POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 14, 2013
NEW YORK » Before she came to be known as Baby Hope, Anjelica Castillo lived with seven people in the Queens borough apartment where she was killed. None of them spoke up when she vanished one summer day.
Neither did her parents, who never reported the girl missing, nor did at least two of her sisters, who spoke of it to each other but not to the authorities.
A livery-cab driver reportedly ferried her killer, an accomplice and the blue cooler packed with her body under soda cans to near the spot where it would be found by the side of a Manhattan highway in 1991. Images of the cooler circulated widely in the news media, but the cabby never came forward either.
For 22 years, as detectives pleaded for information in the killing of the unidentified young girl and scoured the city for leads, those who knew the answers kept quiet about what they had seen or heard. Indeed, more than a half-dozen of Anjelica's relatives carried part or all of the haunting secret of her disappearance.
So it was that while the police and prosecutors said Saturday they had solved one mystery, charging her cousin Conrado Juarez with the killing, another disturbing question arose: How could so many have remained silent for so long?
At Juarez's arraignment late Saturday, the prosecutor, Melissa Mourges, said interviews with Anjelica's mother and with "other family members led to this defendant," though she did not describe what each person knew about how or why the young girl had disappeared. Juarez, 52, was taken into custody early Friday morning at an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village, where he worked in the kitchen.
From the start of the questioning, investigators were suspicious. Juarez claimed to be ignorant of basic facts, including whether he knew Anjelica, according to a law enforcement official who, like others who spoke about the case, requested anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
That was the first red flag, the official said. Over the course of several hours, Juarez "made statements admitting that he forced sexual contact with the child" and that "during that act, he put a pillow over her face, suffocating her," said Mourges, now the head of the Manhattan district attorney's cold case unit and the original prosecutor on the Baby Hope case in 1991.
According to the authorities, Juarez said he had enlisted the help of Balvina Juarez-Ramirez, his sister and the child's caretaker, and that she recommended placing the body in the cooler and depositing it far from their Astoria apartment. Detectives believe Ramirez died around 1995.
Juarez's lawyer, Michael J. Croce, said Sunday that his client denied the charges against him and disputed the "miraculous confession," which came after Juarez had been "interrogated for 12 to 14 hours." He said prosecutors had not yet shown him the statement or said whether there is any forensic evidence tying Juarez to the crime. He added that Juarez does not speak much English.
Detectives are now looking into further allegations of sexual abuse by Juarez, according to another law enforcement official, who said Sunday that recent developments in the murder case had unearthed accusations that he had abused other cousins and other family members. The official also said that some investigators believe the sexual attack that immediately preceded Anjelica's killing may not have been the first time Juarez abused her.
In New York, there is no statute of limitations for the most serious sex crimes against children, including first-degree rape and first-degree criminal sexual act.
The gravity of the accusations seemed to hit Juarez before his arraignment Saturday. Other inmates at the Manhattan detention complex near the courts shouted that he was "a child rapist," and urged correction officers to put Juarez into their cells, a law enforcement official said. Juarez is being held in protective custody.
"He was scared to death," the official added.
Several factors may have contributed to the family's reluctance to speak up over the years. Many were living in the United States illegally, according to two other law enforcement officials, and were likely fearful of coming forward.
One of the officials said that after the killing, Ramirez and Juarez told others living in the apartment on 30th Avenue in Astoria that "Anjelica is not coming home" and that they should not ask questions. Investigators believe the pair might have succeeded in keeping them quiet because of the immigration status of those living there.
Before her death, Anjelica's short life was filled with family turmoil. Her father and mother, in an acrimonious split around 1988, battled each other over who would take their three girls.
While their mother managed to keep an older sister, the father took Anjelica and her younger sister to live among his relatives in Queens. He then left them in the care of Ramirez and, before the killing, returned to Mexico, one of the officials said. Detectives have yet to locate him, the official said, but are working with the U.S. Marshals Service to do so.
With the assistance of the Marshals, detectives are moving closer to finding the little girl's father, an official said.
Anjelica's mother, who has not been publicly identified, told investigators that roughly eight years elapsed between when Anjelica and her sister were taken and the day when only one of the girls was returned. That was around 1995, after the death of Ramirez.
A relative returned the one sister, the officials said, and when her mother asked what had happened to Anjelica, she was told in effect that the girl was "no longer with us." It was not clear why she did not come forward then.
In Astoria on Sunday, a man who came to the door of an apartment of a relative of Juarez declined to answer questions about the arrest or his recollection of the young girl who disappeared.
"I don't remember, it was a long time ago," said the man, who did not give his name. "I have to talk to my lawyer."
Juarez lived in the Bronx with his wife and three children on the 33rd floor of a large tower complex on Richmond Plaza. Neighbors said they rarely, if ever, saw him.
But outside the building, Juarez was well known - though not by name. Almost every day, he could be seen combing the neighborhood for stray cans, carrying large plastic garbage bags stuffed with those he collected.
"He didn't fraternize with anybody," said Glenn Bowie, 51, who added that he had seen Juarez's picture in the newspaper Sunday morning and been dumbstruck. "I said, you can't be serious. That was him?"