Crime and Argument

Did a private investigator lead police to Miami's serial rapist?

For several months last year Reynaldo Rapalo was a faceless immigrant with a Central American accent who allegedly stalked and raped women, terrorizing Miami's Shenandoah and Little Havana neighborhoods. Overlooked time and again by everyone, the Honduran suspect remained anonymous as police frustration mounted and criticism of their investigation increased. Ultimately Rapalo allegedly raped seven women and failed in four other attempts. Schoolgirls, old ladies -- apparently it didn't matter to him.

The reward for solid information rose to $25,000. Miami resident Juan Rodriguez almost caught him one night, struggling to subdue him after Rapalo apparently attempted to assault Rodriguez's sister-in-law. But Rapalo bit him and he let go. The suspect escaped in an old, dark compact car. Then, finally, on September 19, William Golding, a sharp-eyed Miami cop with good instincts, stopped Rapalo's car and the alleged rapist provided a DNA sample that matched those taken from earlier crime scenes. The city exhaled in relief, and the police department congratulated itself on a job, if not quickly done, at least finished.

But Miami police weren't the only ones looking for Rapalo. A private investigator named Joe Carrillo had also been pounding the pavement, digging up leads on both the Shenandoah rapist and another man who had been targeting women in southwest Miami-Dade (he was never caught). Carrillo, a big, boisterous, 48-year-old Cuban American with deep-set blue eyes and a shaved head, has been a private eye since 1986 and a bodyguard since 1983, starting with the Latin boy band Menudo. He got the idea to run his own investigation in his free time because he'd heard that a man in his Kendall apartment complex had been questioned by police in connection with the rapes in that area. Having all these unknown rapists running around Miami made him think about his teenage daughters. "I decided to look into it," he explains. "The police needed help finding these people." He believes he indeed did help police catch Rapalo, but Miami cops say his tip that put them in Rapalo's path was just a strange coincidence.

Joe Carrillo says Miami cops don't want to 
acknowledge his role in solving the rape case
Jonathan Postal
Joe Carrillo says Miami cops don't want to acknowledge his role in solving the rape case

Carrillo began making the rounds in neighborhoods where the rapes had occurred. He talked to friends, acquaintances, business owners. A week or so after Juan Rodriguez fought with the man whom police believed to be Miami's serial rapist, Carrillo got what seemed a promising lead. A mechanic who works for a business associate of Carrillo told him that his wife's friend had seen a guy who lived near her apartment building come home the day of the fight looking like he'd been beaten up. She witnessed him changing the license plate on his car. "He said this lady was upset because she'd called it in to the police and they hadn't done anything with her tip," Carrillo recalls. "I began to work this guy but he didn't want to come forward because he doesn't trust the cops. It was difficult to get the information. I had to press him. It took me a whole four days to get the address."

On September 19, a Friday afternoon, the mechanic finally called with an address on SW Eleventh Street near Twelfth Avenue. Earlier in the day Carrillo had had lunch with a veteran Miami cop at a Pollo Tropical. He told him what he'd learned and his cop friend passed the information to detectives in the department's sexual-battery unit. "They said your information is good," the cop told Carrillo. "Call when you get the address."

Carrillo was excited. He felt in his bones this was the day the police would catch the rapist. Being a garrulous type, he said as much to at least a half-dozen people as he went about his business that Friday. One of those people was Marisol Serano, secretary to a salsa singer whom Carrillo occasionally accompanies to events. "He came to my office and started telling me the whole story," she remembers. "He was managing two different rapists at the same time, but he said to watch the news tonight."

While on South Beach about 4:00 p.m. Carrillo got the call with the address. So he drove to East Little Havana to check it out and parked across the street. "There's no black car there, but there is one next door," he says. "I call my police contact and within three or four minutes I'm standing there talking to Sgt. Juan Mendez and Det. Gil Viera." Carrillo told them what he knew, which wasn't much. "I don't have specific info on the car or on the guy. I said, 'This is what I've been told you should watch.' Viera told me the first rape happened two blocks from here, so they believed it was good information." Viera said the police would start watching the place. Carrillo made one last point before he left: "I said, 'Okay guys, just make sure if you catch the guy I'm not left out.' Viera looked me in the eye. He said, 'You won't be left out.'"

Carrillo left. A little after 5:00 p.m. his police friend urgently called again. "He says the detectives needed to know if the guy worked in construction and what apartment he lived in," he recounts. "I said if I knew that, you guys would already know." There was another call two minutes later asking for the same information. Carrillo was tired, on his way home. "Tell your boys to sit there," he said in irritation and hung up.

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