it are stained a filthy brown. ("He was an absolute gentleman," says squad commander Lamboy. "You have arguably one of the most powerful men on the planet put in here, but he handled it with dignity, I'll say that.")

Without a confession, initial investigations quickly become a question of the accuser's credibility. And the first interviews with a victim are almost always sympathetic. "The victim will shut down if she thinks you don't believe her," says Lamboy. "No matter how outrageous on the surface, everything the victim tells you is golden." Then the investigators start to test the story.

A crucial part of the picture is "the outcry," short for the witness who is the first person the victim tells about a rape or assault. Did the outcry hear the same story the victim is telling the cops? In a recent high-profile case, Special Victims detectives grew suspicious of Heidi Jones, a local TV meteorologist who claimed she'd been raped in Central Park, when the outcry's story didn't match up with hers. Jones now faces charges of filing a false police report. In the Manhattan Special Victims Squad last week they were interviewing the outcry for a 14-year-old girl who'd been gang-raped by seven men and boys the day before. Unlike Strauss-Kahn's, her case didn't make any news.

For the maid at the Sofitel, the outcry was a hotel employee, according to law-enforcement sources not in Special Victims. The maid told the same story to everybody. Sandomir says that when he interviews a victim he tells her, "Let's play a game: you are a camcorder." He's looking for a minute-by-minute, even second-by-second, account of the location, the sex acts, and not only the attacker's appearance, but his smell—of alcohol, of dirt, of cologne, of anything that can be used as a clue. Along with the details come contradictions, and over repeated interviews the anomalies multiply if the subject is lying. "When people come in to make allegations," says Steven Lane, the other lead detective on the Strauss-Kahn case, "they don't realize we are going to go frame by frame."

One interview room at the Manhattan squad doubles as the scene of lineups. It took the cops hours to find the other faces to sit alongside the silver-haired IMF director the night he was brought in. Often they're pulled in from a homeless shelter, then dressed in identical hoodies so nothing about their clothes or hair color will give away their identity. The cops want the faces to show, but just the faces. The men in the lineup hold up numbers drawn with a marking pen. In Strauss-Kahn's case the maid stood behind the one-way mirror in an adjacent room (which also houses the photocopy machine) and reportedly picked him out right away.

The afternoon of the alleged assault, the maid was taken to a hospital where she was questioned by nurses trained to deal with rape victims. Every inch of her body was inspected for bruising and other evidence. They took her clothes away for traces of sperm and other DNA samples. In Strauss-Kahn's hotel room the cops looked for mingled saliva and sperm in the sink and on the rug. Strauss-Kahn's DNA reportedly was found on the maid's shirt. If, as has also been reported in the press, there is evidence of Strauss-Kahn's blood from a struggle with the maid, then according to one prosecution source familiar with such cases, his only real hope will be to attack the maid's testimony. His lawyers have hinted they may argue the sex was consensual.

But it is also possible that the maid will decide, in the end, not to cooperate with a trial. That happens often in Special Victims cases when people grow tired of the questioning and weary of reliving the event. Last week the Sofitel maid's lawyer told Reuters she was hiring more attorneys to study a civil action against Strauss-Kahn, which could prove lucrative. But it could complicate the criminal prosecution.

"Each case requires its own recipe," says Sandomir. "Sometimes you walk away feeling good. Sometimes you walk away feeling awful."

"Yeah," says Lane. "And sometimes both."