A cousin of the slain little girl known as "Baby Hope" -- who was found dead 22 years ago in a picnic cooler, sexually abused and smothered -- confessed Saturday morning to the crime, closing a case that long haunted and baffled detectives, New York City police said.
Conrado Juarez was charged with second-degree murder in the slaying of the girl investigators can now identify as 4-year-old Anjelica Castillo, police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Saturday night at a news conference.
Police say that Juarez, a restaurant dishwasher who lives in the Bronx and also goes by Enidino Juarez, was 30 when he killed her after finding her in the hallway of his sister's apartment in Astoria, Queens.
After telling his sister what he had done, police said, the now-dead sister, Balvina Juarez-Ramirez, suggested they dispose of the body: They bound the girl, wrapped her in a plastic bag, hailed a cab and left the cooler on an embankment of the Henry Hudson Parkway near Dyckman Street, in Upper Manhattan.
"Juarez returned to the Bronx, and his sister to Queens, never to speak of the heinous act again," Kelly said.
The case went unsolved until Saturday.
Juarez, now 52 and of 55 Richman Plaza, was awaiting his first court appearance in the case Saturday night. Authorities would not say what caused them to focus on Juarez or what evidence links him to the crime, other than the confession.
Until last week, virtually nothing was known about the girl whose tombstone reads "Baby Hope" -- the moniker given to her by the heartbroken police officers on the case.
Those cops, from the Washington Heights-based 34th Precinct, adopted Baby Hope as their own. They delivered her eulogy, paid for her burial and for her grave at St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx, and staffed her funeral.
In announcing Juarez's arrest Saturday, police filled in some long-unknown details: The victim was born in Elmhurst Hospital in 1987, that she was 4 when she was slain, and that she was the subject of a custody dispute involving her family. The identity of the mother, with whom she was not living, has not been released.
On Saturday, the cop who eulogized the girl, Assistant Chief Joseph Reznick -- a lieutenant at the time -- recalled the exasperation investigators felt.
"Over the years the optimism was always there, except the frustration would grow, some pessimism would set in," said Reznick, now the commanding officer of the NYPD's narcotics division.
During those 22 years, police continued to develop leads in the case -- the body was exhumed in 2006 to extract DNA from her bones.
But the big break in the case came this summer after cops canvassed Upper Manhattan. They got an anonymous tip from a woman who described a long-ago conversation with another woman, who mentioned a younger sister having been murdered. From that strand, police created a family tree including branches in Mexico, tracked down Anjelica's mother and confirmed the match with DNA.
Reznick said Saturday: "I think reflecting back on what we named this little girl, Baby Hope -- I think it's the most accurate name we could have come up with."
Jerry Giorgio, a detective on the case who would visit the grave long after he retired, stood with the men at a news conference on the arrest.
"The expression 'I'm on Cloud 9'?" he said. "Well, that's where I am right now."