By Susannah A. Nesmith - The Miami Herald, and the Associated Press
The man in the photo committed no crime. But his picture gave Miami
police an unlikely tool in their frantic manhunt: He had the face of
"I told my guys, look for this guy; this isn't him, but whoever he
is, he looks like this guy," said Lt. Carlos Alfaro, head of the task
force that hunted the serial rapist who was stalking Shenandoah and
For Alfaro and his detectives, the arrest last weekend of Reynaldo
Elias Rapalo ended four frustrating months of chasing great tips that
evaporated and perfect suspects who didn't pan out. Police say DNA,
fingerprints and his own confession link Rapalo to the seven rapes.
Rapalo, a 32-year-old Honduran, is a dead ringer for the man in the
Early this month, weary detectives were out of leads and worried that
the rapist would strike again. So they decided to take a chance,
compiling hundreds of driver's license photos of young Hispanic men
who had lived in the Little Havana area.
They asked one of the victims and a witness to sift through the
photos. Detectives were suddenly reenergized when both of them picked
the same person.
But the man couldn't have committed the crimes -- he was in Arizona
at the time, detectives learned. Still, they knew they had something.
Police couldn't release the photo to the public because the man was
innocent. But they studied it privately and distributed fliers to
police officers combing Southeast Miami for the attacker.
On Sept. 19, Sgt. William Golding was on a stakeout when Rapalo
happened to drive past him. Police say he may have been casing the
The veteran detective immediately recognized him from the Arizona man's
"When he looked at me, I just knew," Golding said.
He also noticed that Rapalo was driving a car like the one that
witnesses said they saw leaving two attack scenes. And he averted his
eyes when Golding looked at him.
After he was captured and told that DNA had implicated him, police
said Rapalo confessed to the seven rapes and three attempted rapes
that he was suspected of committing. They said he even told
investigators about a fourth attempted attack they hadn't connected
He also was wearing a shirt like the one the rapist wore during the
first attack, police said.
The first rape occurred in September 2002. But detectives didn't
realize that a serial rapist was involved until two schoolgirls were
attacked in the same neighborhood in the span of a couple of weeks in
May and June.
Scrambling to find a man they figured was a pedophile, police
blanketed the Shenandoah area. But within a week, he struck again --
another little girl.
By that time, DNA results began to trickle in, and police were
stunned to discover that the rapist had already attacked three women
in Little Havana -- in September and December 2002 and last March.
Police also suspect him in the June rape of a 79-year-old woman, but
there was no DNA evidence in that case.
UNUSUAL AGE RANGE
No one in the department had heard of a serial rapist who attacked
children as young as 11 and women as old as 79.
"I checked with people in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and no
one remembered a rapist with this kind of age span," Chief John
The delay in linking the cases was because police didn't submit DNA
samples from two of the earlier cases for testing. They have changed
their policies to address that in the future.
"In a perfect world, we should have known sooner," Alfaro said.
"Could we have avoided some of the attacks? Probably not. Look how
long it took us once we knew."
As soon as they knew that a predator was out there, police called on
the public to help find the man. But they didn't want to scare him
"Obviously, you've got to try and get this guy, but your primary
obligation is to try and prevent the next one," Timoney said. "You've
got to let the public know."
Police posted sketches of the man that were based on his victims'
recollections. They described a car that a witness saw leaving the
scene of one attack. Convinced that someone knew who he was, they
went door to door in the areas where the rapist had struck.
More than 30 officers worked around the clock, combing the Little
Havana, Shenandoah, Coral Way and Silver Bluff neighborhoods.
Ultimately, the city would spend $350,000 on overtime pay for the
Only recently did police learn just how close to finding him they had
"He told us we went to his apartment when we were going door to
door," Alfaro said.
TIPS POUR IN
When news of the rapes spread, tips started to pour in: The rapist
lives on my street; he's my ex-husband; he's in a park in
Jacksonville; I've seen him in my dreams.
Police received 918 leads from residents, bail bondsmen, private
investigators, police in other jurisdictions, even a psychic.
Some seemed so promising -- like the man who drove a car similar to
one a witness had described. The owner's driver's license photo
looked like sketches of the rapist.
"We were licking our chops; we really thought we had him," Golding said.
'When he walked in, he said, `I thought you were looking for a little
guy,' " Alfaro recalled.
Detectives looked up from their desks at a man more than six feet
tall -- a far cry from the short, stocky man the victims had
There were other seemingly perfect suspects: a restaurant employee
who hadn't been at work on the days of the rapes, but he didn't look
like the rapist; a Hialeah man who dodged police for two days, but
only because he was an illegal immigrant.
Then there was a man who attacked a woman in her backyard, then
jumped bail. Police tracked him to North Carolina, then New York,
before catching up with him.
Detectives rushed his DNA back to Florida overnight. It didn't match.
"That was depressing," said Detective Gary Jackson, one of the
investigators who traveled to New York.
In the course of the manhunt, police took voluntary DNA samples from 290
"Now that I think about it, we did harass a lot of people," Alfaro
said. "A lot of innocent people."
By August, two months after the last known rape, the 12 men and women
in the sexual-crimes unit were still working around the clock,
sacrificing their personal lives to the hunt. The intense effort was
taking a toll on everyone.
"I've got a team that I coach -- half the team left," Golding said.
'I got a note from my kid one night: `I love you. I miss you,' "
Detective Tony Piulats said. "He's 6 years old. That was hard."
Alfaro said a couple of investigators left the unit because the
stress of the investigation was too much.
They had reached a dead end. It seemed that the serial rapist could
be anywhere, yet he was nowhere.
"I would drive home on I-95 and look at cars," Golding said.
"You get obsessed; you start looking at your neighbors," Alfaro said.
Investigators refocused on a map of where the attacks occurred.
'I would sit there every day and think to myself, `I know this map is
telling me something,' " Alfaro said.
Alfaro decided to concentrate on a roughly 100-block area from Coral
Way to Flagler Street between 12th and 17th avenues, where six of the
nine attacks occurred. Motorcycle officers were assigned to cover the
heavily traveled avenues, while sexual-crimes unit investigators
combed the side streets.
All had copies of the Arizona man's driver's license photo.
Said Alfaro: "This photo looks more like [Rapalo] than his own