updated 3/28/2007 9:21:25 PM ET 2007-03-29T01:21:25

A mentally ill man who has spent 21 years behind bars for two rapes has been exonerated by DNA evidence that links the attacks to a suspected serial killer, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Evidence slides displaced for years at Erie County Medical Center were recently found to contain DNA matching that of Altemio Sanchez, a factory worker arrested in January and charged with killing two women in the early 1990s and one last fall, county District Attorney Frank Clark said.

Investigators say Sanchez, 49, dubbed the "Bike Path Rapist," could be responsible for at least a dozen more rapes dating back more than 25 years, including two in Buffalo's Delaware Park in 1983 and 1984 that were pinned on Anthony Capozzi.

Capozzi, also 49, who suffers from schizophrenia, was arrested in September 1985, charged with three rapes and convicted of two — largely on the basis of the victims identifying him in two police lineups.

"They believed in their heart they were accusing the right man," Clark said at a news conference. "Obviously they were violated and they wanted whoever they thought did it to be punished, so they acted in good faith. Sadly, they made a mistake."

Capozzi, who was sentenced to up to 35 years in prison, has always maintained his innocence.

"Anthony has never, ever wavered — he knows what it meant to say 'I didn't do it,'" said his attorney, Thomas D'Agostino, who is preparing to present the new evidence in motions to vacate Capozzi's conviction. He said he hopes to get him released from custody within the next month.

Sanchez will not be prosecuted for those rapes because of statute-of-limitation problems, said Clark, who expects state prison officials to free Capozzi "in the next three to five weeks."

The break in the case came when evidence slides were finally found after investigators had made several requests for them and were told they didn't exist, the prosecutor said.

The medical center "had slides dating back to 1973 and kept them routinely all the way up to 2002," Clark said in an interview. "I don't know who the hell was taking them and keeping them but apparently they weren't telling a whole lot of people."

Calls to the medical center were not immediately returned.

He credited the county's chief medical examiner, Dr. James Woytash, with helping to locate evidence from thousands of rape victims that had long been mislaid in the county hospital's pathology lab. That evidence confirmed Sanchez' link to those rapes, Clark said.

Arrest made after secret DNA collection
Sanchez was arrested Jan. 15, two days after police secretly collected his DNA from utensils he had used at a restaurant. Clark said the DNA matched evidence collected in the murders of University at Buffalo student Linda Yalem, 22, who was raped and killed along a bike path near campus in 1990, and the 1992 rape and slaying of a 32-year-old single mother from Buffalo, Majane Mazur.

Authorities say Sanchez's DNA also was found in the vehicle of the most recent victim, Joan Diver, 45, a mother of four who was found strangled along a bike path on Oct. 1, two days after she went jogging.

After the arrest, detectives said they suspected the rapes pinned on Capozzi, who looked somewhat like Sanchez decades ago, had been committed by Sanchez and urged prosecutors to re-examine Capozzi's conviction.

Sanchez has pleaded innocent. He cannot be prosecuted for the rapes because the five-year statute of limitations has expired, but there is no statute of limitations for homicides. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

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