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.

Carmichael naturally didn't give up in the search for her daughter. But her conversation with Carey on May 8—the last time the two would talk—didn't exactly go well, even according to Carey's own account.

"She said to me she didn't like the way I was handling the case, and I wasn't doing enough," Carey testified during the murder trial while being grilled by defense attorneys about the police investigation. "I said . . . 'I have done everything you've asked me to do. I've looked everywhere. I've talked to everyone you wanted me to. I can't find her. I can't find your daughter. She doesn't want to be found. I can't find her. I'm not a magician. I cannot pull her out of my hat.' I said, 'If I could, I would.' And after that, we—I have not spoken to her since."

Carmichael now says: "I hope those words haunt him until he goes to his grave."

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

That's because the very next day, the family received an anonymous call to the phone number listed on Carmichael's homemade flyers. Authorities later concluded that the call came from someone whom Pearson and Hendrix had brought to view Romona. The tipster, speaking in an accent like that of Carmichael's ancestral homeland, said he felt sorry for Romona's mother, especially because Mother's Day was the next day.

He said to look under an old ice-cream truck parked in an alley near 57th Street and Kings Highway. Carmichael called the 67th Precinct, but a detective told her that he was the only one there and couldn't leave the office.

By the time police finally arrived at the crime scene, Romona's mother and other relatives were waiting for them.

Police found Romona's naked body wrapped in a blue blanket, her legs tied together with her other powder-blue shoelace.

The autopsy told a horrifying story. "Starting with the head," the medical examiner later testified, "the decedent had a shattered jaw, cheekbones, and facial bones." The full report listed broken ribs, a fractured hip bone, a broken nose, bruises, and numerous cuts (one 10 inches long) caused by, among other instruments, scissors. And the base of her skull was fractured.

Hendrix and Pearson were eventually convicted of Romona's murder and sentenced to life without parole, but not before causing a mistrial in an unsuccessful escape attempt in which they whipped out knives fashioned out of Plexiglas, stabbed a lawyer, and tried to take a court officer's gun.

It was the family, not the police, who finally broke the case, and at least anecdotally, Carmichael's bias claim makes sense. The "big" missing-persons investigations—the ones that get around-the-clock airing by TV talking heads Greta Van Susteren and Nancy Grace—almost always focus on white women. There are no black Chandra Levys, Laci Petersons, or Natalee Holloways. "Laci Peterson" gets 249,000 Google hits; "Romona Moore" gets 935.

Defense attorney Peter Neufeld, who has litigated numerous lawsuits against the city and the NYPD, says of Carmichael's pursuit of a federal-court case: "It's an interesting lawsuit. If the city has a policy of investigating missing persons but it chooses to treat people who are black differently, then you might have an equal-protection case."

It's remarkable that Carmichael got the go-ahead to proceed with a trial. But actually proving that racial bias exists in the NYPD's missing-persons investigations will be extremely difficult. "We recognize that the circumstances of this case are extremely tragic," a city law-department official said. "The court's decision merely found that the plaintiff had stated sufficient facts for the case to proceed to discovery."

To prove racial bias, Carmichael's team would have to "show it's happened in a pattern of instances," says NYU law professor Paul Chevigny. And the only way Chevigny can think of to do so would be to take a large sample of missing-persons cases, identify the race of the people involved, and then determine whether there really is a pattern.

Carmichael's lawyer, Robert Barsch, is apparently attempting to do just that. He tells the Voice that he has heard from a number of black people who have also had their attempts to have police open up missing-persons investigations ignored. And he plans to point to the Aronov case as a prime example of the flip side of that coin. After all, the NYPD tried harder to find Aronov's dog than they did Romona Moore.

In the aftermath of Romona's death, attempts by her family to call attention to the handling of the case have also been futile. Weeks after Romona was laid to rest, her family and friends picketed the 67th Precinct, carrying signs and chanting "Detective Carey must go" and "Justice for Romona." Soon after, a group of politicians led by City Councilman Charles Barron proposed "Romona's Law," which would require that police immediately investigate the disappearance of anyone younger than 25 years old who is reported missing. The NYPD's current patrol guidelines now order immediate investigations only if the missing persons are physically or mentally disabled or under the age of 16.

"Romona's Law" was discussed at one hearing before the City Council's Public Safety Committee in December 2004 and hasn't been brought up since.

Detective Wayne Carey has since been removed from the 67th Precinct. He was promoted to the Brooklyn South Homicide task force for helping to solve Romona's murder.

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