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December 19, 2023

Philly police say suspect in recent Pennypack Park knife attacks is also the Fairmount Park rapist

Elias Diaz, 46, has been linked to at least one of the unsolved sexual assaults and one homicide that occurred between 2003 and 2007

Investigations Sexual Assaults
Fairmount Park Rapes Source/Philadelphia Police

Philadelphia police believe they have identified a suspect in the infamous Fairmount Park rapes that spanned between 2003-2007. Elias Dias, 46, was charged in a separate criminal investigation this week that helped authorities tie him to the unsolved sexual assaults, police said.

Philadelphia police have identified a suspect in the unsolved sexual assaults of three women and the rape and killing of a fourth woman. The first attack happened 20 years ago and three of the four took place in Fairmount Park, prompting a decades-long search for a person who came to be known as the "Fairmount Park rapist." The fourth rape occurred in Pennypack Park in Northeast Philly.

Police said the breakthrough in the notorious cases is connected to Sunday's arrest of Elias Diaz, 46, who has been charged with slashing two people with a machete on the Pennypack Park trail in late November. Investigators now say DNA evidence allegedly links Diaz to the rape and murder of 30-year-old Rebecca Park, who was found dead at Fairmount Park in 2003. Diaz also is viewed as a suspect in the three other sexual assaults connected to the Fairmount Park rapist, but investigators are still gathering evidence about his possible involvement in those cases. 

At a press conference Tuesday, police said the DNA they obtained after Diaz's recent arrest appears to be a match with DNA collected in the cases that took place between 2003 and  2007. Authorities are awaiting final confirmation of results from DNA tests, but Diaz is expected to be charged Tuesday night with killing Rebecca Park. He already has been charged with last month's knife attacks in Pennypacker Park. 

"Everything we have at this point leads us to believe that Mr. Diaz is also involved, or a person of interest, regarding the murder of Rebecca Park," Interim Police Commissioner John Stanford said.

Authorities have long believed that the Fairmount Park rapist cases are tied to a single suspect. Three of the sexual assaults happened during a six-month span in 2003, all within a mile radius at Fairmount Park. The fourth rape happened in Pennypack Park during the summer of 2007.

Park, a 30-year-old medical student, disappeared July 13, 2003, while jogging in Fairmount Park. Authorities scoured the sprawling park in West Philadelphia and found her body four days later. Park had been strangled and left in a shallow grave on a hillside in the area of 3500 Conshohocken Ave., police said.

Less then three months earlier, on April 30, 2003, another woman had reported she was raped in Fairmount Park near Kelly Drive and Fountain Green Road. Then after Park was killed, a third woman told police a man with a knife attempted to sexually assault her on Oct. 25, 2003, near West River Drive and the Falls Bridge, but she was able to escape.

The women described a suspect with similar features, including a widows peak hairline, bushy eyebrows and a hoop earring, police said. They also said he was a Hispanic man in his 20s, about 5 feet 7 inches, who had been riding a purple bike and approached them with a knife, according to police. 

The investigation went cold for four years, until a fourth woman was sexually assaulted at Pennypack Park in the area of Frankford and Solly avenues. The description the woman gave police matched information investigators had received about the suspect in the Fairmount Park cases.

The incidents in the 2000s sparked fear in Philadelphia about a killer targeting women in Fairmount Park. On the 10th anniversary of the first attack, police handed out fliers seeking tips about the cases. Advances in DNA technology and composite sketches later enabled investigators to release a series of images of the suspect, first in 2018 and again in 2021, with renderings of his appearance at different ages.

The DNA evidence collected during the initial rape investigations confirmed the working theory that the same person was behind the attacks, police said. The DNA was run through local, national and international criminal databases, but police found no matches over the years. 

In April, authorities used ancestry databases to identify Diaz and establish his alleged link to the Fairmount Park rapes, police said Tuesday. Until his arrest on Sunday, investigators lacked the key evidence needed to advance the case because they weren't sure where he lived or if he was still alive.

"We could not find this individual. He was not able to be located," Deputy Police Commissioner Frank Vanore said. "We did not have his DNA on file."

Earlier this month, police shared information about the recent attacks on the Pennypack Park trail. The two slashing incidents involved a man riding a black, BMX-style bike. They occurred within a mile of each other on Nov. 22 and Nov. 24, police said.

The two people injured had been on the trail during the morning hours and said they were slashed with a knife. In December, another woman also reported to authorities that a man had attempted to slash her with a knife while she was walking the trail on Nov. 25, police said. 

Prior to his arrest on Sunday, Diaz had only had one previous run-in with the law: a 2007 narcotics case. He failed to appear in court several years later in connection to that case, police said. Once Diaz was arrested, investigators compared his old mugshots and his current appearance with the composite sketches. Investigators said there is a strong resemblance to the Fairmount Park rapist the women who were attacked had described to police years earlier. 

Vanore said investigators determined Diaz had been living in Pennypack Park. Authorities are still working to determine whether there's evidence to charge Diaz in the other unsolved cases, but Vanore noted the similarities between those attacks and his alleged use of a knife and bike in last month's incidents. 

Diaz is charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault and related offenses for the November incidents. 

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner called this investigation is a testament to advancements in genetic genealogy. Last year, the technology helped Philadelphia police identify the "Boy in the Box" from an infamous 1957 cold case in Fox Chase. 

"We need to invest in forensic science even more heavily in Philadelphia," Krasner said

Stanford called the pending charges against Diaz a "proud moment" for police and a step toward closure for those impacted by the attacks at Fairmount Park and Pennypack Park. 

"The one message to victims and the families of victims that are out there: We don't stop," Stanford said.