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Suspect Held in Series of O.C. Attacks

A husband and father of two allegedly committed at least a dozen robberies and five rapes in parks near his home.

September 16, 2003|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

A Santa Ana father was arrested in connection with an 18-month string of rapes and robberies at parks in central Orange County that sparked beefed-up patrols and warnings for nighttime strollers to be cautious, police said.

Francisco Rene A. Hernandez, 35, is suspected in at least a dozen robberies and five rapes at parks in Santa Ana and Fountain Valley in which couples and women were targeted.

In some cases, police said, men were held at gunpoint while their companion was raped. Other times, police said, women were forced to lie on their companions during the attacks.

Often, the suspect would grab the couple's cell phone, presumably so they could not alert police. Investigators said their search of the suspect's house turned up 14 cell phones.

"His M.O. was unique, from his appearance to the specific positions he ordered the victims [to assume], to the gloves he had on," said Santa Ana Police Sgt. Baltazar De La Riva.

Police said all of the attacks occurred over the last 18 months, except for one assault in 1997.

Hernandez, a father of two who lives within walking distance of the parks, was arrested Friday during a stakeout at Jerome Park in Santa Ana. He is being held on $1-million bail at Santa Ana Jail and is expected to be arraigned today on kidnapping, robbery and rape charges.

The 1997 assault, at Centennial Regional Park in Santa Ana, was traced to Hernandez with DNA testing, police said. The other attacks were at Jerome and Thornton parks in Santa Ana, and Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley.

The rapist targeted couples taking late-night strolls or talking in their parked cars. Police said the assailant apparently used binoculars to watch his intended victims before approaching them at gunpoint. In most of the cases, the man would take money or jewelry. In one incident at Mile Square Park, a woman said, she was able to talk the rapist out of attacking her by offering him jewelry and her purse.

The series of attacks had a chilling impact on park visitors, and police warned people to use great caution while taking evening strolls in parks.

Police said their investigation was slowed because the suspect hid his face with a ski mask or the tightly drawn hood of a sweatshirt. However, the victims agreed on one descriptive point: Their attacker wore black gardening gloves with white gripping dots on the palm.

But after an Aug. 24 attack -- the most recent -- police said the victim was able to provide a description of the assailant. Santa Ana police said they contacted the FBI to help develop a profile.

But before the FBI could act, police said, they nabbed Hernandez while patrolling Jerome Park. Officers said he wore a hooded jacket and carried binoculars and a ski mask. A loaded .22-caliber revolver, a BB gun and black gloves with white gripping dots were inside his backpack, police said.

Police said that in searching Hernandez's cramped apartment, they found ID bracelets, gold rings, the 14 cell phones, a mask, a beanie, a 9-inch knife and the same type of gloves.

A relative who insisted on anonymity said Hernandez worked days as a factory assembler and would frequently step out in the evenings, telling his wife he was going to the gym.

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