Originally Published July 8, 2013
Short, bald Altemio Sanchez, 48, sat in a booth with his wife, Kathleen, at the Solé restaurant in Buffalo, New York.
Three undercover detectives sat at the bar. They had instructed the restaurant’s manager not to allow employees to touch items on the table the Sanchezes shared.
The couple left the restaurant, leaving behind a good tip, and a water glass and eating utensils Altemio Sanchez had used. Detectives gathered those items. They followed Sanchez to a bookstore at which he drank out of a coffee cup, which they also took when he left behind.
DNA results were back the next day conclusively linking Sanchez to several rapes and three murders.
Sanchez had been born on January 19, 1958 in Puerto Rico. When he was two, the family moved to the continental United States, living first in Florida and later in Buffalo. Sanchez never knew his father, who deserted him when Sanchez was two, but was raised by his mother and a stepfather. His aunt, Margarita Torres, recalled that as a child Sanchez was “nice,” “serious,” and “quiet.”
As an adult, he worked steadily as a machinist in a factory for 23 years, enjoyed a longtime marriage and had two children. He was known as a friendly, helpful neighbor. As Kareem Fahim and David Staba report for The New York Times, Sanchez would “offer his generator after a storm” and help neighbors install “heated gutters.” He had been a Little League coach affectionately called “Uncle Al” by the players.
However, there was a side Sanchez carefully hid from family and friends. Detectives believe that side erupted in 1981 when he raped a woman.
In 1983, he went to work at the factory he would still work at when arrested.
Police believe Sanchez raped a female jogger in 1986. According to Detective Lissa Redmond, the victim was “raped and strangled in such a way almost every blood vessel in her eyes was burst.” Miraculously, she survived.
It is believed that he may have raped several more victims before finally killing one. Linda Yalem, a State University of Buffalo sophomore, was jogging on a bike path in 1990 when Sanchez raped and strangled her to death.
In 1991, Sanchez had a minor brush with the law. Believing an undercover policewoman was a prostitute, he asked, “Are you looking for some action?” He offered her money for sex. Arrested, he paid a $75 fine.
Apparently, Kathleen was forgiving as their marriage continued. She may not have wanted to break up the family since they were raising two young sons.
Sanchez attacked Majane Mazur, 32, a prostitute, in 1992, raping and strangling her. He left her corpse beside railroad tracks.
The Bike Path Rapist left a victim alive in 1994. Then his crimes appeared to stop.
In 1996, Sanchez ran in the annual Linda Yalem Memorial Run. Perhaps he got a thrill in running in this race that was designed to honor the memory of his victim.
On September 29, 2006, Joan Diver, wife of chemistry professor Steven Diver and mother of four children, went for a jog. When Steven Diver learned that she had not picked up their youngest child from day care, he called 911 and directed authorities to the bike path by which he had found her car. Police combed the area around the bike path and examined her SUV.
Steven Diver organized a search party. A volunteer discovered her corpse about 70 or 80 feet from the path. She had been strangled but not raped. Detective Alan Rozansky was troubled by the double ligature marks around her neck — they reminded him of the Bike Path Rapist. Could he have resurfaced after twelve years?
Investigators learned that the Diver murder took place on the sixteenth anniversary of the murder of Linda Yalem. In “On the Trail of the bike path rapist,” NBC News correspondent Keith Morrison reports, “Four police departments – the Buffalo police, police from neighboring Amherst, the state police and the county sheriff joined a special task force to find the man now who had been preying on women for more than 20 years.”
Morrison elaborates, “FBI profilers said that the bike path rapist most likely worked at night.” DNA analysis suggested he was Hispanic.
Detectives combing through old case files discovered very similar crimes before the first attack attributed to the Bike Path Rapist. They also learned something deeply unsettling about those earlier, similar rapes: a man, Anthony Capozzi, was imprisoned for them.
In 1985, Capozzi, 29, was a schizophrenic and still lived with his parents. When police came to the Capozzi house, he was certain the mistake would soon be cleared up, and said to Mary Capozzi, his mother, “Ma, don’t worry. I’ll be back.”
Unfortunately, Capozzi bore a striking resemblance at the time to Altemio Sanchez. Victims picked Capozzi out of line-ups as their attacker. Convicted of two rapes, he sentenced to 11 to 35 years imprisonment.
He went before the parole board five times. The Associated Press reports, “His refusal to admit to the crimes made it impossible to complete a mandatory sex offender program.” His younger brother urged Capozzi to admit guilt and claim remorse to make it more likely he would be paroled. Capozzi refused to falsely confess.
Investigators interviewed Capozzi at Attica Prison. Those conversations left them even more convinced he was innocent. Morrison writes, “Their job was to catch a rapist and killer – Joan Diver’s killer – not to fret about old resolved cases. Still, they put together what they’d learned about Capozzi and took it to the district attorney.” District Attorney Frank Clark said “hard evidence” was necessary to overturn a conviction.
Detective Lissa Redmond commented, “We have our serial killer rapist out there and an innocent man in jail. . . . we found ourselves in the middle of two investigations.” Detectives requested rape kits and evidence slides from the Capozzi cases. They were told there were none. Detective Dennis Delano said this caused a “sickening” feeling.
Then detectives found a clue in the Capozzi file. It was about a 1981 rape in which Capozzi had been suspected but not charged. The victim in that attack had spotted the man she believed was her attacker driving a car a few days afterward. She took down the license plate number. However, the owner of the vehicle had an alibi.
Investigators re-interviewed him. The man asked, “Is this about something that happened many years ago?”
Detective Alan Rozansky answered, “Yes.”
The man said, “My nephew, Altemio Sanchez, was driving the vehicle.”
The investigators arranged to follow Sanchez and retrieved telltale DNA from the restaurant and bookshop.
When detectives first interrogated Sanchez, he calmly maintained his innocence.
Detectives concerned about the injustice suffered by Capozzi soon received welcome news: rape kits and evidence slides from the Capozzi case were found. DNA tests proved that the rapist was not Capozzi but Sanchez.
After 22 years of imprisonment, Capozzi was released. Still schizophrenic and now 50 years old, he went into a psychiatric center. His attorneys filed a lawsuit against New York for wrongful imprisonment that was settled in 2010 for $4.25 million. His sister Pam Guenther remarked, “This money can never make up for what this has cost Anthony and our family, but it will allow us to ensure that Anthony will be well cared for for the rest of his life.”
On May 17, 2007, Sanchez, hobbled by ankle chains, walked slowly into the New York State Supreme Court. He pleaded guilty to three counts of murder. He was not charged with the rapes because the statute of limitations had expired.
Deputy District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III stated in court that Sanchez’s DNA had been found on Yalem and Mazur. It had also been found in Diver’s car and authorities could prove he purchased the ligatures that strangled her.
According to Sanchez’s attorney, Andrew C. LoTempio, Sanchez rejected the possibility of an insanity defense. “He decided it would be best for his family and the families of the victims to save them from hearing the details of the case,” LoTempio stated. “He is saving his wife and children from hearing those dirty details.”
Former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary finds the above explanation improbable. “Someone like this, who’s done what he’s done, has no compassion for the victims,” McCrary contends. “He’s shown that repeatedly. No one with any compassion or empathy could possibly act like he acted against these victims. So is he doing that to protect them? I’m skeptical of that.” McCrary believes Sanchez avoided a trial because “what he would be forced to face in court are his own failures, the fact that they have this airtight evidence. They got him. There’s no running room here.”
LoTempio could not satisfactorily explain the crimes but said their seeds were planted in a troubled childhood. The boy was confused when, after his father left, various male friends began visiting his mother. LoTempio said Sanchez suffered a terrible trauma at age twelve but would not elaborate on what that trauma was. He did say, “When [Sanchez] talks about his mom, he starts bawling.”
The attorney said Sanchez recalls experiencing “nasty feelings” when he was about twelve. Such feelings continued into adulthood and were especially strong when he found himself alone.
Whatever the reasons for these heinous crimes, the public can experience relief knowing their perpetrator will be imprisoned for life.
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