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Suspect in Simi Valley Serial Rapes Arrested

Crime: A part-time movie studio employee and convicted burglar is accused of committing 14 assaults since 1996. Roommate tipped police.

July 31, 2001|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 30-year-old Simi Valley man has been arrested in connection with 14 sexual assaults committed over the last five years in this suburban community that routinely ranks as one of the safest in the nation.

Police arrested Vincent Henry Sanchez, a part-time movie studio employee, Sunday night after receiving a tip from his roommate. He is expected to be charged today with several felony counts of burglary, sexual assault and kidnapping. He remains in custody in lieu of $1-million bail.

"We're pleased to finally get back to our victims and help them realize the man who attacked them is off the streets," said Police Chief Randy Adams. "We hope this will help ease the pain and fear of our victims."

A search of Sanchez's home convinced investigators that he is the long-sought sexual assailant, Adams said. Newspaper clippings of the attacks, ski masks and some sexually explicit material were among the items found, he said.

"We have enough evidence right now that we are convinced we have our rapist," Adams said. Some of the evidence, he said, directly connects Sanchez to victims.

Simi Valley City Council members cheered the news. Adams called each of them Sunday night.

"I was overjoyed for the residents of our community and for our Police Department," said Mayor Pro Tem Barbra Williamson. "This has dogged the Police Department for a long time."

"I don't think there's any words to describe how happy we are that this finally came to a conclusion," Mayor Bill Davis said. "I'm sure the public is very pleased."

Despite a five-year investigation that included a six-person task force, analysis of hundreds of DNA samples and assistance from the FBI and state Department of Justice, police as of last week had no suspects.

Their luck changed Thursday when the home of a neighbor of Sanchez's on Woodrow Avenue was burglarized. The neighbor later told Sanchez's roommate about some of the odd things taken from his home: a filing cabinet, a wooden tissue-box holder and a shower head.

The roommate, whose name was not released, remembered seeing such items around the house, prompting the pair to search the residence, police said. During the search, they discovered items that Adams described only as "sexually explicit," as well as news clippings about the assaults.

Police said Sanchez, who sometimes earned money moving heavy equipment on movie sets, has a burglary record and once served time in prison for the crime. But his previous offenses do not include sexual assaults, Adams said.

The assaults began in 1996, but police did not suspect a serial rapist until 1998, when a 15-year-old girl was raped in her bedroom at knifepoint while her parents slept in a room down the hall. The attack was similar to five previous assaults.

The rapist, who often wore a ski mask and carried a knife, targeted women in their mid-teens to mid-20s. He also studied his intended victims and their residences before making a move, Adams said.

Authorities believe Sanchez started out as a burglar, but gradually moved onto to raping his victims. Rapists "are often burglars before they ever become rapists," Adams said.

The Simi rapist became "quite brazen" in his attacks, spending lots of time prowling through his victims' homes before moving into the bedroom to assault them while they slept, the police chief said.

The fact that he wore a ski mask made the search particularly difficult, police said. Also, the victims' descriptions of the assailant's age, height and weight varied greatly.

The last attack occurred Nov. 9. A 29-year-old woman was assaulted in the hallway of her west Simi Valley home about 11:30 p.m. after her attacker broke through a window.

Outrage over the crimes prompted creation of a reward fund, with contributions from the City Council, the police foundation and several anonymous donors. The fund, which has reached $25,000, is expected to be awarded to Sanchez's roommate.

Adams said the roommate did not know Sanchez before they lived together, noting that the pair met through an ad in the paper. He said the roommate was startled to learn the man he considered a friend could be responsible for so many violent attacks against women.

"But I think he knows he did the right thing," Adams said.

Councilman Glenn Becerra said it was chilling to hear tales of how the attacker scouted his victims.

"I've got a wife and children, and this individual was brazen," said Becerra, who helped set up the reward. "I do some traveling, and you worry when you leave town. This was really a blemish that needed to be taken care of."

Rape crisis counselors were relieved by the arrest.

"It takes a big stone off of our shoulders," said Constance Bryant, of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence & Sexual Violence in Ventura County.

"As a woman, when you live in a community where there's an active serial rapist, it colors everything you do. Are you going to take a run tonight? Will you go out to the store after dark? When you come into your home, are you going to feel safe?" Bryant said.

When the Ventura-based organization got the call Monday about the arrest, there was a bit of celebration in the office, Bryant said.

"When these guys get caught and prosecuted, it's kind of like a victory for us," she said. "This is one less we have to worry about."

*

Times staff writers Jenifer Ragland and Tracy Wilson contributed to this story.

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