THE TIP came in mere minutes after police officials announced that DNA evidence had linked a 22-year-old Philadelphia man to the rapes and slayings of three women in Kensington.

The man police believe is the Kensington Strangler, said the anonymous caller, is in a house on Mutter Street.

Members of the task force set up to catch the fiend who has kept the city on edge for more than two months were let inside the Kensington rowhouse, where they found Antonio Rodriguez sitting in the kitchen.

Rodriguez was taken into custody on an outstanding bench warrant. Officials said last night that they were waiting to conduct DNA swab tests and interviews before asking the District Attorney's Office for an arrest warrant to charge Rodriguez with the three murders.

"The people of the Kensington area can breathe easy and rest knowing that we have the killer off the streets," said Homicide Capt. James Clark.

Clark said Rodriguez was identified as the person of interest after DNA evidence taken from the three victims - Elaine Goldberg, 21; Nicole Piacentini, 35, and Casey Mahoney, 27 - came up as a match to Rodriguez in the Pennsylvania State Police's convicted-felon database.

Clark said additional swabs and more interviews will be done to make sure "we match 100 percent that this is our individual."

"There's a lot of work to be done," said Mayor Nutter. "This is a start. Somewhere in the next 24 hours, I'll also have that greater sense of comfort knowing that we absolutely, positively, 100 percent have this person off the streets that we've been looking for, for some time.

"We have never stopped looking for him, there was never a break. The Police Department has been aggressively searching for this individual."

Rodriguez was released from city jail on Aug. 9 after serving two months on drug charges, according to city prison spokesman Robert Eskind.

The bench warrant for which he was arrested was issued in October after he violated his probation, according to court records.

Rodriguez's last known address was on Mascher Street near Ontario, but Clark said the felon was considered homeless and frequented abandoned houses in the Kensington area.

The house where he was found is about a block away on Mutter Street, near Westmoreland.

The tipster did not provide his or her personal information, so it is unclear how he or she will receive the $37,000 reward offered for the Strangler's arrest and conviction. Of that, $7,000 was offered just for his arrest.

The Strangler first crept into public consciousness in November, when the bodies of Goldberg and Piacentini were found in Kensington lots just 10 days apart, and about 1 1/2 miles from the house where Rodriguez was found last night.

Both women had been raped and strangled, investigators said at the time. On Nov. 23, police said that DNA evidence had linked the same person to the deaths of both women.

On Dec. 15, a passer-by found Mahoney's body in a desolate, weeded lot on Tusculum Street near Front, only about a half-mile from the house where Rodriguez was found. Police said she had been raped and strangled, and positioned faced down, just as Piacentini had.

Cops later said that DNA evidence linked the Strangler to her death as well, confirming their worst fears: The city had a serial killer on the loose.

As if the killings weren't enough, police also announced that two women had reported that they had been sexually assaulted and choked into unconsciousness in Kensington in early October.

The incidents drew national attention and plunged Kensington into an ever-worsening state of fear and apprehension.

Police blanketed Kensington with uniformed and undercover cops and regularly swabbed men on the street for DNA samples, hoping for the impossible, hoping to find their man right under their noses.