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'20 years later, I still wake up screaming' Statute of limitations troubles rape victim in bike path probe

She has been a rape survivor -- for more than 20 years.

For the last 15 years, she has known that her attacker could walk into a police station, confess to raping her and never be charged with her attack.

It's called the statute of limitations. Prior to last summer, any crime in New York State other than murder could be prosecuted only if charges were filed within five years after the crime.

That just doesn't seem fair to this woman, who is believed to be one of the earliest rape victims of the Bike Path Killer.

"It wasn't like after five years, I woke up and said it doesn't affect me anymore," the Southtowns resident said. "Twenty years later, I still wake up screaming."

Victims like her got some relief in June, when the State Legislature agreed to eliminate the statute of limitations for rape and other violent sexual crimes. Gov. George E. Pataki later signed the bill into law, one of the major items in his last crime package.

The new law, however, does not affect any rapes that occurred before June 2001 -- crimes whose five-year limit already would have expired before the law took effect.

This woman, now in her late 30s, never will get to confront her attacker in a courtroom. She never will hear a judge or jury convict him of the unspeakable crime against her from July 1986.

She obviously has a mixed view toward the new law.

"It's a loophole that should have been closed years ago," she said. "I'm glad it has been closed now."

But she still can't quite understand why her rape never can be prosecuted.

"There are loopholes for criminals," she said. "Why can't there be loopholes to prosecute him?"

The old five-year limitation confounds her.

"After five years, I'm supposed to be over it," she said, "but you'll never be over it. It will haunt you till the day you die."

In a 1999 Buffalo News article discussing the statute of limitations on rape in the Bike Path Killer case, one law enforcement official explained why older rape cases are so hard to prosecute:

"Memories fade. Witnesses move away and die. Evidence gets lost or misplaced. There is an overall weakening of the case with the passage of a significant amount of time."

But several lawmakers and law enforcement officials argued that in sexual-assault cases, the law hadn't caught up with the advances in forensic technology -- especially the advances in DNA.

"I think it's long overdue," Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said of the change in the law, noting that DNA evidence essentially has removed the issue of identity from the equation.

The state's district attorneys and other law enforcement officials had been pushing for this change for years. Clark said he could not see a valid reason for not eliminating the statute of limitations in such cases.

For years, the leadership in the Republican-controlled State Senate had accused the Democratic-led Assembly of failing to extend or eliminate the five-year limit on such crimes.

"I think it got caught up in the Albany political process, where legislative priorities took precedence over public safety," Clark said.

Besides the advent of DNA evidence, advocates for rape survivors point to another reason why a five-year clock shouldn't start ticking on the day of the crime.

Rape is a frightening, traumatizing crime that sometimes can leave its victims not immediately ready to report it or fight for justice.

"That statute was working against them," said Jessica C. Pirro, associate director of Crisis Services. "It was repunishing them. Now it allows people to walk at their own pace."

Pirro explained why the arrest and conviction of a rapist can be so crucial for a survivor's recovery.

"There's still a feeling for the survivor of 'What did I do wrong?' or 'Could I have done something different?' " Pirro said. "This really helps the survivor realize that the focus isn't on them. The focus should be on the offender."

The woman raped in 1986 -- whose attack has been linked to other rapes by the Bike Path Killer because of method of operation, not DNA -- has had more than two weeks to deal with the arrest of the man accused in several rapes and killings in the case.

She has seen the face of the accused, staring at the still cameras focused on him in court.

She, like many community members, was struck by the stories about the accused man, Altemio C. Sanchez, who otherwise has been described as an upstanding member of the community.

"It scared me, because in my mind, I thought it was a basement dweller who had no life," she said. "When I found out he was a respected [member] of the community, it made me feel unsafe all over again. It scared me more than before."

This woman insists she doesn't hate her attacker. She calls him a coward; he has already destroyed so many lives. Why can't he say he's guilty?

She would love to ask the alleged Bike Path Killer something else: Why did he kill some of his victims and not others? In other words, why not her?

"I think he's some kind of monster, some kind of demon," she said. "I wouldn't waste my time hating him. I spent years hating him, and it ruined my life."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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