November 23, 2015
Lawyers and students for the innocence project at California Western School of Law took up the case after Vargas got in touch in 2012 and said he thought he was wrongly convicted of crimes that were the work of the so-called Teardrop Rapist.
The notorious predator known for a tattoo of a teardrop under his eye has been linked by DNA to 11 crimes and is suspected of 35 in total across the Los Angeles area, the innocence project said. Vargas has a similar tattoo.
Vargas had insisted on his innocence all along, telling the court at his 1999 sentencing that he was concerned the individual who "really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there."
In cases dating back to 1996, the Teardrop Rapist approached girls or women in the early morning walking to school or work, pulled a weapon such as a gun or knife, forced them to a secluded area and sexually assaulted them, officials have said.
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 there are conflicting reports about which eye it is under or whether there is more than one tear.
Vargas was convicted of kidnapping, forcibly raping and sodomizing one woman and attempting to rape two others between February and June 1998.
DNA testing methods were not as sensitive at the time of the trial and the convictions hinged on positive identifications by the three victims.
Prosecutors said the three assaults were so similar, they were "signature crimes" that could only be committed by the same person. The women all corroborated each other by pointing to Vargas, who had a previous rape conviction.
The judge noted that their initial identifications, however, were tentative and inconsistent in describing their assailant.
"This was a shaky witness identification case," said attorney Alex Simpson, of the California Innocence Project. "This happens all the time. It is the No. 1 factor in wrongful convictions across the country."
Jurors disregarded Vargas' alibi witnesses, including the manager of a bagel shop, who said he was working there the mornings of the attacks.
With improved technology, his lawyers were able in show that genetic evidence from the forcible rape was linked to the Teardrop Rapist and not Vargas.
Prosecutors conceded it was a case of mistaken identity and that new evidence pointed "unerringly to innocence," Deputy District Attorney Nicole Flood said in a letter to the judge.
Vargas' daughter, who was 10 when he was taken away, said it was hard growing up without a father and she often cried herself to sleep, but she never quit believing in him...