A man who spent the past 16 years in prison for the sexual assault of three women in L.A. County was exonerated Monday after recently-tested DNA evidence pointed to the long-sought “Teardrop Rapist” as the likely attacker.
Luis Vargas, 46, was sentenced to 55 years in prison in 1999 for raping a 15-year-old girl, and attacking and attempting to rape two other victims, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Upon his conviction, Vargas told the court: “I’m concerned (the) individual (who) really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there,” according to a news release from the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law.
Vargas’ case first grabbed the attention of the Innocence Project in 2011 because it was “riddled with textbook post-conviction red flags.”
“The most prominent red flag of all: eyewitness misidentification,” the organization’s website stated.
The prosecution’s case relied heavily on eyewitness identification, which included victims noting their attacker had a teardrop tattoo similar to the one victims of the “Teardrop Rapist” have described, according to members of the Innocence Project.
Vargas — who previously served time for forcibly raping a girlfriend, according to the Times — later wrote to members of the Innocence Project about his case. He said the “Teardrop Rapist” and he had a similar tattoo and description — a middle aged Hispanic man with a small build.
In 2012, members of the project requested DNA testing be done on evidence collected from the crime scenes that had not previously been examined.
The testing showed the DNA did not match Vargas’ but was “very, very close” to the DNA collected from victims of the “Teardrop Rapist,” Michael Semanchik, with the Innocence Project, told the Times.
The project also noted the three assaults Vargas was convicted of occurred within a 1.6-mile radius of some 30 attacks the “Teardrop Rapist” was accused of.
In a recent interview, the teenager who was raped told investigators she stood by her identification, the Times reported, but prosecutors believe she “honestly, but mistakenly identified Vargas.”
This problem is not uncommon, according to members of the Innocence Project.
“Bad eyewitness identifications are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions,” said project director and Professor Justin Brooks.
A judge reversed Vargas’ conviction on Monday, and Vargas cried in the courtroom.
“It’s a relief because I believed that my father was innocent the day he told me he was innocent,” his daughter Crystal Vargas said outside the courthouse.
She said was she grateful for the California Innocence Project and its staff attorney Raquel Cohen, who worked on the case.
Vargas was released to federal custody in connection with his immigration status. His green card was revoked when was under prosecution.
The new allegations against the “Teardrop Rapist” come after Los Angeles police in January asked for the public’s help in locating the person linked to 35 sexual assaults in a 16-year period.
“Although it has been almost two years since the last assault, the attacker is still out there,” police said on a Facebook page created to help catch the assailant. “We have no fresh leads and are still looking for the community’s help to identify the suspect.”
The “Teardrop Rapist” earned his name because of a teardrop tattoo witnesses said he had below one of his eyes.
Police believe it may have been removed, and he may now have a scar where it once was.
KTLA’s Melissa Pamer contributed to this article.