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NYPD chief hopes to crack 40-year-old Bayside, Queens, killing

Undated photo of Leslie Zaret, a 17 year

Undated photo of Leslie Zaret, a 17 year old student at John Bowne High School in Flushing, who was brutally murdered in August, 1974.

Forty years ago, residents of Bayside, Queens, watched in horror as police removed the body of a teenage girl from a school playground.

On a summer morning, a custodian at PS 203 on Springfield Boulevard discovered 17-year-old Leslie Zaret's body. Zaret, a popular student at John Bowne High School in Flushing, had been stripped naked and strangled. Her clothes -- blue blouse and pants, and platform shoes -- were piled nearby.

As community pressure mounted to find the killer, police pushed the investigation. But after some promising leads and information about a number of persons of interest -- including a man who lived on Long Island -- the case went cold.

Now the NYPD is trying to jump-start the investigation, led by three-star chief Joanne Jaffe, for whom the case resonates. She was growing up in Bayside when the killing occurred.

Jaffe, 16 at the time, recalls being frightened by the discovery of the body. "I remember the community being so overwhelmed," she said.

Her interest in the case never waned. Jaffe collected newspaper articles about the investigation over the years, and when detectives' trails went cold, she stepped in.

About 10 years ago, Jaffe said she met with Marjory Fisher, then an assistant Queens district attorney. She's been trying to revitalize the case ever since.

"I think somebody knows who did it. I really think there are people who know who did it, and we always thought that," she said Friday.

Jaffe and detectives from the cold case squad are now appealing to Zaret's former high school classmates -- some of whom live today on Long Island and around the metropolitan area -- to come forward with any information about the night she died. No information is considered too trivial by police.

"Think of this as another Baby Hope case," said Det. Oscar Hernandez, referring to the 1992 child murder case that was broken last year with a solitary telephone call from a tipster.

"As we interview different people we get different pieces," said Jaffe, head of the NYPD's Community Affairs Bureau and the highest-ranking woman in the department.

Police will also be re-examining evidence taken from the 2006 exhumation of the body from Wellwood Cemetery in Pinelawn, with the family's approval. DNA testing didn't crack the case then, but authorities hope advances in the technology can yield new clues.

At the time of the killing, police also recovered partial DNA evidence from a hairbrush used to sexually abuse the victim.

The night Zaret disappeared -- Aug. 16, 1974 -- she visited a friend at 148-18 58th Ave. in Flushing, police said.

When Zaret left on foot shortly before midnight, she was headed to her apartment at 138-54 68th St., police said. She stopped outside a tavern at 59-20 Main St. to find her boyfriend, who was not a suspect in the case, but stayed only briefly.

Former NYPD Det. Mark Valencia, 50, of Wantagh, who led the investigation before retiring in 2007, said Zaret walked south down Main Street, passing her high school and Mount Hebron Cemetery. Police believe Zaret met her attacker blocks from her apartment.

"I would say apparently she knew her attacker. She wouldn't get in a car with a stranger," Valencia said.

The teen's body was discovered the next morning at the playground, almost four miles away.

NYPD Det. Jim Osorio of Ronkonkoma said John Bowne High alumni who attended the school from 1970 to 1975 are of particular interest to police because Zaret's murder was a topic of discussion at a 2000 reunion. Some former classmates even pointed fingers at a possible suspect, police said.

Osorio said that while there was no evidence that Zaret had sex or was raped, the abuse of her body by the hairbrush suggested that the killer may have had impotency problems. Detectives followed a lead to some transsexual clubs in Greenwich Village but came up empty.

For Valencia, who has been consulting with detectives, the new push in the investigation is heartening.

"Every detective has a case, and this is mine," he said. "I could never rest until this case is finally solved."

The NYPD is asking people with information about the case to call 800-577-TIPS.

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