In the end, Altemio Sanchez was tripped up by a rape that occurred five years before the supposed start of the "bike path rapes" -- a 1981 attack for which he never will be prosecuted.
Investigators say the 20-year bike path rape and murder mystery finally was cracked in the last 10 days, thanks largely to his uncle's belated admission that Sanchez had been using a vehicle linked to a 1981 rape in Delaware Park.
The end came unceremoniously Monday morning when Sanchez was stopped going home from work, a day and a half after he left his DNA on glasses he drank from in an upscale Amherst restaurant, authorities said. Sanchez now is expected to be charged with at least one of the bike path murders.
A relieved group of law enforcement officials announced Monday that DNA evidence has linked the 48-year-old Cheektowaga machine operator to three homicides and at least seven sexual attacks that led to the moniker "Bike Path Rapist."
"All of Erie County can rest a little easier today, because the monster known as the Bike Path Rapist has been brought into custody," Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard told a packed news conference Monday afternoon.
Sanchez was scheduled to be arraigned this morning in Buffalo on a second-degree murder charge in the 1990 slaying of Linda Yalem on the Ellicott Creek Bike Path. DNA evidence also tied the same attacker to the 1992 killing of Majane Mazur and last fall's killing of Joan Diver in the Town of Newstead, authorities said.
He apparently won't be charged, though, with the seven other rapes previously attributed to the same serial rapist between 1986 and 1994. The statute of limitations prevents prosecution of cases more than five years old, although that timetable can be stretched to nine years in some cases.
Just as profilers had suspected, Sanchez never stood out in his typical middle-class Cheektowaga neighborhood.
"He lived with us. He worked with us. He was part of the community," District Attorney Frank J. Clark said. "And nobody knew anything, other than that he was 'Joe Smith' and he lived next door."
A task force of investigators from the Erie County Sheriff's Office, the Amherst and Buffalo police and state police cracked the case, with their tireless efforts and teamwork, investigators say. "We've had the DNA [from the killer] all the time," Clark said. "But what led us to [Sanchez] was plain old, boring police work. Science is wonderful, but . . ."
The retelling of the last 10 days of events would read like something out of a John Grisham or James Patterson novel.
Nothing was more crucial than another look by task force investigators at an April 14, 1981, rape of a 21-year-old Buffalo State College student in Delaware Park.
This case caught their eye, largely because three days after the attack, the victim spotted a man resembling her attacker at the Boulevard Mall in Amherst. She followed the man, saw him leave the scene in a white vehicle, jotted down the license plate number and called police.
Authorities tracked down the vehicle, which was registered to Sanchez's uncle, Wilfredo Sanchez Caraballo, then a resident of Buffalo's West Side.
Caraballo told police the car, lacking insurance, hadn't been used in a long time. Police took photos of the uncle and the car, which were shown to the victim. Law enforcement sources say she recognized the car but not the man.
About 10 days ago, the detectives tracked down the uncle, now living in North Carolina, and reinterviewed him. This time he provided a different version of the story he had told detectives almost 26 years ago.
He admitted that his nephew had borrowed the car to go to the Amherst mall with his girlfriend, now Sanchez's wife, a task force official said.
Asked about the discrepancy Monday, Caraballo admitted that he was protecting his nephew, because jails are filled with innocent people.
"If I didn't tell them in 1981 that my nephew used the car, it's because I didn't really know what was going on, and, you know, it's family and I really wanted to find out what was going on," he said.
Armed with Sanchez's name as a suspect in the 1981 rape, investigators kept the Allendale Road resident under tight surveillance for the last 10 days.
Detectives noticed Sanchez had a pistol permit that had been revoked after he was arrested for patronizing a prostitute in 1991.
"Several days ago, officers went to his residence and asked how the gun that he previously owned was disposed of," Howard said.
Investigators seized the gun, hopeful that it would yield the DNA that would tie Sanchez to the rapes and killings. They almost arrested him Saturday but didn't feel they had sufficient evidence, sources said.
So they continued tracking his every move, to restaurants, bookstores, anywhere he went.
Their break came Saturday evening, in Sole, an upscale restaurant in the Walker Center, in Amherst, where Sanchez dined with a woman presumed to be his wife.
Maura Crawford, an owner of Sole, said the couple came in early, at about 5:15 p.m. A short time later, three men also came in and sat in the bar, discreetly identifying themselves as undercover police officers.
The officers asked that the couple's table not be cleaned after they left, but the manager replied that that would leave the restaurant looking unkempt. The staff agreed to leave the glassware untouched; as soon as the couple left, the officers swooped down on the table and got the glasses.
Crawford said the couple just "sat quietly." They were dressed in casual chic, considered usual attire for the restaurant. "They fit in perfectly. She was perfectly poised, perfect posture."
He seemed to have an "OCD thing," obsessively arranging and rearranging the silverware and glassware, Crawford said.
Those glasses, law enforcement sources said, yielded the DNA that led to Sanchez's arrest.
So task force members tailed Sanchez from his workplace, Luvata Buffalo, the former American Brass, after his shift Monday morning.
"He was driving around" and did not appear to be headed back to his Cheektowaga home, Buffalo Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson said. "He may have known that he was being followed."
Sanchez was stopped on a Buffalo street and taken in for questioning before being arrested. Authorities were quick Monday to label these investigative efforts a combination of old-fashioned police work and modern technology, in the form of DNA testing.
However, law enforcement officers also told The Buffalo News that Amherst police actually had their hands on Sanchez in 1991 -- but let him go because they didn't believe he was the Bike Path Rapist.
That year, a co-worker at Luvata called Amherst police with a tip, saying he had seen Sanchez in the vicinity of the Ellicott Creek Bike Path, the scene of two 1990 rapes, including the killing of Yalem.
Amherst police followed Sanchez and questioned him. Sources say they obtained fingerprints from him and compared them to a set found on a bottle near one of the crime scenes on the path.
But they didn't match -- so police let him go.
Following Monday morning's arrest, investigators said Sanchez appeared to match several parts of the previous police profile of the Bike Path Rapist.
He's 5-foot-8 and 48 years old, within the previously stated height and age ranges. He's dark-complexioned and Hispanic; investigators had speculated he might be Hispanic or Native American. He worked the night shift; most of the attacks were on weekday mornings. He worked not far from three of the attacks in the Riverside area of Buffalo.
News Staff Reporters Niki Cervantes and Lou Michel contributed to this report.