October 28, 2013 12:00 PM

Summer 1993. The detectives of Manhattan’s 34th Precinct were beyond frustration. Two years earlier construction workers had come upon the decomposing body of a tiny girl, packed into an ice cooler and dumped along New York City’s Henry Hudson Parkway, her malnourished corpse tethered and naked save for an elastic hair band. Detectives had dubbed the child Baby Hope because “we had the hope that someday this case would be solved,” says Jerry Giorgio, who headed the homicide case and followed up on every tip. But no lead had panned out. More disturbing, no person had stepped forward to identify the child. “It started to really bug the hell out of us,” says Giorgio, now 79. That July, for their own peace of mind, members of the 40-person squad chipped in $1,000 to give Baby Hope a proper burial. “No way was she going into Potter’s Field,” Giorgio says. Clothed in a white size-4 dress purchased by Giorgio’s wife, the girl was buried in a Bronx cemetery. Her headstone bore a message from the detectives: “Because we care.”

On Oct. 7 detectives finally learned the identity of their little angel: Anjelica Castillo of Queens. Moving with stunning speed, they tracked down her alleged killer. On Oct. 12 Anjelica’s cousin Conrado Juarez, 52, a restaurant kitchen worker, was charged with second-degree murder. At Juarez’s arraignment, prosecutor Melissa Mourges, who heads the Manhattan District Attorney’s Cold Case Unit, said Juarez had admitted that while sexually forcing himself on Anjelica, he put a pillow over her face, resulting in her suffocation. But Juarez’s attorney Michael Croce said Juarez denies the charges and claims the “miraculous confession” had come after a 12- to 14-hour interrogation. With Juarez now in protective custody, detectives have begun delving into Anjelica’s family history to find answers to new questions: Had Juarez sexually abused other family members? Why did none of the girl’s relatives report her missing?

The identification of Baby Hope combined the methods of modern science with the tenacity of old-fashioned sleuthing. This year, as every year, on the July 23 anniversary of the discovery of Anjelica’s remains, detectives revived the case. According to Newsday, the renewed publicity reminded a woman of a conversation she’d had with another woman five years ago in a Laundromat about the Baby Hope case. “That was my sister,” the other woman said. In July the woman passed that on to police, which in turn led investigators to one of Anjelica’s two sisters; DNA samples that had been exhumed from Anjelica’s body matched that on an envelope licked by her mother.

Detectives are just beginning to get a handle on the decades-long silence of Anjelica’s family. They now know she was an infant when her parents battled over custody of their three daughters. The oldest landed with their mother, Margarita Castillo. Anjelica and her younger sister remained with their father, Genaro Ramirez, who soon fled to Mexico, leaving them in the care of Balvina Juarez-Ramirez, a cousin who lived with six other relatives in Queens.

In his confession, Juarez, according to police, said that after he killed Anjelica, his sister Juarez-Ramirez directed him to hide Anjelica’s body in the cooler. She hailed a black livery cab and helped ditch the cooler in a wooded area. According to The New York Times, relatives were told that “Anjelica is not coming home” and not to ask questions. They complied, many of them reportedly illegal immigrants afraid of police contact. After Juarez-Ramirez’s death in the mid-1990s, the youngest daughter was returned to her mother, who was vaguely told years ago about Anjelica. Police are trying to learn why the mother did not contact them at the time. They are also trying to locate Anjelica’s father.

“My mother told me Anjelica went missing and she tried really hard to find her,” Laurencita Ramirez, 27, told the New York Post. The married Brooklyn mother said she found out about her younger sister’s death as a child, when her other sister told her they had a sibling who had been murdered. But it wasn’t until Oct. 8 that she learned about the Baby Hope case while watching television. The next day police were knocking on her door.

For Detective Giorgio, at least, there’s a sense, at last, of completion. “I’m feeling terrific,” he says. That doesn’t mean his relationship with Baby Hope has ended. For 22 years, he says, “we referred to her as our baby; she was part of the family.” Now newly retired, with two children and two grandchildren of his own, Giorgio still intends to visit Anjelica’s grave every year. “I don’t have to look for the anniversary anymore,” he says, smiling. “I can go anytime.”

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