Yonkers' cold case sleuth loves to hunt 'em down
In a small, windowless room on the first floor of the Yonkers Police Department is a large, white dry erase board on which 36 names have been written.
Those names represent the 36 homicide cases, one dating to 1952, that the Yonkers Cold Case Squad is working on. The squad has cracked four cases in the past two years, if the one against alleged serial killer Lucius Crawford is counted. In the past 12 years, about 13 cases -- not a bad record.
Although calling this a squad is probably an overstatement because the one and only member is 52-year-old Yonkers Police Det. John Geiss, who is known around the department as Lumpy.
Geiss lives to arrest people who believe they have gotten away with murder.
"I love my job," he said. "If they wanted me to retire, all they'd have to do is say they're transferring me. I'd be gone."
Last week was a good one for Geiss. He was happy to see a 26-year-old Yonkers man arraigned in the 2004 killing of 48-year-old Maria McSweeney of the Bronx. She died when a 10-pound chunk of asphalt was thrown from an overpass, plunging through her windshield and striking her as she drove on the Sprain Brook Parkway in Yonkers.
Geiss had arrested the defendant, Alberto Plasencia, on Jan. 22.
To crack the case, Geiss had to persuade Alex Novak, once a close friend of Plasencia's, to record a telephone call with Plasencia. A transcript indicates that, during the call, Novak brings up the subject of McSweeney's death.
"Remember ... we never speak about that," Plasencia tells Novak, according to the transcript.
Geiss feels it's important to stay in close contact with the relatives of victims, so he chatted with the McSweeney family on and off through the years, most recently last Thanksgiving, when he called McSweeney's cousin and closest friend, Vicki Nikou, to wish her a happy holiday and to give her an update.
"He told me, 'I want you to know I'm working really hard on this case and I'm not going to give up,' " Nikou said of their talk. "I started to cry."
BURDEN OF GUILT GETS HEAVIER
Emphasizing that he was not talking about Novak specifically, Geiss explained that individuals who have been involved in crimes -- or even just witnessed a serious crime -- sometimes will tire of carrying the burden of guilt or secrecy over the years and finally come clean.
"They don't want to get involved in the beginning," he said. "But years pass and they've been walking around with this on their conscience, and they want to get it off their chest."
In the Lucius Crawford case, Geiss was contacted in July by a New York City Police Department detective working on the murder of Nella West, a cold case for the NYPD. The NYPD had a DNA match that connected Crawford to West's killing. She had been killed in Yonkers and the body dumped in the Bronx.
"I knew Nella was a Yonkers girl," Geiss said. "And I knew she was involved in prostitution."
With the aid of a Yonkers police officer who knows the Getty Square area and some of the individuals involved in prostitution in Yonkers, Geiss was able to contact a cousin of West's, who told him that West had known Crawford and that she and West had been friendly with another woman who had known Crawford, Laronda Shealy.
Shealy was stabbed to death in Yonkers on Sept. 13, 1993 -- a month before West was killed.
Geiss and an NYPD detective went to Crawford's Mount Vernon apartment to arrest him Dec. 4. Crawford was not there. When the detectives broke in, they found the body of 41-year-old Tanya Simmons, a New Rochelle woman who had been stabbed to death that day. Crawford allegedly has confessed to all three killings and has been indicted on murder charges.
"The Laronda Shealy case was one of the first cases I started investigating when I became a cold case detective in 2001," Geiss said. "It took until 2012. But we got him."
Geiss said the best part of his job is calling the loved ones of homicide victims and telling them, "We got him."
"That's what the loved ones of the victims want and deserve," he said. "They deserve answers. They deserve justice."
A GRATEFUL MOTHER
Arlene Perkins, the mother of Laronda Shealy, said Geiss always promised her he would not forget her daughter.
"He gave me a lot of hope," she said. "Other people would tell me, 'Oh, the police don't care,' that Laronda was just another poor, dead black woman, that she'd be stuck in a pile and they'd never work on catching her killer."
Geiss removed the negativity, Perkins said.
"He's a wonderful person," she said. "He's given me a completely different outlook on the police, and now I tell people who have lost loved ones to never give up, that there are police like Det. Geiss who's out there looking."
Geiss admits he is frustrated at times.
But he never gives up.
Once or twice a year, he still checks for new leads on the Sept. 25, 1952, killing of Teamsters leader John Acropolis, the president of Local 456, who was shot twice in the head in his Yonkers apartment. He points to Acropolis' place on the board -- No. 36, name and date of death written in green marker.
"They don't come down off that board until they're solved," he said.