NEW YORK CITY POLICE LIEUTENANT Joseph Reznick is standing on the shoulder of the Henry Hudson Parkway near the northern tip of Manhattan. He is peering down the wooded embankment along a faint path to the base of a tree. It was there, on July 23, 1991, that a road crew found a blue cooler containing the bound body of a 4-or 5-year-old girl. Lab reports subsequently said that Baby Hope, as the detectives in the 34th Precinct call her, had been beaten, starved, sexually abused and, finally, suffocated.
“I’ve been here a dozen times since we found her.” says Reznick, his brow grooved with frustration, “and it’s always the same. I try to get a sense about what prompted the killer to bring her here. And I wonder, why isn’t someone calling about her? Don’t people care anymore? This child didn’t fall from the sky.”
With over 100 homicides last year, the 34th Precinct, which embraces the Latino drug bazaar of northwest Manhattan, is the bloodiest in the city. But no homicide rankles the 23 detectives under Reznick’s command like the Baby Hope case—the longest-standing open case in the country involving an unidentified murdered child. Det. Jerry Giorgio, for example, is a gregarious man. But ask him why they call the victim (who was nearly of school age) a baby, and you see a storm gather in his eyes. “She is a baby,” he snaps. “Did it make it any more horrendous to find out she’d been sexually abused? Sure, because your imagination starts to work on what she was subjected to before being killed.”
Fueled by anger, Giorgio, 58, the father of two grown children, and Det. Joe Neenan, 40, who has four kids at home, including a 2-year-old, have logged thousands of hours on the case. They have sifted the scant physical evidence, personally chased down close to 200 hot-line calls, worked up four different composite drawings and even dealt with spiritualists and psychics. In the process of pursuing their “baby,” the detectives have located several other missing children, found themselves in the midst of fierce custody battles and inadvertently participated in at least one deadly drug feud.
Oddly, they thought at the outset that the case would be solved in a matter of days. There arc lots of unidentified adults in the morgue but virtually no children. “I know if my child goes out to play and doesn’t come home,” says Neenan, “I’m calling my neighbors, then the police.”
Initially they had little to work with: the child’s badly decomposed body—the medical examiner estimated that the 3’2″ little girl had been in the cooler from five to 14 days—and the cooler itself. Unfortunately there were no fingerprints on either the cooler or the soda cans that had been laid over the body.
The first drawing of Baby Hope was worked up by a department artist, using morgue photos. It emphasized her prominent front teeth but made her look much older than 4 or 5. Still, run in newspapers and on TV, it elicited 66 calls in the first four days. (Current phone number: 212-927-0822)
One call, placed from a pay phone in Westchester County, just outside the city, still haunts the detectives. The woman said that on July 14 she and her family had been driving past the site where Baby Hope was found and had seen a Hispanic couple dressed in their Sunday best, walking north, carrying a blue cooler. But she would say no more.
When Giorgio pleaded with her to stay on the line, she agreed to call back using the pseudonym Judy Brown. But she never did. So a week later Giorgio placed a story in a Westchester paper, appealing for Judy Brown to contact him. “I got a call from a second woman, maybe the daughter,” says Giorgio. “She said, ‘Why do you want Judy Brown to call back?’ I said, ‘We have more questions.’ She said, ‘We’ve told you everything we know.’ ”
When it became obvious the women were not going to cooperate, Giorgio lost it. “I really let them have it,” he says. “What person could be so cold-blooded not to get involved?”
Over the next several months, Neenan and Giorgio found plenty of people who were willing to pitch in. Organizations as various as a men’s group from Long Island and the local Spanish-language newspaper El Diario offered rewards. Neighborhood merchants put Baby Hope’s picture in their stores. About two dozen callers volunteered to pay for her burial, when the body is finally released by the medical examiner’s office. “Every city agency, from child welfare to the board of education, has helped us,” says Lieutenant Reznick.
Reznick decided to involve the schools one night after watching the movie Kindergarten Cop with his sons. “Schwarzenegger was trying to find a kid whose father was a drug dealer. So he said to them, ‘Tell me something about your father.’ We did this at several upper Manhattan schools. We had the teachers ask things like, ‘Did you have a little cousin visiting you from the Dominican Republic who stayed a few weeks, then left?’ ”
Meanwhile, Neenan and Giorgio found themselves being sucked into the greater drama of the city. A disgruntled man, for example, called to say his son-in-law had killed his daughter’s baby. “I mean, his description of the murder was so vivid, we felt like we were witnessing it,” says Giorgio. “Finally we found this couple—nice kids who were trying to make it. The father-in-law turned out to be an alcoholic, a Dominican who didn’t like his daughter marrying a Puerto Rican.”
In another instance an informant revealed that someone was going around the neighborhood with a photo of a man said to be the killer. The family was supposedly going to pay a $15,000 reward if anyone would tell where he was. The detectives hopped in their cars, But it turned out the man in the photo was the target of a drug vendetta. Baby Hope was being used to smoke him out.
Then last October, the Baby Hope case seemed to be solved. Polaroids of a young girl performing a sex act on an unidentified male turned up in New Jersey, just across the George Washington Bridge. Newspaper headlines blared that Baby Hope had been identified. But Giorgio and Neenan were skeptical—the New Jersey girl was too old. Five weeks later the detectives found they were right. New Jersey police located the 12-year-old girl in the photo, still alive, and arrested her stepgrand-father. Says Neenan: “You’re not going to believe what the Jersey girl’s name was. Hope.”
The detectives had to start all over again. “There had been headlines that Baby Hope had been found,” says Giorgio. “But you didn’t see any saying it wasn’t Baby Hope. Then we got lucky in May when [the CBS news-documentary show] 48 Hours did a segment on the case.”
The show brought a dozen calls, including one from a spiritualist in Indiana who said she had had a vision of the baby being kept in a basement by a Hispanic couple. This was the fourth woman with alleged extrasensory abilities to offer her services. “In this case,” says Giorgio, “I’ll deal with the devil himself if it means a solution.
Then this past July, after months of doldrums, the detectives got what they still hope is a break. Jogged by news reports on the anniversary of the case. a Westchester man called to say he remembered, two summers ago, seeing a dark, four-door sedan parked on the Henry Hudson and the back of a man with his arms wrapped around a blue cooler.
Neenan and Giorgio took the caller to a hypnotist, hoping the man would give them a license plate or a better description of the suspect. Instead he described another man, a witness, whom he said he had seen with the man with the cooler. “What makes this guy believable,” says Neenan, “is we took hi in back to the scene, and we didn’t stop the car. We said, ‘You tell us when to stop.’ He stopped us exactly at the spot.”
Over the past several months, Giorgio and Neenan have interviewed four men, each, according to Giorgio, “a dead ringer” for the drawing of the witness. But each had an unassailable alibi. The detectives are still passionate about their baby, but the inescapable truth is, there isn’t much left to do on the case. Says Neenan: “We’ve been thinking along the lines, with the holidays coming up, maybe somebody’s conscience will be bothering them, and they’ll come in and give it up. I was telling Jerry, ‘I just hope they don’t call on Christmas Day.’ Jerry turns to me with a straight face and says, ‘I think you II take that call.’ I looked at him and said, ‘You’re right.’ ”