Man arrested in Philadelphia machete attacks may be linked to 2003 murder, sexual assaults

A man arrested Sunday in Philadelphia in connection with three machete attacks or attempted attacks has been charged in the 2003 sexual assault and killing of a jogger, the district attorney’s office said.

Elias Diaz, 46, has been charged with murder, rape and related charges in the killing of Rebecca Park, a 30-year-old college student who was reported missing on July 16, 2003. Her body was later found in a wooded area.

Diaz is also a person of interest in two other sexual assaults and an attempted attack in 2003 and 2007, police said Tuesday, but no charges have been announced in those cases.

Diaz was arrested Sunday and charged in a Nov. 24 attack in which two people walking on a trail were slashed with a machete, interim Police Commissioner John Stanford said Tuesday.

He was arrested after three attacks on people in Pennypack Park in November by someone wielding a machete, police said. Three people suffered injuries.

But after DNA and other evidence were collected following his arrest Sunday, police believe Diaz may have also committed the earlier crimes two decades ago, Stanford said.

As police continued to search for information years after the sexual assaults, they became known in Philadelphia as the Fairmount Park rapist cases.

“Everything we have at this point leads us to believe that Mr. Diaz is also involved, or a person of interest, regarding the murder of Rebecca Park, which occurred in July of 2003, as well as possibly two or three other sexual assaults that occurred in Fairmount Park over a period of time,” Stanford said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the district attorney’s office announced Diaz was charged in the Park case.

machette attack attacker police newser
Philadelphia Police First Deputy Commissioner John M. Stanford provides information about the arrest of the suspect in the Pennypack Park Trail slashings, in Philadelphia, on Tuesday.NBC10 Philadelphia

The first of the machete attacks occurred Nov. 22 on a trail when a cyclist yelled out his intention to pass another person, the police chief said. When the cyclist passed, the attacker slashed his hands and arms with a machete, Stanford said.

The other two people, a male and female, were attacked about 9 a.m. Nov. 24 as they walked in Pennypack Park, Stanford said.

The next day, a machete-wielding man tried to attack a female, but she escaped and was not hurt, Stanford said. That attempted attack was not reported until Dec. 6.

On Sunday, Diaz was arrested after someone reported to police that there was a man on a bike with a machete on it, the police chief said.

The crimes in 2003 and 2007 involved two sexual assaults, one attempted sexual assault, and the sexual assault and killing of Park, who went missing after going for a jog in 2003 and whose body was later found buried under dirt and leaves in a wooded area, police said.

The first of those crimes occurred on April 30, 2003, police First Deputy Commissioner Frank Vanore said at a news conference Tuesday.

  • April 30, 2003: A 21-year-old woman said she was jogging at around 10:30 p.m. when someone attacked her. She gave police a description and police obtained DNA and entered it into a database.
  • July 16, 2003: A missing person report was taken for Rebecca Park, who disappeared but left all of her belongings, car keys and cellphone in her apartment. Investigators believe she had gone for a jog. Her body was later found in a wooded area covered by dirt, leaves and rocks after someone reported hearing a person screaming in the area. DNA was also collected and put into a database.
  • Oct. 25, 2003: A 37-year-old woman said that she was attacked around 6:15 p.m. near the Falls Bridge across the Schuylkill River by an attacker who tried to drag her to the river’s edge. The woman fought him off and gave a detailed description that matched the earlier one. “There was really no DNA in that case, but we felt that it fit the pattern because of the description,” Vanore said.
  • Aug. 11, 2007: A man sexually assaulted a woman taking a walk in Pennypack Park. The location of this attack was not far from where the machete attacks occurred, Vanore said. DNA was collected and entered into a database, he said.

All of the surviving victims described someone on a metallic purple 10-speed bicycle, Vanore said.

“At some point later, these cases were all matched together and we knew that we had a pattern of DNA,” he said. “And we knew we had the same offender in these cases.”

A few years ago, police submitted the information to a private genealogy company and a DNA analyst, and that led to investigative leads that “led directly to an individual with this name,” he said.

The FBI narrowed down familial contacts to a branch of a large family tree earlier this year and began eliminating people, Vanore said. Investigators found a shelter in a park where Diaz may have been living more recently, but Vanore said he did not know his whereabouts over the last 20 years.

Park’s father died last year, but police contacted a sibling to inform them of the development, Vanore said. At least two of the other victims have been also contacted, he said.

Online court records indicate Diaz is being represented by a public defender. The public defender’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.

Stanford, the interim police commissioner, hailed the diligence of the police officer who made Sunday’s arrest, “as well as all the hard investigative work that has been taking place around these cases for the past 20 years.”

The case is still under investigation, he said. Police are awaiting confirmation of DNA tests, and officials said Tuesday that anyone who may have been a victim in the past or who has information should contact police.

Retired Philadelphia Police Capt. John Darby, who was the commanding officer of the department’s Special Victims Unit when the 2003 and 2007 cases happened, called Tuesday “a significant day.”

“When you get cases like this, they haunt you,” he said at Tuesday’s news conference. “Investigators will tell you, they go home, the last thing they think about before they go to bed at night, the first thing they think about when they wake up in the morning is cases like these.”