You could almost hear a mass exhalation Monday as the news spread: Police had arrested a suspect in the bike path killings. Western New Yorkers had lived for 20 years with an unknown murderer, a predator who preyed on women using a popular bicycle path in northern Erie County.
At least three killings and seven rapes are linked to a single attacker who, law officers say, is Altemio Sanchez of Cheektowaga. Police got a break in the case earlier this month and, after 10 days of surveillance and investigation, arrested the night-shift worker as he left his job Monday. The case, based on DNA evidence gathered from the suspect and linked to at least eight of the crimes, seems strong.
The detective work looks like something out of the best cop shows: an unlikely combination of gritty exertion, cold-case review, modern forensic science and an uncle's guilty conscience. Reviewing a 1981 rape, police reinterviewed Sanchez's uncle, Wilfredo Sanchez Caraballo, who back then had insisted that his uninsured car had never left his property, even though a rape victim told police she had just seen a man who resembled her recent attacker get into the car at the Boulevard Mall. Telephoned by police this month, Caraballo finally admitted that his nephew, Altemio Sanchez, had indeed used the car that day, a quarter-century ago. That revelation sparked everything that followed, including the surveillance that ultimately delivered to police a sample of Sanchez's DNA, taken from a restaurant drinking glass.
The 25-year-old lead was only the first of two previous times evidence had directed police toward Sanchez. The second occurred 10 years later, in 1991. A co-worker tipped police that he had seen Sanchez near the bike path, but after finding that Sanchez's fingerprints didn't match one found near a victim, investigators discounted him as a suspect.
Saturday, investigators tailed Sanchez to an Amherst restaurant and obtained his DNA. Now he belongs to the system, and Western New Yorkers, especially women, can breathe a little easier.
But it's hard not to think about the ways this case might have been closed years earlier. What if something about Sanchez piqued police's suspicions in 1991, even though his fingerprints didn't match? What if they'd known then that it was his uncle who, 10 years earlier, said his car hadn't been driven in a month? What if the uncle hadn't lied to police?
But most disturbing, perhaps, is this question: What if police had poked further into the discrepancy between a woman who told police she had seen her attacker in a particular car -- a car whose license she wrote down -- and an uncle who said the car hadn't left his property? Someone was lying, and it wasn't likely to be the victim. Could just a little more leg work have yielded results that would have changed the following 25 years?
It's a terrible question, and it has no easy answer. But that question, and others, deserve to be examined as police, citizens and uncles think about the next unsolved rape that comes their way.