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Capistrano Man Held in Child Molestations : Crime: Search finds ‘strong’ evidence, and some victims identify suspect, authorities say. Wife says officers desperate for an arrest railroaded Thomas Cimino.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An intense manhunt for a child molester who was terrorizing a quiet Capistrano Beach neighborhood in Dana Point has led to the arrest of a 31-year-old San Juan Capistrano man, authorities said Tuesday.

Orange County sheriff’s officials suspect Thomas Michael Cimino, described as a self-employed salesman, of being the man who brazenly approached young children at least seven times since March, often in the front yard of their homes during the day.

Sheriff’s Lt. Dan Martini said Cimino was jogging near his home Sunday evening when he was spotted by a patrolling deputy, who recognized him from a police drawing of the suspect. The officer briefly questioned Cimino and released him.

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Investigators then obtained a photograph of Cimino and on Monday showed it to children involved in four of the incidents. They identified him, authorities said, and deputies arrested Cimino late Monday as he was driving away from his house.

After arresting Cimino, investigators served a search warrant and found several unspecified items in his home. “We have other pieces of corroborating evidence,” Martini said. “We have a strong case here.”

Martini said Cimino, who is being held in Orange County Jail on $100,000 bail, will be arraigned today on charges of child molestation and child annoyance.

Cimino’s wife, Rebecca, said Tuesday night her husband did not harass or molest the children.

“I believe 100% that he is innocent, and I stand behind him,” she said. “(The Sheriff’s Department) railroaded him. I’ve been told they were under a lot of pressure to get an arrest.”

Parents and teachers at Palisades Elementary School were relieved to hear of the arrest.

“This is wonderful news,” said Principal Jayne Canfield. “We feel like a cloud has just passed over us.” Canfield said many parents had been worried about letting their children outside during the day, especially since Tuesday was the last day of school.

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“At least when they’re in school, we know there is supervision,” she said. “I’m glad we don’t have to worry about that now.”

According to sheriff’s officials, Cimino, who does not have children, was arrested on suspicion of indecent exposure in 1990 in Los Angeles County, but ultimately pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of committing a lewd act in public.

“If he had been properly registered as a sex offender (required with an indecent exposure conviction), we probably would have caught him before this,” Martini said.

In most of the seven incidents in Dana Point, children were approached in front of their homes with a story about a lost kitten, then induced to search in bushes and undergrowth away from public view. In only one case was actual physical contact reported--a young girl said she was forced to touch the man in a sexual manner in March.

Sheriff’s officials said the attempted molestations continued even after a wave of publicity and the assignment of several investigative units to the case. Two incidents have been reported within the past two weeks.

“A lot of our guys donated their time,” Martini said. “It got personal with them.”

Although relieved over the arrest, Mary Novack, who has two children attending Palisades, said she hopes parents don’t forget the lessons taught by the incidents.

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“In a sense, this has brought the community together,” she said.

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