LAPD uses high-tech sleuthing to arrest kidnap suspect

A two-year manhunt for a kidnapping and molestation suspect has ended with the arrest of a Hollywood man, thanks to some high-tech sleuthing seemingly out of the TV show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

Daniel Merino, 41, was arrested Friday on suspicion of kidnapping for sexual assault, and now faces multiple felony charges that could send him to prison for life if convicted, LAPD Deputy Chief Jim McDonnell said. Merino is accused of targeting young girls who were walking alone and enticing them into apartment buildings where he tried to molest them. The charges stem from four separate incidents involving girls in L.A.'s Mid-City area.

The attacks date back to February 2008, with the most recent occurring in November. In that incident, police say, the suspect confronted a 10-year-old girl who was walking to school near Beverly Boulevard and Commonwealth Avenue and lured her into an apartment complex. Police say he attempted to sexually assault her on the roof of the building, but the girl pushed him away repeatedly and he fled.

LAPD's sex crimes unit was able to crack the case of the "spiky-hair suspect" by employing the latest in high-tech policing methods. Detectives enhanced video from a security camera to study the suspect's car after a November abduction and determined the vehicle's make, model, color and year. Investigators then generated a list of more than 1,700 potential license plates and determined which belonged to vehicles registered in the area where the crimes occurred.

Det. Monica Cross said the break in the case came with the arrival of a new LAPD police car that uses a high-tech camera to read every license plate it spots. The device located one of the cars, a 1995 Mazda Millenia, within four miles of the crimes. Police then obtained a copy of the driver's license photo of the registered owner and found that it resembled a composite sketch of the suspect.

Detectives from the Robbery-Homicide Division's sex crimes unit staked out the 600 block of North Kingsley Drive, where the car was seen. On Friday, they spotted Merino getting into the car and driving into a parking garage. Hours later, detectives took him into custody and subsequently found evidence that they said connected him to the four attacks.

Merino, who is being held in lieu of $4-million bail, is a factory worker and a married father of two with no criminal record, Cross said.

McDonnell said that although technology played a key role in the case, it was detectives' intelligent use of it that resulted in the arrest.

richard.winton@latimes.com

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