After 20 Years, a Bronx Cold Case Is Solved

—and a family's grief rekindled.

For 35 years, Phyllis Little has lived in a low-income apartment on East 174th Street, in the same complex where her granddaughter was raped and murdered. In February 1988, Phyllis returned from a weekend ski trip and found nine-year-old Joi Little and her mother, 26-year-old Selena Cooper, lying on the bed, strangled to death. Their hands and legs were tied behind their backs, their panties were at their knees, a look of panic still on their faces. Phyllis says she has wanted to leave that image behind her and move to New Jersey, but she vowed to her family that she would not leave her Bronx apartment complex until the murderer was found.

"My mom would always say, 'Stay here. Don't leave before it's finished,' " Phyllis recalled recently, sitting in the living room where she helped raise young Joi.

Today, Phyllis and her fiancé are finally preparing to move. In February, the NYPD's Cold Case Squad announced a breakthrough in the long-dormant investigation. They charged 46-year-old Robert Fleming, one of Cooper's companions, with the two murders. At his arraignment, Phyllis saw the accused for the first time. "When I saw him, I felt sick," she says. "If I had a gun with me, I would have shot him right there, without a trial."

Joi Little's school photo
Courtesy Phyllis Little
Joi Little's school photo
For Phyllis Little, it's been 21 years of wondering, "What if?"
Angel Franco/The New York Times/Redux
For Phyllis Little, it's been 21 years of wondering, "What if?"

After 21 years of grief and frustration, the arrest and indictment of Fleming was supposed to bring peace to Cooper's family. It hasn't. For one thing, the family suspects that the crime was committed by more than one man. And the man police have arrested has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is steadfastly proclaiming his innocence.

"This was an absolutely awful crime, and I can't even imagine how hurt and angry Selena's family must be," says Fleming. "I can understand why they would want to convict the first person put in front of them. But I'm not the guy. I didn't do this." Fleming says that to prove his innocence, he is prepared to go to trial.

That prospect concerns Cooper's family. While a trial could lead to a conviction, it would also force them to pore over the details of her death and confront their own roles in the free fall of her life: from a loving home in suburban New Jersey, to low-income housing in the South Bronx, to crack addiction and death.

Though it has improved in recent years, the Bronx River area continues to be a breeding ground for violence and poverty, a place where kids hope to move up from the projects, across the river to the low-income housing of West Farms, and on to the safety and wealth of the New Jersey suburbs.

Cooper traveled that route in reverse. She grew up in the middle-class suburb of Englewood, moved to the 174th Street housing complex in the Bronx, and, after becoming addicted to crack, found herself across the bridge, in the Bronx River Projects, consorting with drug dealers and getting high.

Relatives remember Cooper as a little spitfire, a petite woman who used sharp words and knew exactly how to rile an opponent. "She had a feisty energy about her," says her sister, Antonia Jones. Family and friends called her "the Mad Hatter" for her bold attitude and colorful clothing. "She'd wear bright-pink nail polish, big red hats, huge shades, and polished Italian cargo pants. She loved to dress."

In retrospect, says Jones, nothing was going to keep her sister from the bright lights of the city. Englewood was safe, but it was staid, too, with family dinners every night and services three times a week at the Refuge Temple Church of God in Christ. Eventually, Cooper started hanging out at Bronx discos and mingling with city boys like Tyrone Little, a former Marine and small-time drug dealer.

At 17, Cooper gave birth to Tyrone's daughter, Joi. Before long, she was living in the low-rent apartment complex in the West Farms section of the Bronx, where Tyrone's mother, Phyllis Little, had lived for years. Cooper's family says that while in New Jersey, Cooper never dabbled in drugs. Once in West Farms, however, she became a hard-core addict.

That's where she met Fleming. Lee Little, Tyrone's brother, says that he saw Cooper and Fleming together many times and that Fleming was a known drug dealer. He remembers Fleming hanging around the apartment complex, carrying a boombox and wearing the black clothes and silver jewelry of the Five Percenters, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, which teaches that God is black and that only its members know His true nature.

In a locked room inside a Rikers Island prison, Fleming sits with calm eyes and recalls his time with Cooper. His jewelry is gone, and his black jacket has been replaced by a brown prison-issued jumpsuit. His face has been ravaged by vitiligo, a pigmentation disorder that has left large splotches of white skin on his nose and forehead.

"A mutual friend introduced us," he says. "We were both into crack, so I'd go over to her place. There'd be a bunch of other people, and we'd smoke together." Fleming, a lifelong addict and convicted crack dealer, grew up near the drug- and crime-infested Bronx River Projects. As an adult, he used to hang out there, just across the bridge from Cooper's apartment complex. Less than half a mile separates the complex from the Projects, and soon, Cooper began walking that distance, leaving her West Farms apartment to smoke crack on the other side of the river.

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