It was just a little scrap of paper when Nassau detectives
found it. They held it against the light. Studied it under a lens. Nothing.
Then, after days of delicate drying, detectives placed it under the green light
of a VSC 2000 machine that scanned it with high-resolution light rays. The
words that popped up on the screen stunned the onlooking detectives: "Don't be
mad. I told the truth."
Police investigating the now-celebrated case of the pregnant woman's body
sealed for 30 years in a barrel in the crawl space of a Jericho house used many
techniques to try to find her killer. Detectives scoured property records,
traced the manufacturer of the barrel and interviewed past owners of the house.
All signs pointed to one of the former owners, Howard Elkins, as the suspect.
But in the end, only science could provide the crucial clues detectives needed
to identify the woman in the barrel. And only science could allow Reyna
Angelica Marroquin to speak from the dead.
At first, the address book was indecipherable, soaking like a sponge in fluids
from the decomposed body. After a painstaking restoration by the police
department's Questioned Documents Unit, the book surrendered not only the name
of the woman in the barrel but her Social Security number, resident-alien
number, address and phone number. The book also yielded the name, address and
phone number of her employer, Elkins. It also provided a listing for Enriqueta
Andrade, a confidante of Marroquin, who told police Elkins and Marroquin had
"The most significant leads in the case came out of the documents found in the
barrel," said Det. Lt. Frank Guidice, commander of the Homicide Squad. "In the
early stages, we didn't know if the writings were retrievable."
It was a warm Friday in early September when Nassau homicide investigators
called Det. Joan Fiertner in the Department's Questioned Documents Unit for
help in their case. Along with clothes and jewelry found on the body that
provided useless clues, police found what looked like an address book. They
needed Fiertner to go to the Nassau County Medical Examiner's Office to pick it
up and begin restoring it.
The challenges of the task became obvious the minute Fiertner stepped into an
elevator to descend into the county morgue and encountered a pungent smell. It
was the stench of decomposed human flesh and body fluids, unleashed after three
decades of stewing in a barrel.
"It was brutal," Fiertner said. "The strongest smell I've ever smelled...It
took me a week and a half to get the smell out of my own house."
As Fiertner walked down the hallway at police headquarters with the rank book,
people in the offices along the way turned their heads in disgust.
Fiertner, a 12-year police veteran who has been with the unit for two years,
and Det. Sgt. Dennis Ryan, the unit commander, left the book in a forensic
evidence drying locker over the weekend to try to draw out some of the
moisture. It was difficult for detectives to be in the same room with the book
for more than a few minutes. To handle the book and the smell, Fiertner and
Ryan wore charcoal-filtered respirators, goggles, rubber gloves and lab coats
as a precaution against potential toxins. "It was soaking wet, completely slimy
with goo all over it," Ryan said. "We never had anything like this before."
It was Ryan who first took a crack at opening the book. He delicately slid the
blunt corner of a plastic ruler between the pages, but nothing could be read at
"The pages were stuck together, so I was trying to catch an open spot on the
book and slide the ruler through the page," Ryan said.
The next day, Fiertner picked up where he left off and separated more pages,
placing pieces of paper towels between the pages to absorb excess moisture. She
placed it under the VSC 2000, which exposes a document to a variety of light
sources and light filters covering various wavelengths of the light spectrum to
aid in visualizing marks and writings that the naked eye can't see.
Every time Fiertner wanted to flip a page, she had to return to the forensic
evidence room, gear up in full breathing regalia, take the book out of the
plastic, flip the page and seal it again to walk the book back to the VSC 2000
in her office.
Four days after Fiertner took possession of the book, she began to make out
names and numbers, but it wasn't until two days later that Fiertner stumbled
upon Marroquin's identifying information. Marroquin was an immigrant from El
Salvador who entered the country legally in 1966.
"I taped a piece of clear acetate over the VSC 2000 computer screen over what I
had seen in the book, and I took a magic marker and traced the name and the
information as it appeared on the book," Fiertner said. "After that popped up
on the screen, one of the homicide fellows came walking in and I said 'Look at
Not only did it allow officers to identify the dead woman, but it provided the
name of Andrade, the witness who could link Marroquin, Elkins and the pregnancy.
"It was like hitting a home run," Fiertner said.
One of her last discoveries was a brown scrap of paper the size of a business
card folded in one of the pages of the book. She and Ryan had studied the
paper, held it against the light, scrutinized it under a lens, but it wasn't
until they placed it beneath the green light of the VSC 2000 machine that the
writing on the paper became visible. The words come back as a haunting reminder
of Marroquin's last days.
"Don't be mad. I told the truth," the paper said in Marroquin's handwriting.
The note re-enforced police suspicions that Marroquin, who was 9 months
pregnant, was killed by Elkins after she called his wife to disclose the affair.
The 72-year-old retired plastics manufacturer ended up shooting himself to
death in a neighbor's garage in Boca Raton, Fla., last month after homicide
detectives went down to question him about the body found under his former
"These leads were necessary for us to solve the case," Guidice said. "It took a
good team of people doing their jobs for us to put the whole thing together."
After yielding so many clues, Fiertner and Ryan, the department's only two
documents specialists, are trying to figure out how to preserve the book. They
are considering freeze-drying it in liquid nitrogen or deep freezing it
"We don't think the book is ever going to dry completely," Ryan said. "So now
we face the problem of what to do with it when we're done. It's crucial
homicide evidence. It's not something we can just toss in the garbage."