After 20 Years, a Bronx Cold Case Is Solved

—and a family's grief rekindled.

"Selena's place was crazy," says Fleming. "There were always people there, smoking crack till all hours of the night." Phyllis says that, true to her full custody arrangement, she never let Joi go to her mother's apartment. Fleming says that wasn't true: While he was living there, he says, Joi visited her mother's residence several times. "She didn't come a lot. In fact, she came so infrequently, I thought she was her niece," he says.

Fleming says he never forged a strong bond with Joi, but she did know him well enough to call him by his Five Percenter nickname, Hakim.

Removed from Englewood, her life awash in drugs, Cooper drifted out of her family's life. "We just didn't have that connection," says her sister, Antonia Jones. "We were like oil and water." Cooper's cousin, Penny Quashie, says that in November 1987, three months before Cooper's death, she tried one last time to reach out to her cousin. Quashie had just given birth to her third son, John, and asked Cooper to return to Englewood to see her baby. Cooper dismissed the invitation with a laugh.

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?"

In February 1988, Phyllis Little was working as a case manager for the Rockland Psychiatric Center. Her co-workers were going skiing for the weekend. "They begged me to come, and to the last minute, I didn't want to go," she says.

She relented, leaving Joi with Cooper. "I had no reason to be nervous," Phyllis recalls. "Selena was getting better. She was cleaning up her act."

Phyllis returned home on Sunday afternoon. She crossed over to Cooper's building, hiked up the four flights of stairs, and knocked on the door. Nobody home. She walked back to her apartment. The next morning, at 7 a.m., she climbed Cooper's stairs once again. The door was slightly ajar. She pushed it open, saw the bodies, screamed, and ran down the stairs. Sonny Lee, Cooper's friend, heard the screams and ran up to her apartment to see what was wrong. He was one of many residents to enter the room and view the bodies before the police arrived. "It was awful—absolutely awful," he says.

Joi's back was broken. And the two bodies were facing each other, so Cooper could watch her daughter being assaulted before she died.

Within the West Farms complex, the gruesome murders sparked panic. "It shook the neighborhood," says Lee. For all the complex's problems, "This was still a family place. Everyone knew everyone. After this, women got scared, started looking at the men like we were crazy." He says that a lot of men who had no connection to the crime fled the neighborhood anyway, fearful they would be fingered nonetheless. "You get accused of something like that, with a child, you can't even survive in jail."

For Phyllis and Cooper's sister, Antonia Jones, the pain of that morning has lingered, kept fresh by the unanswered questions of who and why. Jones says she even came to West Farms, seeking information from her sister's friends and neighbors. People knew who did it, she says, but no one would talk to her. Phyllis made her own inquiries around the complex—her efforts were rebuffed as well. "People would say they didn't know, they didn't hear anything. But people knew. They knew," Phyllis says. "It made me angry."

Some of that anger found its way across the river, from the Bronx to Englewood. Cooper's family says that when it came time to bury her, Phyllis was flippant, saying, "Just stick her in a box. Bury her like she lived," a comment Phyllis says she does not remember making. Both families keep photos of the deceased mother and daughter and have been haunted by their memories on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the quadrennial Leap Day, the day of their deaths. With Joi, the link between the two families, now gone, Phyllis's family and Cooper's family no longer speak to each other.

Still, they know that they share a common pain, one they hope Fleming's trial will alleviate. "It could bring closure to a lot of unanswered questions," says Felecia Lucas, Cooper's cousin. "Their lives were taken like animals. Since then, it's been speculation. That's all we've had for 21 years."

Fleming says he does not know who committed the murders and that he was nowhere near the West Farms complex on the night of the crime. Cooper's late-night crack parties had become too loud and too frequent, he says, and he needed more sleep if he was to continue his construction job in Bronx River. After living with Cooper for six months, he decided, he says, to leave her apartment, four weeks before she was murdered.

Fleming says he moved back across the bridge to Bronx River, where, homeless once again, he slept in an abandoned building near the needle exchange, occasionally dropping by his mother's apartment to sleep.

He was there, he says, at his mother's apartment, on the night of the murders.

Fleming says that in March 1988, shortly after Cooper and Joi's deaths, the police picked him up and questioned him for two hours about the murders. "They showed me terrible photos of Selena and Joi, tied up and everything," he says. "It was ugly." Fleming says that he told police he was at his mother's on the night of the murder, and that they spoke with his mother and confirmed his alibi, then let him go.

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