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Man charged in 20-year-old Philadelphia cold case killing and rape after DNA link, officials say

By Celina Tebor and Danny Freeman, CNN

(CNN) — A man has been charged in the 2003 rape and killing of a woman after he was arrested following recent machete attacks, according to Philadelphia authorities, who say DNA evidence allegedly linked him to the cold case.

Elias Diaz, 46, is accused in the death 20 years ago of Rebecca Park at Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, officials said this week.

He was arrested Sunday in connection with machete attacks that happened last month, police First Deputy Commissioner John Stanford said at a news conference Tuesday. The attacker rode a bicycle along a trail in Pennypack Park, authorities said.

Diaz refused to provide his name when he was arrested, but was identified through his fingerprints, officials said. Police also collected DNA from him.

Investigators now believe DNA evidence and other evidence connect him to the 2003 killing, authorities said this week. Diaz is now charged with murder, rape, aggravated indecent assault and possession of an instrument of crime, among other allegations, in Park’s slaying, prosecutors said Wednesday in a statement.

Diaz also faces charges including aggravated assault in connection with two alleged machete attacks in November.

CNN has sought comment from the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which is representing Diaz.

Park, 30, a student, went missing after going for a jog in 2003, police said. Her body was found in a wooded area, buried under dirt leaves and rocks, in Fairmount Park. Police collected DNA evidence.

Two other women who were attacked in the same six-month period gave matching descriptions of their attacker, according to police. One woman was attacked in April 2003 by a Hispanic man on a bike. Police were able to gather DNA from that incident. Another woman attacked in October 2003 gave a very similar description of her attacker, Philadelphia police said Tuesday.

Another attack in 2007, a sexual assault of a 25-year-old woman, took place close to where the recent machete attacks occurred, police said. The woman gave the same description of a male on a bike. Police were able to collect DNA in this incident.

Police said Diaz could face charges in other assaults.

DNA from crimes match, police say

All of the DNA from the different crimes was submitted into a database and they matched, said Frank Vanore, first deputy police commissioner of field operations.

“We knew that we had a pattern of DNA, and we knew we had the same offender in these cases,” although they could not identify who he was, Vanore said.

In 2021, police created a composite sketch using the DNA of the unknown male.

Investigators sent the DNA to a genealogy lab and used publicly available genealogy databases, police said, finding more than 1,000 family members.

“It was a very extensive tree,” Philadelphia police forensic laboratory manager Ryan Gallagher said, with links around the country, including Puerto Rico. “There were no clear associations to the Philadelphia area.”

Gallagher said police worked with multiple law enforcement partners and were able to narrow down the tree to one branch of the family.  Elias Diaz was identified as a potential person of interest.

‘Science got him,’ DA says

“This case goes back to ’03,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said. “This suspect has been riding a bike and has been outrunning justice since then.”

Krasner said DNA techniques have advanced to the point where investigators were able to finally identify Diaz.

“Science outran this guy’s bicycle,” Krasner said, comparing it to the way the Golden State Killer was caught in California. “Science got him.”

A preliminary hearing in connection with the November machete attacks is scheduled for January 3, and a preliminary hearing in connection with the 2003 killing is scheduled for January 8, online court records show.

CNN’s Laura Dolan contributed to this report.

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