Twenty-three years later, the woman still trembles when she remembers the attack.

The man pushed his way into her Kensington house at gunpoint, slapped her so hard her glasses shattered, then forced her to have oral sex.

The alleged attacker, Francisco Sanchez, fled before trial, but the woman says she never gave up hope that one day he would be tried and convicted.

"I wished all my life that they would catch him," she said in a recent interview. "I would go to court to testify and do as much as possible to send the man to jail."

But in a sweeping move to lower Philadelphia's staggering tally of 47,000 fugitives, top court officials have quietly dropped criminal charges against Sanchez and more than 19,000 other defendants who skipped court years ago.

At the urging of Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and District Attorney Seth Williams, Philadelphia judges closed criminal cases and canceled fugitive bench warrants for thousands of accused drug dealers, drunken drivers, thieves, prostitutes, sex offenders, burglars, and other suspects.

The withdrawn cases are from 1998 and earlier.

"They were clogging up the system," said Castille, a former Philadelphia district attorney. "You're never going to find these people. And if you do, are you going to prosecute them? The answer is no."

The woman attacked in Kensington was astounded by the decision.

"How could they erase the case?" she asked after Inquirer reporters told her the criminal charges had been withdrawn. "I was a victim. There were lots of victims. It's not right."

The newspaper also located several Philadelphia bail jumpers around the country and told them their cases had been dismissed.

"I'm ecstatic," said Reginald Newkirk, who had been facing two drunken-driving charges. Reached at his current home in Watha, N.C., Newkirk was told that the charges had been withdrawn. "I'm glad to hear that."

In Newkirk's 1991 arrests, police determined that his blood-alcohol levels were 0.273 and 0.277 percent - almost three times the legal threshold for intoxication at the time. Asked whether he had been drunk at the time, Newkirk, now 61, replied, "More or less."

Another fugitive, Alfred Carter, who fled in 1989 before he was sentenced for a strong-arm robbery, is now living in Washington.

His conviction was set aside in an attack in which, he admitted, he left his victim dazed, weeping, and bleeding on a sidewalk in West Philadelphia.

"That's good," said Carter, 60. "I'm glad it's dropped."

With the mass purging, the officials have cut by more than 40 percent Philadelphia's massive tally of 47,000 fugitives. The Inquirer highlighted that figure - and the courts' dysfunctional bail system - in its investigative project on the Philadelphia courts published last year, titled "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied."

Dennis Bartlett, executive director of a trade group for private bail insurers, called the purging "probably the greatest act of general absolution in the history of the city."

"These perpetrators got away with it, basically," said Bartlett, a critic of Philadelphia's government-run bail system. "The citizens should be left breathless that in one fell swoop, the courts absolved thousands of people of crimes that they committed."

But Castille, Williams, top judges, and court administrators said wiping out old files would enable the system to focus on more pressing cases. "It's just being real," Williams said. "None of them were cases where serious bodily injury was caused to somebody. None of them were homicides."

While the District Attorney's Office said it took pains to vet the dismissed cases and exclude violent offenses, The Inquirer's review found that serious cases were dismissed.

The dismissals are not the same as acquittals, but are simply a decision not to prosecute by the district attorney. Judicial approval was required to dismiss the cases.

On Friday, Joseph McGettigan, Williams' top aide, said prosecutors would reexamine the serious sexual offenses brought to the office's attention by The Inquirer. He said there was "no question" that they should not have been withdrawn given the criteria established for the mass purge.

"We certainly would not rule out reopening and recharging in these matters," McGettigan said.

Without any public announcement, D. Webster Keogh, the administrative judge of Common Pleas Court, and Marsha H. Neifield, the president judge of Municipal Court, deemed about 21,000 cases against 19,400 defendants "non-viable and out-of-date," wiping out multiple arrests for many.

While the cases date back to 1969, all but a handful are clustered between 1980 and 1998.

One order, dated July 13, withdrew about 300 cases brought between 1969 and 1980. The other, dated Aug. 12, canceled out 20,500 cases. The orders set aside the original criminal charges and the bench warrants issued later by judges when the suspects fled.

There was no effort to inform victims that the cases were being dismissed.

That troubled Mary Achilles, Pennsylvania's first victim advocate, who was appointed in 1995 to the statewide position.

"I don't think it's a bad policy to get rid of cases that are decades old," she said. "But if they're not telling the victims and they're going to find out that their case is thrown out, they're going to feel deceived. They're going to feel like people gave up on them."

Carol L. Lavery, the current victim advocate, agreed.

"Certainly victims would be outraged - absolutely," Lavery said. "I absolutely understand that victims would be outraged or upset or hurt."

Zack Stalberg, the executive director of the Committee of Seventy, a government oversight group, had a different objection. He said the mass dismissal of cases and warrants was a cosmetic attempt to fix a problem rather than an attempt at real reform.

"If you're the bureaucrat, then nothing is better than simply waving the magic wand and making your problem go away," Stalberg said. "But that doesn't make the city any safer or do anything for victims. It's a bad policy, a real bad policy."

Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey did not respond to a request left with his staff for comment.

Court officials provided The Inquirer with a list of the dismissed cases, but it lacked key information, failing to detail the charges filed against about one quarter of the defendants. Using other court records, the newspaper was eventually able to identify the charges in those 5,000 incomplete cases.

In all, the paper found, the orders withdrew charges against about 4,000 alleged drug dealers and 1,900 other defendants charged with drug possession.

About 1,600 defendants charged with drunken driving saw their cases withdrawn. So did 2,300 accused prostitutes.

The mass purging also voided the prosecution of about 5,000 thefts, covering stolen cars and other property crimes, confidence schemes, bad checks, welfare rip-offs, and shoplifting.

While no cases were dropped against accused murderers and just three robbers saw their charges wiped out, the withdrawn cases did include defendants arrested for aggravated assault and other lesser attacks.

Among those who got a pass were about 900 accused burglars and 400 people charged with carrying illegal guns.

About 100 defendants charged with sex crimes, many of them indecent exposure, had their cases dropped. Some faced more serious sexual charges, including those involving attacks on children.

Among the nearly 21,000 purged cases were these:

Gaines, now 58 and living in California, fled after a hearing in which the victim identified him as her attacker and used an anatomically correct doll to demonstrate how he had molested her.

Public records listed a telephone and address for Gaines near Los Angeles. A relative who answered the phone there said she would relay a message to him. He did not call back.

Briscoe was among more than 1,000 defendants who had multiple cases dismissed.

After police took Ramirez into custody, officers said, he told them that when he got out, he would kill the boy.

A judge dismissed the assault charge but held Ramirez for trial on charges of threatening the boy. At that point, Ramirez fled.

When he took off, he was also facing trial on charges of dealing drugs and stealing a car. Those charges, too, were withdrawn.

The girl testified at a hearing that Upshur, then 52, had molested her and the boy. A judge found the girl's account credible and held the case for trial.

Upshur, a porter at the Forrest Theatre, never went to court again. Public records show he eluded capture for nearly eight years, until his death in 1997 in Cedar Grove, N.C.

Court bail records listed a nearby town in that state as his last residence before moving to Philadelphia.

His Philadelphia ties remained strong.

The entire time he was on the lam, real estate records show, he owned a house on Upland Street in West Philadelphia.

He had a big family - five daughters, three sisters, and a brother - in Philadelphia. After his death, he was mourned at a church service in Southwest Philadelphia, according to an obituary in the Philadelphia Daily News that made no mention of his arrest.

He was buried in Sharon Hill, Delaware County.

"I was screaming and shaking and crying," the victim testified.

After pleading no contest to robbery, Carter disappeared before he could be sentenced.

Using public records, The Inquirer found Carter in Washington. In a telephone interview, he said he didn't recall his crime very well.

"It was a bus stop, '87 or '86," he said. "I really don't remember, to tell you the truth."

Routine act, grand scale

Purging old criminal cases is routine in most jurisdictions, according to Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.

What sets Philadelphia apart is the sheer scope of its purge - a reflection of the city's massive fugitive count.

On paper, at least, the dismissals reduce the city's swelling fugitive ranks - a problem that has deeply embarrassed the courts since The Inquirer reported last year that Philadelphia had tied Essex County, N.J., home of Newark, for the nation's highest rate of bail jumpers.

In "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied," published in December, The Inquirer found the fugitive problem to be a consequence of the courts' broken bail process and its overwhelmed unit for catching fugitives. The squad has had 55 officers to pursue the 47,000 fugitives - one officer for every 850 suspects.

This year, the squad is on track to arrest 6,300 fugitives. The Police Department has no unit assigned to catching court absconders, as court officials have complained.

After abolishing private bail in the late 1960s because of corruption, the Philadelphia court officials typically have required defendants to put up only 10 percent of their bail, warning them they will owe the remaining 90 percent if they flee.

This has been an empty threat. Fugitives now collectively owe $1 billion in forfeited bail. In June, court officials finally announced a program to pursue this debt but predicted they would recover only a small fraction.

After the Inquirer series, Castille emerged as a leader of the drive to overhaul the Philadelphia courts.

Among a host of initiatives, the chief justice responded with rule changes giving prosecutors more time to bring cases. He also named a panel to study court reforms, including changes in bail procedures.

Yet Castille has long been a skeptic about the city's fugitive problem and was a driving force behind the mass amnesty.

Ironically, the dismissed cases include about 6,000 brought when Castille was Philadelphia district attorney 20 years ago.

In an analysis he sent late last year to top Philadelphia court officials after the Inquirer series, the chief justice downplayed the fugitive tally.

"There is also the matter of approximately 47,000 bench warrants in the court system," he wrote. "Many of the warrants are for minor infractions such as traffic violations and parking violations."

That was not so. According to court officials, the figure included only criminal defendants.

Castille also wrote: "Some of the warrants date back 20 years. I instructed the court leaders to clean up the mess. Probably half of the people are dead or have relocated."

Recently, he noted that Philadelphia had just begun inputting the names of court fugitives into the FBI's National Crime Information Center, the national database of wanted criminals. (At a hearing in March stemming from the paper's series, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Democrat, called the years-long delay in updating NCIC "an enormous problem.")

Castille and prosecutors said it would be a mistake to stock that database with Philadelphians wanted for minor offenses from decades ago.

This would force police in other jurisdictions to pointlessly pursue extradition requests should they pick up one of these suspects, they said.

Castille suggested that for most defendants, "just having this bench warrant hanging over their heads" had probably kept them on the straight and narrow.

"If these people have eluded capture after all these years, they probably have behaved themselves," he said. "It's been the equivalent of non-reporting probation."

An Inquirer analysis found that in about 500 of the cases, the suspects were in fact charged with new crimes in Pennsylvania - but police, prosecutors, and court officials failed to realize that they were wanted on bench warrants.

Most of those arrests were in Philadelphia. It could not be learned how many of the 19,400 cleared suspects might have faced charges outside Pennsylvania.

Williams said Castille was key to pushing for the withdrawals. "That was an item that was very important to the chief justice," he said.

However, Williams said he, too, favored the move, though he said he was not categorically opposed to prosecuting old cases.

He pointed out that his office had recently brought a murder case against a 74-year-old man who shot a police officer in 1966. (That case ended in acquittal.)

However, Williams said, some cases were simply too old to wake up.

"What, we're going to go get the guy who knocked off the Horn & Hardart's 20 years ago and bring him to trial so people can see this 78-year-old guy on trial?" he asked.

One victim's pain

For the victim of the assault in Kensington, the passage of time has done little to assuage her pain. (The Inquirer is withholding her name in line with its policy against identifying victims of sexual attacks.)

At Francisco Sanchez's preliminary hearing on sexual-assault charges years ago, the woman told the judge that she had begged him to stop.

As he left, she said, he threatened her life. " 'If you call the police or tell anybody,' " he said, " 'I'm going to kill you.' "

The judge found the woman's account credible and ruled that Sanchez, a 46-year-old factory worker, would face a full trial. He also worried aloud that Sanchez might flee.

Sanchez's lawyer told the judge not to fear.

"There is no evidence presented that he would flee the jurisdiction," the lawyer said. "It's all speculation."

Sanchez took off after that hearing.

Through voting records, Inquirer reporters found the woman still living in Kensington, just a few blocks from the house where she allegedly was assaulted.

Asked about Sanchez, the woman quietly began to cry.

When told that the criminal charges against Sanchez had been dropped, she became even more upset.

"It's terrible. That still bothers me because he escaped from justice. And now they want to clear his record?" she said. "That's not fair, because the victims, they still hurt. Twenty-five years after, I still think of it."

Coming Next Sunday

When criminals are convicted, judges increasingly are ordering them to pay their victims back. But Philadelphia's criminal-justice system lags far behind in getting the guilty to pay up. Read all about it in the second part of Escaping Justice.