Omar Soriano has waited 22 years for good news from police about his younger cousin Minerliz, ever since that winter day in 1999 when the 13-year-old never returned home from school.
Her body was found in a Bronx, New York, dumpster days after she went missing, prompting an exhaustive investigation that went cold but was reignited nearly four years ago.
“It’s been an open festering wound,” Soriano said, as he recalled the years he spent with his younger cousin, braiding her hair and playing together, and the times he walked her to elementary school. “Minnie,” as she was known, was like a sister to him.
Soriano got emotional at times Tuesday as city officials announced they had finally found Minerliz Soriano’s killer, identifying him as a former resident of the building where she lived.
Officials with the NYPD and Bronx District Attorney’s office said they solved the crime by using familial DNA, hitting a historical milestone for the city, which had never closed a case by using the investigative technique.
“This case brings together modern science and traditional investigative work along with the determination to never give up on justice for an innocent little girl,” Inspector Neteis Gilbert said at a news conference.
Joseph Martinez, now 49, was arraigned Tuesday on two charges of second-degree murder after a grand jury returned an indictment in the case. Martinez pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail until his next court date in March.
“He has no criminal history in his entire 49 years,” his court-appointed attorney Troy Smith told CNN. “This is shocking to say the least and he maintains his innocence.”
For investigators, cracking open the case took years of work. The NYPD’s Bronx Homicide Squad began to reexamine Minerliz’s case in February 2018 and granted CNN rare access to their efforts, including exclusive interviews with detectives and witnesses, a review of parts of the case file and access to pieces of evidence.
What emerged was a case that showed how science and old-fashioned detective work could provide justice for the “sweet” 13-year-old girl who wrote poems in her journals about love, rainbows and the stars.
Familial DNA match comes back to suspect’s father
What happened to Minerliz eluded detectives both current and retired. Over the years, NYPD investigators interviewed numerous witnesses, chased hundreds of leads, even collected DNA samples from more than a dozen potential suspects before the familial DNA match ultimately led them to Martinez, said NYPD Lt. Sean O’Toole, commanding officer of the Bronx Homicide Squad.
New York state approved the use of familial DNA in 2017.
The investigative tool allows law enforcement to run DNA through an advanced software program to see if the DNA matches any male relatives in New York’s database who have been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor crime.
By comparing the DNA from a sample of semen taken from Minerliz’s sweatshirt that she was wearing at the crime scene, the state was able to provide police with a familial DNA result, officials say.
It came back as a match to Martinez’s father, who was in the state’s DNA database for a previous conviction, according to Deputy Chief Emanuel Katranakis, who leads the Forensic Investigation Division at the NYPD.
Authorities were then able to home in on Martinez after detectives legally collected an abandoned DNA sample, resulting in a direct match to the sample taken from Minerliz’s clothing, Katranakis said.
“It is unequivocal that this individual deposited his DNA in the form of semen on the front of the victim’s sweatshirt,” he said.
Earlier this week, Martinez, of New Rochelle, New York, a New York City suburb, voluntarily met with homicide detectives to discuss the case, sources said, and he denied having any physical contact with Minerliz.
Martinez, or “Jupiter Joe” as he calls himself online, advertises a sidewalk astronomy business. He offers private and public astronomy observing sessions and party planning services.
Numerous local media outlets have featured Martinez setting up his telescope on subway platforms and trains, providing free lessons to New Yorkers – something his social media accounts show he was doing as recently as mid-November.
‘She was so bubbly, just a sweet person’
Minerliz, a seventh-grader living in the Bronx, was described by one friend as mature for her age, someone who took on many family responsibilities, like running late night errands, doing laundry and caring for her younger sister, Nadia.
“She was so bubbly, just a sweet person in general. She always wanted to help, especially with poetry. She was so natural at it,” her classmate Kimberly Ortiz said.
Ortiz said the two of them bonded in an after-school program. She remembers when she last saw Minerliz. It was February 24, 1999.
They were leaving school and Minerliz wanted to go to the library while Ortiz needed to get home. She said Minerliz commented that she was upset about something but didn’t divulge more and Ortiz said she didn’t press the issue.
“I replay (that moment) over and over. I blamed myself for years because I said to myself, maybe if I asked I would have known what she was doing… I was the last person who probably saw her alive other than her killer,” Ortiz told CNN in 2018.
Ortiz said Minerliz left that afternoon and boarded a city bus wearing a red jacket and carrying her backpack. Minerliz was supposed to meet her younger sister after school, but never did.
Her mother called 911 that evening to report that her daughter never came home from school, according to a missing person’s report filed with the NYPD.
A task force was formed to find the killer
Four days later, Minerliz’s body was found behind a video store two miles from her home.
“It was a Sunday morning and I was at church,” recalls retired Det. Barney Ryan. “I got a beep because we still had beepers then. There was a guy who dug through the dumpsters. He found a heavy bag and ripped it open.”
Officers from New York City’s 45th Precinct were called to the scene. A quick comparison to missing persons records determined it was Minerliz.
According to details of the case file made available to CNN, her body was found tied up with green gaffer’s tape and placed in the fetal position inside the black garbage bag.
She was fully clothed; her bookbag and the red parka she was last seen wearing, weren’t with her body. The medical examiner determined there were no signs of sexual assault, but there were traces of semen found on her sweatshirt.
She had been strangled, according to detectives and the indictment.
“She was all wrapped up in a bundle like somebody cared that she was dead,” said retired Det. Michael Lagiovane, who checked on the status of Minerliz’s case each year, even after he handed in his badge in 2001.
Lagiovane was part of a task force formed by the NYPD in 1999, comprised of dozens of detectives in the Bronx and from across the department. The hope was the sheer manpower would help quickly solve the case.
Authorities questioned family members, neighbors, classmates and teachers; wanted posters showing a smiling Minerliz and highlighting a hefty reward were plastered across the city.
Ortiz said her school and classmates were “on edge” during the search for the killer.
“We were all worried. They didn’t know who it was, and we were like the killer’s still out there and this person’s probably preying on kids our age,” recalled Ortiz.
Detectives submitted DNA samples from underneath Minerliz’s fingernails, hair fibers, her clothing. Some evidence items were even sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, but nothing came back with a conclusive match, according to details in the case file, law enforcement officials said.
After an exhaustive investigation for nearly a year and no strong leads, the case went cold.
“The hardest cases that we deal with as medical examiners are those involving children,” said former New York City Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Barbara Sampson, who had only been with the agency for a few months when she handled Minerliz’s case.
“What was done with her is something that has been haunting me for the nearly 20 years since,” Sampson told CNN in 2018. “When it’s a homicide, like this, and where there were no really good leads as to who did it. That’s the most troubling kind of case for us.”
Nearly two decades later, a renewed focus
O’Toole instructed Det. Malcolm Reiman to take another look at the case in early 2018. The department hoped fresh eyes would help bring resolution.
“Through the years, we’re always working on it even before Malcolm got to work on it, we had other detectives who were here, people retire, they give it to the next person,” said O’Toole, who became commander of the Bronx Homicide Squad just three months after Minerliz’s killing and still oversees the unit.
Reiman is part of the NYPD’s prestigious rank of first grade detectives. Behind his glasses, he has a determined look in his eye, he’s meticulous, and he takes his cases personally.
When CNN first caught up with him, he was rounding the corner on 31 years with the department. Reiman was enthusiastic to now tackle the Soriano case and hopefully bring closure.
In February 2018, he descended the winding staircase of the historic city building that houses the homicide unit known as “Fort Apache.”
On the top shelf in a basement storage closet were seven cardboard boxes: a time capsule of the thorough investigation done two decades before, and in the years following.
“They really pulled out all the stops on this,” Reiman commented as he coughed from the dust collected on the cardboard top. “We’ve got things I’ve never seen in a homicide case file.”
The boxes were filled with negatives of the crime scene photos; Minerliz’s poetry book; hundreds of detective notes and interviews with persons of interest; tenant lists from the building where she lived; the posters over the years offering rewards for information.
Reiman pinned one of the posters above his desk.
“We want to look at her. We want to humanize her,” he said. “Remember who we’re working for.”
There was a lot of work to do. Reiman began by searching for old detective notes on microfiche in the department records unit at headquarters.
He sifted through her journals – a mixture of homework assignments, poetry, love notes, and aspirations.
Reiman and his partner on the case, Det. Matt McCrosson, made calls to former NYPD members who worked the crime scene and on the ensuing search for the killer in the late 90s.
“Cases like this stick to guys,” Reiman noted.
The pair also walked the areas around where Minerliz went to middle school, the alley where the dumpster used to be, and the apartment complex where she lived – renovated many times over since the time of the killing.
They compared old crime scene photos to what the areas looked like present day, scratching notes on their pocket notepads.
“I think it’s important to put yourself in the killer’s mind. Whether you’ll be able to identify him and whether we get a chance to speak to him, maybe we’ll out think him because we were here,” McCrosson said.
They reinterviewed Minerliz’s family members, former classmates, residents of the apartment complex and friends.
“We can’t bring her back, but I know her family and me, we all want closure. We all want to know what happened to her,” said Ortiz, Minerliz’s classmate.
‘The case is solvable’
After reviewing all the files, the detectives revisited a working theory that Minerliz was likely killed by someone she knew or was familiar to her.
“Apparently the victim used to go around to all the apartments in her building, making door-to-door candy sales,” Reiman said several detectives noted in 1999. “She was knocking on people’s doors and these people are getting a look at her. And perhaps someone took an unhealthy interest in her.”
They also resubmitted pieces of evidence for DNA testing. Over time, the technology had become more advanced and the database more expansive which could lead to possible matches.
A sample taken from Minerliz’s sweatshirt and the garbage bags she was found in came back with no direct matches to the local DNA database, according to Reiman.
The unit’s next hope for a break in the case rested on a newly approved technology in New York state – familial DNA testing.
The technique, while sometimes controversial over privacy and potential racial disparity concerns, was gaining traction for solving crimes across the United States.
One notable arrest came in 2010 of the serial killer nicknamed the “Grim Sleeper,” who killed several women in Los Angeles beginning in the mid-80s.
Despite New York policymakers giving law enforcement a green light to use the tool, detectives would still need to convince top-level officials in the police department and district attorney’s office before submitting an application to the state for familial DNA processing.
“In order to use familial DNA, it’s not something that we could just easily use every case,” Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said at the news conference. “There’s a lot of restrictions. And it’s very protected, and rightfully so because of the rights of individuals that may be involved.”