UNJUST

How the LAPD Turned an Innocent Man Into the ‘Teardrop Rapist’

Luis Vargas had the same kind of tattoo as the monster attacking teen girls, and cops used it to lock him up for 16 years while the real rapist roamed.

LOS ANGELES—Teresa tries to forget the Teardrop Rapist.

“No girl should go through that,” she told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview, far removed from where she was attacked two decades ago.

Of course, there’s no forgetting what happened to her on June 5, 1998. While waiting alone at a South L.A. bus stop at around 6 a.m., a stocky man in a black skullcap with teardrop tattoos under his left eye walked up to the 15-year-old high school student.

“Do you speak Spanish?” he asked.

“Yes,” she told him.

He drew a knife and barked in English, “Do you want to die?”

With the blade at her stomach, Teresa said she was led through a deserted alley and into a parking lot behind an apartment complex.

The man forced Teresa to take off her jeans shorts, get on the ground, and raped her before ejaculating and running away. Teresa pulled up her shorts and hid behind a tree for almost 20 minutes before retreating to her sister’s house to call 911.

***

Almost 20 miles away, Luis Vargas was managing two Manhattan Bagel franchises in Beverly Hills and Hollywood.

Vargas had one faded teardrop tattoo (which sometimes signifies a person murdered or raped someone) that he’d gotten to fit in with other homeless youths when he was 13 years old. A dozen years later, he pleaded no contest to raping his girlfriend in 1992 and was sent to prison.

By 1998, he was living on the straight and narrow, married, siring a daughter, and opening the bagel shops before 6 a.m.

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***

LAPD Detectives Monica Quijano and Richard Tamez showed Teresa and two other rape victims multiple photo arrays over a span of months. Each featured half a dozen suspects and each allegedly included Vargas’s mugshot.

At trial, prosecutors took the wealth of similarities of the attacks on the victims and their witnessed accounts to build a narrative that Vargas must be the Teardrop Rapist.

“He strikes three times. All strikes are in the same spot. All three of these women identifying the defendant Mr. Vargas,” the prosecutor boomed.

The prosecutor went on to show how it was Vargas who packed a weapon and prowled a 1.6-mile radius around South L.A. bus stops between February and June 1998 during the early morning hours and pounced on three young, petite, and Hispanic females all trying to catch the bus to get to school or work.

“And as soon as he was closer to them, he pulled out a knife. He threatened them, and he made demands,” the prosecutor stated at trial. “He made sexual demands in relation to all three women. And all three of these women were able to come to court and tell you that they are now 100 percent certain that this is the man who attacked them.”

Edith wasn’t 100 percent.

Not only did she tell authorities that the man who attacked her “should be without hair” and was stouter than Vargas, she couldn’t identify him.

“I am not too sure, I believe I recognize his face,” she told the detectives.

Karen described the perpetrator to a high school police officer as dressed in a grey sweatshirt and blue jeans and was around “25 to 30-years-old, with black hair and brown eyes” and standing “5-foot-7 inches tall.”

Vargas stood 5-foot-4 inches.

Karen made no mention of any tattoos on her attacker’s face.

Teresa also raised doubts saying the attacker “looked older” than Vargas and his “nose was different.”

Nevertheless, Vargas was convicted by a jury for rape, kidnapping, and sodomy by force.

Before he would be sentenced to 55 years to life, he begged the judge to not make a grave mistake.

“I will pray for God’s mercy on all of you… but as far as I’m concerned, as far as I’m concerned [the] individual [who] really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there.”

***

Sixteen years later, Vargas’s prayer was answered: He was exonerated.

The 47-year-old was overcome with tears and locked on his mother seated behind him and mouthed “I love you.”

She wouldn’t know it, but Teresa’s jean shorts and underwear that were torn down on that unspeakable Friday contained the real rapist’s DNA.

“I don’t think either side, the prosecution and the defense, believed the technology was available to have looked at the clothing and discovered testable material,” Vargas’s attorney Jan Stiglitz said.

And he says that the technology has “improved exponentially in the last 10-15 years.”

And analyzing the contents, albeit years later, would eventually spring the lone man that L.A. cops and prosecutors unjustly condemned.

At the time Teresa was so distraught that she didn’t know if her attacker—whom she described as standing 5-feet-6, between 30 to 40 years old, and sporting “some sort of beanie” with “teardrops near his left eye”—ejaculated inside of her.

The attacker’s semen was recovered from vaginal swabs and more evidence from her shorts and underwear.

But the evidence wasn’t properly analyzed until 2012 when it was cross-referenced with buccal swab samples that would absolve Vargas.

The fact it took 16 years for Vargas to be freed lays heavy on her heart.

“Why did they take so long to get that proof,” she said. “I mean come on, that was years ago and they haven’t got him or anything like that?”

The testimony she gave to cops and ultimately at trial that Vargas was her attacker was made with the best intentions, Teresa said.

“I feel bad about that,” she said. “But it’s so confusing though because why would they get him and not somebody else?”

Last week Vargas fired off a 50-page federal lawsuit blasting the very cops, prosecutors, and jailers who he says stripped him of his civil rights and robbed him of so many years of his life.

The lawsuit claims LAPD and prosecutors leaned on “false evidence” to sway the jury and he states they “deliberately and intentionally withheld evidence… of other crimes being committed in the same area at the same time by the Teardrop Rapist.”

The real monster who racked up at least 39 sexual attacks between 1996 up until 2012—three of them pinned on Vargas who had the signature tattoo—kept his raping spree going even after Vargas was found guilty.

The Teardrop Rapist would strike three more times “in the same area, in the same manner as those with which Vargas had been charged” before his July 22, 1999 conviction.

“Nobody from the Los Angeles Police Department—including Quijano and Tamez—disclosed this exculpatory information at any time,” the lawsuit states.

And the fact that the attacks against the three women Vargas stood accused of raping were “within miles of the other attacks committed by the Teardrop Rapist” not the cops nor prosecutors nor any other law enforcement agency “disclosed any information regarding the Teardrop Rapists or other attacks at any time to Vargas.”

The manhunt is still on.

In 2013, with leads drying up, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and City of Los Angeles released a Wanted poster offering a $100,000 reward and features over a dozen composite sketches of the fiend who graduated from a knife to a pistol to force victims into submission.

They may be looking for the man, but Teresa said she hasn’t spoken to an investigator for years.

“I have no idea at all. I have no contact with nobody about this no more,” she said.

Vargas’s lawsuit names the two original investigators—LAPD Sex Crime Detectives Monica Quijano and Richard Tamez—as co-defendants who made Vargas take the fall for three sex assaults, and accuses them of using questionable tactics to convince the witnesses he was the rapist.

While Det. Quijano remains on the force Det. Tamez’s status remains unclear.

Both detectives, the lawsuit suggests, “created and used false evidence against Vargas through the use of improper identification procedures” that misled victims “to falsely identify Vargas as the perpetrator.”

The cops, the lawsuit claims, prejudiced the rape investigation by allegedly inserting Vargas into every photo array and lineup before the three victims.

“To make sure the witnesses selected Vargas, Los Angeles Police Department officers arranged the photo arrays and lineups so that the only person was the same person in the lineup or in the arrays was Luis Vargas,” the lawsuit states.

The methods allegedly employed by prosecutors and police here don’t surprise Vargas’s attorney Jan Stiglitz, a founder of the California Innocence Project, who after 16 years has a hand in overturning some 21 convictions, including Vargas’s.

“There were some cases that were a comedy of errors,” he said, when trying to stack up Vargas’s case amongst some of the other dozens of vindicated souls he and his colleagues help set free.

“Most of the time when there’s been a wrongful conviction you have something going on with the police or the prosecutor’s office which may not start out as something improper,” he said, “but once they get their teeth into a particular defendant, and have identified a defendant, there’s few limits to what they will do to achieve a conviction.”

***

Besides Teresa, two others say they were victims of the Teardrop Rapist.

Early morning on Feb. 3, 1998, Karen, a high-school student, was pacing to reach a bus stop located on 40th Street and South Avalon Boulevard when a man approached her asking if she wanted to make $20.

She told him no, but the man pressed.

“If you show me your underwear I will give you $20,” according to the rapist’s statements referenced in Vargas’s lawsuit.

The frightened girl walked faster to the bus stop, but the man managed to pull her into a driveway and pushed her up against a fence,” according to the lawsuit

“He held a knife to her face and neck and then lowered the knife to her stomach,” it states.

Naked from the waist down, the man “touched [Karen’s] vagina, pubic hair, and her breasts with one hand while holding the knife in the other hand.”

Were it not for a “loud noise” she may have succumbed worse injuries.

At 6 a.m on May 30, 1998, the same attacker struck again. On West 55th Street near South Figueroa Street, he asked directions from a 24-year-old woman on her way to work. Her name was Edith, and like Karen, she was also trying to catch a bus.

After a couple steps the man “pulled out a knife and placed it against her waist,” as he leaned her against a parked car.

Edith shrieked, “No,” and because of the foot traffic of passers-by the man “decided not to do anything.”

But he left her with a menacing memento, warning her “not to say anything and if she did, he would kill her.”

***

Teresa’s faith in the justice system has waned since it failed her and perhaps so many others like her, not to mention Vargas who went down for her rape.

“I feel bad for that because I wouldn’t want one of my kids to get blamed for something they didn’t do and be in jail for a long time.”

She takes another pregnant pause.

“This isn’t the victim’s fault to me.”

Unfortunately for Vargas, he’s facing a different kind of death sentence since being exonerated last year: deportation.

The Mexican national, who was a permanent resident before he was wrongly convicted of rape, is facing deportation that could again sever him from his family.

“As attorneys, with Donald Trump becoming president, you never become too comfortable,” Stiglitz said. “Immigration has been a lightning rod issue, especially in this election.”

Stiglitz cracked a joke at Trump infamously calling Mexicans criminals.

“Although since he’s not a rapist he’s one of the good ones.”

As for Teresa, she left L.A. and is now a 34-year-old mother who wonders if there might be more victims who suffered at the hands of this rapist beyond the 39 count that cops tallied.

“There might be more girls out there but they’re too scared to talk,” she said.

Time has emboldened Teresa.

If she or her daughter ever encountered the Teardrop Rapist again Teresa’s certain she would get revenge.

“To me, I have a daughter and if anything like that was to happen I would kill him,” she said, taking a long beat.

“It’s my daughter you know, my daughter.”

Update: Dec. 2, 2016—LAPD Officer Norma Eisenman provided The Daily Beast the following statement:

“All we would say is [sic] that “the attacker” serial sexual assault investigation is actively being investigated by Robbery Homicide Division and to date no suspect has been identified or arrested in relation to this ongoing investigation. The series is no longer called the Tear Drop because witness and victims only report seeing a mark under the suspect’s eye and can’t confirm whether it is a scar, mark or tattoo.”