By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On July 28, Camden Sylvia was to have celebrated her 37th birthday. Instead, friends were making plans for an August memorial mass. And on July 6, a Manhattan surrogate court judge officially gave her the hefty and sad title of A Person Whose Whereabouts Are Unknown.
Sylvia is the downtown loft tenant who, with her boyfriend Michael Sullivan, disappeared on November 7, 1997the day she handed her landlord a letter announcing that she and other tenants would withhold rent as long as he withheld heat. Shortly thereafter, the landlord himself, Robert Rodriguez, went missing for several days, and has been a focus of police investigations.
Now, eight months later, the investigation itself remains shrouded in secrecy. A task force of detectives from the Manhattan South homicide squad is working full-time on the case, but police won't say how many detectives are involved or what progress has been made. "This is certainly an active investigation, and we have as many detectives as we need," said Deputy Inspector Thomas Chan, commanding officer of Manhattan South Detective Operations. Chan declined to discuss specifics.
Investigating the disappearance has been especially difficult because there is no physical evidence or even a crime scene. Police had hoped to make progress by exhuming a body they believed to be that of David King, a Rodriguez employee who also went missing after a 1991 fallout with his boss. But Chan says King's family declined to provide DNA samples to confirm that the corpse, dug up from the city's potter's field, is King's.
Last month, three NYPD detectives were following leads on Cape Cod, where Sylvia grew up, but it is unclear what those leads are. While there, Chan said, detectives interviewed Sylvia's parents. "We are always canvassing, always seeking additional information," Chan said. Police are offering a $20,000 reward in the case, and anyone with information is urged to call the Manhattan detective bureau at 477-7447 or a hotline at 598-0071.
Camden Sylvia's mother, Laurie Sylvia, who has come to New York often on her missing daughter's behalf, said she is satisfied with the NYPD's commitment to solving the case, though she's in the dark about its status. "They really don't enlighten me with whether they have a theory or not," said Laurie Sylvia, who works as an advocate for the disabled in Hyannis, Massachusetts. "They said they would tell me when something broke and they had somebody in custody."
One source familiar with the case says NYPD detectives are operating under the theory that if Rodriguez were involved, it would not have been "a landlord-tenant thing so much as one guy who happens to be a landlord who was angry at people who happened to be his tenants."
Rodriguez, who returned in December to work at his locksmith business at 76 Pearl Street, did not return calls for this story. His criminal attorney, Michael Rosen, also refused to answer questions.
Laurie Sylvia has pleaded with Rodriguez to talk to police, urging him to do so in a letter she sent on Mother's Day. "I mean, just from the circumstantial stuff, the situation where he disappeared for 10 days makes it look like he's somehow involved," says Laurie Sylvia. "The time that his lawyer wouldn't accept rent . . . but it's all speculation."
Last December Rodriguez refused Laurie Sylvia's money orders paying the $304 monthly rent on the 1400-foot loft where Sullivan had lived for 20 years and where Camden Sylvia moved in six years ago. Through an attorney, Rodriguez argued that he couldn't accept the check since it was not from the tenants themselves.
"That's his mishegoss," says Jerry Goldfeder, an attorney representing the families of the missing tenants. "He could have taken her mother's money all along." There was speculation that Rodriguez would begin renting the apartment at market rate, which would far exceed $304. In December, he told The New York Times that he would not. The apartment remains vacant.
Earlier this month, Laurie Sylvia applied to the Manhattan surrogate court to be the temporary administrator of her daughter's affairs so that she could pay her bills and taxes. One of Sullivan's sisters has made a similar application, which will be decided in August. Both families have also given blood samples to the medical examiner's office so it can compare their DNA to that of unidentified bodies that come into the morgue.
Laurie Sylvia has returned to her daughter's apartment several times this spring, but nixed an invitation by neighbors to visit on her daughter's birthday. "That would not be a good day for me to come in," she says. "Not at all. In the beginning, I was kind of numb. Now we're sort of in a hold situation, and over the past couple of months it seems emotionally harder for me.
"I've probably thought of any possible scenario of what could happen to two people, from something to do with Mr. Rodriguez and on down," says Laurie Sylvia. "My son and I just recently thought, well suppose it was a random thing, but we don't know. I mean, you watch TV, you see this, you see that. . . . Who knows? But do I think that they are alive and well someplace in the world? No. I don't think that at all."
Her concern doesn't end with her daughter and Sullivan. She wishes the NYPD were still posting a uniformed officer at the building, as it did in the weeks following the disappearance.
"The police are gone now, so I didn't feel quite as safe when I visited the building," she says. "And I do have some concern for the tenants who are still there. If two people just disappear, you can't help but think, What else can happen? When it's a mystery, you start thinking of all the terrible possibilities. I worry, I guess. I'm a mother, you know."