NEW YORK (AP) — New York police Assistant Chief Joseph Reznick went this weekend to visit the grave of a child long known as Baby Hope, as he's often done in the past two decades, but this time he came with more answers than questions about her death.
Her name was made public the same day a distant cousin confessed to sexually abusing the girl, then suffocating her, police said. So Reznick replaced a placard on her headstone at St. Raymond's Cemetery that read "the identity of this little girl is unknown" with one that spelled out her name, Anjelica Castillo.
For investigators including Reznick, who worked as a lieutenant in 1991 when the body of the unknown 4-year-old was discovered inside a picnic cooler discarded along a Manhattan highway, the long-awaited answers were both a horror and a relief.
"Her picture, and now this confession, I'm going to have in my mind for the rest of my life," Reznick said. "Not knowing what had happened, I imagined a sort of best-case scenario. But now that I heard the real story, I know it is one of the most disturbing things."
Conrado Juarez, 52, was charged Saturday with murder in the girl's death, one of New York's most notorious cold cases.
"This case really touched us, because she was just an innocent child, we all have kids or know them," said retired Detective Jerry Giorgio, who also investigated the case. "I know it haunted me."
The girl's body, naked and bound, was found in a 32-quart blue cooler discovered by construction workers in 1991. She weighed just 20 pounds, half that of an average 4-year-old, Reznick said.
But no one reported her missing, and detectives had no leads.
"It became just intensely frustrating," said Giorgio. "The frustration stayed with a lot of us, which makes it more relieving now."
Affection grew for the girl they nicknamed "Baby Hope." Officers organized a funeral for her in 1993, and hundreds attended. They paid for her gravestone at the Bronx cemetery and visited annually.
Detectives made a publicity push this summer on the 22nd anniversary of the discovery of her body, canvassing the area, plastering posters, asking for anyone with information to come forward.
This time, it worked. A tip came in that led to the girl's mother, her sister and a birth certificate.
The methodical investigation pieced together evidence using officers across the department, the Real Time Crime Center technology hub, intelligence division, special victims unit, and the Manhattan district attorney's cold case unit, led by Melissa Mourges, who was assigned to the case when the body was found.
Filling in the child's family tree spanned two countries.
"There's no room for mistakes in a 1991 case," said Chief of Detectives Phil Pulaski. "You have to be careful you don't move too fast that you preclude evidence from coming forward. There is a lot of planning, and planning is work."
The evidence led them to Juarez, a 52-year-old cousin of the girl's father, Pulaski said.
He told police he took Anjelica into an empty bedroom at a family apartment and sexually assaulted her, then suffocated her with a pillow, authorities said. He and his sister, who has since died, folded up the body, bound it, wrapped it in cloth and put it inside the cooler, then told relatives they were headed to the beach, Reznick said.
Police and prosecutors are confident in the confession. But Juarez's lawyer questioned the legitimacy of admissions gleaned after more than 12 hours of interrogation.
"If this statement was made, under what circumstances was it made? ... There are questions that need to be answered," the attorney, Michael Croce, said Monday.
"I'm not, in any way, shape or form, trying to minimize this tragedy," he said, adding that he was trying to point out the uncertainties of the case, including the idea that family members may have known but said nothing.
The girl's mother, Margarita Castillo, refused Monday to tell reporters why she never reported her daughter missing or whether she knew she had been killed. The family will never have peace, she said in Spanish.
For Reznick, when the gavel comes down at the end of the trial, he said he'll feel true relief.
"I remember saying at her funeral, 'This little girl was the most innocent of the innocent,'" he said. "I think that remains."
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Claudia Torrens contributed to this report.