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[EXCLUSIVE] ‘The baby girl was in a refrigerator’: Behind the tip that broke the Baby Hope case

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MANHATTAN (PIX11) – It was the most meaningful tip Detective Elena Donnell had ever received in twenty years of police work, because it led to the cracking of a case that was 22 years old–the murder of “Baby Hope.”

“I could tell in the caller’s voice there was a sense of urgency I hadn’t heard in any other calls,” Donnell recalled to PIX 11, sitting at her cubicle in the Crimestoppers Unit, on the 13th floor of Police Headquarters in lower Manhattan.  “She was speaking in Spanish, but a friend was translating in English for her.”

Donnell took the call just after 3:30 in the afternoon, on July 24th, 2013.  It was a day after the 22nd anniversary of the Baby Hope discovery.

On July 23, 1991, a blue and white cooler found in the woods off the West Side Highway, near Dyckman Street, revealed a horrifying sight, underneath a layer of Coca Cola cans.  It was the decomposing body of a little girl, believed to be between three and five years old.  Detectives learned from the medical examiner she had been malnourished and sexually abused.  Two years after the discovery, investigators from the 34th Detective Squad in Washington Heights paid for her burial, under the leadership of then-Lieutenant Joseph Resnick.

On July 23rd, 2013, Sergeant Craig Gardella from the Chief of Detectives office asked Elena Donnell and her unit to go big on the 22nd anniversary of Baby Hope’s discovery.  She and other officers from various NYPD units spent the day in upper Manhattan, handing out three thousand posters and flyers.  There was even an electronic zipper on the West Side Highway, seeking information about the “cold case.”

Baby Hope

“And then, the next day, I got the tip,” Donnell told PIX 11.

The nervous caller told Donnell she had seen the recent story on the TV news, and it was Donnell’s job to reassure the woman that her identity would be kept confidential.  Then, the caller dropped a bombshell, assisted by her translator.

“Someone told them five or six years prior about a baby girl that was murdered, and in a refrigerator, in an apartment in the Bronx,” Donnell recounted.  The caller said the woman who told her the story in a Bronx laundromat was the victim’s sister.

When the caller saw the TV reports on the 22nd anniversary, “it all made sense to her,” Donnell said.  “This could be the child we were looking for.”

Even though the woman was anxious, Donnell asked the caller if she would call case detectives.  The woman agreed to take their number.

“She gave us several family members,” Donnell recalled.  “Specifics.  Names, dates. Where we could find them.  Where they were from.  Descent. Age groups.”

It later turned out “Baby Hope” was born to Mexican immigrants.

Baby Hope

The phone call lasted just over an hour, and Donnell never heard from the woman again.  But other detectives followed the “Crimestoppers” lead and found “Baby Hope’s” sister in the Bronx.  Then, they found the dead child’s mother in Queens.  DNA testing confirmed the little girl was Anjelica Castillo.

The story about Baby Hope finally being identified broke on October 7th, and by October 12th, the NYPD had a murder suspect in custody.  52-year old Conrado Juarez of the Bronx had confessed that he sexually abused the girl at his aunt’s apartment in Queens, later disposing of the body with assistance from his sister.  It was believed the body may have been kept for several days in the refrigerator at the Bronx location.

When Detective Donnell from Crimestoppers learned her tip had led to an identity of Baby Hope–and an arrest–“I felt a sense of relief,” she said, “and I felt so many prayers were answered.”

Even though the female tipster was eligible for a $12,000 reward, Detective Donnell told PIX 11, “She never asked me for a code number or tip number.  She never asked me for anything about money. She never called me back.”

When PIX 11 asked Donnell if she found this remarkable, she replied, “No, because there are a lot of callers that don’t call for that reason.  They call because they want to help.  They preface their calls with, ‘Look, I don’t want this on my conscience anymore.'”

The tipster would still be eligible for the reward, even though months have passed since her outreach to Crimestoppers.

“I hope she does call back,” Detective Donnell said. “I don’t even think the caller could understand the magnitude of what she did.  And she’s the hero in all of this.”