Almost three months into the hunt for the serial rapist and murderer dubbed the Kensington Strangler, the portrait of the primary suspect burns bright in the minds of the victims’ family, frightened residents and police.
Fliers with the predator’s portrait and tip line information circulate up and down Kensington Avenue, the main corridor that cuts through the section of the city where the bodies of three women were found in vacant lots, partially stripped, raped and strangled.
A police artist assembled the sketch based on eyewitness accounts from survivors who escaped after being similarly choked and surveillance camera footage taken near the crime scenes. It’s the face of a young, light-skinned African-American or Latino male with side burns, maybe a goatee, maybe a birthmark, with white ear bud wires dangling out of a dark hoodie.
There’s one problem with the sketch.
“Everybody out here fits that description,” says Enrique “Chino” Sanchez, a 23-year-old Kensington resident. Sanchez is of Puerto Rican descent and sports thin sideburns and a four-inch goatee.
Amid the mounting pressure to catch the Strangler—including from angry residents, some of who insist that he would have been caught by now had he struck a more affluent area of the city—stories of young men on the street who fit the description being stopped by police and forced to submit to random DNA swabs whirl through the neighborhood.
On Dec. 21, Sanchez was walking up Cumberland Avenue toward his parked car. He was on his way to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. But before he got to Kensington Avenue, Sanchez encountered a patrol car blocking the street.
Sanchez says an officer—hand on gun—approached him and said, “Put your hands on the wall.”
When Sanchez asked what was going on, he says, the cop told him not to worry, that he’d let him know “in a little bit.”
According to Sanchez, the officer then rummaged through his jean pockets, escalating a stop-and-frisk—a practice sanctioned by Nutter in 2008 but currently challenged in court—to a search-and-seizure, which requires a warrant. If the cop had a warrant, he didn’t flash it.
“I always get harassed,” says Sanchez. He later rattles off four previous encounters with police where he claims he was grabbed on the street, “gripped up” for no reason. Sanchez says he’s been roughed up, tightly cuffed, beat with a nightstick while falsely accused of robbery, domestic violence and graffiti. It was always a case of mistaken identity, says Sanchez.
“Some guys do bad and some guys don’t, you know? It’s just the way we dress that we kind of blend in with the other guys.”
The officer grabbed the back of Sanchez’s jacket and steered him toward the backseat of the patrol car. Sanchez says he sat, uncuffed, sneakers still on the pavement.
Next, Sanchez was told to pull his feet in the car. Thinking he was about to get arrested, he protested.
“I [said], ‘Put my feet in the car? … What did I do wrong? … Do you even care why I’m out here?’”
He says the cop shot back, “I don’t give a fuck.”
Sanchez did as he was told.
While sitting in the car Sanchez noticed a dark navy blue SUV reverse up “out of nowhere,” and “a detective came out.” Sanchez can’t be sure that the man he describes as a husky Caucasian was a detective. He didn’t get any of the officers’ names and the man wasn’t in uniform. “He was pretty dressed up,” says Sanchez, recalling the man’s fancy blue suit.
PW's Summer Guide 2014