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Man Imprisoned 16 Years For Rapes Possibly Committed By Serial Rapist

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A judge is expected to order the release of a man who has spent the last 16 years in prison for sexual assault, as DNA evidence points instead to a notorious serial rapist who is still at large.L.A. County Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan is expected to throw out the conviction of Luis Lorenzo Vargas, 46, this afternoon, the L.A. Times reports. Vargas was found guilty of three sexual assaults and sentenced to 55 years in prison in 1999. One of the victims was a 15-year-old girl who was raped, and the other two victims were women who had been attacked by a man who had tried to rape them. All three identified Vargas, who had previously spent time in jail for forcing himself on a girlfriend, as their assailant.

According to the California Innocence Project, who took up Vargas' case in 2012, the prosecution relied solely on the accounts of the three women for evidence. And, the groups says, eyewitness misidentification is "the most prominent red flag of all."

At the time of his sentencing, Vargas told the judge he was worried that the man who had actually attacked the three women would attack others. "I will pray for God’s mercy on all of you…but 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," he said.

Vargas appealed his case several times, and in December of 2012, he requested that DNA evidence collected from the clothing of one of the victims be tested. The clothing contained DNA from two people, one of whom was a man. The tests determined that the man was not Vargas, but according to the California Innocence Project, the DNA is a "very, very close" match to the DNA profile of the notorious "Teardrop Rapist."

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There was no DNA evidence from the other two attacks, but at the time, prosecutors argued that the same person must have committed all three assaults. All three victims were young Latinas who were approached near bus stops in South L.A. by a man wielding a knife.

However, those three assaults are also similar to others believed to be committed by the Teardrop Rapist. The Teardrop Rapist is prolific, linked to 35 sexual assaults around Los Angeles since February of 1996, either through DNA evidence or through similarities in his actions. He got his moniker because several of his victims said he had either one or two teardrops tattooed below his left eye. Vargas, too, has a fading teardrop tattoo below his left eye—the California Innocence Project says it is a fading, homemade tattoo that Vargas got when he was 13 years old.

The Teardrop Rapist has been particularly active along Normandie Avenue, from Hollywood through Koreatown, to South L.A. and unincorporated L.A. County. This area is within three miles of where the assaults Vargas was accused of occurred. The Teardrop Rapist typically approaches a lone woman between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m., striking up a conversation before pulling a knife or gun. He uses the weapon to force the woman to a secluded area, then assaults her. Almost all of his victims have been Latina women, and the last known attack happened in 2012 south of downtown Los Angeles at Naomi Avenue and 25th Street.

The LAPD has a Facebook page dedicated to finding him, most recently asking the public for help in January of this year as they have no new leads, KTLA reports. Since 2013, there as been a $100,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. He has been described as a Hispanic man between 40 and 55 years old.

Modern DNA testing and the Innocence Project has exonerated multiple people who have been wrongfully incarcerated. Susan Mellen was released last year after spending 17 years behind bars for the murder of a Lawndale man. Her conviction was thrown out last October after it was argued that the only evidence to put her away had been the testimony of a known liar. Obie Anthony also spent 17 years in prison after he was convicted of shooting a man outside a South L.A. brothel. He was released in 2011 after it was determined that the only evidence against him was from a known liar and criminal. And last year, Michael Hanline was released after serving 36 years in prison for murdering a truck driver. It was his then-girlfriend's testimony that put him away. She was a known drug user.

In June of this year, the L.A. County District Attorney's Office announced that they had created a new team to solely focus on any credible claims from inmates who have been convicted of serious crimes.

An upcoming Netflix documentary, Making a Murderer, will explore the bizarre case of Steven Avery, a man who was wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in Wisconsin in 1985. DNA evidence later exonerated him and pointed to a serial rapist who was already in prison for raping another woman. However, as Avery was in the process of suing the county, he was accused of murdering a young photographer whose body was found in a burn barrel on his family's auto salvage lot in 2005. He is now in prison for that crime, though his nephew—who confessed that they had killed the woman together—has since recanted.