This December, 2013 photo shows Luis Vargas with his daughter and son at his community college graduation ceremony held within the walls of a California state prison in Blythe, Calif.
Photo by California Innocence Project/AP

Man convicted of 3 rapes cleared after DNA tied to fugitive


LOS ANGELES — A judge on Monday exonerated a man convicted of three rapes after DNA evidence linked the crimes to a serial rapist wanted for assaults dating back two decades.

Superior Court Judge William Ryan ordered the release of Luis Vargas, who has been in prison for 16 years. He was not released immediately, but his attorneys expected him to walk free later in the day.

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DNA tests found that the crimes Vargas was convicted of were actually committed by the so-called Teardrop Rapist, who is known for a tattoo of a teardrop under his eye, said Chris Saunders, a spokesman for the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law, which took up Vargas’ case in 2012.

Witnesses linked Vargas to the crime because he had a similar tattoo.

The Teardrop Rapist is on the FBI’s most wanted list. He is linked by DNA to 11 crimes and is suspected of 35 in total across the Los Angeles area, the Innocence Project said.

On the day of his sentencing in 1999, 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.”

In assaults going back to 1996 on victims ranging between 14 and 41 years old, the suspect in most of the cases tried to engage in conversation with a woman walking to work or school, then pulled a weapon, forced her into a secluded area and sexually assaulted her, officials have said. He was often armed with a gun or a knife.

Every one of the attacks happened in the morning between 5 and 8.

Police in 2012 released several sketches of the suspect they described as a light-skinned Hispanic man between 40 and 55 years old.

His most striking characteristic is the tattoo some victims have reported seeing on his face, though even that was shrouded in uncertainty, with some remembering it on one side of his face and some on the other, and some reporting one teardrop, others two.

Officials said there was even some evidence the man may have had the tattoo removed.

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Man convicted of 3 rapes cleared after DNA tied to fugitive