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A Killer Among Us

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There are no fibers to study, no DNA to scrutinize, no witnesses, no motive. Not a single shred of evidence to tuck under a microscope. The killing of Geetha Angara, 43—a brilliant chemist and mother of three who was strangled and dumped in a giant water tank in the New Jersey water-treatment plant where she worked—has become, her family fears, an unsolvable mystery. “Someone ruined our lives, and I need to know why,” says Angara’s distraught husband, Jaya, 51, a banker. “Why would someone murder my Geetha?”

What makes the case even more baffling is that from the start, police have known just where to find the killer. The plant in Totowa, N.J., is well-guarded, so the attacker almost certainly had to be one of its 85 employees. One year after the murder, Passaic County police have three suspects, but without evidence or a confession, they have essentially given up, yanking all but three part-time detectives off the case. “People watch CSI and figure these heinous crimes can all be solved in an hour,” says prosecutor James Avigliano. “That’s not real life.”

But that’s not good enough for the Angaras, who want the state attorney’s office to get involved. “If we can’t have my mother back, at least we want answers,” says her daughter Pavithra, 20. Angara’s relatives aren’t the only ones who want the case cracked. “People have a pretty good idea of who did it, but no one is sure,” says one worker at the treatment plant. “You are in the company of a killer. No one feels safe.”

As much a mystery as whodunit is the question of why Angara was targeted. Born and raised in Madras, India, Geetha had a Ph.D. in chemistry from New York University and had worked at the Passaic Valley Water Commission plant since 1992. “She was one of the sweetest people you could hope to meet,” says colleague Michael Irvolino, a sample collector. Jaya says his wife was popular with everyone at the plant, but some disagree. After she was promoted to senior chemist in 2004, “a lot of people were jealous,” says one employee. “A lot of people didn’t like her because she had her doctorate.” There was also “some racial prejudice,” another colleague claims. “Ninety-eight percent of the plant is white, and not all of them like seeing immigrants do well.”

On the day she was killed, Feb. 8, 2005, Angara took a coffee break around 10 a.m. and “was laughing and smiling as usual,” says Irvolino. She then went to the isolated basement to check water-quality monitors. When she didn’t show up at her Holmdel, N.J., home after work, her husband panicked. “Around 9:20 I got a call from one of her coworkers,” says Jaya. “Her car was still in the parking lot and no one could find her.”

Staffers searched the plant for three hours but didn’t call police until 11:20 p.m., about 13 hours after Angara disappeared. It wasn’t until the next day that police discovered that a 50-lb. lid to a 35-foot-deep water tank was open; divers found Angara’s body in the tank. By then the crime scene had been compromised by searchers, and one of the only bits of evidence—a broken beaker found near the tank—had been thrown in the trash. The chlorine in the water destroyed any potential DNA evidence, though an autopsy showed Angara was choked unconscious before drowning in the tank.

Prosecutor Avigliano says 13 detectives spent 4,000 hours on the case, interviewing more than 70 people to winnow the suspect list down to 3. Police won’t say who they are, but Lt. James Wood of the prosecutor’s office does allow that one is a supervisor and one found the broken beaker. Wood also heard from employees that a suspect “was ready to confess after being interrogated, but then he got a lawyer. I think he’s scared. There could be a bit of a guilty-conscience thing happening.” Police asked all three to take lie-detector tests; one passed, one refused, and one test was inconclusive. Despite recent re-interviews, says Wood, “the investigation is stalled.”

That lack of progress has made it harder for the Angaras to cope. Young Priya, 10, sneaks into her mother’s closet to hug her clothes and does her homework in front of a photo of Geetha “and pretends her mommy is helping,” says Jaya, choking back tears. “Geetha had been our world and we’re lost without her. My family needs answers.”