LOWER MANHATTAN (PIX11) — Joel Seidemann, a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, showed us the large folder from a 1997 missing persons investigation he now believes is a homicide case.
When we asked Seidemann if he thinks Camden Sylvia and her partner, Michael Sullivan, are dead, his response was short: “Yes, I do.”
On the exact, 25th anniversary of the couple’s disappearance Monday, the DA’s office, along with Camden Sylvia’s mother, wanted to make a push for a final witness to come forward who can bring resolution to the case.
“Somebody out there who knows something,” Seidemann said of the break he’s looking for, “who can put us over the finish line.”
The case caused a media frenzy not long after Nov. 7, 1997, when police revealed the missing couple had been feuding with their landlord, Robert Rodriguez, complaining he had not sufficiently heated the loft building at 76 Pearl Street. The couple lived on the 5th floor in a sprawling unit.
Camden Sylvia, 36, and her 54-year old boyfriend were paying $304 a month on a rent-controlled space that could have commanded 10 times that amount in Lower Manhattan, part of the Wall Street district.
They and fellow tenants were escalating their demands that the landlord provide heat.
“The tenants had put together a letter,” Joel Seidemann said. “They said they intended engaging in a rent strike if he did not, and Michael Sullivan was supposed to deliver the letter that day.”
The main clue to the couple’s last movements was a video rental from J & R Music World. The receipt showed the couple picked up the movie “Addicted to Love” at 4:20 p.m. on Nov. 7, 1997.
After learning about the landlord/tenant problems, detectives quickly zeroed in on Rodriguez as a person of interest.
On Nov. 16, 1997—nine days after the couple vanished–Robert Rodriguez gave cops permission to search the basement at 76 Pearl Street. But when New York State Police showed up at the landlord’s property in Orange County—in the town of New Hampton, near Woodbury Commons–his family told investigators he was gone. Rodriguez had already refused NYPD requests to search the Orange County property.
Ronan Downs, a prominent restauranteur on Pearl Street, remembered Rodriguez as a nice guy. When we asked what he thought when Rodriguez disappeared for 10 days in November 1997, he replied, “I have to admit that was a little bit strange.”
When Rodriguez resurfaced 10 days later, he went back to work at his locksmith shop at 76 Pearl Street with private security, and he’d retained a lawyer.
When Joel Seidemann and police dug into the landlord’s background, they learned one of his business associates, David King, had disappeared several years before the two tenants did.
Joel Seidemann ended up prosecuting Rodriguez for identity theft.
“He basically stole the identity of a man named Alan Rodriguez who had died in 1994,” Seidemann said. “Two years later, he was taking out credit cards and cellphones in Rodriguez’s name and he was held accountable for it, and he went to jail.”
Seidemann said Robert Rodriguez was also prosecuted by federal authorities on tax charges.
All these years of not knowing have tormented Camden Sylvia’s mother. At 81, she’s the same age as the person of interest, Robert Rodriguez. She sent a video from her home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
“We’re ocean people,” the weeping Laurie Sylvia said on the video, remembering her daughter, Camden. “I put flowers in the ocean for her for years.”
The mother said she has a lot of health problems.
“I don’t have that long to live,” Laurie Sylvia said. “I’m 81 years old. I’d like to go to bed one night knowing what happened.”
Senior investigator Robert Delaney, a former NYPD detective who’s now working the case for the Manhattan district attorney, said he’s made two trips to Cape Cod to visit Camden Sylvia’s mother.
“I don’t think there’s any case that’s unsolvable,” Delaney told PIX11 News. “My hope is that somebody sees this and has information…and finds it within themselves to do the right thing, morally.”
Joel Seidemann pointed out one of the best-known missing persons cases in the city—the 1979 disappearance of 6-year old Etan Patz—was solved 33 years later, when the relative of a middle-aged man in New Jersey made a phone call.
“Pedro Hernandez’s brother-in-law picked up the phone and called up Missing Persons,” Seidemann recalled.
Hernandez confessed to the crime, but a hold-out juror forced a mistrial in the first court case. Hernandez was convicted of Patz’s murder at the second trial. Joel Seidemann prosecuted the case.
Law enforcement and Camden Sylvia’s mother are now appealing to members of Robert Rodriguez’s family for information.
“Because loyalties wane,” Seidemann observed. “People think about it and say, ‘Should I really be keeping this to myself?'”
Robert Delaney agreed.
“Somebody out there knows something,” the senior investigator said. “Somebody out there was told something.”
PIX11 News paid a visit to an East Harlem apartment building where we found Robert Rodriguez in 2013, when he was 72 years old. We caught Rodriguez off-guard then, as he held dry cleaning on the front stoop. He refused to answer our questions as he made a beeline for the elevator.
When we returned last week to the same building, we found his name still listed at the same apartment number on the fifth floor, but a woman who told us she was the building’s owner angrily demanded that we leave.
Which brings us back to Laurie Sylvia, who lost her youngest son suddenly in recent years.
“You lose your children, it’s difficult,” Sylvia said, as her voice choked with emotion.
She made yet another appeal for information in her daughter’s case.
“I hope that somebody, if you know anything, will speak to the police and try to solve this mystery,” the mother said.
Anyone with information about the case is asked to call Robert Delaney, senior investigator with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office at (212) 335-8957.