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Police: Jailed man may be innocent Delaware Park rapes that sent man to prison bear striking similarities to bike path attacks

Investigators now believe the Bike Path Rapist/Killer -- now suspected in 10 attacks -- could be responsible for as many as 17 attacks over the past 30 years, including two that put an innocent man in prison for 21 years.

Six members of the task force investigating the bike path attacks have told The Buffalo News they have significant doubts about Anthony J. Capozzi's guilt.

Capozzi, charged with three rapes in or near Delaware Park in the mid-1980s, was convicted in two of those crimes. He has been in prison since his September 1985 arrest.

Detectives say that the circumstances surrounding the bike path attacks are so similar to the 1983 and 1984 rapes around Delaware Park that prosecutors should re-examine the conviction of Capozzi, a mentally disabled man who still maintains his innocence.

"I'm convinced that Capozzi did not do these rapes," Buffalo Detective Dennis Delano said. "What I'm trying to do now is convince others."

"In my personal opinion, I don't think Capozzi committed these crimes," Buffalo Detective Lissa Redmond added. "This in no way reflects on the victims or on the police work at the time. We didn't have DNA. We didn't have computer databases."

Detectives concede they have no physical evidence that could definitively exonerate Capozzi. But according to their instincts, based on all their years of crime-solving experience, they feel the case merits further investigation.

"The similarities between the bike path crimes and the Delaware Park rapes are so close that they definitely deserve a second look, from both the task force and the district attorney's office," said Lt. Steven A. Nigrelli of the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Prosecutors plan to review his case, but Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark, citing the lack of any DNA or physical evidence that could exonerate Capozzi, has said it would be difficult to overturn such a conviction.

That's especially true, the district attorney suggested, because Capozzi's conviction was based largely on two victims' identification of their attacker -- more than 20 years ago.

>'Factors in common'

These are some of the reasons investigators believe Capozzi went to prison for crimes the Bike Path Rapist/Killer committed:

*Investigators already have linked the Bike Path Rapist to attacks that occurred in Delaware Park in 1981 and 1986, in the same area near the statue of David.

*In each of the three Delaware Park attacks tied to Capozzi, the rapist told his victim to wait, either 10 or 20 minutes, before fleeing.

In the 10 other cases previously tied to the Bike Path Rapist, every surviving victim who remembered the attack said her assailant told her to wait for a similar length of time.

"It tells me that it's the same guy," Delano said. "What are the odds of two people saying the same thing to their victims, unless it was a copycat?" And that detail wasn't publicly known at the time.

*The attack in each of the three Delaware Park cases occurred after the rapist walked or jogged toward the victim, before attacking her from behind or as he passed her.

Similarly, surviving bike path victims told investigators they were attacked either from behind or as their assailants passed them, almost always after the attacker walked or ran toward them.

"These are incredible coincidences that can't be ignored," Chief Scott R. Patronik of the Erie County Sheriff's Office said of the similar M.O.s.

*At the time of the Delaware Park attacks, Capozzi had a distinguishing 3-inch vertical scar over his left eye, sustained when he went through a Your Host restaurant window in 1982.

But none of the three Delaware Park victims who identified Capozzi in a lineup ever mentioned that scar to police, detectives said.

*Investigators noted the similar descriptions of how Capozzi and Altemio C. Sanchez, the man now accused of being the Bike Path Rapist/Killer, looked in the 1980s.

Both were in the range of 5 foot 6 to 5 foot 8, with medium to stocky builds and somewhat dark complexions. Capozzi, now 50, is a year and a half older.

Capozzi was convicted in two of the three rapes, after the victims identified him in police lineups. But that was more than a year after the last of those three rapes.

*The Delaware Park rapes didn't end when Capozzi was locked up in 1985.

One element in the Delaware Park rapes in 1983 and 1984 differed greatly from the series of bike path rapes stretching from the 1980s to last fall.

The mid-1980s attacker threatened his victims with a gun. The Bike Path Rapist used a ligature to control his victims.

But the task force has found one possible explanation for that change, if the attackers were the same man. In one of the Delaware Park rapes of 1984, the victim managed to grab hold of the rapist's gun and strike him on the side of the head.

"From 1986 on, there's a ligature used," Delano said. "I think it just evolved into the ligature." Redmond noted that in reading the statements from the victims in the Capozzi cases and the bike path rapes, if you substitute the ligature for the gun, "you almost can't tell the difference" between statements.

>More victims possible

Delano detailed the 16 or 17 attacks that the Bike Path Rapist/Killer may have committed.

Besides the 10 crimes originally linked to that man, there are the three attacks in 1983 and 1984 that led to Capozzi's arrest; two other rapes in 1983; the 1981 Delaware Park rape that led to Sanchez's being identified; and possibly one other attack that predates the 1981 rape.

"We're not positive there aren't more victims that we're not aware of," Delano said.

Because of the statute of limitations for rape, no more charges can be filed in the nonfatal 1980s attacks.

As detectives air their doubts about Capozzi's guilt, his family members, including his parents, Albert and Mary, are consulting with an attorney in an attempt to exonerate him.

"I have so much pain in my heart," Albert Capozzi said.

Their hopes center on two possibilities: that the legal system attempts to overturn the 1987 convictions against Capozzi or that the Bike Path Rapist admits his involvement in those crimes.

Pamela Guenther, Anthony Capozzi's sister, was asked what she would say to the Bike Path Rapist.

" 'I don't know how you lived with yourself day in and day out, knowing how you ruined so many innocent people's lives, including your own family,' " she said. " 'It's never too late to make some things right.' "

>Spaghetti night

On Dec. 22, weeks before Sanchez was arrested, Chief Patronik, Sgt. Gregory Savage and Detective Alan Rozansky, all of the Erie County Sheriff's Office, visited Capozzi in Attica Correctional Facility.

They wanted to learn more about whether the rapes he was arrested for could have been committed by the Bike Path Rapist/Killer.

The detectives were struck by the precarious mental state of Capozzi, a Hutchinson-Central Technical High School graduate who has suffered from schizophrenia for years. Family members agreed that Capozzi has an unsophisticated, almost childlike demeanor at times.

Questioned about crimes that put him in prison for more than 21 years, Capozzi had a curious request of the detectives:

"It's Spaghetti Night [in prison]. Can I go now?"

Capozzi, who professed his innocence at his 1987 sentencing, was sentenced to a prison term of 11 2/3 to 35 years. State corrections documents say he is scheduled for a parole hearing in March, 21 1/2 years after he was first jailed.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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