Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who Killed My Neighbor?


Someone murdered April Wagner and dumped her body beneath an exterior staircase behind St. Raphael’s Church on 41st St. – four blocks from my house. According to a New York Post police blotter column, a maintenance worker discovered her badly decomposed remains on August 18, 2009.

Did she die three days earlier or five? Did she die there, or did her killer shove her corpse into that shadowy spot? What caused her death:  stabbing, blunt force trauma, gunshot, strangulation, suffocation?

Who was this young redhead looking down her nose at me as I read the Crime Stoppers poster seeking information about her death?

I spotted several such posters around the Port Authority last fall. Each time I walked past April Wagner’s defiant face, I felt a chill crawl up my neck. No one cared about me when I was alive; no one is losing sleep over my homicide.

I wondered if April was right about that. Crime Stoppers and the NYPD printed posters; surely they wanted citizen-detectives like me to dig into this case and help solve it. Right?

The poster provided few clues. No cause of death, no information about April’s past, not even her age. Was she homeless? A sex worker? An addict? A Bon Jovi fan? A waitress? A mother? No answers.

Who was running this investigation? Tips could be dialed into a hotline, but who’s in charge? No names.

Around Thanksgiving last year, I decided to ask three officers who were sitting inside Empire Coffee, discussing a favorite cop-talk topic – retirement – that offered me a way into my topic:  jurisdiction.

“Gentlemen, who handles homicide cases in Hell’s Kitchen?”

Their spines straightened, jaws clenched. They wanted to know why I was asking. I told them about April. One explained how the area got jigsawed.

“We’re Port Authority Police. We handle cases inside the building and around its immediate perimeter. Midtown South handles some Hell’s Kitchen crime; 10th Precinct handles others. Where was the body found?”

I told them. They conferred, not entirely sure which unit would be in charge of the 41st Street and 10th Ave homicide. The superior officer said, “10th Precinct. Chelsea.” I thanked them; they didn’t appear thrilled with my interest in the intricacies of their profession.

I went to the 10th Precinct station soon after. The detective in charge of the Wagner case, Det. Barberra (phonetic spelling), was not in. Another detective listened to my questions and answered none. “It’s an active investigation; we can’t discuss specifics.”

“How are citizens supposed to help the police if the police won’t provide any information about the murder or the victim?”

“If you want to leave your card with me, I’ll give it to Detective Barberra.” I left my card; no one contacted me. Not a big surprise. When it comes to information, law enforcement largely remains a one-way street.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate police officers, I do. The NYPD saved my life a few years ago. I know how awesome cops can be. They could be even more effective if the system allowed citizens to better understand (and potentially solve) cases like April Wagner’s murder.

It can be done. I saw it being done in Greenville, South Carolina.

A poster taped up at the Greyhound bus station there outlined multiple cold case murder investigations, listing the victims’ ages, professions, cause of death, and other details (not many, but plenty) that reasonably inform the populace. The GPD Web site does the same and provides complete contact information for officers in charge of each case. Kudos to Chief Terri Wilfong and her team.

Unfortunately, the NYPD’s Web site does not publicize its cold cases. We can study mug shots and grainy video stills of its “Most Wanted” criminals; we cannot learn about cases that do not have suspects.

I tried.

In June 2010, I called the 10th Precinct to check the status of the April Wagner investigation. Detective Barberra was not in. Lieutenant Burgos told me the case was still open and that officers, “were speaking to some individuals to help us with it.”

I wanted to make one more attempt to learn at least April’s age and cause of death. I filed a request for her death certificate from the city health department, enclosing the $15.00 fee. On June 16, the city returned my check along with a form letter, a check mark in the box that says, “A death record is not a public record.”

By July 2010 most of April’s Crime Stoppers posters had been taken down. One remained stuck to the front window of Project Find, a homeless shelter across Ninth Avenue from the Port Authority. I called the Crime Stoppers number to see if I could obtain some posters. The operator said I would have to ask Detective Barberra to request posters on my behalf. I didn’t think that would be a good use of his time.

Sorry, April. You’ve been dead for over a year, and that’s still all I know about you.

3 comments:

kmom3girls

HELLO, JOY, MY NAME IS KELLY AND I AM COMMENTING ON YOUR ARTICLE ABOUT APRIL WAGNER, WHO HAPPENS TO BE MY DAUGHTER. I APPRECIATE ALL THE TIME AND EFFORT YOU HAVE PUT INTO FINDING OUT ABOUT MORE INFORMATION CONCERNING MY DAUGHTERS DEATH, IT MEANS THE WORLD TO ME. IF YOU CAN FIND THE TIME, CAN YOU PLEASE E-MAIL ME AT KMOM3GIRLS@AOL.COM

md0503

Hello Joy,

My Name is Maria I am April's Aunt. Kelly which is my sister-in-law,forwared this article to me. Which brought tears to my eyes. As I read on and got to the sentence which read. No one cared about me when I was alive;no one is losing sleep over my homicide. This has been a terrible devastion for the mother & sisters and family. We have not got closure. I keep reading your article over & over again. Thinking to myself that a stranger took the time to stop and try to find answers. May God bless you for trying. Please know that we loved and cared about April so much,there is not a day that goes by, that I wish I can turn back time. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for trying to seek the answers that we are looking for. I still pray for hope. Please feel free to contact me at md0503@aol.com Thanks Again for caring.

Salima L. Felidae

I was a patient in A9 adolescent psych ward of Elmhurst Hospital when she was there. She was very distant, but always friendly and I rather enjoyed her presence. We never spoke after I was discharged but I found out this happened when I saw this poster in the staff office of Covenant House the day I arrived. The staff often mentioned her murder as a warning tale during community meeting, but I could never bear to hear about it again and again. Sometimes I drew pictures of the church or just looked at it and wondered if she could see me caring.

I have never forgotten and try to think about her often in caring since it seemed like so few people ever did - too caught up in judgment of how she lived.

I'm glad to see someone else cares too. If you want more information you can try asking Covenant House - as far as they told us residents they suspected she was in the wrong place looking for crack. (I do not know if she had gotten off of it by then but she was withdrawing heavily when I met her in Elmhurst)

Please take this as a warning tale - both against the dangers of drugs but more importantly against shunning and demonizing users. People who often are in so much pain they don't know what else to do, where to go, or who cares enough to help while they still live.