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A monster hiding in plain sight

A shiver ran through her body. Her shoulders shook, her head jerked, she wrapped her arms around herself.

The weight of the news hit her at that instant. Joyce Heath learned Monday that, for the past 10 years, she may have lived a house away from a monster. She never suspected he was anything but a friend.

They chatted and joked. He started her lawn mower. He came by when her basement filled with water. He was Al, the nice-guy neighbor who always smiled and waved.

She did not know Altemio Sanchez for what police say he is: The notorious Bike Path Killer. Police say DNA evidence links Sanchez, who was arrested Monday morning, to three homicides and at least seven sexual attacks over the past 20 years.

To most of us, he is a name. To Joyce Heath, he is a neighbor.

"He was always doing things with his yard, he just put in a backyard hot tub," she said. "I'd tease him and he'd laugh and say, 'My wife wants it like this.' "

She is a single working mom with two grown kids, a handsome woman with cocoa-colored skin and a 100-watt smile. She is a mother, a homeowner, a protector -- someone with instincts about people. Yet her inner alarm never rang over the accused serial rapist and murderer living two doors down.

"I never saw any indication of a dark side to him," she said. "I just called a neighbor, and we both were like, 'No, it must be some mistake.' "

It is hard for Joyce Heath to picture Sanchez with an electrical cord in his hands, tightening it around the neck of a terrified woman.

It is hard for Joyce Heath to imagine Al Sanchez forcing a woman to the ground, driven by rage and sickness. She never saw a flash of temper in her kindly neighbor. She never suspected that a monster might live in the neat white house with the powder blue shutters and the perfect lawn.

From everything I have heard, none of them suspected Al Sanchez. No friend. No neighbor.

Instincts failed, observation was blind. Al Sanchez, if guilty, concealed his sickness. Not even a radar screen of watchful neighbors registered a blip. It was their street. But it could have been your street.

The obvious question: How do any of us trust our instincts? You see a man for 10 years, you chat on the sidewalk, you welcome him into your home, you think you know him, and then find out you may know nothing.

"He was always helpful," said Heath. "I never thought twice about him in a negative way."

His arrest, for our community, brings relief.

For Joyce Heath, for anyone who thought they knew Al Sanchez, it brings something different. There is a jumble of feelings, sorted and re-sorted in search of an answer that makes sense. Whom do we really know? How much of anyone's reality is an illusion?

"It makes me think you can't trust anyone," she said. "But how can you live your life that way?"

An ice storm hit Monday, coating leafless trees in shimmering silver. It looked like something from a fairy tale. But it is a Grimm Brothers tale, with a dark heart at its core.

Is a friend really a stranger? Can rage live unseen in a neighbor? Does a husband hide a dark heart?

If guilty, Al Sanchez concealed his sickness, disguised his demon, behind the mask of a solid citizen. The worms in his soul never ate their way to the surface -- except, police say, in a fit of rage on a secluded bike path. Or in an act of terror along a deserted railroad track.

These seem like places far from the street where Joyce Heath lives. They seem far removed from the world that she knows. But that place may have been just a few steps away. That world may be closer than she, or any of us, think.


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