It was always the same M.O.: The man disguised as a ride-share company driver would pull up outside a bar in San Francisco, approaching a woman who appeared to be looking for her ride. The car would have ride-share tags on it. But when the woman got in, the driver would not take her home. Instead, he would take her elsewhere and violently rape her.
It happened first in 2013. Police were able to obtain forensic evidence from the sexual assault — the suspect’s DNA — and promptly entered it into the FBI’s national database known as CODIS. But there was no match.
So instead the DNA evidence just sat there, and five years went by. This year the rapes started happening again, around Valentine’s Day.
The San Francisco Police Department received reports from three women between February and June that a man posing as a ride-share driver picked them up outside a bar, drove them to an undisclosed location then assaulted them and raped them.
By the third report, San Francisco police created a task force and gave the suspect a name: the “Rideshare Rapist.”
On Friday, police announced at a news conference that they had finally arrested the suspect and charged him in connection with four assaults.
Orlando Vilchez Lazo, 37, was charged with multiple counts of rape by force or violence and rape by use of drugs; kidnapping; sexual penetration by foreign object; false imprisonment; and assault with a deadly weapon and with intent to commit rape, among other charges.
Commander Greg McEachern, who heads the police department’s investigations bureau, said that Vilchez Lazo is “for sure” responsible for these four rapes because of DNA evidence linking him to them.
It was not immediately clear whether Vilchez Lazo had an attorney. He has not filed a plea.
“These assaults were not date rapes. These were not acquaintance rapes,” he said. “These assaults were violent rapes committed by a serial rapist, a sexually deviant predator who was not going to stop until he was caught.”
McEachern paused, choking up.
“I’m sorry that I got emotional,” he continued, “but this is the exact thing that everyone fears could happen here in this city. The unbelievable diligent work of our officers and everyone you see here standing before me is what allowed us to take this predator off the street, hopefully for a long time.”
The case unfolded just as Uber and Lyft faced scrutiny from lawmakers after CNN estimated in April that 103 Uber and 18 Lyft drivers had been accused of sexual assault in the past four years. McEachern said police have been working closely with ride-share companies (which he did not name) to try to determine whether Vilchez Lazo ever worked as a registered driver. He did not have an arrest record in San Francisco, McEachern said.
In all four rape cases reported to the police, DNA evidence collected from the sexual assault always pointed to the same suspect, McEachern said, but no match ever came up in the CODIS system. When the police department started its task force after the third rape in May, investigators chased leads as far south as San Jose and as far east as Stockton, Calif. They came up empty-handed.
Then came the fourth rape, in June.
McEachern said the break in the case came July 7. Both plainclothes and uniformed officers had been conducting undercover operations in areas in San Francisco where ride-share drivers, such as those working for Lyft or Uber, frequently pick up riders. They were looking for “activity of individuals that continuously are visible” and appear suspicious. Vilchez Lazo was one such person, McEachern said.
McEachern said Vilchez Lazo’s “behavior and M.O. matched the description from the four previous sexual assaults” but did not offer more specific details. Officers decided to follow Vilchez Lazo and make a traffic stop. They managed to obtain his DNA during the stop through undisclosed means. Then, the next day, police ran his DNA through the crime lab.
Finally, they had found a match, they said.
McEachern said he thinks more victims may be out there.
“The actions of someone like this who’s committed four rapes in five years — that’s a long time between 2013 and 2018,” McEachern said. “It’s very hard to believe he wasn’t committing sexual assaults somewhere else. And we believe if victims come forward we might be able to tie those cases [together].”
Vilchez Lazo is currently being held on $4.23 million bond in the San Francisco County Jail.