RICHMOND HILL, QUEENS (PIX11) — Christine Diefenbach, 14, was excited to get the Sunday newspaper on the morning of Feb. 7, 1988. One of the inserts, Parade magazine, featured an article about singer Wayne Newton, and she was a fan.
Before the girl left her family’s house on 125th Street in Richmond Hill at about 7 a.m., her father made reference to a Peter, Paul, and Mary record they had recently bought together.
“I said, ‘When you come back, we’ll play it,'” dad John Diefenbach recalled.
But Christine never came back.
“I ran out looking for her; I couldn’t find her,” Diefenbach told PIX11 News. “I saw the police parked by the railroad, and you never think it’s going to affect you.”
An elevated Long Island Rail Road yard was located on 89th Avenue, two blocks from the family’s home. A wooden staircase led up to the tracks, and it provided a shortcut to stores on Jamaica Avenue, where the newsstand was located.
“I did tell her, ‘Don’t walk those tracks,'” Diefenbach, who repaired third rails for the New York City Transit Authority, remembered warning his daughter.
But it was 7 degrees that morning and, pretty soon, it became painfully clear that Christine had likely taken the shortcut. Diefenbach recounted driving back to see the police investigators with his wife and younger daughter, Trish, in the car.
Diefenbach gave a photo of Christine to a detective on the scene.
“And he came back and he said, ‘Yeah, that person up there is your daughter,'” Diefenbach recalled. “I asked if she was alive, and I’m pretty sure he said to me, ‘No, I’m sorry.'”
It’s been 35 years since that Sunday morning and Diefenbach is approaching his 80th birthday. But he hasn’t given up hope that the person or persons who killed 14-year-old Christine will be brought to justice.
The girl was found near the railroad tracks, the victim of an attempted rape and then murder.
“She was assaulted in the face, possibly with a rock or some unknown object,” said Detective Chris Tzimorotas, of the NYPD Cold Case Squad.
The detective said it didn’t seem like Christine was targeted for a robbery.
“She still had the money with her,” Det. Tzimorotas said. “So we don’t believe that she ever made it to the newsstand.”
Christine’s younger sister, Trish Diefenbach, was only 5 years old when the murder happened.
“I’d never seen my father cry, so I thought maybe he was sweating,” Trish Diefenbach recounted. “I don’t remember what he said to my mom, but I remember her reaction. She was screaming! She started screaming.”
Trish Diefenbach said she quickly reached a tragic conclusion.
“I didn’t have a full concept of death at that age, but I knew my sister wasn’t coming back,” she said.
Now, 35 years later, Christine’s mother Meg still can’t bring herself to talk publicly about her daughter’s murder. She sat with her husband in the family’s living room in Selden, Long Island — where they moved shortly after Christine’s death — and showed PIX11 News photos of her daughter.
“She was so petite,” the mother observed.
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz told PIX11 News the case is one that her office is committed to solving.
“Victims like this should never be forgotten,” the DA said. “It’s amazing how when time moves on, there is the ability and the chance to once again find a murderer.”
Katz started a Cold Case Unit when she was elected district attorney. It features a different case online every Friday.
Det. Tzimorotas has boxes of files on the Diefenbach case in the NYPD’s Cold Case Unit in Queens Village. Investigators keep retesting items taken from the crime scene, hoping enhanced DNA technology will help them solve the case.
Detectives received one, big tip in the early days of the investigation. It was an anonymous call from a bar in Richmond Hill that wasn’t far from the railroad tracks.
“There were two nicknames, ‘Tennessee’ and ‘Cherokee,’ and they were overheard saying that they ‘messed up a girl’ over near the railroad tracks,” Det. Tzimorotas said.
The detective said two men were questioned in the past and denied involvement. But investigators aren’t convinced. Det. Tzimorotas believes other people know what happened.
“I find it hard to believe that whoever these criminals are, that they kept it a secret. I believe they told somebody,” he said. “There’s someone out there who knows something.”
Katz mentioned another cold case that was solved in 2019 after a woman had a recalled memory from childhood.
“We found the murderer of a World War I veteran because someone remembered 30 years later that someone had buried bones in the backyard of her house,” Katz said.
John Diefenbach said losing a child is one of the nightmares a person can suffer, but “You learn to live with what happened.”
He remembered Christine was a very good artist who liked to do things her way. Her artwork used to be displayed on the walls of her Queens school.
While Diefenbach remains hopeful there will someday be a break in the case, he knows it gets tougher as time goes by.
“I want to know why he did what he did. Why pick on a child?” Diefenbach asked.
He waits to get answers from an elusive killer.
“I do believe there’s a God,” Diefenbach said. “Some day we’re all going to stand before that man upstairs. Then, she’ll get justice.”