After 20 Years, a Bronx Cold Case Is Solved

—and a family's grief rekindled.

For 21 years, he says, he has been drifting around New York City, working as a drug counselor in Brooklyn and bouncing in and out of the penal system. The 46-year-old has served 18 years in prison. When police charged him with the double murder, he was already incarcerated at Rikers Island, busted in October for selling crack.

Lee Little, Joi's uncle, says the last time he saw Fleming was in 1987, well before the murders. After that, says Little, "he just disappeared." But Jones and Little say they have spoken with detectives from the police's Cold Case Squad who say they have a firm case against Fleming, centered on DNA evidence.

Fleming says he is angered by the notion that DNA found at Cooper's apartment could be used to convict him. "Of course they're going to find my DNA in the apartment," he says. "I lived there for six months. And I was having sex with Selena."

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?"

Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky, chairman of the department of forensic science at John Jay College and an expert in DNA evidence, says that the strength of the state's case depends on where the DNA sample came from: "DNA is a pretty resistant molecule, and if it's left undisturbed, it might stay there, on a coffee cup or a fork he used," says Kobilinsky. "If that's the DNA they found, that doesn't make him a murderer." But, says Kobilinsky, DNA taken from semen—from an oral, vaginal, or anal swab—would be "pretty damning evidence" against a suspect who claims he last saw Cooper four weeks before her murder.

Sperm die rapidly in a woman's vagina, he says. "Twenty-four hours after intercourse, the vast majority of sperm are gone. After seven days, they're all gone," says Kobilinsky. "If this guy says he hadn't been with her in four weeks and they find his DNA on a vaginal swab, he can say he's innocent up the wazoo. That's not going to help."

The police have not returned multiple phone calls seeking comment. But an official with knowledge of the investigation says that Fleming's DNA was drawn from semen in Cooper's vagina and that semen was also extracted from Joi's vagina. Its DNA also matches Fleming's.

Phyllis and Jones both intend to be in court for every day of Fleming's trial. Jones says she knows that the trial will spotlight the sour details of her sister's life. "But I hope people will see that she wasn't a bad person," Jones says. "She did not deserve to die. Not like this."

Phyllis says the trial could mean justice for Joi, but she knows that even a conviction won't silence the questions that have haunted her for 21 years: What if she hadn't gone skiing? What if she hadn't given Joi back to her mother? What if? "I do wonder," Phyllis says, "but I really didn't think I had anything to worry about. It's not like Joi ever said to me, 'Granny, I don't want to go over there.' Joi had a mouth on her, and she never mentioned men over there, or that someone was mistreating her."

Jones acknowledges that for years, her family has been angry at Phyllis for letting Joi return to her mother's apartment. But she also speaks of reconciliation between the two families—a potential outcome of the trial, at which Joi's grandmother, aunts, and cousins will be seated near each other, every day, in the courtroom gallery. "I know that Phyllis loved Joi and was good to her," Jones says. "For the rest of her life, she's going to have to live with the fact that she let her granddaughter go back there. That's a terrible thing to live with. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

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