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Not-guilty plea in S.F. case of 'Rideshare Rapist'

SAN FRANCISCO -- The four rapes had frightening parallels: Posing as a driver for a ride-hailing service, the attacker picked up drunken women and drove them to secluded areas in San Francisco before climbing into the backseat and violating them.

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Evan Sernoffsky
, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- The four rapes had frightening parallels: Posing as a driver for a ride-hailing service, the attacker picked up drunken women and drove them to secluded areas in San Francisco before climbing into the backseat and violating them.

In two instances, investigators said, the man now dubbed the ``Rideshare Rapist'' used a knife to threaten his victims while forcing himself on them. In one case, a semiconscious woman said she awoke with wet hands before realizing she was bleeding from trying to fight off the blade.

In another case, the rapist was able to isolate a woman by asking her friend to step out of his car momentarily and grab a bottle of water from a street vendor.

As prosecutors released chilling details about the assaults, the suspect, who was arrested last week, appeared in court Thursday to face four counts of rape, among other charges. Orlando Vilchez Lazo, an undocumented immigrant and former Lyft driver, pleaded not guilty as his attorney said he ``maintains his innocence.''

``We're going to fight this case in the courtroom, not in the media,'' Deputy Public Defender Sandy Feinland said outside San Francisco Superior Court, surrounded by cameras and reporters.

Vilchez Lazo, who is being held without bail, pleaded not guilty to charges of rape by force, sexual penetration by force, kidnapping and kidnapping to commit rape.

Sitting quietly in the gallery during the brief hearing were Vilchez Lazo's wife, brother and nephew. The wife said nothing, crying as she left.

``No comment,'' the brother said. ``Just talk to the lawyer.''

The case has captured wide attention. Federal immigration officials have seized on the rapes to criticize San Francisco's sanctuary policies that limit cooperation between local authorities and deportation agents. However, there's no indication that Vilchez Lazo, a native of Peru, had any contact with U.S. law enforcement before his July 12 arrest.

Ride-hailing company Lyft has come under scrutiny after it was revealed that the defendant worked for the company until his alleged crimes came to officials' attention, raising questions about the company's background-check process.

Police said Vilchez Lazo was not on the Lyft platform when he committed his crimes, but had stickers from ``one of the major companies'' on his vehicle when he lured his victims into his car.

Assistant District Attorney Lailah Morris released details about Vilchez Lazo's alleged crimes in a motion asking a judge to hold Vilchez Lazo without bail.

The series of rapes began Nov. 1, 2013, Morris wrote, when an intoxicated woman leaving Virgil's Sea Room in the Mission District called a Lyft to take her home, but ``had difficulty setting up the ride.''

The woman eventually ``set up a ride and was picked up by driver claiming to be her ride.'' Morris said the woman fell asleep in the car and awoke in a remote parking lot surrounded by warehouses before demanding to be taken home.

She fought with her attacker, cried and pleaded to be taken home, but was forcibly raped. Vilchez Lazo then took the woman home, the prosecutor said.

The woman immediately went to San Francisco General Hospital for a rape examination, and investigators recovered DNA that was later matched to Vilchez Lazo, police said.

The case then went cold for more than four years. On Feb. 18 of this year, a woman was feeling sick from alcohol at Temple Bar in San Francisco's Financial District, prompting her friend to order a ride from Uber. But the driver who arrived refused to give the woman a ride due to her severe intoxication.

According to prosecutors, that's when Vilchez Lazo, posing as a driver for a ride-hailing service, pulled up and asked if the women needed a ride. Once inside the vehicle, the intoxicated woman began to vomit. The driver pulled over and allegedly told the friend to get her some water from a street hot dog vendor.

When the friend hopped out, prosecutors said Vilchez Lazo drove off with the victim. Fading in and out of consciousness, she told police she remembers the driver taking her to a secluded location, getting into the backseat, cutting her underwear off and raping her.

Vilchez Lazo drove this victim home as well, prosecutors said. She too had an examination, and investigators obtained DNA that matched the 2013 case, police said.

On May 5, Vilchez Lazo allegedly attacked his next victim, prompting police to form a multiagency task force and name the assailant the ``Rideshare Rapist.''

The victim that night had consumed several glasses of wine with friends at a San Francisco bar. When she was ready to leave, she requested an Uber on her phone and got into the backseat of a car she believed was the one she ordered, prosecutors said.

The driver took her to a remote area, parked, got out and came around to one of the passenger doors, standing in front of the woman while holding a knife before raping her, Morris said. Again, she said, Vilchez Lazo drove his victim home, and again, a hospital rape exam produced matching DNA.

The final attack happened June 10, authorities said, when a woman leaving Temple Bar thought she was getting into an Uber. She began to fall asleep and awoke to find her hands wet and a man in the backseat with her.

``He began to threaten her and held a knife to her neck,'' Morris wrote. ``She realized that the wetness on her hands was her own blood and that she had been trying to fend off the knife with her hands.''

The assailant held her down and viciously raped her, Morris said, before she struggled free, got out of the car and ran to a nearby house to call 911.

Investigators identified Vilchez Lazo as the suspect after spotting him acting suspiciously in the South of Market neighborhood on July 7. Officers pulled him over and later collected his DNA. When the sample was linked to all four victims, officials said, police arrested him at his San Mateo home.

Authorities believe there could be more victims, as well as witnesses to the crimes, and asked anyone with information to call San Francisco police.

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