DALLAS –– Shortly after Cesar Benitez had his wrists cuffed together, Dallas police found clothes and belongings stuffed inside his older model BMW, ready, they say, for an escape to Mexico.
Benitez, who is charged with raping three women in their Lake Highlands homes between Feb. 22 and March 19, was arrested on April 3. Days later, investigators say DNA evidence linked the 30-year-old to each attack.
He’s being held in the Dallas County Jail in lieu of $4.5 million bond. Investigators believe he may be in the country illegally.
On Wednesday, Dallas Police Chief David Brown honored the senior corporal whose memory helped close the oft-frustrating case, which terrified homeowners in the northeast Dallas community for about six weeks.
“We got a name for these guys; these are the heroes of Lake Highlands,” Brown said, referring to Sr. Cpl. Geoff Pettay and Ofc. Lisa Connaway, who chased Benitez when he fled and arrested him.
The first rape occurred in the morning of Feb. 22 inside a home in the 10000 block of Ferndale Road. The woman’s attacker broke in and raped her at knifepoint. Three weeks later on the evening of March 15, the suspect struck again on the same block, entering a residence through a window.
Then on March 19, the man kicked in the door of a home in the 8700 block of Aldwick Drive and sexually assaulted the resident.
The brazen assaults triggered a swift response from police. Maj. Jeff Cotner told reporters that the department was “re-doubling” its efforts in the northeast area with a focus on Lake Highlands. Mounted patrol officers and cruisers were a common site on neighborhood streets.
Fernando Munoz, a felon who was arrested in Lewisville for a separate series of sex assaults, resembled the description of the attacker in the first rape enough that Brown told reporters, “We believe that’s going to be attributed to Munoz.”
DNA evidence proved otherwise –– it wasn’t Munoz.
But last April, Allen police began looking for a man who was peering into women’s dressing rooms at department stores and nearby gyms. Sr. Cpl. Pettay, having been stationed at the department’s northeast division, was consulted –– the man was Benitez.
“They were looking for a guy named Cesar Benitez and he kind of described him to me,” Pettay says.
He saw the description of the Lake Highlands suspect and it “just came to me,” Pettay says.
“I thought, you know, I think it could be that guy.”
Pettay said he touched base with officers he knew from working as a beat cop in the area and found Benitez’s photo. From there, he sent it to the Metro Task Force, which tracked him down.
Benitez, who also has a criminal record under the name Pino Porcayo, was pulled over for a traffic violation on April 3 near Central Expressway and Walnut Hill. He fled, but Ofc. Lisa Connaway caught up to him, arresting him as he tried to escape over a fence.
“I think it’s appropriate that a woman officer, a female officer, would capture the Lake Highlands rapist,” Brown said.
Pettay said he was operating on his gut instincts when he decided to delve into Benitez's past.
“As I was driving home, I was thinking, ‘This is God talking to me or something because I had a feeling that it was actually him.’ I just had a feeling,” he said. "And then after they caught him and said his name, it kind of got more stressful and I thought, 'What if the DNA doesn't match ... and I'm going to look like an idiot.'"
The DNA matched and Benitez was charged with the crime.
Brown credits Pettay’s information, a late Crime Stoppers tip, Connaway’s tenacity and the dedication of the patrol units with his arrest.
“They spent weeks constantly working the area 24/7, this was a team effort,” said Deputy Chief Andy Accord. “It makes us more ingratiated into the community. We had those contacts and those networks that were involved.”