When the little girl the detectives eventually named “Baby Hope” was found in a blue and white Igloo cooler that summer day in 1991, she had been bound into the fetal position, with her hands pressed together as if in a final prayer for justice after her murder.
At long last, following more than two decades of tireless police work, Baby Hope’s seeming prayer may be answered. The NYPD announced early Saturday evening that it had caught the killer of the girl they now know to be four-year-old Anjelica Castillo. Her 52 year-old cousin, Conrado Juarez, had been picked up at the Trattoria Pesce Pasta restaurant in Greenwich Village, where he worked as a dishwasher earlier that day. He is said by police to have made a full confession.
For what is likely the first time in NYPD history, the name of the arresting officer on the booking sheet was not a cop or detective, but a high-ranking chief.
“Reznick,” it reads.
Now an assistant chief in charge of the narcotics division, Joseph Reznick had been the lieutenant in charge of the 34th Precinct detective squad back when a highway crew discovered the cooler containing the little girl’s body on a wooded incline just off the Henry Hudson Parkway at the upper tip of Manhattan.
The girl’s body had decomposed beyond recognition, so there was no way to put out a photo or even an accurate sketch. And nobody had reported a missing child of that approximate age. Some of the city’s best investigators were unable to identify her.
The detectives even asked classes of school kids to write compositions about any friends they missed seeing, but none of it led them to the murdered child. It could only be determined that she was at least partly Hispanic, black-haired and between three and five years of age. She had weighed only 28 pounds. She still had her baby teeth.
As Reznick and the squad pressed on through one year and then another, they claimed as their own the child nobody else seemed to have wanted, calling her “our baby.” They were not ready to see her buried as just “Baby Jane Doe” in Potter’s Field when the medical examiner decided there was no longer any reason to retain the body in the morgue. They thought up a number of possible names that did not seem quite right. Sgt. Bobby Maas then came up with the perfect one.
The tiny body was dressed in a white communion dress purchased by the wife of the lead detective in the case, Jerry Giorgio. The Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, which has handled seemingly every big name in New York, from Judy Garland to Irving Berlin to James Cagney, donated a small white coffin and held a one-day wake.
The squad arranged for the funeral Mass at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Upper Manhattan. A lone bag piper played “Amazing Grace.” Four white-gloved cops in dress uniform solemnly carried in the tiny coffin. Reznick rose to give the eulogy.
He had been told that the best way to address a crowd was to focus on one person, but he found there were simply too many crowded into the churcH, more than 500 cops and civilians that the NYPD and the community brought together.
"I want you all to know that this funeral does not mean we are burying the investigation,” Reznick told the gathering.
Some 200 mourners proceeded to St Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx.
“Not a dry eye in the bunch,” Giorgio recalls. “Mine included.”
The squad paid for a tombstone that was inscribed with a detective shield flanked by two angels and below that the name that was so perfect because the hope of identifying this child and catching her killer was what propelled the detectives. The words at the bottom summarized what kept that hope alight.
“BECAUSE WE CARE.”
After Reznick moved on to other commands, he kept track of the case and helped in any way he could. Giorgio continued working it even after the NYPD’s age limit forced him to retire and he signed on as an investigator with the Manhattan District Attorney.
The cold case squad had officially taken over and it too embraced Baby Hope. The investigators sought to keep the girl’s memory alive in the public with press coverage and fliers and a sound truck on every anniversary of when her body was found. They installed a hidden camera near the grave and conducted surveillance several days before every anniversary of the discovery, on the chance that somebody with knowledge of the killing might mark the actual date of death.
At the approach of the 22nd anniversary of the discovery of the girl’s body, health troubles forced Giorgio to retire from the DA’s office. He was sadly sidelined when somebody called the tips line to say she had been in a laundromat when a woman began speaking of her sister having been killed years before. It had sounded like the sister was the long dead little girl who was in the fliers and in the media.
The detective who answered the phone kept the tipster on the line and managed to convince her to speak with the investigators who were working the case. The investigators got just enough to lead them to a building near the laundromat. They were then able to identify the woman, which lead them to her mother. They reportedly managed to get a DNA sample from an envelope the mother had licked.
The child had been exhumed in 2006 because technological advances enabled investigators to obtain a good DNA sample that had not been previously possible due to the condition of the remains. That sample was now compared with the mother’s DNA. It was a match. Reznick and Giorgio and the others who had kept Hope alive now learned the child’s given name.
Resnick would later describe this as a “10-foot tall moment” and add that he would feel even better when the killer was collared. Giorgio, too, was hope, hope, hoping for an arrest when I visited him at his home early Saturday afternoon. He recalled going to the scene that day 22 years ago after a highway work crew had chanced upon the cooler.
Giorgio arrived to see that a worker had tipped it over with a shovel and that several Coca-Cola cans had spilled out along with a greasy liquid. Giorgio figured the killer put the Coke cans there to make it look like he was on a picnic should anybody stop him and peer inside. The girl had been placed under the cans, stuffed in a garbage bag and wrapped in a green shower curtain.
Giorgio’s memories then took him to an anonymous phone call that came six days after the body was discovered. The caller told him of seeing a well-dressed man and woman carrying the cooler in the vicinity of where it had been found. Giorgio had felt sure that these were the perpetrators, but he was unable to convince the caller to meet with him.
“No…no…no,” she had said.
Twenty-two years later, just as Giorgio was telling me about this tipster’s call, the phone in his kitchen rang. His wife, Katherine, who had bought the christening dress for Baby Hope so long ago, answered.
“Joe Reznick!” she exclaimed. “How are you?”
Giorgio picked up.
“”Really…okay…okay…yeah, right…okay…very good,” he said.
Giorgio did not have to tell me that this was no time to have a reporter present. He remained circumspect and offered no details as I quickly departed. I next saw him some four hours later, when Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly held a press conference.
Kelly was joined by Giorgio as well as Reznick and a number of the latest detectives to work the case. Kelly announced that there had at long last been an arrest in the murder of “the child known for the last 22 years as Baby Hope.”
Kelly said that after the tracking down the girl’s mother the detectives had created a family tree extending from a small town in Mexico to New York, as well as a timeline, starting with Anjelica’s birth at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens in April 1987. They had eventually zeroed in on Conrado Juarez.
On Friday, the detectives had gone to Juarez’s home in the Bronx and his daughter had told him that her father had been in Mexico for the past 12 years. The detectives subsequently spoke to his wife, who told them that Juarez was in fact still in New York and had actually headed off to work at 7 a.m. His subsequent arrest came as the result of all the elements of good police work.
“Public outreach, forensic investigation, old fashioned pavement pounding,” Kelly said.
He noted that beyond providing the little girl a proper funeral and burial, “the detectives made sure that young Anjelica has gotten justice.”
As the suspect is said to have told detectives and as was now recounted by Kelly, four-year-old Anjelica had been living with a paternal aunt and five other relatives in an apartment in Astoria, Queens. Juarez had been visiting there when he sexually assaulted the child in a hallway and then asphyxiated her with a pillow. His sister, Balvina Juarez-Ramirez, now deceased, is said to have become aware of the crime immediately afterwards and insisted they dispose of the body. She provided him with the cooler and they allegedly placed the dead child in it before while the other family members were in other rooms, unaware.
The two allegedly hailed a black livery cab and rode to near where the body was later found. They carried the cooler the last bit the way, just as the anonymous caller had told Giorgio six days after the discovery.
“You know the expression, ‘I’m on cloud 9?’” Giorgio said of the arrest.
Reznick was asked if he had thought this day would ever come.
“Over the years the optimism was always there except the frustration would grow,” he said. "But, you know what, reflecting back on what we named this little girl, Baby Hope, I think that’s the most accurate name we could have come up with.”
He added, “And it worked.”
Juarez was brought into Manhattan Criminal Court for arraignment on a murder charge later on Saturday night, wearing blue pants and the top of a white kitchen uniform. He pleaded not guilty.
The paperwork included what is likely the only online booking sheet that lists a chief as the arresting officer. And to have the name Reznick there, rather than the name of the detective who actually made the arrest, is a way of saying that the collar belonged to everybody who worked the case.
The arrest goes to all those in the NYPD who met evil with what was best in themselves, who embraced the cause of this child who was found with her hands pressed as if in prayer for what has finally come.