A lie told 26 years ago might have enabled the Bike Path Killer to continue his murderous attacks and sexual assaults on women until last week, when Altemio Sanchez's uncle finally told the truth.
Wilfredo Sanchez Caraballo had been carrying the burden since 1981, when police said he lied about a car that authorities suspected was connected to what now appears to be one of the earliest attacks allegedly committed by Altemio Sanchez, who was arrested Monday.
"If I knew he did something like this, I would have reported it. If I knew he was doing all this raping, I would have reported it," Caraballo said of his nephew. "That's bad. I got three daughters myself and grandkids, and I don't want anything to happen to them."
Caraballo, who moved from Buffalo to North Carolina six years ago after his wife died, insists he does not believe he misled police in 1981, when they showed up at his West Side home to ask who had been driving his car.
Police wanted to know the driver's identity because a woman who had been raped on April 14, 1981, in Delaware Park had noticed a man she believe was her attacker three days later shopping at Boulevard Mall in Amherst.
The victim, a 21-year-old Buffalo State College student, had managed to follow the man to the mall parking lot, where she saw him get into a car. Before he drove away with a female companion, police said, she took down the license plate number.
Buffalo police traced ownership of the blue 1970s Oldsmobile Eighty Eight back to Caraballo. When questioned, he told detectives that the car had not been driven in a month because it was uninsured, according to police.
Before leaving his Prospect Avenue home, Caraballo said, he allowed detectives to take snapshots of him. The rape victim was shown an array of photos, including Caraballo's, and was unable to identify her attacker.
If the nephew's photo, rather than the uncle's, had been part of the array, the outcome could have been different, police said.
Fast-forward more than 25 years to early last week.
Members of the Bike Path Killer task force, scouring old files, had decided to take another look at the April 1981 rape. It was not difficult to contact Caraballo. Investigators reached a local family member who called Caraballo in Julian, N.C., to tell him that police wanted to question him.
"I told my brother to give me some phone numbers of the police because I have nothing to hide," Caraballo said.
But this time around, the now 52-year-old uncle's story about who used the car in 1981 was different.
"We were going through the old files of the Delaware Park rapist, and so we tracked down the owner of the car who now lives in North Carolina, and we asked him about the rape, and he says, 'I remember that, and I wasn't honest and truthful. My nephew was driving the car,' " a task force official said.
This same official suspects that the lie has been bothering Caraballo for years.
"I think it has been something that has been eating away at his conscience. He volunteered the information almost immediately when we told him we were calling on a series of rapes," the task force official said.
There might be something to that.
Caraballo, in a telephone interview with The Buffalo News on Monday, said that after police left his house in 1981, he went to his nephew and asked whether he had done anything wrong.
"I was mad at him because the detectives came to my house. I said to my nephew, 'Have you done anything wrong? Because they were here looking for me.' He said, 'No, Freddie, I didn't do anything wrong.'
"I didn't really believe him because of his eyes. . . . You know, when people lie, you can see it. I suspected something happened because the cops would never come to the house without a reason."
But Caraballo, whose late sister Lucy is Sanchez's mother, still did not reach out to police to tell them that his nephew had borrowed the car.
"[Detectives] took three photos of me in my house. I was sitting in the living room, and [detectives] never came back," the uncle said. "They said something had happened, a rape in Delaware Park. They also told me that if I wasn't the person they were looking for, they would never come back."
Caraballo says that it was an oversight if he failed to mention to the detectives that his nephew had come to him asking to borrow the car because his own car had broken down.
Or, Caraballo says, he might have been motivated at the time not to tell authorities about his nephew because "many innocent people end up in jail." Or, he says, he simply might have wanted to protect a family member until he knew more.
In any case, despite his suspicions about his nephew's lying to him, the uncle says that it was all a long time ago.
"I'm glad my sister is not alive for this. I don't think she'd want to hear this," Caraballo said of the arrest of the deceased woman's son. Altemio Sanchez's father also is deceased.
Caraballo says he finds it hard to believe that Sanchez, who is close in age to him, is at the center of this case.
He says he has far different memories of his nephew when they were young and growing up in Buffalo.
"We would play basketball together. To me, he was nice," Caraballo said. "He looks innocent. He's so nice."