Trial to Open for Man Accused of Being Serial Rapist : Courts: Police say Jose Fuentes, who is charged in 14 assaults, attacked dozens of women. Some victims, mostly poor Latinas, were afraid to come forward, officers say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 33-year-old Westlake man who authorities say was among the most active rapists in Los Angeles history goes on trial Monday on charges that he raped 14 women during a three-year period.

Los Angeles police said Jose Romeo Fuentes was a leading suspect in 27 other rapes for which charges were never filed because the victims--mostly poor Latinas--were unwilling to go to court, largely for cultural reasons.

And detectives said dozens of other victims probably never reported their rapes during a series of sexual assaults from 1989 to 1992, which prompted a massive search in the Central City.

A match of fingerprints finally led to the arrest of Fuentes, a regular churchgoer and father of two. He has been held without bail since May, 1992, pending trial in Los Angeles Superior Court, in which he faces 57 felony charges, including multiple counts of rape, oral copulation and sodomy stemming from the 14 rapes.

Deputy Public Defender Steven Schoenfield, who is representing Fuentes, would not comment on the case.

Authorities said it is the largest serial rape case in Los Angeles since 1986, when the so-called Security Building Rapist pleaded guilty to assaulting 17 young women and girls in Mid-Wilshire area apartment buildings.

But in the current case, "I'm very much in the belief that there are many more victims out there," said Detective Steve Laird, who specializes in rape investigations in the Latino community.

Laird and another detective say there may have been 100 or more rapes in the rampage that frustrated police for years.

Even the women who reported their assaults to authorities often did not tell their families, Laird said, because "there are very old family traditions that if you were raped, you were somehow to blame."

Laird said some victims moved without notifying authorities for fear that they might be raped again. Others gave false addresses because they were illegal immigrants and feared deportation, he said. And many refused to testify, including the victim whose house yielded the fingerprints that resulted in Fuentes' arrest last year.

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It was in early 1990 that police noticed a serial rapist was preying on lone Latinas as they walked to bus stops early in the morning, most of them on their way to domestic jobs or factories, where they worked as seamstresses, according to Rampart Division Detective Charlie Flippo.

About the same time, police believed that another serial rapist might be working the area, this one dragging women out of their cars and into alleys. Detectives began keeping chronological flowcharts of the rapes.

Although the physical descriptions of the assailants sometimes varied, police eventually concluded that they were dealing with a single suspect, Flippo said, after several patterns emerged in interviews with the victims: The rapist bearhugged them while pointing a weapon, usually a screwdriver, to their ribs; he robbed them; he used a small flashlight to examine their private parts, and he would always give the same instructions in a heavy Salvadoran accent.

"He would repeat callese , or shut up," said sex crimes Detective Brenda Pauly, who worked on the case from the beginning. "His accent, saying the same things at the same time, it added up."

Police conducted a few stakeouts, but had no luck catching the rapist, Flippo said.

By 1991, the reports of rapes became more frequent, but detectives still had no firm clues, not even a fingerprint.

"He got bolder with every rape, eventually raping women in plain daylight," Pauly said.

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Police were especially frustrated because many victims were not reporting the rapes quickly. "They waited 10 days, a week," Pauly said. "Only one case was reported immediately."

In late 1991, after one woman was taken out of a car and raped at gunpoint in front of several family members, police stepped up their efforts. They began staking out numerous bus stops in the area, placing some officers on buildings to do surveillance while others in plainclothes searched the streets.

Authorities also notified the Spanish-language press and placed composite drawings of the suspect in grocery stores and bars.

Then detectives noticed a new trend. "Suddenly he went from snatching women on the bus stop to playing a decoy, acting like a plumber," Pauly said. "Maybe he noticed the surveillance."

The rapist would say he had been hired by the landlord to repair a problem in a building, Flippo said, then coax women into letting him inside their apartments.

The detectives said their first break came in May, 1992, during the tail end of the Los Angeles riots: Fuentes was arrested in Hollywood on suspicion of burglary after he allegedly broke into a woman's house.

In the busy aftermath of the riots, Fuentes was booked and quickly released. But two weeks later, Flippo said, Rampart Division detectives found fingerprints on a bedroom door after a burglary and rape that they suspected were the work of their serial suspect. A check matched the fingerprints to those taken during the booking in Hollywood, the detective said.

On May 27, a police team--including all five Rampart Division sex crimes detectives--arrested Fuentes at his home in the Westlake area. Inside, they found a bottle of Priscilla Presley perfume that had been reported stolen by a rape victim three months earlier, Flippo said.

Detectives also found clothing that had been described by rape victims, Laird said.

Police discovered that Fuentes was a native of El Salvador who lived here with his wife and two young children. Although he sometimes worked as a carpenter, he was unemployed for much of the period when the rapes took place, detectives said.

He had been arrested in 1982 on suspicion of kidnaping and rape, police said. On that occasion, members of his church did not believe that the charges were true and quickly raised $20,000 to bail out Fuentes, then 22, whom they described as a devout family man.

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Fuentes' alleged victim failed to appear in court and that case was dismissed.

A decade later, when the Rampart team arrived to arrest Fuentes again, he began to pray, the detectives said.

A lineup was scheduled at the County Jail on July 29, 1992, setting off an emotional scene.

Of the 20 witnesses and rape victims brought in by police, 15 identified Fuentes, Flippo said. Many victims, still traumatized, began screaming and crying when they saw Fuentes, he added.

Prosecutors are expected to present DNA evidence as part of their case. Tests were conducted on semen found in four victims, police said, producing a match to Fuentes in three cases. The fourth test proved inconclusive, they said.

Laird, who has worked on 15 serial rape cases in his 11 years as a detective, said authorities believe that Fuentes may have committed more than the 14 rapes, but are only prosecuting cases with the strongest evidence.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Geltz said he will seek the maximum sentence of more than 300 years in prison with no possibility of parole.

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