Sunday, May 20, 2007

A long story with a good ending

Last Wednesday someone I've been afraid of for 30 years put himself on the road to being locked up for the rest of this life. And a good thing too.

Confronted with overwhelming DNA evidence of his guilt, Altemio Sanchez pled guilty to three murders of women, two of whom were runners, in the Buffalo, NY area. Those crimes spanned sixteen years, but in fact Sanchez is implicated in a string of rapes, mostly of women runners, going back to the late 1970s. Because of the statute of limitations, none of the rapes will be prosecuted, but the crime of murder has no such expiration date.

Sanchez (whose name and face I never knew) haunted me because, though I have not lived there since 1965, Buffalo was the place I did some of my best running. My parents lived in a neighborhood with easy access to the footpaths of Delaware Park. I took my first tentative jogs there in about 1977. Later, as my parents aged, I visited Buffalo more and more frequently. Since I never quite knew what to do with myself when living inside my parents' culturally- and politically-foreign world, I ran a lot when I was in Buffalo. In fact, I ran almost all my lifetime personal bests (none very fast) in road races there in the 1980s.

But when I trotted past the reproduction of the Michelangelo statue of David beside Delaware Park Lake or around the meadow and golf course, I was always slightly fearful and watchful. One heard of rapes and there was something slightly menacing in those woods. A guy was convicted in 1985 of raping women runners in just that area earlier in the decade. Other rapes continued in the metropolitan area.

Then, in 1990, a University of Buffalo student, Linda Yalem, disappeared while marathon training on the Amherst bike path. Her strangled and violated body was found in nearby bushes. The lurking serial rapist of women runners was now a murderer.

Yalem was killed on a September 29. As it happens, my mother's birthday was October 1, so year in and year out thereafter I was in town, running, when local media returned to discussing the unsolved crime. Mother was aware enough of the buzz to worry about me. I always said, truthfully, that I had learned to be exceptionally aware of my surroundings. As I aged I got slower and slower -- and also ran longer and longer, so I was more likely to be traipsing the whole 10 mile extent of the Amherst bike path. Keeping alert was a huge part of the exercise.

Buffalo visits stopped for me in 1999 after my mother's death. I ran lots of miles and lots of trails in California -- keeping alert certainly, but not carrying the special buzz of anxious caution that I always had in Buffalo.

Apparently Altemio Sanchez carried a special awareness about that September date too. His last rape and murder was of a suburban woman runner, Joan Diver, on September 29, 2006.

In January of this year, Buffalo police announced that persistent detective work had finally paid off: they'd caught the "Bike Path Rapist." DNA evidence suggested Sanchez was Yalem's killer as well as having also murdered Diver and another woman. With his DNA in hand, police began to look into other past rapes -- they soon found matches they hadn't previously connected with this criminal.

The fellow who'd been convicted of the Delaware Park rapes in the early 1980s had never admitted guilt, though he was still in prison twenty-two years later. Rather remarkably, lawyers and detectives were able to retrieve the rape kits from those crimes: they matched Sanchez' DNA as well. An innocent man was freed from prison.

In Buffalo, Crisis Services took many calls from rape survivors, some of whom believed their attacker was Sanchez. Those incidents dated back into the 1970s. Counselor Robyn Wiktorski-Reynolds told a local TV station:

I think [Sanchez' guilty plea] puts an end to a chapter in Western New York.

I think there's a nice sense of closure for the greater community that here is this person who was identified, caught, has pled guilty and we don't have to worry about him right now.

For very thorough blogging of this case, see the topic "Bike Path Killer" at Crime Scene Blog.

Though women runners in the Buffalo area have had a special and justified fear of a lurking predator for the last 30 years, all women who choose to take to the trails have to carry some consciousness that there are men who might try to attack them. The burden of this knowledge is much greater for women than for male runners -- the danger of attack is simply much greater. But there are many of us who simply won't let caution keep us from tromping the trails.


sfmike said...

Actually, I worry about mountain lions and scary rattlesnakes myself. And the story of the poor fellow who was in prison for 22 years may be the scariest "collateral damage" detail of a story about a monster who got away with it. I wonder what the real story will turn out to be.

janinsanfran said...

The guy who got stuck in prison is schizophrenic -- and I sure hope the State of New York has to pay him plenty, though there doesn't seem to be malfeasance in this. The same detectives who caught Sanchez right away guessed that the unfortunate Mr. Capozzi was wrongly convicted and worked to get him out.

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