The horn blows. Then a puff of smoke. It’s 6 a.m. and already 84 degrees on Fordham Street. Officers, black faceless silhouettes in the early morning sun, line the pier, a dead end area off-limits to the public. They wait, pacing at the water’s edge. Then a rumble from behind. A white truck barrels through and slows down before one of the black arms waves the driver through rusty gates. At the end of the pier the truck stops, now just a small white square seen in the rearview mirror of a parked car that isn’t supposed to be here.
Another rumble in the distance. This one has the familiar screech of a school bus, not out of place in this residential waterfront community. But it’s the front of a white bus that passes through the rearview, and a row of tightly caged windows that blurs the driver’s side mirror. The horn blows again and the bus pulls behind the white truck. Both inch forward slowly onto the platform of a small orange ferry and leave the pier.
For most who take this quarter-mile voyage across the Long Island Sound, this is a one-way trip, its destination: potter’s field, an anonymous cemetery for the unclaimed dead. New York State has the third largest amount of unidentified human remains on record in the United States. Bundled in $55 hand-numbered pine boxes, this is where they go, New York City’s mile-long Hart Island, what looks like a tree-lined oasis just off the shores of Sands Point.
Hart—the former site of a prison, yellow fever isolation zone and insane asylum—is part of the Bronx, as is this pier on City Island. Both are property of the NYC jail system and restricted to the general public. Deliveries are brought here four times a week from NYC and Long Island then ferried over to the Island, with no living residents and nearly 1 million unclaimed dead, stillborns, dismembered body parts, amputations and unidentified homicide victims. Riker’s Island inmates bury them in trenches, 150 per numbered concrete marker, two across, three deep. A handful of these victims were found on Long Island, and investigators say there is at least one person, somewhere, who knows who they are.
THE GIRL WITH THE PEACH TATTOO
Her handless, headless, legless torso was found in Hempstead Lake State Park during the summer of 1997. She was wrapped in a black plastic garbage bag and stuffed into a dark-green Rubbermaid container with a floral pillow sham and frayed red towel. The only identifying mark on her body: a bitten heart-shaped peach tattoo on her left breast with two drops underneath.
“They call her Peaches,” Nassau County Medical Examiner Eric Smith says of his law enforcement colleagues, as he thumbs through photographs of unidentified bodies in the back room of the county morgue—some battered, swollen faces, others clay reproductions with glass eyes.
Her official name is U-037859772.
It’s been 13 years since Peaches was found by a hiker among the heavy roadside brush of West Hempstead’s Lakeside Drive.
And it’s been 13 years since someone got away with murder.
Nassau County police Detective Lt. William Brosnan, the lead Homicide Squad investigator on the case, has been searching missing persons files and databases in the metropolitan area for years. No one has reported her missing. The case was featured on several TV shows, including America’s Most Wanted.
“It got no response,” says Brosnan. “Somebody must know something. Somewhere out there she has a child, and at this point in time, that child is at least 13 years old.”
A scar on the woman’s lower abdomen showed she had given birth by Cesarean. An autopsy revealed she had been dead no more than three days when she was found.
With little to go on, Brosnan had a photograph of the peach tattoo printed in a national tattoo magazine.
“This tattoo was kind of unique,” he says. “I’ve always thought that somebody would recognize her.”
One man did.
A Connecticut tattoo artist recognized the picture and remembered the girl he had given it to, a young black woman, aged 16-30, visiting from Long Island. She came into his shop with her aunt and cousin, and she mentioned something about having boyfriend problems.
That was all he could remember.
Without a skull, police could not come up with a composite sketch of her face. Without teeth, there were no dental records to compare. Without hands, no fingerprints. Without an identity, no circumstances.
“I always said that if I identified her, I would probably find out who killed her,” says Brosnan. “It’s probably someone very close to her, and that’s why in most cases they do that—so you can’t identify them. There might have been something about her legs, either tattoos or something to identify her that way.”
With little to go on, the case goes cold, but not closed. Unsolved homicides on Long Island are never closed. But Brosnan says at this point it would take someone coming forward to move things along.
“No one ever came to us saying, ‘That’s my daughter, that’s my wife, that’s my sister,’” says Brosnan. “We never got that.”
And while it may seem as though a case like Brosnan’s is impossible, similar cases in Nassau and Suffolk counties have been solved before.
THE GIRL WITH THE ANGEL TATTOO
A woman walking her dog in July of 2003 found a headless, handless torso just off Halsey Manor Road in Manorville. The body was left out in the open in this isolated part of the Island, where hunters frequent and old couches are often dumped. Halsey Manor Road runs straight through the Long Island Pine Barrens, more than 100,000 acres of forest surrounding the eastern portion of the Long Island Expressway. The area is considered by local authorities a popular dumping ground since it is the first stretch of empty land off the expressway. Three other bodies—two intact males and one dismembered female, all still unidentified—were found here between 2000 and 2003. Police won’t say if they are related cases.
“Until we know who these people are, we can’t formulate a connection between any of them,” said the Suffolk County Police Department in a statement. “If they all had similar backgrounds or if they all knew the same people… But if we don’t know who they are, we’re not going to be able to tell if they’re related or not.”
Just like Peaches, the woman in Manorville had a tattoo. But hers had been partially gouged off the skin of her right hip. The edge of a wing was barely visible. Detectives released photos of it anyway. A Washington detective took notice and remembered a woman he had arrested for prostitution in Washington state. Suffolk police located her estranged family and obtained DNA samples to compare. Seven months after her body was found, she was identified as 20-year-old Jessica Taylor. Investigators are still trying to track down her killer, but at least they have the major lead they were looking for—a name, which in the cases of those often estranged from their families, it’s the hardest thing to come by.
“Normally, if it’s a prostitute or some girl that’s not family-oriented or doesn’t come home on a regular basis, nobody’s going to report her missing,” says Brosnan.
But most people are reported missing, which is why less than 1 percent of unidentified remains on Long Island stay that way. Eric Smith has been the Nassau County Medical Examiner since 1999 and sees about 5,000 cases per year. Some are unclaimed, he says, as some families do not have the money to bury their loved ones. But only a handful remain unidentified.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BOJS) released a study of 2,000 coroners and medical examiners offices across the United States in 2007, calling the unidentified remains “a critical component in the nation’s effort to resolve missing person cases.” Overall, there are 13,500 unidentified human remains on record nationally. Five cities account for more than half of them. New York City has the largest number on record at 3,612, followed by Cleveland with 2,184 and Los Angeles with 800.
Ideally these cases are reported to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which runs a database that helps law enforcement keep track of John and Jane Does and links missing persons with unidentified remains. The public does not have access to this service, but some cases are duplicated on NamUs.gov, a federal database that disseminates information on missing and unidentified persons to the public. But, according to the BOJS study, 80 percent of coroners and medical examiners said they “rarely or never” used the database, and only half of medical examiners’ and coroners’ offices in 2004 had policies for retaining records like X-rays, fingerprints or DNA, on unidentified human remains.
“It is not required by law,” says Smith, who does use the databases and keeps blood and tissue samples on file. “But it’s a way of helping us in locating family and it’s important in police investigations.”
He also keeps burial records so if somebody does come and claim the remains he has a record as to where they are located.
But this is only because he chooses to. There is no national inventory of remains that, by law, must be maintained. And since bodies are often dumped miles, sometimes states, away from where they were last seen alive, a complete, accessible database is important to connect missing persons with unidentified remains found in other places. Of the thousands of unidentified remains found across the United States only about 15 percent are entered into the NCIC database.
THE MAN IN THE MEDIAN
A new driver was traveling westbound on the Northern State Parkway in March 2004, when she tried to make an illegal U-turn on a utility road used by police, construction and Department of Transportation vehicles, just east of Sunnyside Boulevard in Plainview. The road is shaped like a horseshoe, and she entered from the wrong way, lost control of her car and ended up deep in the woods that divide eastbound and westbound traffic. When she stepped out of the car, she put her foot on a skull.
The man, or U-010004232, had been there for more than 26 years. Nearly three decades and five presidents later, his entire skeleton was found wearing a red Members Only jacket, popular in the late ’70s, tan, pleated canvas bell-bottom pants and a button-down white shirt with an orange and blue striped pattern.
“Police sat there, how many times, for years right in that little U-turn area not knowing,” says Smith, pointing to a facial reconstruction, made using the measurements of the man’s skull. “With this case we had only a few clues.”
One was a watch the man had on—a gold Bulova watch. Investigators went to the factory and found out when it was made—1960. A quarter and a dime found in the pocket of his pants were both dated 1974. The investigation revealed he was a white or Hispanic male between 35 and 45 years old, between 4’11” and 5’4” with a 26-inch waist and thin build.
“My own personal opinion is that’s the best identifier that we have,” says Thomas Hughes, a New York State police investigator, who handles cases involving New York State highways. “Gentlemen with that thin of a waist are very hard to find, that’s almost like a 12- or 13-year-old boy.”
Nearby was a plastic hair pick, so investigators assume the man had thick hair or an Afro, as well as a leather wallet with the logo of an oil company. They checked with the company to find out if they ever had an employee who matched his description, or one who had gone missing. Nothing.
“If you’re working on a case in a town or village or development, at least you can canvas the neighborhood and get an idea of who that person was and start from there,” says Hughes. “But when we find them on the parkway, the first part is just trying to identify them.”
After the facial reconstruction was released, a handful of people came forward, wondering if it was someone related to them. But because there is no skin left to fingerprint, no way to tell if he had any tattoos or scars or had been stabbed, not only can the cause of death not be determined, but there are few identifiers. The man’s teeth were in excellent condition, Hughes says, but dental records are often destroyed by dentist offices, after a decade of no visits by the patient. And, after 26 years, DNA strands acquired from the remains so far have been incomplete.
“It’s frustrating on our end because here we actually have a few people who would like to know if it could be their family member,” says Hughes. “We just haven’t had the opportunity yet to say if it is or it isn’t, but that’s the only way we’re going to identify that person on the Northern State Parkway—DNA.”
And they hold onto it. State Police have multiple labs working to pull a more complete DNA sample from the remains.
“The good thing is that the DNA gets better every day, every year, so what we may not be able to do today, in two years they may come out with something new,” adds Hughes. “And solving this one is going to be all about science.”
Hughes suspects most of the bodies that are found off Long Island’s highways are dumped there from another location, since these roadways offer easy access for those coming from the city.
“They see all the trees, and they say, ‘No one’s ever gonna track this back to Brooklyn,’” says Hughes. “And the problem is, people in Brooklyn—are they really watching the Long Island news? And if they see they found a body out here, they don’t even put two and two together that it could be a family member, because in their head it’s just too far away.”
The man in the median was found just a few miles away from another victim.
Four years earlier in March 2000, an inspector from the Department of Transportation was walking alongside the eastbound side of the Northern State Parkway, a half mile east of Wolf Hill Road in Dix Hills, when he found a black plastic garbage bag propped up against a chain link fence 50 feet off the shoulder, not visible from the highway.
U-420000973 had been shot three to five times in the head and torso with a large-caliber pistol. His body was badly decomposed.
Investigators describe the man as white, possibly Hispanic; between 35 and 45 years old; 140-150 lbs.; between 5’8” and 6’ tall; short, dark hair; and wearing a khaki-colored, short-sleeved V-neck knit shirt with black trim; a T-shirt with an Atlantic City emblem on it; size 30-32 Levi blue jeans; and a blue bathing suit. He was not wearing shoes or socks and had been dead for about two months, according to autopsy reports. Cause of death: murder. The man’s teeth were decayed, and about eight were missing. But there were fingerprints.
The man had no criminal record, however, so no fingerprints were on file.
“Same thing with dental; you can get dental, you can get DNA, but we need something to compare it to,” says Smith. “We have to have an idea of who that person might be.”
In a world of modern science, without something to compare it to, that information means next to nothing. Surely a disappointment to forensic TV fans, most of what the public sees on Bones and CSI, shows that regularly deal with forensic science and cold cases, is not based entirely on reality. Cases that begin with one tooth filling and are solved in 60 minutes have led to the misconception that cold cases can be solved with outlandish technology and the tiniest bit of evidence. Prosecuting attorneys often call this The CSI Effect, since juries sitting on real cases are often mislead by the fantasy cases they see on TV. But real forensics is seldom as fast, or as exact. And fingerprints are still one of the best means of identification, Smith says.
“Tell you the truth, I don’t watch any of those shows,” he says, smiling. “I know they can get from a little piece of bone what the person looks like, but it’s not that easy—I wish it was.”
But, even still, some of the technology used in the labs is impressive, even by Hollywood standards.
In 1999, a pregnant woman was found inside a 55-gallon steel drum at a house in Jericho. She had been bludgeoned to death 30 years before. The home had gone through several owners in that time, and the drum was occasionally moved, but never opened, until the last homeowner tried to get rid of it.
There was an illegible note inside the drum that couldn’t be read by the naked eye. But with the use of a video spectral comparator, a cutting-edge tool that uses infrared and ultraviolet light, those once-invisible letters became visible again. That, along with a page of an address book and the stem of a plastic flower found in the drum linked to a plastics company where one of the home’s previous owners worked, led detectives to Florida, where Howard Elkins had moved. Elkins was 71 and living with his wife in a retirement community when police knocked on his door. Before he could be arrested, he committed suicide.
DNA later proved he was the father of Reyna Marroquin’s unborn child.
EVERYBODY DESERVES A NAME
“We’re commonly known as Doe Nuts,” says Tony Evelina, Long Island’s Area Director for The Doe Network, a volunteer organization that assists police in researching and matching unidentified remains to missing persons cases across the globe.
The Doe Network runs Project EDAN, short for Everybody Deserves a Name, which brings together volunteer professionals to create facial clay reconstructions and composite sketches for police departments that don’t have the funding. Members report possible matches to area directors, and the matches are reviewed by a panel before being brought to authorities.
“They’ll see if it’s worth bothering police for,” says Evelina. “You have to be very picky because you don’t want to give something to the police, where it’s a dead end, and it’s a waste of their time.”
The network, through working with police, takes information police agree will not compromise a case and makes it public. Since 2001 the network, comprised of hundreds of people from all professions, is responsible for 50 identifications worldwide.
“I have a 16-year-old son, and God forbid should anything happen to him, I would want the whole world to help find him,” says Evelina. “So, why would I give anything less to families who already have someone missing? This has become personal for me.”
The key to making the identifications is publicity, he says.
“The more exposure they get, the better likelihood you have of somebody saying, ‘Hey, I remember that person,’” says Evelina. “You never know who is going to see what. You’ve got to keep them in the spotlight constantly, you can’t let people forget.”
Back at the Fordham Street pier the ferry returns. A line of men in red-and-white striped jumpsuits, hands cuffed behind their back, enter the bus. The white truck follows close behind, now empty.
“If you go to a homicide and you’re in a certain house or a certain village, you can start with the neighbors, at the corner, you can go to the local stores, the 7-11, and people say, ‘Oh yeah, I know who that is,’” says Hughes. “You can show a picture.”
The ferry horn blows.
It’s past noon, and the black silhouettes now have faces. They approach the returning ferry and fasten it to the pier. The inmates are invisible again behind caged windows.
“If you don’t know who it is, it’s hard to backtrack their steps,” says Smith. “Who their family is, where they work, what kind of relationships they were in—once you really get to know the person, then you’re solving the crime.”
A corrections officer walks out of the gates, and waves the bus and the white truck out into the residential street before climbing in himself. Two police cars follow as they escort the inmates back to Riker’s Island, and Hart goes back to being that beautiful, tree-lined island seen in the distance from the shores of Sands Point.
“You would think everyone has family, they don’t come home, and someone must know them, someone must miss them,” says Smith. “This person was living somewhere and they never came home again.”
FOUND: Jul. 15, 1982 in Cedar Ridge Cemetery, Blairstown, NJ (police believe the woman was most likely from Long Island)
White female, age 14-18, 5’2”, 100 lbs, wearing red V-neck pullover shirt with yellow piping, wraparound skirt with red, white & blue print, gold chain with white beads, gold cross, shoulder-length brown hair, both ears pierced, left ear twice. Dead for about three weeks. NCIC#: U-630870962, “Princess Doe.”
FOUND: Jun. 28, 1997, west side of Lakeside Drive, 200 yards north of Peninsula Boulevard, Hempstead Lake State Park
Black female torso. Arms, head, and legs below the knee severed, found in green Rubbermaid container, with red towel and floral pillow sham, 16-30 years old. She had an abdominal scar from a cesarean section and a tattoo of a peach in the shape of a heart with a bite taken out of it and two drips falling from its core on her left breast. Dead up to three days. NCIC#: U-037859772
FOUND: Mar. 27, 1998 west of Phillips Lane, Speonk LIRR-—struck by train
White male, 185 lbs, 30-45 years old, brown wavy hair, blue jeans, multicolor wool sweater, blue denim jacket, ’98 World Cup Soccer shirt, black socks/red diamond pattern, black shoes. NCIC#: U-125940429
FOUND: May 20, 1998 across from 33 Leahy Street, Brentwood in overgrown sump
White male, 15-17 years old, white boxers with blue vertical stripes, green/black jacket size XL labeled “Alliance Down,” shirt with “Chicago” written on it, black hiking boots “Buffalo” brand USA size 8.5 yellow stud/post earring with green stone, white plastic rosary beads, green plastic key ring inscribed “Hands of Gold Jewelry,” a store in Copiague. Dead for up to six months. NCIC#: U-950001835
FOUND: Dec. 24, 1999, Suffolk County
White male, 42-51 years old, stainless steel rod in back, severe scoliosis, right hand healed fracture. Black denim pants, black Nike sneakers. NCIC#: U-370001697
FOUND: Mar. 9, 2000 ½ mile east of Wolf Hill Road, Dix Hills, 50 feet off shoulder
White/Hispanic male, 25-45 years old, 5’8”–6’0”, 140 lbs, black hair, teeth missing. Dead up to two months. NCIC#: U-420000973
FOUND: Nov. 19, 2000, paved utility road off Halsey Manor Road, Manorville
Nude white female, 5’5”, 125 lbs, 35-40 years old, brown hair, body in pieces and wrapped in plastic bags. Head, hands and right foot missing. Died weeks before.
FOUND: Nov. 23, 2000 between exits 68 and 69, south side of eastbound LIE
White or Hispanic male, 20-30 years old, 5’6”, 112 lbs, short black hair, has surgical staple possibly from a previous fracture, wearing M blue/white striped Gap boxers. Dead for about three weeks. NCIC#: U-660001512
FOUND: Nov. 2, 2003 in Montauk Harbor
White male, 23-43 years old, 108 lbs, 5’8”, Perry Ellis America corduroy trousers size 30/30, Thom McCann shoes size 9.5, brown belt size 34. NCIC#: U-880004755
FOUND: Nov. 10, 2003 south of Long Island Expressway, Manorville
White male, 35-50 years old, 5’6”. Died up to four months earlier.
FOUND: Mar. 26, 2004 in median of Northern State Parkway next to utility road between exits 38 and 39 in Plainview
White or Hispanic male, 23-57 years old, 4’11”–5’4”, 26-inch waist, thin build. Wearing a gold Bulova watch with alligator band, brown leather card holder, tan pleated canvas bell bottom pants, white button down shirt with orange/blue striped pattern and a red Members Only waist-length jacket. Dead more than 20 years. NCIC#: U-010004232
FOUND: Jan. 25, 2007 at Grand Terrace & Grand Avenue, Baldwin
Black male, 20-25 years old, 6’1”, 222 lbs, dark short hair, brown eyes, small amount of facial hair growth on upper lip and chin.Wearing dark-colored ¾ length down coat, soiled blue jeans; brown leather belt; white Nike tennis shoes, carrying Yu-Gi-Oh trading card still in wrapper. Struck by a car while crossing the street. NCIC#: NCA7661
FOUND: Mar. 3, 2007, stabbed torso in suitcase, Mamaroneck beach; Mar. 27: right foot/leg on Cold Spring Harbor shore; Mar. 28: left foot/leg on shore of James Dolan’s Oyster Bay estate. Hispanic/light-skinned black female, 5’10”, 180-200 lbs wearing red camisole with Spanish label, purple Champion sweats, tan long-sleeved Voice T-shirt, blue bra, tattoo of two cherries on right breast. Scraps of paper in the crevices of the suitcase form a calendar page that says “cinco” and “begin to live.” Suitcase made by InGear, model Protege, sold only at Wal-Mart. Dead up to two weeks.
FOUND: Dec. 1, 2007, Cherry Ave, Sayville White male, 192 lbs, 5’2”, brown/gray hair, wearing a brown zippered jacket, gray sweatshirt, size 34/30 jeans, black belt, brown eyes. Struck by train. NCIC#: U-200023858
FOUND: May 10, 2008 in Napeague Harbor, Montauk
White or Hispanic male 240 lbs, 6’0”, short curly dark brown hair, dark eyes, Wrangler blue jeans, blue XL Gildan T-shirt, black XL Liberty sweater, black Aldo loafers, 44R made in Romania, black leather belt with cell phone pouch. NCIC#: U-260021078
FOUND: Apr. 15, 2009 at Main & N. Front Streets, Farmingdale
Hispanic male, 40-65 years old, 200 lbs, 5’5”, brown/gray curly hair, receding hairline, brown eyes, hat that reads, “June 7th, 2008, Belmont Stakes 140,” green 2XL Lands End jacket, Dickies blue dress shirt, 2XL blue sweatshirt, Merona pants W40 L30, Joe Boxer briefs, black Cross Trekkers sneakers size 11. Struck by train. NCIC#: U-740023214
FOUND: Jan. 14, 2010, Piney Pt., Plum Island
Black male, 55-65 years old, 163 lbs, 5’10”, partially gray curly hair, white stubble facial hair, craniotomy scars, wearing green large T-shirt, CHOR blue plaid boxers “puritan” small, brown work belt 32/34 Godbody design label. NCIC#: U-720022911
FOUND: Jun. 21, 2010 in Long Island Sound, five miles north of Port Jefferson
Black male, 5’9”, 160 lbs, thick black hair, mustache and beard. No clothing on body.
SUBMIT ANONYMOUS TIPS TO:
2. Nassau Police: 1-800-244-TIPS or text NCCS with tip to CRIMES (274637)
3. Suffolk Police: 1-800-220-TIPS or text SCPD with tip to CRIMES (274637)