Suspect in Miami rapes had previous run-ins with law
By Diana Marrero
and Jean-Paul Renaud Miami Bureau
South Florida Sun-Sentinel, September 23, 2003
There were plenty of signs that Reynaldo Elias Rapalo was a dangerous man.
Neighbors said he often shouted vulgarities at women who passed by. On at least one occasion, neighbors say, he sexually harassed another man's wife.
Last summer, Rapalo was arrested on charges of aggravated assault when his ex-girlfriend told police he threatened her with a hammer.
A few months later, he was arrested again. This time, accused of fondling a 10-year-old girl's breast.
But no one connected him to the string of rapes that terrorized residents in Little Havana and Shenandoah neighborhoods until Friday, when an alert Miami police sergeant crossed his path. Until then, Rapalo repeatedly managed to slip by unnoticed as he allegedly raped women as young as 11 and as old as 79.
According to police, DNA evidence proves Rapalo is responsible for at least seven rapes and three attempted rapes in the past year.
He has escaped prosecution twice in a little more than a year. The first time Rapalo was arrested, prosecutors say they were forced to drop the charges because his ex-girlfriend refused to cooperate.
When police arrested Rapalo July 26, 2002, Araminta Rodriguez told police he showed up at her door with a hammer in his hand, according to Rapalo's case file. She said he threatened to smash the door and hit her if she didn't open the door.
But Rodriguez also told police she didn't want him to get in trouble with the law.
"I don't want him to go to jail, just tell him to leave," Rodriguez said, according to a police report.
Days later, she told officials that he never threatened her and that she had only called police because she was mad that he had moved out.
On Oct. 16, 2002, Rapalo was arrested on a charge of lewd and lascivious molestation when his landlord accused him of fondling her daughter's breast. Rapalo denied the allegations but moved out of the room he had been renting from the girl's mother.
According to files made public on Monday by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, prosecutors again dropped the charge against Rapalo because the victims in the case did not cooperate.
Records show officials sent notices asking the family to speak with prosecutors on three occasions: once, in a letter dated Oct. 18, and two times later through subpoenas.
With no victim to share her testimony and because of the lack of physical evidence in the case, prosecutors dropped the charge against Rapalo, said Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.
"It's not an unusual circumstance to have," he said. "We spend a lot of money, energy and staff power to get witnesses to come in because they're the key."
But the girl's mother had a different story. On Monday, she denied ever receiving any notice that prosecutors wished to speak with her.
She said her daughter's testimony surely would have saved his other victims.
"This could've been avoided," she said. "How could my daughter lie about something like that?"
She said her daughter still wakes up sobbing in the middle of the night because of what Rapalo did to her.
"This man needs to die in that jail," said the mother, who recounted how she had at first been reluctant to allow him to live in her apartment but changed her mind when he told her he was a Christian.
"He insisted he was a man of God," she said. "I never knew this man could be so evil."
A native of Honduras, Rapalo legally entered the United States three years ago but overstayed his visa, according to immigration officials.
Police would not have known this because they do not routinely check immigration status when they make an arrest.
"We're not immigration," police spokeswoman Herminia Salas Jacobson said.
While Rapalo was in jail after one of his arrests, an official with the Miami-Dade County jail did look into his immigration status, said Barbara Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The check would have indicated that Rapalo had not left the country as required. But immigration officials did not pursue Rapalo then because their policy at the time was to focus on criminals and absconders, Gonzalez said.
"Mr. Rapalo did not fall into those categories at the time," she said. Jose Lagos, president of the non-profit group Honduran Unity, said Rapalo went undetected because people in the community were looking for a man based on a series of police sketches that looked nothing like the serial rapist.
"If he would have come to our office, honestly, we would never have detected it was him," he said.
Staff Writer Tanya Weinberg contributed to this report.
Diana Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5005.
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