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Innocent Man's Face Led to Arrest in Miami Rapes

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 a rapist.

"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 Little Havana.

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 photo.

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.

It worked.

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 neighborhood.

The veteran detective immediately recognized him from the Arizona man's photo.

"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 to him.

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.

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 Timoney said.

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 off.

"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 search.

Only recently did police learn just how close to finding him they had been.

"He told us we went to his apartment when we were going door to door," Alfaro said.

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 described.

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 men.

"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 driver's license."

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