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Hunt for the Bike Path Killer: The Linda Yalem murder

By John Springer, Court TV

AMHERST, N.Y. (Court TV) — University at Buffalo sophomore Linda Yalem descended the stairs of her dormitory at a quarter past noon on Sept. 29, 1990. It was a sunny day, 60 degrees.

Wearing black Spandex running pants and a white Nike T-shirt, the 22-year-old popped a Tears for Fears cassette into her Walkman and started down the bicycle path that winds its way through UB's north campus and the upper-middle-class town of Amherst.

The scenic, 5.5-mile track was one of Yalem's regular runs. She needed to log quite a few miles if she was to meet her personal goal and cross the finish line of the upcoming New York City Marathon, her first, in five and a half hours.

"She was so excited about it. It was all she talked about," said Ann Brown, Yalem's older sister by two years. "She really had the running bug."

Yalem, a petite, brown-haired southern Californian had promised her sister that she would never run at night. She knew the dangers.

In 1989, around the time that Yalem first began running regularly, a 28-year-old investment banker was savagely raped and beaten in New York City. Yalem, a communications major who wrote about running for UB's student paper, knew about the "Central Park Jogger" case from media accounts and vowed nothing like that would happen to her.

With the big race just more than a month away, Yalem planned to put 15 miles on her white New Balance running shoes before meeting friends later for a screening of the Bette Midler tear-jerker "Beaches."

A White T-Shirt, a Familiar Face

When Yalem had not returned to her dorm by 9:30 that night, her roommates called campus police to report that she had gone running on the Ellicott Creek bicycle path alone and was long overdue. Police and a small group of students organized by Yalem's boyfriend used flashlights to check the bike path for signs of the missing jogger.

A light rain was falling when they called it a night at about 11:30 p.m.

At daybreak, 15 campus police officers and 11 from Amherst's force began searching for Yalem in earnest. Police enlisted bloodhounds and a helicopter.

Even as they searched wooded areas and the banks of Ellicott Creek, some officers wondered if he had struck again.

It had been four months since the last known attack. A 32-year-old woman had been beaten and sexually assaulted along the path. Joggers investigating the sound of someone moaning found the woman, a married advertising executive, in a clearing about 50 feet in the woods near the 2.7-mile marker on the bicycle path. She was barely alive.

The victim was unconscious for more than six hours, and doctors were unsure if she would ever wake up. When she finally came to, she told police that she could not recall anything that happened after some sort of rope or cord was wrapped around her neck by an attacker she did not see.

The garrote, which rendered the woman unconscious by briefly cutting off the supply of blood to her brain, left deep impressions in the victim's neck. Two of them.

Police had seen ligature marks like those before.

In August 1989, a 14-year-old Amherst girl on her way to cheerleading practice at Sweet Home High School was dragged off the bicycle path near the 5.3-mile marker and raped. Three months earlier, a 15-year-old high school student was raped in a similar manner in Buffalo. There was one victim in 1988, another 16-year-old high school student raped in the same area of Buffalo. The first two victims — a 44-year-old jogger in Buffalo and a 17-year-old high school student in Hamburg, respectively — were attacked a month apart in 1986. (MAP)

Because the rapist had never killed, as far as investigators knew, the police officers searching the bicycle path for Linda Yalem on Sept. 30, 1990, were hoping that either he had not struck again or that Yalem was alive but unable to summon help if he had.

Ann Brown, who hopped on a flight to Buffalo with her husband that afternoon, prayed silently as the plane left Long Island that her sister was alive.

Brown and her husband John were in Yalem's dormitory suite with several of her roommates at 5:15 p.m. when Amherst Police Officer Mark Cavagnaro discovered the lifeless body of a young woman near the bike path. She lay in woods 125 feet from the path near the 3.5-mile marker.

When evidence technicians carefully removed a white Nike T-shirt bearing the words "Run Like Hell" that was obscuring the partially clad victim's face, investigators knew they had found Linda Yalem. Even with the gray duct tape covering her nose and mouth in a criss-cross pattern, the collar-length brown hair and dark brown eyes matched the image of Yalem on 1,000 fliers university officials had posted earlier in the day.

Forensic evidence collected at four of the six previous crime scenes would later confirm their hunch, but Amherst police detectives spotted something of vital importance to their investigation even before Linda Yalem's body was taken to the Erie County Coroner's office for the autopsy. Double ligature marks on her neck.

It was him. The Bike Path Rapist, as the Buffalo media dubbed him, was now a killer.

Stakeouts and 1,500 Suspects

Twelve years after Linda Yalem's rape and murder, the case remains unsolved. But as far as Amherst police are concerned, it is still an active investigation.

After the murder, all 15 detectives on the squad were assigned to the case.

They consulted Buffalo police about the rapes in their area. They checked and rechecked DNA databases across the country, and still do today. They questioned known sexual offenders within a 50-mile radius. Police even checked logs of Canadian border crossings on the dates of each of attack.

A media frenzy after Linda Yalem's murder brought in thousands of tips, and detectives chased down leads until they had eliminated more than 1,500 suspects by airtight alibis or DNA.

Ray Klimczak, who retired as a detective sergeant this May, remembers getting bitten by bugs while he and other Amherst investigators spent many days dressed in full camouflage conducting surveillance in the woods adjacent to the Amherst bicycle path. Sometimes, deer grazed just feet away.

Police had a description of a suspect but it could not be more common: a white man, 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 11 inches tall, 30 to 40 years old, athletic, medium build, dark hair, a mustache and thick eyebrows.

"Throughout all his attacks, he didn't try to disguise himself," said Klimczak, who surmised that the suspect lived elsewhere and only came around when impulses moved him.

In 1991, Klimczak spent three days at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va., briefing 11 criminal profilers training there. Using a slideshow that is still shown to every new Amherst police officer, Klimczak reviewed what police knew about the suspect.

  • He has type 0 blood.

  • In every case except the Yalem case, he attacked his victim between 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., and he always attacked between May and October.

  • He apparently picked his victims randomly, but preselected spots for the sexual assaults. (During several, he forced victims to areas where he had precut strips of medical or duct tape.)

  • He identified himself as "Dave" once and indicated that he had served prison time for rape and murder.

  • The ligature, some type of wire or cord that did not leave fibers, was used to keep the first few victims from screaming but later to bring women in and out of consciousness during the rapes. Police believe Yalem struggled fiercely and died because of it.

  • Typically, the rapist snuck up from behind, quickly double-wrapping the garrote around the victim's neck before pulling her backwards.

  • Although he always took the ligature with him, the suspect left his DNA and other evidence at four of the crime scenes.

    FBI experts told Klimczak that the manner in which the garrote was used suggested their suspect had medical or military training. The rapist had to know that by cutting off blood to his victim's brain for seven to 10 seconds, she'd be rendered unconscious. Much longer, she'd be dead.

    The profilers also agreed that he was probably single, had failed relationships with women, and either lived on the west side of Buffalo where three of the attacks occurred, or had connections to the neighborhood.

    Based on the pattern of attack, the profilers believed the suspect was hunting on familiar ground. The rapist proved them right on Oct. 19, 1994.

    A man fitting the rapist's description confronted a 14-year-old Riverside High School student taking a shortcut to a convenience store. The path was near railroad tracks where the third and fourth Buffalo victims were attacked in 1988 and 1989. The teenager became the rapist's eighth victim.

    'He Didn't Care' "The person had to be really familiar with the main sites in Buffalo," said Amherst Det. Sgt. Robert Brown, who accompanied a Courttv.com reporter to the Buffalo and Amherst crime scenes this summer.

    Overgrown by weeds, the railroad tracks are bordered by a junkyard and abandoned warehouse where three of the four Buffalo assaults occurred. Investigators believe the neighborhood may hold some significance for the rapist, and he either grew up there or has family ties to the area.

    "That may be the key to the whole investigation. The key is in the 1980s in Buffalo," Klimczak said.

    In pursuit of that theory, police checked zip code transfers to identify men fitting the description who had moved from Buffalo to Amherst and lists of railroad workers who might be familiar with the rapist's hunting ground. Although the poorly maintained area is now overgrown, during the day the site is visible from passing freight trains and numerous buildings.

    "He didn't care. People were across the street and working during some of these assaults. He didn't care," Brown said. "There are hobos living in cars in the junkyard who could have been watching. Nobody saw anything. It's unbelievable."

    Because of the 1994 assault and the unsolved murder of Linda Yalem, the popular television program "Unsolved Mysteries" profiled the case in February 1996.

    "We got 1,000 tips, if not more. We split them up and over a period of time we contacted those people," Brown said. "People of all backgrounds were interviewed on this. We had tips on cops, priests, businessmen — you name it."

    Klimczak thought they were close to identifying a suspect about 60 times. That's how many suspects submitted DNA over the years for comparison with that of the rapist.

    Klimczak remembers one of the men vividly.

    It was about 6:10 a.m. one day in the spring of 1991 and Klimczak was secreted in his usual spot in the woods off the bicycle path. A man fitting the rapist's physical description stepped onto the path alone and walked back and forth, catching the detective's attention.

    Klimczak radioed for the bicycle patrol officer to stop the man and get his name and address. Detectives learned later that the 42-year-old man, whose first name was "Dave," worked at UB, graduated from Riverside High School, was single and his parents still lived in Buffalo.

    A DNA test was the only way he could be eliminated as a suspect.

    "'F--- you guys. You ain't getting s--- from me,'" the man told detectives, according to Klimczak. But when the suspect got tired of seeing detectives talking to his co-workers and neighbors, he relented.

    "He runs up to us at UB one day and he says, 'Look, you bastards. Enough is enough,'" Klimczak recalled.

    Police got the DNA sample that day, but not their man. "Dave" was eliminated as a suspect.

    Even before Linda Yalem was killed, police thought they had the caught rapist one other time.

    After the first of the three Amherst attacks, Buffalo police arrested a suspect in the fall of 1989 in an unrelated sexual assault case. The Amherst victim and the only two Buffalo victims up until then picked him out of a photo lineup. It took several months before a DNA test excluded the man, although he was charged with the unrelated assaults and convicted.

    "The guys couldn't believe it," Klimczak said. "Three victims positively identify him but it's not the guy."

    Police were frustrated, and still are.

    Where Did He Go?

    Police still run down tips that come in whenever the "Unsolved Mysteries" episode is rebroadcast, but the rapist who struck eight times in Buffalo and Amherst has not been heard from since 1994.

    "There are all sorts of theories on where he went or why he didn't do anything again, but everyone thinks he will," said Brown, the Amherst investigator.

    Did he move? Go to prison? Lose interest? And why didn't he strike between 1986 and 1988, and 1990 and 1994?

    Police hope to answer those questions in an interrogation room one day, but for now they remain concerned that people have forgotten about the attacks.

    Amherst Det. Lt. Joseph LaCorte notes that it was four years between Yalem's murder and the eighth and final known attack.

    "The scary part is the FBI says he's going to hit again and some people are lulled into a false sense of security," LaCorte said. "We keep it out there in the community. We do take it personally. It happened in our community."

    Absent a confession, DNA is the only conclusive way to solve the case, but police doubt they'll identify a suspect unless someone with knowledge turns him in.

    "Eventually someone is going to say, 'That's my ex-husband' or 'I know who that is,'" LaCorte said. "Or may be he'll just get unlucky finally."

    Unlike some of the investigators, Ann Brown isn't optimistic that her sister's killer will be caught.

    "He's in jail or dead," she said. "I don't think he's going to be caught, but I'm hoping. To me, my sister is dead. But I don't want to see it happen to anyone else." Brown unsuccessfully sued the university and Town of Amherst for failing to tell her sister and other newcomers to the campus about the rapist.

    If Yalem's killer is ever caught — and police vow to keep trying — under New York law he canno t be prosecuted for any of the seven other sexual assaults.

    "The statute of limitations has run out on every case except the murder," Klimczak said. "It never runs out."

    This is the first in a multi-part series, Hidden Traces: New Clues for Cold Cases, which focuses on some of the most intriguing unsolved cases of our time.