Baby Hope: the murder that revealed NYPD's compassion
After 22 years, detectives who never gave up hunt for baby's killer finally have a name and a suspect
EDITOR'S UPDATE: Since this article was posted, the New York Post has named Baby Hope as Angelica Ramirez, based on information from a police source.
THE black marble tombstone in a Bronx cemetery bears the name Baby Hope and, because there is no known date of birth, only the date of the discovery in a picnic cooler of the starved and abused body of a little girl: July 23, 1991.
That day 22 years ago marks the start of a baffling and frustrating murder case which has along the way offered a remarkable insight into the culture of the New York Police Department.
Many mistakes and many sins have been committed by New York cops. With their slovenly swagger and coarse accents, their guns and their stressed-out demeanors, they are never men or women to mess with.
But the story of Baby Hope reveals an unassailable compassion that has not just survived the dark side of what was once the toughest and most complex city on earth, but was forged by it. These cops know innocence when they see it.
Yesterday, the New York Times revealed that Baby Hope at last has a name, an identity. Their annual appeal for clues - conducted back in July with fly posters and loudspeaker appeals - produced a lead. The police will not reveal the name just yet: they are on the trail of a suspect.
There were 2,154 murders in New York in 1991, more than four times as many as anticipated this year. July 23 was the sixth day of a Big Heat in which temperatures soared into the nineties.
There were complaints of a foul stench wafting from a section of the Henry Hudson Parkway along the Hudson River banks, and a road crew found it coming from a picnic cooler thrown onto the verge.
Inside were empty soft drink cans and a black plastic rubbish bag. When the road crew slit open the bag, they saw an arm and a leg.
Police found the body of a child, aged four to five, with black hair. The coroner said she was 3ft 2in tall and weighed 20lb. She was bound and naked but for a plastic hair band. She had died from strangulation, and had been sexually abused.
It was one of those cases which shocked a city often considered unshockable.
But the investigation went nowhere. The bar codes on the soft drink cans had been corroded by the ooze of decomposition and could not be traced. The picnic cooler was one of a batch of 79 shipped to New York from a factory in Texas, but there were no records kept of retail sales. Someone called to say they had seen a man and a woman, probably of Mexican origins, carrying a picnic cooler along the roadside.
After two years in which the child lay in the morgue, it was the detectives of the 34th Precinct, Washington Heights, who organised her funeral. They raised a collection to pay for the headstone, on which they had inscribed BABY HOPE and the lines: “The identity of this little girl is still unknown. If you have any information please call 1-800-577-TIPS.”
Jerry Giorgio, then the lead detective in the case, now 79 and retired, said this week: “We weren’t going to call her Jane Doe."
More than 500 people attended the funeral mass at St Elizabeth’s Church. A bagpiper played Amazing Grace. Lt Joseph Reznick, commander of the precinct’s detectives, delivered the eulogy.
Baby Hope was never a cold case. When DNA testing came in, they dug up the body for DNA samples. When more sophisticated techniques evolved, they dug it up again, and this time got workable samples. Police found no matches.
The cops would make regular visits to the grave, approaching by stealth because you never knew if you might spot someone there with secrets to tell. They collected notes and gifts, sifting them for clues.
“If I was working with someone else on a case, we’d swing around and stop,” said Giorgio. “Nothing of value ever came of it.”
Then in July this year a woman responded to their annual call for tips. She had heard a woman talking in a laundromat about her younger sister disappearing, and perhaps becoming a murder victim.
Detectives traced the woman, who had heard the story from a third, younger, sister. She led the police to their mother, and detectives secretly obtained a DNA sample. Baby Hope had a name.
The mother is not a suspect. After a separation, she had been living with the older sister while her husband had kept the younger two. The cops are now searching for the husband and members of his family.
Detective Reznick has risen to be the head of the NYPD’s Narcotics Division, and is due to retire in December after a full 40-year career. That, he told the Times, had been one of his goals. “The other was to make sure that this case never left the minds of people, and to solve it.”
Detective Giorgio said Baby Hope will need a new headstone. He is going to start a collection. ·