NYPD Inaction Over a Missing Black Woman Found Dead Sparks a Historic Racial-Bias Lawsuit

Police blew off the story of a young black woman who vanished. She was tortured and murdered. Now, a court ruling has reopened the case on bias grounds.

Romona Moore's best chance of being saved left town the next day when Jack, after attending the baby shower, drove back home to Maryland without telling the police what he saw. His excuse? "I was scared."

The following day, Monday, April 28, Detective Wayne Carey reopened the missing-persons investigation. Carey didn't return several calls for comment for this story, but during the 2006 trial of Pearson and Hendrix, the killers' lawyers made him try to defend his investigation.

"I contacted Romona Moore's friends, her co-workers," Carey testified. "[Her mother] allowed us to search her room. We were looking for some—maybe some papers—something like that. We had the house's personal computer removed and sent to our computer-analysis section to see if maybe we could get some information off the computer. We did a canvass. I had ESU [Emergency Services Unit] search certain areas. K-9 did a search."

Elle Carmichael: She searched hard for her daughter. Police didn't.
Tina Zimmer
Elle Carmichael: She searched hard for her daughter. Police didn't.
The family’s homemade posters after Romona’s disappearance
Courtesy Elle Carmichael
The family’s homemade posters after Romona’s disappearance

On April 29, police got an anonymous tip about screaming coming from 5605 Snyder Avenue. Carey, who was supposed to meet with Elle Carmichael that day to discuss her daughter's case, decided to stop by the building on his way to Carmichael's home only three blocks away. That address didn't exist, so Carey and two other cops knocked on the doors of some nearby houses, and then crossed Kings Highway and knocked on the door at 5807 Snyder Avenue. When Troy Hendrix answered it and saw the police, he pulled out a gun and closed the door. A stand-off ensued before Hendrix finally surrendered more than two hours later.

After Hendrix was in custody, Carey was contacted by sex-crimes detective Woody Simmons, who told him that Hendrix was a suspect in the rape of the 15-year-old girl who had escaped from the house earlier that day.

The girl later told detectives that her attackers "said if I didn't cooperate, then I would end up like the girl that they had last night—because she was feisty and they had to kill her."

The 15-year-old was blindfolded at the time, but she said it sounded as if one of the men opened a crate before asking her if she could smell what he told her was a dead body. Pearson and Hendrix later brought in a visitor to view the teen. The girl escaped after the men fell asleep by licking the duct tape off her mouth and then chewing through the tape on her hands.

The next day, April 30, Carey and crime-scene detectives went to 5807 Snyder Avenue with a search warrant in connection with the rape. They found the 15-year-old girl's MetroCard. But the detectives did not search a small room in the back of the basement where Romona Moore had been held most of the time and eventually bludgeoned to death. That day, the only evidence the detectives found linking Hendrix and Pearson to Romona was a powder-blue shoelace. But they didn't figure out at the time that it was hers. The screams, Carey and the other detectives figured, were made by the 15-year-old—not Romona.

On the evening of May 1, Carey met with Romona's mom and explained that he had missed a meeting with her because he had been busy over the past two days investigating the rape case.

At the time, Carmichael thought he was slacking off and ducking her calls; she didn't know, of course, that the two cases were one and the same. But the cops didn't know it either.

Her conversations with Carey continued to be fruitless. Carmichael told him that perhaps the police should talk with a friend of Romona's named Gino, who lived somewhere in Rhode Island. An annoyed Carey asked her why she had told him earlier that Romona had no boyfriend. Carmichael says that she said "boy friend"—two words, as in not romantically involved. In any case, she recalls that by then, Carey "just made up his mind there's nothing wrong," and that no matter what he came across, he stuck to that assumption.

For instance, it didn't matter that bank records showed that Romona, who had no credit cards, had taken out $60 the day she disappeared and hadn't withdrawn anything in the two weeks since. That might indicate that she was no longer alive. But instead of this raising a red flag for him, Carmichael says, Carey asked her if Romona was pregnant.

Making matters worse, Carmichael says, she spoke with some reporters at the time who told her that they weren't doing stories on Romona's disappearance because the police were saying that she was just a runaway. Carmichael says she tried for the next several days to reach Carey by phone, but was always told that he wasn't in.

Cops do have reason to be skeptical of missing-persons complaints. The overwhelming majority of such cases—7,000 a year, or nearly 20 a day—are said to be runaways who don't want to be found. Another sizable percentage involves people suffering from Alzheimer's. Only a small fraction, police say, are considered suspicious disappearances, what the cops call "Class G." And those get passed on from precinct detectives to a citywide missing-persons unit that isn't exactly like the TV versions—the unit is still trumpeting on the Web its search for a 16-year-old runaway whose mother says returned home last September.

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