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A Marin County chef arrested at his Cotati home late Tuesday night is believed to be the man responsible for a series of assaults and attempted assaults on rural Sonoma County roads over the past five months, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department said.

Thomas Boccaleoni, 44, was being held in the Sonoma County Jail without bail because he remains on probation for similar offenses in San Francisco four years ago, authorities said.

Detectives plan to investigate him in connection with 13 incidents reported on mostly rural roadways since November. He was arrested about 11:15 p.m. Tuesday in connection with two of those cases, sheriff's Lt. Chris Spallino said.

He said authorities anticipated additional charges, but "wanted to get him off the streets as soon as possible."

Katie Black, a Bennett Valley woman who was aggressively followed this month by a man who she said tried to push her off the roadway, was "elated" by the arrest.

"I can't wait to announce it as I go to this rural Sebastopol house tonight for book club," she said Wednesday evening. "A lot of women there are really terrified."

Others expressed similar sentiments.

"Oh my gosh, that is such good news," said Calistoga Road resident Jan Montelli. "Some people don't go to Santa Rosa by themselves anymore, or if they can't get home before dark they don't go. A lot of people were really afraid."

Boccaleoni has been under surveillance for about a week, after tipsters said he resembled a composite drawing of the assailant and law enforcement officials learned of his criminal past, Spallino said.

His photo also has been identified by two of his alleged victims, including one who fought off a man on Sexton Road outside Sebastopol on April 18 after he tried to pull her out of her car, grabbing her by the neck.

Like many of the other victims, the woman pulled over because the motorist flashed his headlights and pulled alongside her to get her attention -- this time saying some fluid was leaking from the back of her car.

As he was attacking, she pushed him partly off and shoved her car into gear, speeding away with the door open, authorities said.

"Obviously, he's been escalating, and our fear was it would only go further," Spallino said.

In other instances, the assailant has told women there had been a motorcycle crash, or simply pulled alongside them and waved them over, sometimes wearing a mask or otherwise covering his face.

A Santa Rosa Junior College student driving home late one night on rural Bennett Valley Road in mid-November was fondled after she pulled to the side of the road, authorities said.

DNA collected in the Bennett Valley Road incident also is being typed, and "we anticipate that coming back to him," Spallino said.

Several other incidents also occurred on Bennett Valley Road or in the vicinity, as well as in the Calistoga/Porter Creek Road area.

Residents there were mostly relieved by the arrest, but said their sense of safety had been altered by the incidents.

"We're helpful people, incredible neighbors," Montelli said. "He made us not want to stop and help people. Our lives are changed."

Two other cases occurred in an apartment parking lot in Rohnert Park, where one woman sitting in her car was accosted by a man who said he needed her cell phone, and another was attacked three days later while walking through the complex.

Sheriff's Capt. Matt McCaffrey said detectives from his department's property crimes, domestic violence, crime scene investigations and violent crimes units have been working the case.

"It's great to get someone like this off the streets," he said.

Anna Manwaring, a Santa Rosa resident and one of the victims followed, was pleased with the arrest but remained concerned Wednesday night.

"I am a little relieved, but I'm not going to relax my vigilance because I think that would be stupid," she said. "There is a possibility that there is a copycat."

Manwaring said she now carries pepper spray.

"And I watch when I come around the corner to head up Petrified Forest Road," she said of her safety precautions. "I check out all the cars at the gas station. I also try to always catch up to any cars that are on the road so we're caravaning. All the other women are doing the same thing."

The Sonoma County encounters bear similarities to a series of incidents over a two-hour period in December 2005, when Boccaleoni drove around San Francisco's Marina District looking for women he could approach for directions, then groped them when he did, police said.

One of the women got his license plate number, and he was arrested several days later, authorities said. Four of the San Francisco victims identified him from a photo lineup.

In Sonoma County, Boccaleoni was convicted of two misdemeanor charges of violating a protective order in a domestic violence case in 1992, according to court records. A reckless driving charge and an assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm charge, both misdemeanors, were dismissed that same year.

A woman at Boccaleoni's home in Cotati declined to comment.

Spallino said detectives would follow through with all the Sonoma County cases to see if Boccaleoni was connected. But some of the victims were able to report very few details, and it may never be proved Boccaleoni was responsible, he said.

Boccaleoni was booked on two felony counts of suspected false imprisonment with violence, felony assault with intent to commit rape and felony threatening of a crime.

He was expected in court this afternoon.

"We're very happy with the result," McCaffrey said. "We feel very confident that we do have the individual we've been looking for."

You can reach Staff Writer Laura Norton at 521-5220 or laura.norton@pressdemocrat.com

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