A kitchen worker from Mexico who was accused of committing one of New York City’s most chilling child murders — the 1991 killing of “Baby Hope” — died in custody on Sunday, officials said.
The man, Conrado Juárez, was scheduled to go on trial in March for the murder of 4-year-old Anjélica Castillo, whose small naked body was found stuffed in a picnic cooler that had been left in a wooded area off the Henry Hudson Parkway in Upper Manhattan in 1991.
Mr. Juarez had been awaiting trial for five years. In 2015, he was transferred from Rikers Island to Rockland County Correctional Facility for his own safety. He died early Sunday morning at Montefiore Nyack Hospital following complications related to pancreatic cancer, an official and a second person familiar with the matter said.
Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for the State Commission of Correction, confirmed Mr. Juarez had died. She said the commission was investigating the death.
Mr. Juárez, 57, was arrested in 2013 and charged with second-degree murder. Prosecutors said he suffocated and molested the child.
Mr. Juárez’s lawyer, Michael J. Croce, declined to comment on Monday about his client’s death. A spokesman for the Manhattan district attorney’s office also declined to comment.
The murder of “Baby Hope” remained unsolved for more than two decades. No one had reported the child missing and she was unidentified. Detectives gave her the name “Baby Hope” in a show of their commitment to finding her killer.
In 2013, a tip led investigators to identify the child as Anjélica, and they started interviewing her family members. Those conversations led them to Mr. Juárez, a restaurant worker whose sister had been caring for the little girl in Queens when she was murdered.
After a long interrogation, Mr. Juárez eventually confessed on videotape that he sexually assaulted and smothered Anjélica, then disposed of her body in the cooler. The confession was the main evidence against him, and his lawyer, Mr. Croce, argued it was coerced.
Early on in the interview with detectives, Mr. Juárez told the police he had only helped his sister get rid of the toddler’s body after finding the child lying lifeless in his sister’s hallway. Later, he said he had molested her days before she died.
But the lead prosecutor, Melissa Mourges, did not buy Mr. Juarez’s story when she later interviewed him on videotape. “We just want to find out what happened so Angie can rest and we can answer the mystery,” she told him. “We know the sex and the death happened close together.”
Sixteen hours after his arrest and two hours into his videotaped statement, Mr. Juárez said he had suffocated Anjelica with a pillow while sexually assaulting her on a bed in a spare room at his sister’s apartment.
“She was suffocated with a pillow,” Mr. Juárez said in Spanish.
“How did you do it?” asked a Spanish-speaking detective who served as an interpreter.
“I covered her mouth,” he replied.
The videotaped confession was recorded on Oct. 12, 2013, at the Cold Case Squad’s office in Brooklyn and was played publicly during a hearing in State Supreme Court in Manhattan to determine whether the statements would be admitted as evidence at Mr. Juárez’s trial.
Four days after his arrest, Mr. Juarez also spoke with The New York Times reporter Frances Robles. The Manhattan district attorney’s office subpoenaed Ms. Robles to testify at Mr. Juarez’s trial about what he had said, arguing the interview corroborated parts of his confession. After several long delays and a series of challenges, an appeals court in Manhattan ruled last month that Ms. Robles did not have to testify and that her notes were not “critical or necessary” to his prosecution.
During the 45-minute interview at Rikers Island, Mr. Juárez denied killing Anjélica and said investigators had coerced his confession. “I told the police that I put a pillow over her face and killed her,” Mr. Juárez told Ms. Robles in 2013. “But it wasn’t like that.”
He also told Ms. Robles that he had received a call from his sister, Balvina Juárez, who told him Anjélica had fallen down the stairs while running and had died. She asked for his help, Mr. Juárez said.
Mr. Juárez told Ms. Robles that he and his sister folded the child into the blue picnic cooler, flagged down a taxi and rode in silence to a park off the Henry Hudson Parkway in Upper Manhattan, where they left the body.
They never spoke of it again, Mr. Juárez said. Balvina Juárez died from a stroke in 1995.
“I was afraid,” Mr. Juárez told Ms. Robles. “My mind closed. Thinking about it now, I realize I should have called the police.”
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