If Altemio C. Sanchez is the Bike Path Killer, he caught two breaks from police that enabled him to continue a 25-year career of murder and sexual assault.
After a woman was raped in Delaware Park in 1981, the victim told Buffalo police she noticed her attacker driving a car in Amherst. Investigators questioned the car's owner -- Sanchez's uncle -- but never pursued the lead far enough to determine that Sanchez sometimes used the car, police said.
After the slaying of Linda Yalem in 1990, a co-worker of Sanchez's told police he had seen Sanchez on the Ellicott Creek Bike Path within days of the killing. Amherst detectives questioned Sanchez and took his fingerprints but never took a DNA sample that could have linked him to the slaying, police said.
In both cases, law enforcement officials say, carrying the investigation a few steps further might have saved other women from being attacked.
"They had him, and they let him go," said a police source familiar with the investigation. "If they had taken blood from [Sanchez], as they did from many others, they could have stopped two other women from being murdered."
Investigators might have missed two good opportunities to catch Sanchez, but in both situations, police defend their actions.
"Back in 1981, the personnel in our department received a lead, took it very seriously and pursued it," said Dennis T. Richards, Buffalo police chief of detectives. "The investigation stalled because of a lie told by Sanchez's uncle, not because of any lack of effort from our people."
"I wish we could have caught [Sanchez] a lot earlier. We could have spared some women and their families from a lot of suffering," said Larry Bainbridge, a retired Amherst police detective who spent years working on the Yalem murder case. "I'm sorry we didn't catch him sooner, but it wasn't for any lack of trying."
The use of DNA evidence was in its infancy in 1981, and the use of DNA samples was much more difficult to arrange in 1990 than it is now, police said.
Sanchez, 48, a married factory worker from Cheektowaga who has two sons, was arrested Monday morning. Police believe he killed Yalem and two other women and sexually attacked at least five others.
Police acknowledged that Sanchez's name came up long ago in the Yalem case but that it was only in the last two weeks that investigators began an all-out pursuit of him in the bike path case.
>Rapist is noticed at mall
The first missed opportunity came in April 1981, after a 21-year-old Buffalo State College student was raped in Delaware Park. According to police officials, the woman noticed her attacker -- now believed to be Sanchez -- driving a car near Boulevard Mall in Amherst three days after the rape.
The woman wrote down the license number and called police. Buffalo police detectives traced the vehicle to Sanchez's uncle, Wilfredo Sanchez Caraballo, and questioned Caraballo. Police said Caraballo told them the car had not been used in a month.
According to Richards, an investigator took a picture of Caraballo and showed it to the victim, in an array of other photos. The woman did not identify anyone in the array as her attacker. The investigation stalled there.
Should police have investigated further to determine whether anyone else had used the car? Should police have suspected that Caraballo was lying?
"That's a very tough call to make, without knowing exactly what was said between the woman and the detective," said Michael T. Kelly, a former homicide prosecutor for the Erie County district attorney's office.
"Once the woman looked at the photo array and said, 'That isn't the man who attacked me,' they may have concluded that this was a dead end. It's hard to conclude exactly what was done without talking to the officers who handled it back then."
The officers involved have since retired, and Richards said he has not spoken with them about the case.
>Asked about Yalem
It irks Amherst police to know that Sanchez was questioned and fingerprinted -- but never charged -- more than 15 years ago. The Amherst department received a tip about Sanchez sometime after Yalem was slain Sept. 29, 1990.
Police said one of Sanchez's co-workers at the then-American Brass Co. plant told Amherst detectives that he had seen Sanchez near the Ellicott Creek Bike Path within a few days of Yalem's murder. Police said the co-worker asked Sanchez what he was doing there, and Sanchez responded that his wife had been taking classes at the nearby University at Buffalo.
When detectives questioned Sanchez, he told them he hadn't even been on the bike path. And detectives learned that his wife was taking classes at Buffalo State College, not UB, police said.
Amherst detectives obtained fingerprints from Sanchez but did not get DNA samples. After the fingerprints failed to match up with a fingerprint from a water bottle found near the site of an earlier attack in Amherst, police lost interest in Sanchez as a suspect.
Amherst police officials said little Tuesday about the incident, and Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark declined to comment on it.
Clark and Amherst police Capt. Timothy M. Green did confirm that Sanchez was looked at in the probe.
"When you look at all the people we've looked at, we probably had a thousand names that were given to us or that we developed through our sources," Green said. "There was always the possibility that someone we may have looked at at some point was responsible."
Kelly said, "If the facts you've given me are accurate, the Amherst police absolutely should have carried this investigation further."
According to Kelly, if Amherst detectives had any suspicions that Sanchez was lying, they should have investigated further and asked for DNA.
"If the man refuses to give the DNA, you've got more reasons to be suspicious of him," Kelly said.
Bainbridge, who retired from the Amherst police in 1999, said he did not recall working on the Sanchez file. But he said Amherst detectives investigated tips about "hundreds" of potential suspects and rarely requested DNA samples from them.
"At various times, every single member of our Detective Bureau worked on leads," Bainbridge said. "In those days, it was not easy to get a DNA sample, and it took three or four months to get it examined in the crime lab. You would want to have a real strong case against someone before you'd ask for that."
In hindsight, Bainbridge wishes his department had investigated Sanchez more thoroughly.
"We all worked hard on that case. I got to know Linda Yalem's sister very well during the investigation," Bainbridge said. "When I heard about the [Sanchez] arrest on Monday, it was very bittersweet for me. I was glad that they caught him. But for the families, I wish it had happened a lot sooner."
News Staff Reporter Lou Michel contributed to this report.
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