Baby Hope case cracked 2 decades later by anonymous call
NYPD Det. Elena Donnell will never forget what happened this past July 24 at 3:37 p.m. A call came in to her at the Crime Stoppers office. It was information the entire police department -- indeed the whole city -- had waited for more than two decades to hear.
The caller, a nervous-sounding Spanish-speaking woman, told Donnell that she had seen news video of the detectives and other officers putting up posters about Baby Hope, the 4-year-old child whose lifeless, abused and malnourished body had been found in July 1991 in a wooded area along the Henry Hudson Parkway.
Using photographs and sketches provided by NYPD Assistant Chief Joseph Resnick, some 3,000 of the posters had been put up and passed out in the Washington Heights area. Now, after so many years of fruitless leads, the anonymous caller seemed to provide the break the NYPD had waited years to catch.
"She recognized the girl on there to be the child we may be looking for," recalled a soft-spoken Donnell. "The caller was very afraid to speak to me, she was very afraid."
The woman recalled a conversation five or six years earlier in a Washington Heights Laundromat told to her by a woman that fit the story of Baby Hope. The new publicity about the case suddenly jarred her memory, Donnell said.
Through some patient coaxing and assurances about her safety, Donnell was able to get the mystery caller -- whose identity is still unknown -- to give enough information to detectives to break the Baby Hope case wide open. In October, based on information passed along to Donnell and cold case Det. Robert Dewhurst, police arrested Conrado Juarez, 52, a cousin of the dead girl, since identified as Anjelica Castillo, and charged him with her murder.
Police had received lots of meaningless tips, including some from psychics, about the case. But when Donnell got the call, she immediately sensed this could be the big one. Donnell talked to the woman on the speaker of a cellphone so that the caller's friend could translate the conversation from Spanish to English, although the detective could understand enough without the translation.
"I told her, 'In 21 years no one has called for this child, and no one has cared enough to,' " Donnell recalled. "So when I hang up with you today, if you don't meet with the detective and explain to him exactly what you told me, it could be another 20 years and we still may not have an answer to this child's identity.' "
The woman called Dewhurst immediately, said Donnell, and related enough information for investigators to track down Anjelica's mother and, ultimately, Juarez, who officials said admitted killing the child after a sexual assault and then disposing of her corpse. Anjelica's body was found tied, with her legs pulled up over her head, almost as if she was in a pike position doing a dive. In a haunting image, her wide open, discolored eyes were clearly visible to police.
A 20-year veteran of the NYPD who was born and raised in the Bronx, Donnell, 42, said she didn't learn about how useful the information she had received was until Juarez was arrested.
"I feel now she has a name and she now is not faceless," said Donnell about Anjelica.
On Friday, Donnell and others, including Resnick and Dewhurst, were at St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx for the unveiling of Anjelica's headstone with her real name.
Although the mystery caller never talked about a reward, she is still eligible, said NYPD spokesman Carlos Nieves, adding that her anonymity will be assured.
"I hope she does call," said Donnell.