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Suspect in O.C. rapes arrested

Orange County Register (California)

Tustin, CA

Ali Achekzai, 32, formerly of Ladera Ranch, is held based on a DNA match.

An Afghan man wanted in rape cases in Orange and San Diego counties has been arrested in Austria based upon a DNA match, in what is believed to be the first international DNA hit for California law enforcement, officials said Thursday.

Ali Achekzai, 32, formerly of Ladera Ranch, was arrested near Salzburg on Tuesday, said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

Achekzai is accused of raping two women in 2004, one in Tustin and the other in San Diego. He also is charged with intent to commit a sexual offense in a 2002 incident in Laguna Beach.

Officials believe Achekzai moved to Canada and later Austria, where he was accused of rape in 2009. DNA from the Austria case matched samples taken after the Tustin and San Diego rapes, prosecutors said. The Austria case was eventually dismissed.

Achekzai will now face extradition proceedings in Austria. The District Attorney's Office intends to prosecute him in Orange County for the Tustin, Laguna Beach and San Diego crimes. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 53 years and four months to life in prison, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors say that on Jan. 31, 2004, Achekzai met a 21-year-old woman at a nightclub in Laguna Beach. Shortly after 2 a.m., the woman noticed he was following her in his car as she was driving on Jamboree Road toward Tustin. He continued to follow her as she drove around attempting to lose him, prosecutors said. He then pulled up near her in his car and yelled for her to pull over, saying he wanted to talk to her about something important.

The woman parked at a fast-food restaurant and Achekzai got into her car, using the pretense that he wanted to warn her about another man she met at the nightclub, prosecutors said. The woman became scared, got out of the car and tried to run away. Achekzai is accused of chasing and catching her and leading her back to the car as she cried and struggled. The rape occurred in the car, prosecutors said.

After the woman reported the rape to police, semen was collected by the Orange County Sheriff's Department crime lab, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said. Tustin police investigated the case.

On May 3, 2004, Achekzai met two women while at a San Diego nightclub while with his male cousin, prosecutors said. Late that night, the two men and two women went to Mount Soledad near La Jolla, where Achekzai isolated a 21-year-old woman from the others by inviting her to take a walk through a dark park, prosecutors said. Once he had her alone, he is accused of grabbing her and pulling her to the ground, beating her and raping her.

When Achekzai and the woman returned to the car, she immediately told her friend she had been raped, prosecutors said. Achekzai became angry and punched her in the mouth, knocking out her front tooth. The woman reported the rape to police and DNA was collected from her clothing. San Diego police investigated this case.

The victim in the San Diego rape was able to identify Achekzai from a photo line-up, said Tustin Police Chief Scott Jordan.

In July 2004, the two rapes were linked by DNA evidence. Charges were filed against Achekzai for both rapes in October 2004.

Prior to being charged for the rapes, Achekzai fled the country, according to prosecutors. He is believed to have changed his name several times and is suspected of having lived in Afghanistan, German, Canada, Austria and England, according to prosecutors.

The case went cold for several years. About six months ago, after a reorganization at the Tustin Police Department, Detective Ryan Coe began investigating the Tustin rape, he said.

Coe learned that the suspect might be in Canada, so he worked with the sheriff's crime lab, the California Department of Justice and the FBI to submit Achekzai's DNA to the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, which disseminated it to its member countries, including Austria.

Achekzai was arrested on suspicion of rape in Austria in April 2009. Although that case was later dismissed, Interpol matched the DNA from the alleged Tustin and San Diego rapes with DNA from the Austrian case.

Achekzai was arrested on Jan. 26 by the Salzburg Criminal Investigative Division at the Hotel Unterbrunn in the Austrian town of Neukirchen am Grossvenediger.

Austrian officials wouldn't have released Achekzai if they had the DNA evidence from California, Jordan said.

Tustin police are working with other departments to solve more cold cases. In December, officers used DNA evidence to identify and arrest two Los Angeles gang members as suspects in an aggressive 2004 bank robbery at Citibank in Tustin.

In the Laguna Beach case, Achekzai is accused of getting into a limousine with four other people after leaving a nightclub on Oct. 26, 2002. After one of the women fell asleep, Achekzai removed her pants, prosecutors said. She awoke up to find him fondling her breasts, prosecutors said. He then swore at her and told her to shut up as she screamed, prosecutors said.

Achekzai, an Afghan citizen, came to the United States for asylum in 2001.

He pleaded guilty on Jan. 14, 2002, to driving under the influence of alcohol, driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or more and driving without a valid driver's license, according to Orange County court records. He was sentenced to three years' probation, which ended Jan. 14, 2005, $1,054 in fines and 90 days of license restriction.

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