By Ron Todt
A man recently released from prison and believed to have been wandering the streets and staying in abandoned homes was arrested Monday night after being linked by DNA to the sexual assaults and strangling deaths of three women in a gritty, high-crime section of the city, police said.
Antonio Rodriguez, 21, was taken into custody on an unrelated bench warrant after someone phoned in a tip, police said. The arrest came shortly after a news conference at which Capt. James Clark said Rodriguez was being sought as a “strong” person of interest in the murders in the Kensington section, a few miles north of downtown.
The attacks, in what’s called the Kensington Strangler case, had left the neighborhood shaken, and police fearing that outraged residents might take matters into their own hands.
Rodriguez, known in the area as Black, had not been charged with any crime in the stranglings case, and police had not even obtained an arrest warrant for him, Clark said. But the link made by state police in their convicted felon database was “a major break,” he said.
Rodriguez, who was sought on a bench warrant from a missed court appearance in an unrelated case police wouldn’t discuss, was in custody Monday night and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Rodriguez recently had been released from prison, Clark said, but he declined to say for what he had been incarcerated or to detail his criminal history. He said state police had contacted Philadelphia police about the DNA match earlier in the day.
A state police representative was not immediately available for comment Monday on why Rodriguez was in their database.
Clark said it appeared Rodriguez was wandering around Kensington alone.
“Right now, the information we’re getting is he’s homeless, he’s wandering in the area, he’s frequenting abandoned houses, sort of just walking around in the Kensington area, so right now we do not believe anyone is helping him out,” Clark said.
Police described Rodriguez as 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds with a large scar running from his left ear to the middle of his throat and two tattoos: “Kiera” on his left arm and “Scorpio” on his right arm.
Police investigating a string of assaults in the area dating to early October said last month that through DNA they had linked the deaths of three women: Elaine Goldberg and Nicole Piacentini, both of Philadelphia, and Casey Mahoney, of East Stroudsburg, about 100 miles north. The women, all in their 20s, had struggled with drug addiction.
The bodies of the three women were found between early November and mid-December in vacant lots within a 10-block radius.
Three other women reported surviving sexual assaults in the area. Two of them said they were choked into unconsciousness.
None of the surviving victims had been shown Rodriguez’s photo, but Clark said that would be done.
The attacks took place in a stretch of Kensington known for open prostitution and drugs, although an influx of artists and young homebuyers has made parts of the neighborhood a bit trendier in recent years.
Earlier, authorities had only a composite sketch and grainy surveillance photo of a possible suspect in the Kensington Strangler case.
One of the hundreds of posts on a Facebook page titled “Catch the Kensington Strangler, before he catches someone you love” falsely identified a suspect, drawing an angry crowd to his house. He called police, who cleared him and scolded residents.
A year earlier in Kensington, a man suspected of raping an 11-year-old girl was severely beaten by angry neighbors who recognized him from a police photo. He later was charged and pleaded guilty.
In the stranglings case, Mayor Michael Nutter offered a $30,000 reward sponsored by the city and Citizens Crime Commission for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator. Separately, the local Fraternal Order of Police and Councilman Frank DiCicco offered $7,000 for help simply leading to an arrest with a DNA match.