It’s the 1970s, and a little girl is looking out at her backyard in Queens, New York. But what she sees is far from ordinary. About to be buried underneath the soil, you see, is a dismembered human corpse. Clods of dirt swirl in the air before the body suddenly disappears from view. This horrific image stays with the child – so much so that 40 years later, she will still remember the remains’ exact location. And she will finally decide to confess the truth.
It’s fair to say that New York has seen its fair share of bodies being buried. With more residents packed into its five boroughs than in any other U.S. city, it’s hardly surprising that violence sometimes spills out onto its streets. In the 1980s, in fact, misdemeanors reached an all-time high – a phenomenon doubtlessly spurred on in part by the city’s cocaine craze. Since 1991, though, the situation seems to have improved. And in 2017 murder rates were the lowest that they’d been for approximately seven decades.
The Economist categorized New York as among the globe’s top ten safest large metropolises in 2015. However, the city that never sleeps is by no means free of heinous crimes. In fact, New York has been home to many atrocities – some of which have never been solved. And with around 9,000 open homicides dating back to 1985 on the books, cops are still searching for the answers to thousands of horrifying cases.
But imagine, then, how difficult it must be to solve a decades-old murder case where the body has only just been uncovered. Harvesting evidence from decomposed remains is much more tricky than dealing with a recent corpse, after all. And any potential witnesses may well have forgotten crucial details too – or indeed died themselves. So, trying to identify the culprit of such a crime must be a mammoth task. And the New York police have dealt with several of them.
Take, for instance, the mysterious story of Joann Nichols – a 55-year-old woman who seemingly led an ordinary life. She lived in the city of Poughkeepsie with her husband, James, and she worked as an elementary teacher. Yet in the mid-’80s, Joann vanished without a trace. Then, decades later, her body was discovered in the basement of her old house. And shockingly, Joann’s remains had lain there undetected for close to 30 years.
The cops first learned of the case four days before Christmas in 1985, when James Nichols dialed 911 to report Joann’s disappearance. According to James, you see, his wife had never arrived for her scheduled appointment at the salon that day. Within 24 hours, it seemed as though the police had come across a lead: the Nichols’ car was found abandoned at one of Poughkeepsie’s shopping malls. But Joann was nowhere to be seen.
After the discovery of the car, a thorough police investigation was mounted – but their efforts were in vain. In 2013 Thomas Mauro – the town’s chief of police at the time of the disappearance – told CNN that Joann had still not been found, although officers had been revisiting the case every year in a bid to shed new light on what had happened. But the cops’ big break came that same year, when an unsuspecting contractor uncovered something horrifying in the Nichols’ basement.
Yes, a builder stumbled across Joann’s remains in the lower levels of the couple’s Poughkeepsie abode. According to the medical examiner of Dutchess County, NY, Dr. Kari Reiber, the skeleton’s hands were found bound together with a cord, and the entire body was swathed in a layer of sheeting. The corpse had been shoved into a plastic sack and then stuffed into a container before being hidden behind a fake wall in the cellar.
As the body had lain in its hiding place for so long, though, it was difficult at first to tell whom it had belonged to. You see, decomposition had stripped the cadaver down to the bone by the time that it was discovered. With so little physical evidence to go on, then, the medical examiner’s team had to resort to dental records. And using these, they subsequently identified the skeleton as Joann’s.
As well as identifying the body, though, the coroners were also able to determine how Joann had died – and it hadn’t been by accident. Yes, according to Reiber, “A large area of the right side of the skull was… missing.” And it’s this injury that is likely to have caused her death; the coroners reported that Joann had succumbed to a hit on the head that seemingly caved in part of her skull. But who had dealt the fatal blow?
Well, the cops apparently think that James may have been involved. They were unable to question Joann’s husband, however, as he had passed away before his wife’s remains were found. Indeed, officers had discovered the widower’s body on December 27, 2012, when they had visited his home to follow up on neighbors’ worries about his wellbeing. Unlike his wife’s passing, though, there was no evidence of foul play; police declared that the 82-year-old had died naturally.
Yet despite the fact that the police’s main lead was now 6 feet under, they still hoped to find answers. And in 2013 Poughkeepsie authorities announced that the case was far from closed. In fact, they were planning on reviewing additional forensic evidence that investigators had uncovered at the crime scene. James was still on their radar too. “It’s now safe to say James Nichols is a suspect in this case,” police captain Paul LeComte said, according to CNN.
Mysterious crimes of this kind have occurred in other parts of New York too. For instance, in Jericho – a hamlet that lies almost 30 miles east of central Manhattan – a body was found under similarly strange circumstances in the fall of 1999. Rather than being concealed behind a false wall, however, these desiccated remains were hidden in a house’s crawl space – and they had been there for decades.
The body was eventually identified as belonging to a female called Reyna Angélica Marroquín. Born in 1941 in El Salvador, she later left her Central American homeland and moved to the United States. And the young woman soon found herself in gainful employment, too, earning her living as a nanny. It was Marroquín’s job as a factory worker, however, that would allegedly prove fatal for the 28-year-old in 1969.
You see, Marroquín worked on Manhattan’s East 34th Street, producing artificial flowers for a business called Melrose Plastics. And it was there that a Howard Elkins – one of the company’s owners – seemingly took quite a liking to his Salvadoran employee. In fact, one of Marroquín’s confidants, a woman called Kathy Andrade, reported to police officers that her friend and Elkins had been romantically involved.
Knowledge of the pair’s affair seemed to be common knowledge among some of the employees of Melrose Plastics too. One on occasion, for instance, a woman who resembled Marroquín supposedly entered the factory with an infant in tow. And upon seeing the mother and child, the workers reportedly quipped that Elkins was the father.
To make matters complicated, however, the businessman already had a family of his own. Andrade later notified police officers that she had received a worrying phone call from Marroquín, who was scared after apparently confessing about her relationship with Elkins to his wife. And Marroquín’s lover seemingly hadn’t taken the admission lightly. No doubt concerned, Andrade had visited her friend’s home to make sure that she was alright. But Marroquín was nowhere to be found.
In fact, it wasn’t until September 2, 1999 – 30 years after Marroquín had vanished – that the police finally discovered what had happened to her. Of course, inspectors weren’t sure whose remains they were handling when they first opened a drum found in the crawl space of a Jericho home. Inside, they discovered the mummified body of a young woman who had been killed by a blow to the skull. And investigators realized that she’d been pregnant when she died.
Luckily, the body had been buried with a number of items, and one provided a crucial lead. Intermingled with synthetic pellets and colored dye, the inspectors uncovered several personal articles inside the container, including jewelry and a worn address book. And it was the latter that proved instrumental in identifying the cadaver.
So, the police got to work. Using infrared light, they discovered that parts of the first page in the address book were still readable. And there, the investigators were able to make out Marroquín’s green card number. As well as discovering where the woman had worked, they found Andrade’s contact details. And after conducting an interview with her, cops began to form a picture.
Having spoken with Andrade, the police discovered Marroquín’s affair. What’s more, they learned that the house underneath which the body was found had actually belonged to Elkins at the time of the murder. Not only that, but the drum in which the young woman’s corpse had been kept was linked to the businessman’s company. The container had originally contained a shipment of dye and been delivered to Melrose Plastics. And so, in the police’s eyes, Elkins apparently became a likely culprit.
But while the investigation was still in its preliminary stages, the police faced an unforeseen difficulty. You see, the detectives who had questioned Elkins about the grisly discovery revealed that they had been planning to secure a warrant that would allow them to compare his DNA to Marroquín’s unborn child. And shortly following this interview, the businessman took his own life with a shotgun. The test still went ahead, though, and the results concluded that Elkins’ paternity was most likely legitimate.
Although the police cannot conclusively prove it, they have posited the idea that Elkins was responsible for Marroquín’s death. And authorities have come up with two theories as to where he might have murdered his lover. The first holds that he visited the young woman and killed her in her home. The second story goes, meanwhile, that Elkins persuaded Marroquín to come to the factory and disposed of her there.
Then, the investigators believe that Elkins transported the corpse back to his home. But it’s possible that he didn’t originally intend to keep Marroquín’s body in the crawl space. Instead, the businessman might have planned on throwing it into the ocean. And that’s perhaps why he loaded the drum with pellets, so that it would be too heavy to float. One theory goes, though, that the man found the barrel too weighty to lift afterwards, so he simply kept it underneath his house.
In another strange twist, one of Marroquín’s relatives claimed that she already knew what had befallen the young woman. You see, author Oscar Corral apparently visited Marroquín’s elderly mother and discussed her missing daughter. And during the conversation, the 95-year-old reportedly confessed that she had seen Marroquín stuck inside a drum in a dream. Thankfully, though, the mom was eventually reunited with her child: the skeleton was transported back to El Salvador after its discovery and buried there.
Peculiar cases like these have also been documented in the city of New York itself. In March 2019, for instance, NYPD officers found themselves dealing with a particularly strange crime. They received a bizarre tip from a woman who claimed that she had some information to share with the authorities – and it was to do with a murder.
The caller told the police that she had spent part of her childhood living in the New York borough of Queens. While growing up in a townhouse on Richmond Hill in the 1970s, she had seen something that no child should ever have to witness. And what’s more, the gruesome incident had actually happened in her own backyard.
You see, back when the tipper was a young girl, she had witnessed a chopped-up corpse being disposed of in the garden behind her house on 115th Street. Presumably frightened, she kept the grisly event to herself for so many years. But more than 40 years later, the woman finally felt that she had to unburden herself. But why now?
Well, Kenneth Mains, a consultant on cold cases who worked as a cop in Pennsylvania, shed some light on this in an interview with The New York Times in March 2019. “Through the passage of time, allegiances change, and brotherhoods change,” he said. “People also underestimate the impact witnessing a murder has on the human conscience.” And clearly the sight had had a huge effect on the caller.
You see, although the grim event had taken place over four decades ago, it had no doubt imprinted itself in the individual’s mind. So much so, in fact, that the caller told the police that she was certain she could still pinpoint the body’s exact location. And amazingly, her claim was proved to be correct in the next 24 hours.
The very next day, neighbors looked on as the cops began to methodically hunt the backyard – which was choked with weeds and waste – with the assistance of a police dog. The German Shephard’s presence certainly proved invaluable. As soon as the canine entered the lot, it raced through the yard and started to dig in a particular spot. And what the cops subsequently found there certainly shocked onlookers.
Following the police dog’s lead, over a dozen policemen quickly converged on the area and started to shovel dirt and debris. Then, according to a neighbor, one of the officers reportedly exclaimed, “Hey!” and set down their tools. Looking down into the pit that they’d created in the backyard, the cops knew that they’d found what they’d been searching for.
Yes, the police had uncovered the decomposing remains of a human – exactly where the caller had said it would be. And remarkably, although the body had first been interred under the soil over 40 years ago, it had not totally skeletonized. A substantial amount of tissue was still attached to the bones, in fact, so the cadaver was transported to a pathology expert for analysis.
It seemed that the body had slowly rotted below the woman’s backyard since her childhood, going completely unnoticed by any of the house’s subsequent residents. But now that the cadaver has finally been discovered, the mystery is far from solved. That’s because the police are still at a loss as to whom the body belonged to. All that’s known for sure, in fact, is that detectives are treating the perplexing case as a homicide.
You see, due to the corpse’s decomposition, it’s unlikely that experts will be able to quickly establish how the person was killed – let alone their sex or how old they were when they died. Cold case consultant and forensic psychologist Dr. Robert Kunkle confirmed the difficulties of working with rotted remains. Speaking to The New York Times in 2019, he explained, “The fuller the body, the better they’re going to be able to determine age and sex and potential ethnicity.”
Nevertheless, the police are keen to try and discover what happened – including who was responsible for the homicide. The head of the NYPD’s public information division, Patrick Conry, told The New York Times, “We’d really like to put a collar on it.” And one of the neighborhood’s locals, a John Guido, has shed some light on other dodgy dealings that happened in the area in the 1970s.
Guido is himself is a long-time Richmond Hill resident, having settled in the area over four decades ago. According to him, a number of “really bad guys” spent time at the house where the body was found in the ’70s. And Guido knows firsthand what those undesirable persons were like, since he claims that vandals repeatedly broke into his home back then. The man said that the thievery only came to a halt, in fact, after he constructed a tall fence around his property.
However, another Richmond Hill local, Bill Corsa, reported to The New York Times that he’d had very different experiences living in the area. Having moved there in 1980, Corsa described the neighborhood as safe and having a strong community feel. When asked about the ghastly discovery, he said, “I can’t imagine how somebody buried a body and nobody noticed.” Nobody, that is, apart from the caller.
But although the police were no doubt grateful for the accurate – and unexpected – tip, the residents of 115th Street didn’t enjoy the experience. A young local named Jacob Avilia told The New York Times, for instance, “You don’t imagine it here.” Plus, he seemed to find the entire situation otherworldly, describing the police search as something “like you see in the movies.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how it would feel to wake up one day and find that a dead body has been rotting under a neighbor’s lawn for decades. What about, alternately, if the house that you drive past on your daily commute actually had human remains hidden in the basement or crawl space? After all, we have no idea where – or when – the next such gruesome discovery will be made.