Search for serial rapist results in dramatic chase of white van and a long-awaited arrest
by Don Kazak
It was a holiday weekend that began and ended with Hollywood-like drama.
It began Saturday morning with the latest in a long string of attempted rapes and sexual assaults and ended with the arrest of a 25-year-old man who police say is a "strong suspect."
And what happened in between was the stuff of movies.
The weekend included a dramatic chase involving the elusive white van that had been the subject of a five-month search, and a massive manhunt in and around a foggy East Palo Alto and Baylands. But somehow the driver of the van, which was used in two rapes and was spotted in three other attacks, managed to elude police.
Then on Monday at 1 p.m. police made the announcement that Peninsulans had been waiting for since August.
"We have located a suspect and he is in custody," said Palo Alto Officer Lori Kratzer.
Later that day police identified the suspect as 25-year-old Romel Demetrias Reid of East Palo Alto. Sources in East Palo Alto say that little was immediately known about Reid other than he reportedly has a young son in first grade and family in East Palo Alto.
One source indicated that Reid had recently gotten out of jail, but the image of a rapist didn't immediately fit.
Police say the suspect who was arrested Monday made one crucial mistake, according to police. He left behind a key piece of evidence in the white van police had been chasing. What that evidence was, police are not saying.
Police pulled several articles from the van on Saturday including a couple of blankets and a baseball cap. The van was then loaded onto a truck and taken to San Jose for inspection.
"We did find some evidence, and we are linking it to the serial rapist," Kratzer said. "Yes, we got lucky, and, yes, there was evidence in the van."
Reid had been arrested on a parole violation and a drunk driving warrant. As of Monday night, when the Weekly went to press, he had not been charged in serial rape attacks, but that may be just a matter of days.
"He is a very strong suspect," Kratzer said. "We need a couple more days, we think, for more investigative work" before additional charges are filed.
Kratzer described Reid as 6-4 tall and 195 pounds. She declined to say where he was arrested or where he works, partly because the police still may need to issue search warrants to obtain more evidence.
The serial rapist had been described as a black male, 18-25 years old, 6 feet tall, 160-200 pounds, muscular build and dark complexion.
"Yes, there are similarities," Kratzer said. "The person we have in custody has similarities to the sketch. His physical description fits pretty closely," Kratzer said.
Although Kratzer would not indicate where the suspect was arrested, she said he was taken into custody by the Sexual Assault Task Force, which is made up of members of various local law enforcement agencies.
"Things have been moving very fast today," she said, adding that "we will have charges or will have completely eliminated him."
Kratzer said police investigators were talking to witnesses and victims of the seven rapes and three attempted rapes that have been attributed to the serial rapist.
Police said Reid is believed to be the man who fled from the van on Saturday.
If one of the victims or witnesses is able to offer an identification of the man police are holding, or if police obtain a search warrant and draw blood to match DNA evidence in the attacks, then he could be charged in one or more of the rapes.
The events leading to Reid's arrest began at 2 a.m. Saturday with another attempted sexual assault by the serial rapist who has been terrorizing the Peninsula for five months.
A 15-year-old girl was attacked while she was walking on the 1300 block of Montecito Avenue in Mountain View. She told police that just prior to the attack a white van passed her slowly.
Police issued an alert for the van and Palo Alto police posted officers on major streets leading to and from Mountain View, said Palo Alto Capt. Kathy McKenna. The strategy paid off.
"It's the boring part of police work, but we just sat and watched," Kratzer said.
At 7 a.m. Saturday, Palo Alto Officer Tom Pohl, who just joined the force this past summer, saw a white van southbound on El Camino Real near San Antonio Road. Pohl attempted to make a traffic stop and the van initially pulled over as if it was stopping. The driver of the van motioned for the police car to pass him, but then sped away. The chase was on.
The van traveled south on El Camino to Showers Drive in Mountain View and turned left on Showers Drive and then left again on California Avenue. The van turned right onto San Antonio Road and headed out to Bayshore Freeway where it turned north, hitting speeds of 100 mph.
The van took the Embarcadero Road/Oregon Expressway exit in Palo Alto, but the driver immediately came back on the freeway and then exited at University Avenue into East Palo Alto.
The car chase ended at 7:08 a.m. when the van jumped a curb at the end of Beech Street in East Palo Alto and crashed up onto a grassy berm, across San Francisquito Creek from the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course.
A man was seen exiting the van in the foggy morning and running away. Police quickly sealed off a several-block long area of East Palo Alto by placing police cars at every intersection. Palo Alto police set up a command post at the Baylands Athletic Center at the end of the footpath along the Baylands.
Some 45 officers from surrounding cities, along with seven police dogs and a helicopter from the East Bay Regional Park District, participated in the search.
A police car was posted at every intersection leading into the search area, and anyone trying to enter or leave the area was questioned by police. Officers also were checking car trunks.
Police stopped joggers and bicyclists from using the popular Baylands trail that went through the search area.
While the search was centered in East Palo Alto, Palo Alto Police Agent Jean Krahulec said that officers also checked areas on the Palo Alto side of the creek. Krahulec said that anyone determined to cross the creek could do so, and she said she had pulled suspects out of the water and the mud in previous cases.
"It's very encouraging that steady and persistent police work and being on the ball when opportunity strikes paid off" by allowing police to spot the van Saturday morning, said City Council member Jean McCown, who happened to be out at the Baylands when police mounted an all-out search to find the driver of the van after he crashed in East Palo Alto.
"Hopefully, it turns out that this is the guy," said McCown, who heard the news of the arrest on the radio Monday.
Hopes were high when a bloodhound from the Contra Costa Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue Unit unit arrived and was let loose at 3 p.m. in East Palo Alto after being given a scent from the van. But the dejected officers and bloodhound returned two hours later after not finding anything, as the police began removing their perimeter from East Palo Alto.
"He may be hunkered down somewhere and we missed him, or maybe he got out," said Krahulec, "or maybe he's one of the two men in custody."
Police detained three men in East Palo Alto on Saturday morning. One was later released and the other two were booked, one a parole violation and one on traffic warrants, while police were investigating whether either man was connected to the serial rapist.
Police also interviewed the owner of the van, but he was not charged, said Kratzer. She said he didn't match the description of the rapist.
She added that the owner of the van is not a suspect in the case, although police are uncertain of what connection there is between the owner of the van and the man they arrested Monday morning. "He likes to loan out his cars," Kratzer said.
Kratzer added that police received a number of telephone tips on Saturday after the chase into East Palo Alto, and police are checking out those tips. The police line for tips is 329-2307.
Police returned to the East Palo Alto neighborhood on Sunday to continue their search, but unlike Saturday did not block off streets and establish a perimeter.
With the publicity about the Tuesday attack in Mountain View, a group of Guardian Angels from San Francisco were also out in Mountain View and Palo Alto on Friday and Saturday, passing out leaflets to warn people about the rapist. The Guardian Angels also posted large, hand-lettered signs at Oregon Expressway and Middlefield Road on Saturday to let motorists know about the rapist.
The Mid-Peninsula Rape Crisis Center said Monday that it had received an increase in calls since the rapist's most recent round of attacks.
"The number of crisis calls has increased since (the rapist) became active again, but not so much because women are in fear, but what they could do to prevent rape in general," said Jo, a volunteer counselor who would only giver her first name.
"We've also gotten a lot of calls from women who have been raped previously who have flashbacks of their own attacks and need someone to talk to," she said.
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