ST. PETERSBURG — At first, Terrell Hughes' criminal conviction for stealing property from his employer seemed unremarkable.
He received probation, supplied a DNA sample to the state's database and went home.
That sample has now helped St. Petersburg police solve a nearly decade-old serial rape case, investigators say.
Police say Hughes, 45, raped five women between 1999 and 2001. Police arrested him at his home at 2107 1/2 Walton St. S on Wednesday night. He was charged in two sexual batteries based on the DNA evidence.
"We're just as shocked as everybody else," said Antonio Thompson, 24, Hughes' stepson who has known him more than a decade. He said Hughes was never violent with his mother. "I don't believe that he would do something like that."
Police began investigating after the first rape was reported Jan. 16, 1999. They saw a pattern that included four others and ended in 2001. The victims were prostitutes picked up along the 34th Street corridor.
The rapist took the women to industrial areas, including near 20th Avenue N and 26th Avenue N, beat them and dropped them off nearby. They described their attacker as clean-cut and well above 6 feet tall. Hughes is 6 feet 4.
Police aren't sure why the attacks stopped. Police spokesman Bill Proffitt said it's possible that other rapes weren't reported, but investigators don't suspect Hughes in any more open cases.
The break in the case came when Pinellas Park police arrested Hughes in October 2007. They said he stole computer monitors and air compressors from his employer, ASAP Home Oxygen, and pawned them. He pleaded no contest to dealing in stolen property in February, records show.
According to Florida law, felons must provide a DNA sample upon conviction to CODIS, a national database of genetic evidence. Florida authorities started adding samples to the database in 1990 from offenders convicted of sex crimes. In 2006, the Florida Legislature added dealing in stolen property, and last year it added all remaining felonies.
"It's huge," said Maj. Mike Puetz of the St. Petersburg police, whose agency has used the database to solve five sexual assault cases this year. "The likelihood of having closed these cases without this type of technology would be pretty remote."
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the database has helped investigators resolve more than 1,800 sexual assault cases since 1990.
The database grows as more people are convicted of felonies, increasing the chances that police will be able to solve cold cases in which DNA evidence was collected. Puetz said the system works because convicted criminals are likely to have committed other crimes.
Hughes had never been charged with a felony in Florida before his 2007 arrest. His Florida criminal history, which began in 2001, shows charges of marijuana possession and driving under the influence of alcohol. According to his arrest report, he worked at Carrabba's Italian Grill.
Hughes remained in jail Thursday night in lieu of $100,000 bail. Just before 8 p.m., paramedics with St. Petersburg Fire Rescue arrived at his house to attend to his wife, whom he married in 2001.
As rescue workers wheeled her into an ambulance on a stretcher, Karen Hughes was shaking.
Thompson, one of her three grown children, said his mother first heard about the serial rape case Wednesday night when her husband was arrested.
When asked why she was feeling ill, Thompson responded: How would you feel?
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374.