Photo by John Fortunato
Yonkers’s only full-time cold-case detective, John Geiss, 52, in his cluttered office
On a long stretch of highway, somewhere between New Haven, Connecticut, and Yonkers, Detective John Geiss’s BlackBerry sprang to life. For the cold-case detective, the phone calls never stopped. There were always new leads coming in, attorneys to speak with, relatives of victims desperate for answers. He answered them all, usually on the first ring, always ready to help.
But, on this late autumn day in 2009, he was tired. Having just given an exhaustive PowerPoint presentation at the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven, Geiss, then 49, was looking forward to a cold beer and a long sleep. He looked down at his phone. The screen glowed with the words “WESTCHESTER COUNTY LAB,” which is where all DNA samples from suspects are tested and analyzed. Geiss had spoken to the lab hundreds of times over the years, mostly to learn that one of his suspects had been cleared. These calls were usually disappointing.
“John, it’s Bob Adamo at the lab.” He sounded edgy, almost excited. “Remember that case you said you would retire on if you ever solved?”
Geiss’s heart skipped a beat. Of course he remembered the case; he’d been working on it for a decade. It had consumed him. For Geiss, then an almost 25-year veteran of the Yonkers Police Department, it was a decade wrought with frustration, one spent following dead-end leads, staking out dive bars in the middle of the night to gather cigarette butts with traces of saliva, traveling the country to interview strung-out prostitutes and gun-wielding drug dealers—all leading to nothing.
Police work was his life; it had been all he’d ever done. And he had done it alone, choosing to not get married or have children. The past decade had been a lonely journey made worse by seeing the case go unsolved. Three young women, all new mothers, had been murdered in an extremely gruesome manner. For 20 years, the killer had ostensibly enjoyed the splendors of freedom, while the victims’ families remained tethered in a state of agonizing uncertainty. It drove Geiss nuts.
“Any time I would see an arrest for any other cases that were similar, I would contact that agency, get the suspect’s name, and run the name to see if I could place him in Yonkers at the time of the murders,” says Geiss, who is the only detective in Yonkers currently assigned to cold cases. “Three innocent girls were killed by the same guy. From the beginning, I took a special interest in solving this case.”
And yet his countless hours of hard work, his decade-long investigation, had yielded nothing. Not a single real suspect. It seemed he was perpetually stuck at the beginning, and the possibility loomed ever closer that he would take this case to the grave. “It was frustrating—it was very frustrating,” Geiss says. “I would have a good lead and I would do a follow-up and find out that the suspect was in custody during one of the murders or his DNA didn’t match, and then I would have to start all over again.”
This phone call was now his only hope.
“Well, we have you on speakerphone, and we’re all here,” Adamo said.
“Okay,” Geiss responded shakily.
“John, we got a hit. We know who the guy is.”
Maria Ramos had slipped into prostitution early in life and was often spotted on the corner of Jerome Avenue and 183rd Street in the Bronx, a well-known hotspot for pimps, prostitutes, and drug activity. On February 5, 1989, at 8:52 in the morning, 11 days after her daughter Shulicha’s third birthday, Ramos was found sprawled on a sidewalk next to a sewage plant in Yonkers. Her pale, lifeless body was naked, and she had been stabbed in the chest, strangled, and raped.
Crime-scene photos depict a scene of almost unimaginable horror. The killer had taken the time to position her body so that she was looking skyward, on her back with her legs spread and her hands tied behind her back with her own pantyhose. Her mouth was agape, her two front teeth had been punched out, and a recent dusting of snow had formed ice crystals within the still orifice.
At the scene, investigators found an empty Budweiser bottle and Newport cigarette butts scattered in the snow. Ramos’s jewelry had been left intact and her clothes were bunched in a corner, leading investigators to believe the crime was not committed as part of a botched robbery attempt.
Autopsy results concluded that her death had been caused by strangulation. As part of standard procedure, Darly Jeanty, MD, from the Westchester County Medical Examiner’s office, took a vaginal swab that contained the killer’s semen. A slide was made and sent to the Genelex laboratory in Seattle, Washington, for DNA analysis. The DNA was run through a national database with the hopes that the killer would be identified through an existing genetic profile.
With no witnesses, few leads, and a delayed identification of the body—the killer had purposefully removed Ramos’s driver’s license from her clothing—the case quickly went cold.
Geiss quickly pulled his Jeep to the side of the highway. He needed to be still to hear this news. His hands were trembling.
“Are you kidding me?”
“Nope, we got a CODIS hit this morning. We know the guy’s name, date of birth, everything.”
The Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) is a state-of-the-art DNA database funded by the FBI that stores DNA profiles from federal, state, and city crime labs. It became fully operational in 1998, two years after the third and final murder, and has helped solve nearly 3,000 cases, in New York State alone, that had long been considered unsolvable. It is often used as a last desperate resort for cold-case detectives.
Geiss pulled a notebook from his bag and frantically wrote down everything the lab team told him. Could it be this easy? All the years of investigation had come down to this? A phone call on the side of the highway?
“I wanted to get this guy captured,” Geiss says. “I wanted him to pay for what he did so he could never do it again. And I wanted to give the family some answers. You are not going to get closure because there is no closure. I just wanted to let them know that I didn’t forget about them.”
During the course of the investigations, he had become close with the families of the victims, checking in every few months, sometimes stopping by just to say hello. He wanted them to know that someone cared. These were young women in the prime of their lives who had been murdered by a cold-blooded killer. Even though Geiss was simultaneously investigating scores of unsolved homicides, solving this case had become his fixation. “I couldn’t believe a human being could do this to another human being,” Geiss says flatly. “These girls may have hurt themselves with their drug use, but they certainly didn’t hurt anybody else.”
His presentation at the Forensic Institute in New Haven had been on this case. He had shown pictures from the crime scenes, discussed the details of the case, hoping that one of the detectives in attendance might spot something he had overlooked. At the end, he had pleaded with them to keep the case in their minds. If they had any ideas, anything at all, would they please reach out to him? Geiss was desperate.
After the phone call with the lab, Geiss rushed back to his Yonkers office—a small space made smaller by the dozens of boxes of evidence that had been stacked to the ceiling— cleared a path to his computer, and printed out the suspect’s rap sheet. It was extensive—numerous assaults against women, attempted rape, drunk driving, attempted kidnapping. Geiss held his breath as he checked to see if the suspect had been incarcerated during any of the murders. He hadn’t. His brief moments of freedom had coincided perfectly with the killings. For his own satisfaction, Geiss pulled up the suspect’s mug shot and stared at it for a while. Was this the guy? He actually didn’t look that bad. He had square glasses; a goatee; short, cropped hair. He didn’t look angry or psychotic—certainly not like a serial killer.
Geiss knew the next few weeks would be rough—hours and hours of work to properly investigate and document the suspect. It would be months before he could finally relax. But for tonight, like a team celebrating a playoff berth, he basked in the glow of his first real lead.
Cold beer—Coors Light, to be specific—flowed freely.
At 10 am on March 28, 1991, the body of Tawanda Hodges, 28, was discovered lying naked on a pile of gravel in the backyard of a fuel-oil storage terminal in Yonkers, just 820 feet from where Ramos’s body had been found two years earlier. It was a sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, and the infant leaves of spring had just begun to sprout. A worker who was cutting through a massive cinder block wall had peered over the ledge, spotted the gruesome sight, and called the cops.
Hodges, who had been working as a prostitute in the Bronx, had been brutally beaten, raped, and strangled. She was left naked and face up. Her socks, full of dirt and mud, were still on. As in the Ramos case, her hands had been tied behind her back with her own pantyhose and her tattered clothes were found a few feet from the body. An empty Budweiser bottle and a pile of Newport cigarette butts were close by.
Hodges, who was black, had a sweet, girlish smile and was the mother of three young children. Upon seeing her granddaughter’s body in the casket, Hodges’s elderly grandmother collapsed on the floor of the funeral parlor and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
Autopsy results concluded that Hodges, like Ramos, had died of strangulation and had been killed shortly before her body had been discovered. Once again, a DNA sample was extracted and sent to Genelex for analysis; because investigators had not yet connected the two murders, the sample was not crosschecked with the Ramos murder.
With no eyewitnesses and little to go on, the case went cold, stuffed in the annals of unsolved homicides. Five years later, another body would be found.
The following Thursday, less than a week after receiving the news of a CODIS hit, Geiss, accompanied by Detective Wilson Gonzalez of the Yonkers PD, drove seven hours to Gowanda Correctional Facility in Collins, New York, 370 miles north of Yonkers. The suspect, 41, was being held on his third felony DWI conviction, a charge that carried a sentence of one to three years. As part of an early-release program, he had consented to a buccal swab test—a special Q-tip-like swab rolled around inside the cheek to gather DNA. Not knowing that he had left significant amounts of DNA in his victims and that his DNA was now in CODIS, the suspect figured this would be an easy option for getting out of prison a little early. Pending approval by the Parole Board, he would have been released a few months after the DNA test had been processed.
On November 1, 2009, forensic scientist Maria Samples, at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in New York City, received a digital notification that a DNA match had been found for three unsolved murders in Yonkers. The buccal swab from the suspect had been entered into the system and was identical to the swabs taken from the bodies of the victims. The match was crosschecked and verified by Genelex, and the Westchester County Lab was notified of the hit shortly thereafter. The odds that this match was not the suspect’s DNA stood at a staggering one in 6 billion.
A room at Gowanda was prepared for an interview—three chairs and a desk. Geiss had brought pictures of the three victims. He was going to play nice at first, take a soft and friendly tone, and slowly reel the suspect in. The metal door swung open. Dressed in green prison scrubs, and still sporting a goatee, the suspect walked in and sat down.
This was the moment Geiss had been thinking about for 10 years.
The Trade Winds motel in Yonkers, where Kimberly Moore was murdered in 1996.
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The final murder took place at the Trade Winds Motor Court motel in Yonkers on May 24, 1996, an especially warm day (well over 80 degrees). Before being demolished in early 2002, the Trade Winds—a decrepit, three-story complex with rooms that could be rented by the hour—had been a well-known hangout for drug addicts and prostitutes.
Kimberly Moore, 30, was a talented, young, black woman who had fallen on hard times. Unlike the other two victims, she had never been arrested and was a star student in high school. Born in France, she was bilingual and, before getting hooked on drugs, had been a standout athlete. She was the mother of two vivacious children.
Moore’s hands were tied behind her back with a telephone cord, though the killer had used the victims’ own pantyhose in the previous two cases.
Sometime in the early afternoon, Carlos Gonzalez, who worked the front desk at the Trade Winds, spotted Kimberly being followed by a man carrying a brown bag. In later testimony, Gonzalez would describe the man as having a macho walk, a kind of bopping from side to side, like he had something to prove. It would be the last time Kimberly was seen alive.
The pair went to room 45 on the second floor, right above the office. At 6:45 in the evening, Moore’s body was discovered by a maid. The scene was eerily similar to the previous murders. Strangled, raped, naked, hands tied—this time with a telephone cord. Her large silver hoop earrings were still attached to her earlobes and the blue watch on her left wrist was still ticking. Large globs of purple mascara covered her closed eyelids. She had a long, bloody gash on her forehead that detectives believed was the result of her being smashed with the room’s telephone.
A 40-ounce bottle of Budweiser in the bathroom was an important link between the crimes.
In the room, investigators found an empty 40-ounce Budweiser bottle, a brown paper bag, 10 Newport cigarettes butts in the toilet, and a bag of crack pipes and needles on the dresser. Once again, autopsy results showed the cause of death to be strangulation, and DNA samples taken from the victim were recorded and analyzed.
This time, however, a Yonkers homicide detective who had been present at all three crime scenes, Frank LoCascio, finally connected the dots. He petitioned for all three DNA samples to be crosschecked for matches—a process that, at the time, was both costly (roughly $1,000) and time-consuming. A few weeks later, the results were in: The samples matched. It was the same killer in all three murders. Police now knew they were dealing with a serial killer.
But, once again, as had happened five years earlier, Moore’s case stalled. Even with an eyewitness, detectives didn’t make much headway, leads petered out, and the case eventually went cold.
Francisco A. Acevedo, Jr. That was who Detectives Geiss and Gonzalez were now sitting across from. When he walked into the interview room, Geiss immediately noticed the “bop” walk. He walked like he was about to start a fight, his head swaying back and forth, like a real tough guy. He wasn’t tall—maybe 5’7”—or even muscular, and he had a small paunch that was visible through his prison scrubs. He had a mole below his right eye and a tattoo on his right hand that read “Jessica.” He had worked odd jobs in and around Yonkers for the past few years and was married with three children, two boys and a girl.
“Acevedo managed to stay under the radar,” Geiss says. “He got locked up in Yonkers in 1998 for assaulting his wife and was subsequently charged with a felony. If he had gotten convicted, his DNA would have been taken from him and put into CODIS. But the case was pleaded to a misdemeanor and they didn’t take a DNA sample because they didn’t take samples for misdemeanors.”
Geiss took it slow at first. He introduced himself to Acevedo as a detective who regularly made the rounds at local prisons, checking in on various cold cases, looking for witnesses, searching for clues. He said that he knew Francisco had been in Yonkers at the time of the murders and wondered if he might have information regarding who had committed the crimes.
No. He didn’t know anything about it.
Geiss pushed on. He carefully laid out the pictures of the victims on the table. Recognize any of these girls?
No. Not to his recollection.
Acevedo was getting jittery. He crossed his arms and started to shift nervously in his chair. Why not lighten the conversation a little? Geiss asked Acevedo if he liked to drink. Yes? What is your drink of choice? Acevedo calmed slightly and answered that he was a fan of Budweiser. What about smoking, do you smoke? Geiss carefully wrote down Acevedo’s answer on a legal pad—“Newports.”
Budweiser and Newports. He had seen those two words hundreds of times during the course of the investigation. They were all over the case file. It was all starting to come together, and Geiss sensed it was time to play hardball. Pointing to each picture, his voice reaching a piercing intensity, he said, “Well, Francisco, guess what? I know you knew her, and I know you knew her, and I know you knew her. Your DNA was found in every girl. We know you killed these girls, Francisco.”
Acevedo wasn’t about to admit anything. He immediately requested an attorney. Before Geiss packed up his things and exited the room, he shook Acevedo’s hand. “No hard feelings, Francisco,” he said facetiously. “I’m just doing my job here.”
Geiss finally had his man and murder charges would be filed in the morning. He knew Acevedo was the killer; now he had to prove it.
In the months that followed, Geiss flew down to Florida to interview a woman who had been brutally raped and beaten by Acevedo in the mid ’80s. The woman, who wished not to be identified for this piece, told Geiss that Acevedo had dragged her into a wooded area, tied her hands with her own panties, and choked and raped her. The incident probably would have ended with her murder had he not collapsed, drunk, on her naked body. The woman ran to a nearby home, frantically knocked on the door, told the man who answered what had happened, and waited as the man and his son plunged into the woods with loaded shotguns.
Acevedo was arrested and charged, but the case was pleaded down to a lesser charge, and he was sentenced to two years in state prison, eventually being released on June 28, 1988, just seven months prior to the Ramos murder. When Geiss presented the woman with a photo lineup, she pointed to Acevedo’s face without hesitation.
“That’s him. That’s the man that raped me,” she said tearfully.
In all, Geiss spent two additional years investigating the case, speaking with dozens of people who had come in contact with Acevedo, presenting photo arrays, organizing hundreds of boxes of evidence, assisting Westchester Second Deputy District Attorney Patricia Murphy and Chief of the Career Criminal Bureau Timothy Ward in their preparations for the trial. He was getting to the office early and leaving late, keeping the families updated on his progress, making sure they knew that he was not going to let this one get away.
“I wanted to cross all the Ts and dot all the Is,” Geiss says. “I didn’t want anybody to be able to say that I didn’t do enough. I was as thorough as possible. I wanted to know everything about this guy, where he lived, where he worked, what he liked to eat, everything.”
On October 26, 2011, 23 months after Acevedo had been identified as a suspect, the trial began.
The evidence against Acevedo was almost insurmountable. His DNA was found in all three victims; an eyewitness had placed him at the scene of the Trade Winds motel murder; he had previously worked at the loading dock of the sewage-treatment plant where Ramos’s body had been found; and he had committed several horribly violent crimes against women.
Nevertheless, the defense team represented their client zealously, attempting to get statements thrown out and evidence expunged. They even went so far as to assert that prostitutes, who sell sex for a living, could not be raped. Geiss was sympathetic to Acevedo’s two female attorneys. “They had to do their job, and I understand that,” he says. “As public defenders, they were assigned to him; it wasn’t their choice.”
But Judge Barbara Zambelli wasn’t buying it. All defense motions were denied.
Retired detectives who had worked the homicides before the cases went cold came in to testify. They, too, had seen the bodies and they had met the families and had spoken with the children of the victims. They knew this was one of the rare occasions in which a serial killer had managed to evade capture. They wanted this guy locked up.
And, of course, Geiss testified. He was on the stand for three long hours. After 11 years as a cold-case detective, he had become an expert at testifying, making sure to carefully answer questions. He laid out the details of his exhaustive investigation, his 10 years of searching, his interview with Acevedo at Gowanda Correctional Facility, and his conclusion that Acevedo was, without a doubt, the man who had brutally raped and murdered Maria Ramos, Tawanda Hodges, and Kimberly Moore.
The jury deliberated for longer than expected—two and a half days. Geiss remembers being very nervous, unable to sleep well. “It’s never a good sign when a jury deliberates for more than a day,” Geiss says.
Finally, on November 14, 2011, a verdict was reached.
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
Three counts of first-degree murder. This criminal would never again see the light of day. Geiss felt a huge wave of relief rush over his tired body. He could move on. He wasn’t about to retire, though; he had other cases to solve. The board in his office was full of pictures of victims whose killers had not yet been identified, but he could close the book on this one. The families of the victims could finally see justice served.
As Thanksgiving 2011 rolled around, Geiss, who had become very close to the families of the victims, got a call from Kimberly Moore’s mother. “Kimberly was a very sweet, very quiet girl, and she wasn’t street-wise,” Geiss says. “She wouldn’t harm anybody; she wouldn’t say anything bad about anybody. She had gotten into drugs. Her family tried to help her, but sometimes you fight a losing battle.” For Moore’s mother, it had been a long, terrible journey since her daughter’s death, and, for the last 10 years, Geiss had been there every step of the way—a shoulder to cry on, often reassuring her that one day she would see justice served.
“John, why don’t you spend Thanksgiving with us this year?” she asked.
So, as a cold front moved in and a light snow began to fall, Detective Geiss sat down to a hearty Thanksgiving meal with the large extended family of Patti Dozier, the mother of Kimberly Moore. Her pain could never be erased, but, tonight, as plates were piled high with turkey and mashed potatoes, she could smile and be thankful.