Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Capture of Serial Killer Arohn Kee

Death in the Projects

Paola Illera
Paola Illera
Paola Illera, a dreamy 13-year-old, stood in the lobby of her East Harlem housing project on a chilly January afternoon in 1991 and pushed her family's apartment number on the intercom box. The girl, arriving home from school, nodded in close to the speaker and said, "Soy yo,"it's me.
Entrance to Illera's building
Entrance to Illera's building
Upstairs, her mother, Olga, buzzed her in by pushing the button to unlock the lobby door. She glanced at the clock4:45 p.m. Paola had stayed late at school, and it was dark outside. The routine interaction was the last that Olga Illera, a Colombian who with her family had immigrated to New York just seven months earlier, would have with her precious daughter.
The girl passed through the lobby door and got into an elevator, but she didn't make it up to the 30th-floor apartment. Her mother quickly sensed trouble, and she frantically searched the neighborhood for Paola, a slightly built, fair-skinned child with a mop of curly black hair.
Three hours later, a man walking his dog noticed a prone figure on a pedestrian promenade a few steps from the East River. It was Paola's lanky body. She had been raped, strangled and stabbed three times near the heart. Her lifeless body had been redressed and then dumped more than 10 blocks from her building along the busy FDR Drive beneath the Ward's Island Bridge.
When she was killed, the child was bearing the totems of her adolescence: a New Kids on the Block watch on her wrist and, in her pocket, a piece of chalk that she used to draw hopscotch grids. During the autopsy, the medical examiner noted curious elongated marks on her thighs. It seemed the girl had resisted the rape, and her attacker had pried her legs apart with such force that he left bruises on her thighs that mirrored the shape of his fingers. "She was beautiful and very delicate," her mother later said. "She wanted to be a lawyer. She was painting dreams."
"She was a young girl with many plans for the future," her uncle, Guillermo Ospina, told reporters. "She was very intelligent, very advanced for her age. She thought like an older person. She was very happy here because she loved English. She said, 'Uncle, every day I love it here more and more.' "

Low Priority Victim

The rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl should be big news in most any city at most any time. But New York of 1991 barely noticed the horrendous East Harlem crime because the city was awash in violence then, collateral damage of the crack cocaine scourge that had begun in 1984. From 1990 until 1992, more than 2,000 murders were reported in the city each year. Every day, an average of six bodies turned up in the five boroughs of New York Citymost of them in poor, minority neighborhoods like East Harlem, the South Bronx and East New York, Brooklyn.
Few of those cases garnered much attention. Instead, the media stampeded to the more up-market crimeswhite, affluent victims in more photogenic locations, such as a stockbroker attacked while jogging in Central Park or a tourist slain during a subway robbery.
Police investigated the murder of Paola Illera, of course, but it was not a marquee case. High-profile crimes often are assigned scores of detectives who are allowed to lavish countless hours on the investigation. For example, when the son of a media mogul was killed in New York a few years after Paola was murdered, the new mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, solemnly vowed that "hundreds and hundreds" of cops would be assigned to the case. But the young Colombian immigrant did not rate such star treatment.
Reward poster circulated by Illera's family
Reward poster circulated by Illera's family
A man's pubic hair was collected from the child's body and stored as evidence. But without pressure from the media or politicians, Paola Illera became a low-priority murder victim. Her case was destined to languish in limbo, unsolved, for most of the 1990s.

Carnage Continues

By the mid-1990s, the tide had turned on crime in New York overall, but in the housing projects of East Harlem, the carnage continued with a series of seemingly unrelated rapes and murders against attractive, light-skinned black or Hispanic teenagers.
An aerial view of buildings in the immediate area of some of the attacks
An aerial view of buildings in the immediate area of some of the attacks
In 1994, a 15-year-old girl was accosted at knifepoint. The case established a modus operandi for the attacker, who would repeat it many times over the next four years: He approached the teenager from behind and directed her to a remote spot, where she was blindfolded with a piece of her own clothing, forced to strip, then raped and sodomized. The 15-year-old victim survived to describe her attackera clean-cut young man with muscular build who had a grand opinion of himself. He told the victim she should be grateful to be raped by such a handsome fellow. "He told me I was lucky," the victim said.
A few years later, on Sept. 10, 1997, firefighters were called to a rooftop fire at the George Washington Houses, on East 104th Street. Veteran Firefighter Fred Zvinys later described what he found there. "I came upon what I thought at the time was a piece of rubbish, or furniture, burning," Zvinys said. Then he noticed a bare breast and realized "it was a person, what was left of her."
After calling a supervisor, Zvinys said, "I stepped back and looked at her. I was amazed that somebody could do something like this."
Johalis Castro
Johalis Castro
The victim, who had been raped, clubbed and choked, was identified by an ankle braceleta gift from her motheras Johalis Castro, 19, whose family had emigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic. Castro, who had a young daughter, had been studying computer science at a community college in the Bronx. ''We came here looking for a better life for our children,'' her mother, Paula Castro, would later say. Like Paola Illera, the murder of Castro rated little inkjust another dead teen from an East Harlem immigrant family.
Johalis' anklet was used to identify her.
Johalis' anklet was used to identify her.
Seven months later, in April 1998, a 13-year-old girl was raped and sodomized in the same neighborhood. The young victim, just 4'9", escaped the fate of Illera and Castro. She told police she screamed in pain while being sodomized. "He told me to be quiet and take it like a woman," the child told police.
Rasheeda Washington
Rasheeda Washington
Two months later, on June 2, Rasheeda Washington was found robbed, raped, sodomized and strangled in a 15th-floor stairwell of an East 112th Street housing project. The body, its naked torso covered by a shirt, had been propped up against a wall in a seated position. Like the earlier victims, Washington, a fashion student who worked at a clothing boutique, was petite, weighing just 100 pounds. She had lived with her father, Gregory, in the same housing project as the first victim, Paola Illera. Washington was murdered three days after her 18th birthday.
That fall, two more adolescents were raped and sodomized in the vicinitya 15-year-old on Sept. 25 and a 14-year-old on Nov. 16. The second victim said her attacker had an odd demand. "He told me to act like I loved him," she told police. Those two teens escaped aliveprobably because they did not get a good look at the attacker before they were blindfolded.

Parents Angry

Even as these parallel cases piled up, police made no public announcement that a serial rapist and murderer might be preying on teenage girls in East Harlem. The parents of the victims would later accuse both the police and the media of giving short-shrift to the casesdecisions, they said, that were based upon the victims' lack of status: ethnic minorities from a poor neighborhood. "It's because they're black and Hispanic," said Gregory Washington, Rasheeda's father. "It's because it's all above 96th Street. Let there be a white girl, and it's solved within days.'' His daughter's murder had rated four paragraphs in the New York Post. The New York Times had ignored it altogether.
It is a subjective exercise to try to compare media attention given to one case to that given another. But when Brian Watkins, a tourist from Utah, had been stabbed to death in a Manhattan subway on Sept. 2, 1990, his murder had been covered with hundreds of stories in the New York newspapers. When Paola Illera met a similar fate four months later, the Times published two stories.

DNA Testing

DNA testing was first used in a criminal investigation in England in 1986, and it was in limited use in the United States by the following year. But it was still a nascent forensic science in 1991, when young Paola was murdered. That had changed in 1998. By then, DNA was widely regarded as the most important investigatory breakthrough since the fingerprint. And the East Harlem cases would bear that out. Tissue samples had been collected over the years from rape and murder suspects, and prosecutors ordered DNA tests on at least five men suspected in the attacks, including two who had been picked out of police lineups by rape victims.
In the 1990s, there was a limited archive of DNA samples on file because routine testing of felons had not yet begun on a large scale. But a key development in the East Harlem cases came in the fall of 1998 when New York police criminalists compared semen evidence from the Rasheeda Washington murder and two other rapes in that neighborhood. The tests determined that the same perpetrator was responsible for the three crimes. Detectives were finally certain that a serial criminal was preying upon Harlem teenagers, and the police brass formed a small task force of detectives to find the man.

Suspect Emerges

Wanted poster
Wanted poster
Police distributed a wanted poster that included a sketch of the serial attacker, based upon descriptions from the rape victims. A few days after the flier went up in East Harlem, a telephone tipster suggested detectives should take a close look at a young man known as "Ace" who lived on the 19th floor of Paola Illera's building. Cops soon established Ace's real name: Arohn Kee. And the name rang a bell.
Arohn Kee
Arohn Kee
Before she was killed in 1991, young Paola had been seen entering the elevator at a same time as a young man. Detectives had talked to the man back then, and he gave his name as Arohn Warford. He admitted that he had ridden up in the elevator with the girl on the afternoon she was murdered. But he said he got off at the 19th floor, and Paola had continued up. That was the last police saw of Arohn Warford.
But the unique first name surfaced again, in the investigation of Johalis Castro's murder six years later. Telephone records revealed that in the days before she was killed Johalis had exchanged dozens of phone calls with a man named Arohn Kee. Police spoke with Kee, who said Johalis Castro had been a friend of his girlfriend, Jacqueline. He explained the flurry of phone calls by saying the two women had been planning a shopping trip on the day she was killed. Police interviewed the girlfriend, who confirmed Kee's account.
Only later did police realize that Arohn Warford and Arohn Kee were the same man. Warford was his father's surname; Kee his mother's. Arohn Kee had links to two of the three victims of a suspected serial killer. He was the last person known to have seen the first victim alive, and he was linked to an extensive phone dialogue with second victim in the days before she died. The coincidence was extraordinary.
But if Arohn Kee was a serial rapist and murderer, he was one pressed from the Ted Bundy mold. Ace Kee was personable, intelligent, reasonably articulate and clean cut, like Bundy, the infamous American serial killer of the late 1970s. Kee was born Sept. 18, 1973. He spent most of his childhood in East Harlem and was living with relatives in same building as Paola Illera in 1991. Known as a big-talking charmer, Kee was adept at computers. He claimed to be a rap producer, although there is little evidence that he did any work in that field. He was not physically imposing, at just 5-foot-8, but like Bundy he was a fairly handsome man. He'd had just one arrest, for robbery in 1990. But he had spent little or no time locked up. Yet neighbors said Kee had a sick side. He habitually peered though the peepholes of women in his building, and he often traipsed around with a portable video camera, trying clumsily to get shots up skirts.

Seeking a Sample

Black Fubu cap left behind by the assailant in the September 1998 rape.
Black Fubu cap left behind by the assailant in the September 1998 rape.
The assailant in the September 1998 rape left behind a black Fubu cap and a grey sweatshirt. A laundry tag in the garment led police to a dry cleaner near Kee's building whose client list included Arohn Kee's mother, Cynthia. Detail after detail pointed to Arohn Kee as a leading suspect, and authorities believed a test of his DNA would prove that he was the rapist and killer. But Kee had no DNA on file, since mandatory DNA testing of accused felons would not begin in New York until 2000. And in the 1990s acquiring a sample was not as simple as hauling a suspect in and running a swab across an inner cheek. DNA tests were still regarded as invasive, and a sample had to be authorized by a judge based upon probable cause.
Grey sweatshirt left behind by the assailant in the September 1998 rape.
Grey sweatshirt left behind by the assailant in the September 1998 rape.
Despite the circumstantial evidence, detectives knew the elevator ride, phone calls and laundry tag would not convince a judge to compel Kee to surrender a bit of his spittle for a DNA sample. So police were forced to turn to Plan B. First, they tried tailing Kee, waiting for him to spit or discard chewing gum. This quickly proved impractical.
Reward poster issued after the September 1998 rape.
Reward poster issued after the September 1998 rape.
On Feb. 8, 1999, cops got a break when Kee was arrested in connection with the theft of a computer hard drive. With no mandatory DNA testing of arrestees yet on the law books in New York, police resorted to trickery to try to get a genetic sample. A female detective disguised as a doctor in a white hospital smock asked Kee to give a saliva sample for a "routine" tuberculosis tests. The cop pushed paperwork at the prisoner, hoping he would sign a release form. But Kee took the time to read the fine print on the document, and he balked when he saw a line referring to DNA analysis. He said he was a practicing Jehovah's Witness and that it was against his faith to participate in any form of medical treatment. "He suddenly got religious," as one cop later put it.
Kee now knew what police wanted from him, and he tried to make sure they wouldn't get it. After his meal that evening, he tore his paper cup into bits and flushed it down the toilet. He then placed his cellmate's cup on his meal tray, hoping to throw off investigators.
But cops were a step ahead. Shortly after Kee was arrested, he had spent time in a group holding cell with several other men. Attendants had served them cups of water, and detectives tracked down the cups in a wastepaper basket and delivered them for DNA testing. Within a couple of days, the results confirmed that a sample taken from the lip of a cup from the police holding cell contained the same DNA as that of the East Harlem rapist and murderer.

Flight to Florida

By the time the test results were complete, Arohn Kee had been released without bail on the misdemeanor computer theft charge. Cops learned that he had gone to Brownsville, Brooklyn, and picked up his 16-year-old girlfriend, Angelique Stallings, for what her parents thought was a Valentine's Day date. Instead, Kee and Stallings boarded a Florida-bound bus in Newark, N.J. Detectives feared Stallings faced the same fate as the other victims.
Arohn Kee
Arohn Kee
After arriving in South Florida, Kee twice phoned another girlfriend in New York. By then his fugitive status as a suspected serial killer had made the news, and the second girlfriend phoned police with a tip that Kee was staying at the Miami Sun Hotel, two blocks from the beach on Northeast 1st Avenue in downtown Miami. Two New York detectives hurried there and staked out the hotel. When they spotted Kee and Stallings strolling inside, a Miami-Dade SWAT team was called in. They found Kee and Stallings hiding under a bed on the sixth floor.
After Kee was safely in custody, Joseph Reznick, a ranking New York police officer, told reporters, "Arohn Kee is every young lady's worst nightmare."
"Apparently, his girlfriend didn't know how dangerous he was and what kind of danger she was in," said Delrish Moss of the Miami-Dade police. "She had no clue he was wanted for those crimes."
Kee clammed up when detectives tried to question him about the East Harlem crimes, but police gleefully watched and listened from behind a two-way mirror when they allowed Stallings into the interview room for what the couple thought was a private goodbye. When Stallings demanded to know why he had committed the crimes, Kee said he had "bugged out" and had a "sickness."

Courtroom Circus

After a four-month legal battle, Kee was extradited to New York and faced trial on 22 felony counts in four rapes and the murders of Paola Illera, Johalis Castro and Rasheeda Washington. DNA evidence linked Kee to six of the seven cases. In the sevenththe murder of Illerahe was implicated by a pubic hair that had been found on the victim and saved in an evidence room for nine years.
Prosecutor Richard Plansky
Prosecutor Richard Plansky
Prosecutors John Irwin and Richard Plansky presented a devastating barrage of testimony and DNA evidence against Kee at trial in the fall of 2000. They called 130 prosecution witnesses, including the two rape victims who recounted for an astonished courtroom audience Kee's "lucky" and "love me" comments during the violent acts.
But it was one defense witness who stole the show: Kee himself, who insisted to his attorney that he be the first defense witness stand. Over two days of testimony, Kee giggled like a schoolgirl, cried like a baby and expressed fury that authorities would dare prosecute him. His monologuelargely uninterrupted by the judge, the prosecutors or his attorneyscovered such themes as pop culture, narcotics, rap music, jail food and his deep thoughts on the criminal justice system.
As many of his victims' loved ones watched from the gallery with slack jaws, Kee spun a bizarre tale explaining how he had come to be charged with brutal serial violence against young women. He claimed police had framed him to cover up a medical examiner's scheme to harvest and sell human organs. He explained that his DNA was planted in what he called "genetic shuffling."
The jury didn't buy it, and when the foreman announced a guilty verdict, the courtroom erupted in cheers and cries of "Yes!" A few minutes later, as he was being led away to await sentencing, Kee scowled toward the gallery and spat a profane curse at the entire assembly.
Outside of court, some relatives of Kee's victims charged up to a gaggle of reporters and demanded to know why the press had largely ignored the attacks as they were happening. ''Where were they in the beginning?'' one man shouted at the reporters as friends restrained him.

Life in Prison

At sentencing a month later, in January 2001, relatives of his victims got a chance to address Arohn Kee.
Arohn Kee
Arohn Kee
''I hope you experience what it is like to not be able to sleep, to eat, to walk, to breathe, to not have a moment of peace, thinking of my daughter's suffering at the time of her death," said Olga Illera, mother of his first murder victim. "I will never learn to live without my daughter, who I brought to this country in search of the American dream."
Gregory Washington, father of Kee's third murder victim, tried to engage the killer with eye contact. "Look at me,'' Washington said. "Just once turn around.'' Others in the gallery began to shout, ''Turn around,'' but Kee refused to meet the father's gaze.
When his turn to speak came at the sentencing hearing, Kee had lost the bravado from his trial. He began to cry and muttered, "I'm sorry." With that, a male cousin of Johalis Castro let out an angry roar and tried to leap over the bar to attack Kee. The defendant was hustled out of the room for his own protection.
After a 15-minute interlude to calm the gallery, Justice Joan Sudolnick passed sentence, saying, "I don't know what to say to someone who has no soul, no conscience, no morality, no heart.'' She sent him away foreverthree life sentences without possibility of parole for each of the three murders, plus an additional 400 years for the four rapes.
Detective Mike Ulacco
Detective Mike Ulacco
He won't be missed, cops said. "He was a demon," said Detective Mike Ulacco. "He just needed to be put away."

DNA Tide Turned

The prosecution of Arohn Kee was a turning point in New York for the use of DNA evidence. Kee's defense team sought to have the seizure of his DNA declared illegal. But Judge Sudolnick upheld the use of the evidence, even if it had been obtained through police skullduggery when Kee was still just a suspect.
George Goltzer, Kee's attorney, told the press after his conviction, "The public needs to be aware that this court found that police officers may follow you around and without any warning or a judge's approval take your bodily fluids.'' But the Kee case became an example of the urgent need for a DNA database. Had Kee's DNA profile been on file from his 1990 robbery arrest, some of his victims surely would have been spared by an earlier apprehension.
By the time Kee was sentenced, legislators in New York and many other states had mandated DNA testing for those arrested in connection with violent crimes. Since then, testing has been expanded to include most felony arrests, both violent and nonviolent, and some jurisdictions have begun to test those arrested for misdemeanors.
Most DNA headlines today concern exonerations, not successful prosecutions, and that was a subplot in the Kee story. Two men were falsely implicated in the Kee rapes when victims picked them out of police line-ups. One was a known sex offender who had been recently paroled. The other was seen near the scene of a rape just before and just after it happened. Curiously, he had changed clothing in between. The men likely would have faced prosecution had DNA evidence not implicated Arohn Kee for the crimes they were incorrectly suspected of committing.
Linda Fairstein, a longtime Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor who left that field to become a novelist, said the Kee case proved DNA's value from both a prosecution and defense point of view. "There's no question that any one of our experienced sex crimes prosecutors could have convicted (either) man," she told reporters. "That's very frightening."

2 comments:

  1. Its 2014 now,but I remember this story,I remember it being talked about on TV. I felt bad for the families but even worse for those young girls that were raped and killed. I hope the families have had some healing since this happened.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Because of this serial rapist I almost got his time studying and getting some time I'm glad for the Aeneid if it wasn't for you I would have been spending his time instead I hope the n***** DET now good no girls need to go through that

    ReplyDelete