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.
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.
The arrest report filled out by Sgt. William Golding at 6:20 that evening states he was sitting at the address Carrillo gave detectives when he saw a faded black Mazda moving slowly west on SW Eleventh Street. Rapalo was driving it, and when he saw Golding he quickly looked away, then rolled through a stop sign. Golding pursued him and stopped him a few blocks later. Rapalo was shaking, nervous. He gave conflicting stories about why he was in the area. Then he consented to let police swab his mouth for a DNA sample. When Golding told Rapalo he and his car fit the profile of the Shenandoah rapist, Rapalo replied in Spanish: "Prove it." Police also brought Juan Rodriguez to the scene, where he identified Rapalo as the man he'd struggled with two weeks earlier. Golding arrested Rapalo for loitering and prowling, pending lab results. They came back positive.
At a press conference following Rapalo's capture, Miami Police brass, city officials, and the State Attorney stood grinning into the cameras. Chief John Timoney noted that although police had received hundreds of tips, none had panned out. "When I heard him say that, it really burned me," Carrillo says. His police friend filled him in, telling him that he'd heard Rapalo actually drove past the cops while they were questioning a different man. That's what the urgent call had been about.
Carrillo didn't believe it was sheer coincidence that Rapalo was pulled over a mere hour or so after he'd met with police. He called his own press conference, and while the English-language media didn't pick it up, Edmundo Garcia from Univision and Mercedes Soler from Telemundo both aired stories. Their interest prompted a tense meeting the next day between Carrillo (who brought an attorney) and Deputy Chief Frank Fernandez, along with other Miami police officials, including Lt. Carlos Alfaro, head of the sexual-battery unit.
Alfaro produced a lead sheet showing that police had received a tip on September 11, five days after the brawl between Rodriguez and Rapalo, from the same woman who'd passed information to Carrillo's source. Police checked it out and turned up nothing. "Alfaro was staring daggers at me," Carrillo says. "Funny how the second time they investigate the lead, [Rapalo] runs right into them."
"I proved to him that he's wrong," Alfaro declares. "He had information we already had. It had nothing to do with that individual. He's full of crap."
That's pretty much the department's official take on Carrillo's claim. Attorney Andre Rouviere, who was present at the meeting, says it was clear police weren't going to budge from their assertion that Carrillo's tip was no better than the hundreds of others they'd received. "I represent a police unit, about 600 Miami-Dade cops," Rouviere says. "After all these years you can tell when they're blowing smoke up your ass. Clearly they dropped the ball on that lead, and if they give the credit to Joe they'd have to admit they screwed up."
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Miami Police Maj. George Cadavid disagrees. He admits that Carrillo's tip did put Sergeant Golding at the Little Havana intersection where he spotted Rapalo, but says Carrillo's information had them looking for a different man. "The detectives set up a surveillance looking for a specific person in a specific car," he maintains. "They were in the general area, but this in no way was the same offender. It was just luck that brought him into that neighborhood."
Carrillo sees something else. He sees a high-profile investigation that was going nowhere, and plagued by problems such as an inability to match fingerprints from the crime scenes to previously arrested men (police said they could not get clear fingerprints at any of the crime scenes). When Rapalo turned up as the rape suspect, further questions were raised because he'd been arrested in October 2002 on charges that he'd molested the ten-year-old daughter of his landlady (those charges were dropped when the victim and her mother declined to prosecute). "They had an investigation they bungled," Carrillo argues. "People got raped because the police didn't do their job. Then here comes a P.I. and in four days puts them right where the guy drives by. They can't afford to give me credit.
"I'm not taking anything away from the cops who caught Rapalo," he continues. "Golding is an experienced cop. He saw a guy who fit the description and he stopped him. But he was there because I put him there. I wanted this much of the credit," he says, pinching his thumb and forefinger together. Carrillo adds that if he'd received the reward money, he would have donated it to Rapalo's victims. (The reward was never distributed.)
Counters Cadavid: "This private investigator is barking up the wrong tree. If he would have been on the money, we would have given him the reward. He deserves credit for getting us out in that neighborhood at that time, but his information was not specific on Rapalo himself."