Over a barrel


All I had was a body, a barrel and two pieces of jewelry. Plus a phone number for a Howard Elkins of Boca Raton, Fla. It was Sept. 4. I was working as a stringer for The New York Times and I was to call this guy and tell him that a woman’s body had been found two days earlier inside a barrel in his former house at 67 Forest Lane in Jericho.

“You’re kidding,” Elkins told me.

This was apparently the first Elkins had heard of the barrel being found. I read him some details from the police reports: The corpse had long black hair, was 4-11 and weighed 95 pounds. A locket around her neck was inscribed with “To Patrice, love Uncle Phil.” The corpse wore a wedding band with the inscription “M. H. R. XII 59.”

Did Elkins have any idea what the messages meant? He said no.

I asked him if he was the owner who put in the extension that created the 36-inch crawl space where the barrel was found.

“We built a room off the kitchen to the back of the house,” he said. “A big den with a fireplace. It was built up to the level of the living room and the kitchen. We moved out of there in 1972. I haven’t thought about that house in years.

“Unbelievable,” he added.

Had he ever looked in the crawl space?

“What for?” he replied.

He then asked, “When was this? When did this happen?”

I told him about a guy named Hamid Tafaghodi moving into the house and telling the seller, Ronald Cohen, to remove the barrel. I told him that the seller and the realtor opened the barrel and saw a hand and a shoe.

“Unbelievable,” Elkins said.

An hour after my conversation with Elkins, the authorities revealed that the corpse had been pregnant. I tried to get in contact with Elkins again. No luck.

On Sept. 9, five days later, Nassau County detectives traveled to Florida and questioned the 71-year-old Elkins.

The next day, Elkins went into an SUV in a friend’s garage and blew his head off with a shotgun.

Details poured out about Elkins and his apparent workplace relationship 30 years ago with a woman fitting the description of the corpse in the barrel. The woman took a leave from Melrose Plastics, the fake-flower company Elkins ran in Manhattan, and showed up a few months later with a child in tow. The rumors flew around the plant that Elkins was the father.

The woman died from blunt-force head trauma.

After Elkins killed himself, I thought back to my conversation with him. Had the blood rushed out of his head–or into his head–when I broke the news to him that the barrel had been found? I’ll never know because we had talked only by phone. He hadn’t sounded panic-stricken.

“We moved out and went right down to Florida,” Elkins had told me. “I don’t even remember what I sold it for. Around 60 or 70.”

When I told him the house went for $255,000, he laughed and said, “I should have stayed there some more years.”

But that’s not enough reason for him to kill himself, is it?