Shortly before 7 p.m. on a spring evening in 2003, 21-year-old Romona Moore told her mother that she was going to the Burger King down the street in their Canarsie neighborhood and would be right back.
After a few hours passed and Romona still hadn’t returned home, her mother, Elle Carmichael, was worried.
Romona, you see, was a nerd. Despite her age, this child of a Guyanese immigrant was still living a sheltered life. A Hunter College student, she worked part-time as a receptionist and otherwise hung out in the local library, dreaming of a career in research. Shy and introverted away from her family, she never partied and, as far as her mother knew, had never had a real boyfriend. She didn’t have a cell phone, but she always called her mother to tell her where she was and what she was doing.
Romona’s mother spent a sleepless night waiting for her to return: “A girl at 21, you never know when she’s going to do her first time of sleeping out,” Carmichael recalls. “But even if she did—and it would have been the first time in her life—I figured she would have been home by six or seven in the morning.”
By 9 a.m. that morning, April 25, it was too much worry for the mother to stand. She called 911, and 30 minutes later, two officers from the 67th Precinct arrived at her Remsen Avenue home. As she remembers it, they told her: “She’s 21. We’re not supposed to take the report.” She begged them, and (out of pity, she believes) the officers took complaint No. 2003-067-65609.
They told Carmichael that if Romona still hadn’t returned by seven that night, marking her gone for 24 hours, she should call the precinct. At seven on the dot, Carmichael called the precinct. A detective told her: “Lady, why are you calling here? Your daughter is 21. These officers should not have taken the report in the first place.” The next day, April 26, the complaint was marked “closed.”
Instead, it was Romona Moore’s life that was closed. While detectives were offering reasons why they couldn’t start an investigation, she spent nearly four days chained up in a basement only a few blocks from her home. She was repeatedly raped and tortured by two young psychopaths who eventually beat her to death on the day that the police grudgingly started searching for her. Her family’s amateur investigation found her before the police did.
Besides her grief, Elle Carmichael was disgusted. The story of Svetlana Aronov was fresh in her mind. Less than two months before Romona Moore vanished in Canarsie, Svetlana Aronov, the white wife of a doctor, went missing on the Upper East Side.
The day after Aronov vanished, police launched a massive search for her and the cocker spaniel, Bim, she had taken for a walk. The NYPD called a press conference, assigned two dozen detectives to the case full-time, and went door to door, passing out flyers with pictures of Aronov and Bim on them. The cops traced the Aronovs’ phone and bank records and analyzed surveillance tape gathered from stores and apartment buildings near her home. A police van emblazoned with the department’s 800 tip-line number drove around her neighborhood, blaring details of her disappearance over a loudspeaker. A letter was sent to rare-books dealers, a business the Aronovs dabbled in. Detectives reportedly even consulted a psychic.
A bloodhound was assigned to track Bim’s scent.
Eventually, Aronov’s body surfaced in the East River. It was never determined whether she fell, jumped, or was pushed into the water.
“I don’t see any other reason but race and class,” Carmichael says of the lack of initial response by the NYPD to the case of her missing daughter. “If this was a white kid, they would never had done this. I had to say to the detectives one day: ‘You know, I feel the same emotions and pain as a white person.’ “
That’s a common complaint in the city, and a futile one—until now. The story of Romona Moore ended tragically, but almost exactly five years later, a Brooklyn federal judge has, in effect, reopened the case in a historic ruling about racial bias in the search for missing New Yorkers.
Elle Carmichael has received the go-ahead to proceed to trial with a civil-rights lawsuit claiming that the NYPD has a “practice of not making a prompt investigation of missing-persons claims of African-Americans, while making a prompt investigation for white individuals.” Judge Nina Gershon’s ruling is believed to be the first of its kind in the city.
When Romona Moore disappeared, her family had prayed. But having gotten nowhere relying on God or the police, the family mobilized, carrying the emotionally spent Carmichael along like a twig on a river. If the police weren’t going to investigate, then they themselves would become bloodhounds—and they tried to pressure the police to join in the hunt.
They called Romona’s friends, and made up flyers with her picture and their contact information and then plastered them all over the neighborhood. They discovered that Romona had first gone to a friend’s home, where she exchanged CDs, before leaving there around 7:30 p.m., saying she was going to Burger King. They also found out that she never made it to the fast-food joint.
The family called the media, but—for reasons they wouldn’t learn until later—no reporter showed interest in the story. In a group, the family went back to the 67th Precinct and pleaded with cops to reopen the case, becoming louder the more they were ignored. “We told them, ‘Check her attendance at school, check her grades,’ ” her uncle Clifford Mann recalls. ” ‘She never missed a day of school. She got all A’s. Her record is impeccable. She’s not out running around with some boyfriend. Don’t put her in that box!’ “
When the police still failed to respond, the family contacted local politicians, who called the precinct demanding action. At 4 p.m. on Monday, April 28, some 93 hours after Romona disappeared, the police finally bowed to political pressure and officially opened an investigation. Detective Wayne Carey caught the case. By then, of course, it was too late.
Romona Moore’s killers, Troy Hendrix and Kayson Pearson, were eventually caught. “Those guys aren’t human beings,” Carmichael says, shaking her head and giving out a humorless chuckle. “They’re something other than human.” But it’s the police who still garner most of Carmichael’s anger.
“My daughter is dead. I know she endured physical torture,” says Carmichael. “But the police—the police put us through mental torture. Dealing with the police was more of a nightmare than finding Romona’s body.” By then, she says, she had resigned herself to the fact that Romona was dead. But the police? “They were just nasty,” she says.
Carmichael says that had the cops called a press conference asking for help in finding Romona, her abductors just might have gotten spooked and let her go. She may be right. Even the killers were upset by the lack of coverage by the press and TV. It turned out that Pearson and Hendrix were regularly following the news then. A 15-year-old girl who was eventually able to escape after being kidnapped by the duo after they tortured and killed Romona testified at their murder trials that she heard the two complaining about the absence of stories about them.
“They put people on the news for doing stupid shit like jumping off roofs,” she heard one of the men tell the other. “After this, we better get on the news.”
They made the news, all right, but not until two weeks after they killed Romona Moore.
It wasn’t as if the killers were in deep hiding. They not only were into kidnapping, rape, and torture, but they even gave tours of their den of horrors.
Romando Jack, then 19, was the last known person, other than her killers, to see Romona Moore alive, though authorities now believe that the killers also showed her off to others.
On April 26, the second full day after Romona’s disappearance, Jack, who was in the neighborhood because his sister was throwing a baby shower for his fiancée, ran into his old buddies Hendrix and Pearson. The three men walked inside 5807 Snyder Avenue, a dilapidated, partially burned-out, two-and-a-half-story brick building with boarded-up windows, where Hendrix and several family members lived. Jack exchanged small talk with Hendrix’s aunt and uncle before the three men ducked into the basement to smoke pot.
As they sat on a couch passing a joint, Jack later recalled, Hendrix said out loud: “Say hi, bitch.” Baffled, Jack asked: “Who y’all talking to?” Hendrix and Pearson pulled up a tarp on the floor, and under it was Romona Moore, lying on her side, dressed only in a hoodie and underwear. Romona’s hands were tied behind her back, and she had a chain around her neck. There were bandages on a wrist and ankle, covering up wounds the pair had inflicted while trying to saw off her limbs. Romona was bleeding from a cut near her nose; her face was beaten and puffy. The men had cut the webbing between her fingers. Three cigarette burns formed a triangle under one eye.
“I was like, ‘What’s wrong with y’all? What’s going on?’ ” Jack later testified at their trial. He said they told him, in effect: “It’s already said and done. Ain’t nothing nobody can do about it now.”
Hendrix and Pearson continued to show that they had nothing to hide from their pal. They had scooped up Romona in the first place in front of the horror house while she was on her way from her friend’s home to the Burger King. The killers then instructed Romona to fill in their pal Jack about how that happened. “They told her to talk to me,” Jack said. “She told me she was outside when [Hendrix] grabbed her and dragged her inside, and I guess she tried to escape, and that’s when they beat her up.”
Romona was made to recite the details of her days of rape. She followed orders, in what Jack described as a low, “teary voice,” while Pearson and Hendrix “both had a smirk on their face, like no cares.”
Before Jack left, Pearson asked Romona to tell Jack what the difference was between him and them. “She said I seem more nicer,” said Jack, who added that he awkwardly thanked her.
Romona Moore’s best chance of being saved left town the next day when Jack, after attending the baby shower, drove back home to Maryland without telling the police what he saw. His excuse? “I was scared.”
The following day, Monday, April 28, Detective Wayne Carey reopened the missing-persons investigation. Carey didn’t return several calls for comment for this story, but during the 2006 trial of Pearson and Hendrix, the killers’ lawyers made him try to defend his investigation.
“I contacted Romona Moore’s friends, her co-workers,” Carey testified. “[Her mother] allowed us to search her room. We were looking for some—maybe some papers—something like that. We had the house’s personal computer removed and sent to our computer-analysis section to see if maybe we could get some information off the computer. We did a canvass. I had ESU [Emergency Services Unit] search certain areas. K-9 did a search.”
On April 29, police got an anonymous tip about screaming coming from 5605 Snyder Avenue. Carey, who was supposed to meet with Elle Carmichael that day to discuss her daughter’s case, decided to stop by the building on his way to Carmichael’s home only three blocks away. That address didn’t exist, so Carey and two other cops knocked on the doors of some nearby houses, and then crossed Kings Highway and knocked on the door at 5807 Snyder Avenue. When Troy Hendrix answered it and saw the police, he pulled out a gun and closed the door. A stand-off ensued before Hendrix finally surrendered more than two hours later.
After Hendrix was in custody, Carey was contacted by sex-crimes detective Woody Simmons, who told him that Hendrix was a suspect in the rape of the 15-year-old girl who had escaped from the house earlier that day.
The girl later told detectives that her attackers “said if I didn’t cooperate, then I would end up like the girl that they had last night—because she was feisty and they had to kill her.”
The 15-year-old was blindfolded at the time, but she said it sounded as if one of the men opened a crate before asking her if she could smell what he told her was a dead body. Pearson and Hendrix later brought in a visitor to view the teen. The girl escaped after the men fell asleep by licking the duct tape off her mouth and then chewing through the tape on her hands.
The next day, April 30, Carey and crime-scene detectives went to 5807 Snyder Avenue with a search warrant in connection with the rape. They found the 15-year-old girl’s MetroCard. But the detectives did not search a small room in the back of the basement where Romona Moore had been held most of the time and eventually bludgeoned to death. That day, the only evidence the detectives found linking Hendrix and Pearson to Romona was a powder-blue shoelace. But they didn’t figure out at the time that it was hers. The screams, Carey and the other detectives figured, were made by the 15-year-old—not Romona.
On the evening of May 1, Carey met with Romona’s mom and explained that he had missed a meeting with her because he had been busy over the past two days investigating the rape case.
At the time, Carmichael thought he was slacking off and ducking her calls; she didn’t know, of course, that the two cases were one and the same. But the cops didn’t know it either.
Her conversations with Carey continued to be fruitless. Carmichael told him that perhaps the police should talk with a friend of Romona’s named Gino, who lived somewhere in Rhode Island. An annoyed Carey asked her why she had told him earlier that Romona had no boyfriend. Carmichael says that she said “boy friend”—two words, as in not romantically involved. In any case, she recalls that by then, Carey “just made up his mind there’s nothing wrong,” and that no matter what he came across, he stuck to that assumption.
For instance, it didn’t matter that bank records showed that Romona, who had no credit cards, had taken out $60 the day she disappeared and hadn’t withdrawn anything in the two weeks since. That might indicate that she was no longer alive. But instead of this raising a red flag for him, Carmichael says, Carey asked her if Romona was pregnant.
Making matters worse, Carmichael says, she spoke with some reporters at the time who told her that they weren’t doing stories on Romona’s disappearance because the police were saying that she was just a runaway. Carmichael says she tried for the next several days to reach Carey by phone, but was always told that he wasn’t in.
Cops do have reason to be skeptical of missing-persons complaints. The overwhelming majority of such cases—7,000 a year, or nearly 20 a day—are said to be runaways who don’t want to be found. Another sizable percentage involves people suffering from Alzheimer’s. Only a small fraction, police say, are considered suspicious disappearances, what the cops call “Class G.” And those get passed on from precinct detectives to a citywide missing-persons unit that isn’t exactly like the TV versions—the unit is still trumpeting on the Web its search for a 16-year-old runaway whose mother says returned home last September.
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.”
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.