NEW YORK —
As the officers tacked up posters and handed out fliers in July, a van with loudspeakers inched through Washington Heights, announcing yet another attempt by the police to dredge up anything resembling a clue in an emotionally wrenching case from 1991: the little girl whose emaciated and bound body had been left in a cooler by a highway in Upper Manhattan.
There was no name. No known family. No suspects.
After 22 years, it had become one of those cases that seem destined to go unsolved, no matter how detectives tried to jog people’s memories or find something that had eluded them the last time.
But that on-the-ground effort produced a tip. A woman recalled a conversation, years ago, in which another woman spoke of a younger sister murdered. She did not know if the dead girl was the one the police called Baby Hope, but the similarities were apparent.
The lead was pursued, and the older sister was found. Investigators then tracked down the woman’s mother, surreptitiously taking a sample of her DNA.
The forensic results produced a match: Suddenly, Baby Hope had a name, and the police were moving toward answering questions that had perplexed the many detectives who invested time and emotion into the case. They acted as her surrogate family, providing a headstone for the girl; they even gave her the name of Hope, maintaining it even when little seemed to exist. Over the years, detectives would visit the cemetery plot every so often, out of respect but also to stake it out for any semblance of a new clue.
The developments in the haunting case came after the mother spoke with police detectives and prosecutors from the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr.
Police officials would not answer questions as to the father’s whereabouts. Detectives were now trying to talk to relatives on the father’s side of the family, John McCarthy, the Police Department’s top spokesman, said Tuesday. The mother is not considered a suspect, and police officials did not release the name of Baby Hope or her relatives.
The girl was between 4 and 5 years old when she died, the police said. At a time when violent crime was far more common (there were 2,154 murders in 1991), the stark outlines of the crime still shook New York City.
The medical examiner’s office said then that the girl had been strangled and sexually abused. The body had been bound with a cord, and she had been starved before she died.
The mother told detectives that Baby Hope had been taken from her and that she had made attempts to locate her, but was unsuccessful. She told police she did not know what became of her daughter until detectives recently approached her, adding that she was not living with the girl’s father at the time of her disappearance, McCarthy said.
The forensic tests matched the mother’s DNA sample to DNA from Baby Hope, whose body had been exhumed in 2007 so genetic samples could be taken. The effort to secure DNA failed then, but a 2011 effort using newer techniques succeeded. There were no matches in the databases the police checked. McCarthy said the tip that made the difference came from a woman who said she had been involved in a conversation, years ago, in a laundromat.
The tipster described overhearing a woman say that her younger sister had died. The police say the woman the tipster overheard was Baby Hope’s older sister.
The older sibling had learned of her sister’s death from another sister, younger than Baby Hope, who was living with Baby Hope and their father when the girl was killed. It was not clear when the younger sister told the older sister about Baby Hope’s death.
It was enough for detectives to track down both the sisters, then the mother. They proceeded with all deliberate speed, an approach seconded by a retired investigator who worked on the case several years ago, after it went to the cold case squad.
“You only have one key to this whole thing right now, and by arresting this person, you turn off the only key to the past that you have,” said the investigator, Joseph Giacalone, who retired as a detective sergeant. “The public is going to have to be patient.”
One law enforcement official, who has been briefed on the case and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was still going on, cautioned that a good deal of detective work remained to be done before any charges could be brought. That official said the investigation was focusing on determining the circumstances surrounding the little girl’s death as well as who was responsible.
The official also noted that the statute of limitations had lapsed on every possible crime a suspect could face except murder, including manslaughter and possible sex crimes, so no arrest could be made until investigators had enough evidence to charge someone with second-degree murder.
The long search began on a Tuesday in July 1991, the sixth day in a week of sweltering 90-degree weather. A highway maintenance supervisor working on the Henry Hudson Parkway noticed something partly covered with branches and leaves. He recognized it as a picnic cooler. It sat by a tree where the land drops off on the southbound side of the parkway near the Dyckman Street exit.
For days, a foul smell had drifted up from there. Now, the workers seemed to have found the source: soda cans and a black plastic garbage bag. A caustic liquid poured out. When they cut the bag open, they saw a leg and an arm. They ran to summon help.
The police said the body was that of a child, naked except for an elastic hair band. She had black hair; it was too late to determine the color of her eyes. A preliminary autopsy established that she had no broken bones or obvious bruises. She had grown to 3 feet, 2 inches. The body weighed 20 pounds, which pathologists figured was slightly less than when she had died.
It was not clear how long the body had been in the cooler.
In the first few weeks, detectives tried to figure out where the child had lived by, among other things, tracking the soda cans that were found in the cooler, along with the girl’s body, through codes printed on the cans. The codes were of no use. They had apparently been partially washed-out by the melted ice and fluids in the cooler. Still, the police questioned Coca-Cola delivery people.
The police hoped the cooler itself would provide a lead. They traced it to the Texas factory where it had been manufactured. The trail all but ended there. The manufacturer said that 79 coolers from that same batch had been shipped to New York state, but the dealers did not keep track of the purchasers.
The most promising early lead came from a pay phone. A woman said she had seen something on the parkway, but her family had not wanted to get caught up in a police matter. She said they had driven by on July 14, a Sunday, and had noticed a man and a woman carrying a cooler.
Later, another woman, apparently the first caller’s daughter, telephoned the police and described the man as having been about 5 feet, 6 inches tall. She said he had appeared to be in his 40s, with dark hair and light brown skin. He had been wearing a brown sport jacket, she said, and had appeared to be “Mexican or South American.” She said the woman had been about the same age and height, had had shoulder-length hair and had been wearing a gray dress and high heels.
The body remained in the morgue for two years while detectives worked on the case. Then, in 1993, they arranged her funeral, with a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace” and a eulogy by Lt. Joseph Reznick, the plain-spoken commander of the detectives in the 34th Precinct in Washington Heights. More than 500 people attended the Mass at St. Elizabeth’s Church, on Wadsworth Avenue near West 187th Street.
Reznick is now a chief who commands the department’s narcotics division.
“I have had a few goals before leaving this job,” he said. “One was to reach 40 years; I will reach that in December. The other was to make sure that this case never left the minds of people, and to solve it. That was my ultimate goal.”