Despite seemingly strong evidence and witnesses, a trail can run cold and homicides remain unsolved. But sometimes, the trail warms up again….
Someone out there knows something…
That’s the refrain that’s repeated again and again by investigators working on cold-case homicides.
“What happens is someone who was very close to a person 10 to 20 years ago, now they’re not so close, and they give you some more information to follow up on,” says Cold Case Detective John Geiss of the Yonkers Police Department. That’s why police departments make frequent efforts to publicize cases, sending out photos with press releases. Westchester County Police also put together decks of cards with the images of murder victims whose cases have not been solved. These card decks are given to inmates in the hope that one of them might know something about a case.
New York does not track cold cases by county or provide data on the total number of them in the state. But ProjectColdCase.org, a national organization dedicated to publicizing cold cases, reports that, between 1980 and 2008, there were 45,740 murders in New York State, of which about 65 percent were solved, leaving 16,104 unsolved.
Though leads may run dry, cases are never closed unless they are solved, and, contrary to popular belief, all cold-case files don’t just sit in a storage section of police barracks collecting dust. Homicide cases “have to be worked on. It has to be actively investigated, and that’s monitored to make sure it happens,” says Investigator Timothy Gleason of the New York State Police Troop K barracks in Cortlandt. “Even if a number of years pass, it still remains open, and whatever investigator is assigned to the case continues to look into it.”
Investigators working cold cases reread case documents and look at gory photos. They visit decades-old crime scenes, interview people of interest, and stay in touch with the families of victims, just in case an earlier investigator missed something or someone decides to share new information. It’s difficult, tedious, and, often, heartbreaking work, but it’s not altogether hopeless. Cases long cold can heat up in an instant and be solved after years of mystery.
Since being assigned to work exclusively on cold cases almost 15 years ago, Geiss has solved 14 cases. In Yonkers alone, there are about 80 cold cases. Geiss rotates through these, keeping about 30 on his work board and actively investigating about 10 at a time.
Even when he solves a case, it’s often a bittersweet moment for the victim’s family members. “It’s tough for them. With these cases, there’s never any closure, even if you lock somebody up,” Geiss says. “With everybody that’s killed, you feel bad for the family. All they want is a little bit of justice, and they want the answers. And we want to get them those answers, and we want to get them that justice. But some cases just go unsolved for whatever reasons. The wait is agonizing for them, but we don’t give up, and we do care.”
Here, we look at six cold cases in Westchester County. Investigators are hopeful that each of them can be solved. So if you’re one of those people who “knows something”—or if you think you may know something—please reach out to law enforcement.
“I think about it every day.”
For Louie Atienza, the horror has never subsided.
Though nearly 20 years have passed since the night that changed him forever, time has neither lessened the impact nor dulled the agony of what he witnessed: the cold-blooded murder of his father, Victor J. Atienza, in front of his family’s Yonkers home. “I think about it every day,” Louie says.
He forces himself to talk about the murder in the hope that publicity will encourage someone with information to come forward, but speaking of it is not easy. Every time he tells the story, he feels numb and lightheaded, and it’s almost as if he is back in his car on that cold, rainy night.
It was shortly before midnight on November 26, 1996. The Atienza family home on Glenwood Avenue had a long, narrow driveway just a little wider than a car. Every night, Louie and his dad, a Filipino immigrant who worked as a laser mechanic, would move their cars out of the driveway so Louie’s mother and Victor’s wife, Lourdes, a nurse who worked a late shift at a Yonkers nursing home, could park closest to the house. That way, the cars would be arranged in the driveway so that Victor and Louie both could leave for work in the morning. Lourdes had called moments before to let her husband and son know she was leaving the nursing home, which was only a few minutes away.
After that call, as they did every weeknight, Louie, then 24, and Victor got into their cars so they could back out of the driveway. On this night, in a break from the norm, Victor’s maroon 1986 Jaguar, which he had purchased used, was closer to the road.
As they waited for Lourdes to come home, Louie was looking in his rearview mirror when he saw a man walk up to his father’s car as it backed up toward the street. The man had something in his hand that Louie thought was a cane—but it wasn’t.
Louie unknowingly was witnessing a robbery in progress—one that turned into something horrible. Cold Case Detective John Geiss of the Yonkers Police Department says the investigation revealed that a number of cabs in the area had been robbed recently by a man wielding a sawed-off shotgun, the object Louie had mistaken for a cane. That night, a cab company had received a call requesting a pickup on that block, but the dispatcher hadn’t sent a driver out because something about the phone call was suspicious. “I guess the guy who did this was going to rob a cab,” Geiss postulates. “The cab didn’t show up; he sees a guy with a Jaguar. It’s a rainy night, it’s dark, he figures, ‘what the heck; let me get something from him.’” But, Geiss continues, “something went wrong; either Victor didn’t cooperate, or he didn’t move fast enough.”
The man smashed the driver’s-side window with the shotgun. In his rearview mirror, Louie saw the flash of the gun firing as the man shot his father and then ran away toward North Broadway. Louie jumped out of his car and chased him, but lost him after about a block.
Louie returned to his father’s car. “His head was pretty much split in half. I tried to hold it together the best I could,” he recalls. His brother, who had been in the house, came out. Louie told him to get towels and call 911. About then, his mother got home. “I told her, ‘Daddy’s dead,’” Louie says.
In the years since, Louie has watched the case go cold. Then he watched his mother die in 2010, “taking her sorrow to the grave.”
Louie’s brother and sister have moved on, but he hasn’t. “I’m always looking over my shoulder,” he says. “I always think maybe there’s someone hiding out there. One part of me is saying it’s time to move on; the other side of me is saying I don’t want to move on because I don’t want to forget.”
Geiss remains confident the case can be solved. “I’m hoping something will develop with this because the streets know.” If the killer is caught, Louie Atienza believes it may make life easier for him. “Maybe I would not blame myself anymore,” he says. “Maybe I could just try to move on.”
If you have information regarding this case, contact Detective John Geiss with the Yonkers Cold Case Unit at 914.377.7731.
“Her reaction seemed a bit calm and reserved.”
It was a monster snowstorm. The Blizzard of ’96 blanketed the Northeast in what was then the biggest snowfall of the decade.
As the storm approached Pleasantville on January 7, Maureen Stapleton and many other members of the village’s volunteer fire department gathered at the firehouse, standard procedure so they could respond to emergencies quickly. Stapleton was in the radio room the next morning when Jane Sawyer Dorr called and asked for her husband, firefighter Thomas Dorr, 50, who, at 6’5”, was often described as a kind “gentle giant.”
That morning in the radio room, it soon became clear that something was wrong. Tom was not at the firehouse, and, if he wasn’t at home, that meant he was missing in the storm.
“All of a sudden, things happened very quickly,” Stapleton recalls. A search party was organized, and volunteer firefighters canvassed the woods around Tom and Jane’s home. Firefighter Larry Fasnacht was dispatched with another volunteer to their house.
“My job was to sit with the family and, quote, ‘keep them calm.’ Little did we know what was going to transpire,” he says.
Tom Dorr was found dead in nearly two feet of snow in the woods near his house. His throat had been slit, and he had been bludgeoned and stabbed.
Fasnacht was with Tom’s wife shortly after firefighters told her what had happened. “I’m not a great study of people, but her reaction seemed a bit calm and reserved—not what you might expect,” he recalls.
In the days after the murder, Jane asked that Tom’s uniform be picked up, along with his other firefighter equipment, and Fasnacht was sent to pick it up. It wasn’t normal for the uniform of a deceased firefighter to be given back, but it also wasn’t normal for one to be murdered. At the time, Fasnacht didn’t think much of it or the family’s muted reaction to his death. In retrospect, he says, both seem more suspicious.
Christopher Calabrese, now captain of detectives at the Westchester County Police Department, was involved with the investigation from the get-go and says that, from the start, the snow made things difficult. “Whatever happened at the surface was now covered by 20 inches of snow, and, if you can’t see it, you can’t recover it and evaluate it,” he says. Yet the snow also limited the number of plausible suspects. “It was an enormous storm, so normally you would not find a plethora of people walking through the woods in that type of climate,” Calabrese says.
The story, according to a 2014 Pix11.com article, was that Jane and her son, Jeff Dorr, Tom’s stepson, went into the woods with Tom to feed the turkeys, but left Tom quickly because of the weather conditions. Calabrese never believed that. “They went into the woods with him—Jane came out, Jeff came out, Tom never did. So that would put them high on the suspect list,” he says.
Jeff was an admitted heroin addict. Earlier in the day, he had fought with Tom because he had run out of heroin and wanted to use Tom’s four-wheel-drive car to go into New York City and buy drugs. Jeff ultimately took the car into the city. “Jeff said [Tom] changed his mind. We don’t really think that was the truth,” Calabrese says.
Investigators became suspicious of the family shortly after Tom’s body was discovered because they quickly lawyered up and refused ongoing cooperation.
Today, Jane Sawyer lives in the Torrington area of Connecticut and has mostly declined interviews over the years. The 2014 Pix11 story quotes a 1996 interview she gave to a local publication, the Patent Trader, in which she defended her decision to get a lawyer. “Most people get lawyers. It is not unusual; you see it on TV all the time,” she said.
Calabrese doesn’t agree. “It’s very unusual,” he says. “In most cases when we have a beloved family member that was murdered, the family members would bend over backward and be more than cooperative to do whatever they could do to find out who killed their family member, and, in this case, it was completely the opposite.”
Every January, the Pleasantville Fire Department hosts a memorial in Tom Dorr’s honor at Graham Hills Park, near where he was murdered. “The memorial is probably attended by 75 people, and about 50 people never even met him,” says John Brooks, commissioner of the Pleasantville Fire Department. Jane Sawyer has never attended the event, he adds.
Anyone with information regarding this case is asked to call the Crime Stoppers hotline at 1.866.313.TIPS.
“A troubled life”
On March 27, 2009, the strangled body of Sabrina Rasa was found by a groundskeeper behind a vacant building on the grounds of the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Montrose. It was a brutal end to a life that had seen its fair share of difficulties.
Sabrina, a lifelong Peekskill resident, had lived “a troubled life,” says Investigator Robert Mollica of the New York State Police Troop K barracks in Cortlandt, noting that Sabrina had documented substance-abuse problems, was a crack user, and worked as a prostitute. She was known to frequent the VA hospital’s grounds, where residents would hire her. The 39-year-old had two sons but did not have custody of them at the time of her death.
Authorities say she was strangled between March 25, when she was last seen alive, and March 27, when her body was found. At some point during that time, investigators believe someone dropped her off at the VA campus to meet a client.
The VA hospital in Montrose has a sprawling, 184-acre campus with a mix of residential and walk-in facilities. Not all who live on the grounds are veterans; many are recently released prisoners from the maximum-security Sing Sing Correctional Facility in nearby Ossining.
When Sabrina’s body was found behind vacant Building 11, the rumors started flying. More than six years later, they’re still flying.
“We’ve had literally hundreds and hundreds of leads,” says Brian Hoff, senior investigator at Troop K. “Basically, what we have is a very large pool of suspects that reside at the VA. Many of the residents have been paroled from Sing Sing, so they have extensive criminal histories. We continue to get leads probably weekly regarding this death, from not only VA residents but from residents of the Town of Cortlandt and the City of Peekskill that knew her.”
So far, these leads haven’t led anywhere. “They’re always very vague,” Mollica says. “People in the drug world and the prostitution world report something that they heard from so-and-so, who heard from so-and-so, that this person was involved. It’s hard to follow up on because you need to track it back to the source, and often it’s hard to find the source of these leads.”
When the investigation began, it started with those closest to Sabrina. She had two boyfriends at the time of her death. Both boyfriends were cooperative with police and eliminated as suspects.
Though there is no clear murder motive, investigators believe it had to do with drugs and/or prostitution. They also say Sabrina Rasa was almost certainly killed on the VA grounds. “We don’t feel that she was killed off the property and transported to the VA, just because they do have a police department that patrols the grounds,” Hoff says. “And I don’t think anyone is going to take that risk of murdering her off the grounds and then transporting her to dump her body.”
Even with little to go on, investigators are not giving up. “We’re hoping for one of these leads to pan out,” Hoff says. “We’re reaching out to different local media sources to continue to get the word out that this is an unsolved homicide.”
If you have information regarding this case, contact Investigator Robert Mollica at 914.788.8044.
“It’s all surrounding the bar.”
One thing was clear: It wasn’t a robbery.
“Someone wanted Mr. Keels dead,” Yonkers Police Department Cold Case Detective John Geiss says of the murder of 60-year-old David Keels, a Yonkers resident killed on February 7, 1997. A bus driver by day and bar owner by night, David was a hard-working, law-abiding family man. “He was very well loved,” says Tracy Keels of her father. “He knew a lot of people. Everybody referred to him as ‘Uncle Bo.’ He did a lot for his community.”
So why would someone want him dead? That is the question facing Geiss and those who’ve investigated the case before him.
Geiss believes it has something to do with the bar he owned, Bo Dicks Lounge (Bo Dicks was David’s nickname) on Warburton Avenue. “Business wasn’t going too well,” Geiss explains. “It was an older bar, and what happened was that a younger crowd started moving in.”
David ran a clean, legal business, and the shift to a younger crowd caused tension. “He tried to prevent people from coming in with drugs and weapons, and there were incidents where he had kicked people out,” says Geiss, who believes those incidents may provide clues to the motive for the killing. “It’s all surrounding the bar and possibly people wanting to become partners or take over the bar. That’s coming from the street; that’s the rumor on the street.” None of David’s possessions were taken after he was shot.
Prior to his murder, David had partnered with someone to promote weekend parties (Geiss declined to provide this individual’s name because he remains a person of interest in the case). These events were successful but caused issues with drug use and sales. “After about five parties, he [David] stopped doing it,” Geiss says. “Although it was successful for him, he didn’t want that kind of clientele in the bar.”
Since the murder, there have been a number of suspects. “A lot of those names have been eliminated,” Geiss says. “But there are a few that, no matter what I do, I can’t eliminate them.” Geiss is still looking at these individuals and is hoping to find more evidence.
In the immediate aftermath of her father’s murder, Tracy was optimistic that those involved would be swiftly brought to justice. “I hoped it would be solved quickly,” she says. “There were so many rumors flying around.” But, over the years, she’s watched those rumors grow cold and tips lead to dead end after dead end. Tracy’s mother, Joyce, told a pastor shortly before her death in 2013 that she wasn’t ready to go yet because she was holding out hope of finding out who killed her husband. “It bothers us because we walk the streets and the very same person that we can be saying hello to could have had something to do with it, you know? So it’s very disheartening,” Tracy says. She urges anyone who knows anything to “have a conscience, have a soul, and come forward with any information, anything that can help us find closure.”
Geiss, who remains in regular contact with Tracy Keels, is optimistic that eventually this will happen. “It’s never going to bring back her father, but at least she’d get the answers, and that’s important,” he says.
If you have information regarding this case, contact Detective John Geiss with the Yonkers Cold Case Unit at 914.377.7731.
“It was a murder for hire.”
Edward Tompkins was shot once in the head and twice in the chest. His body was found on July 7, 1980, beside his car on Lexington Avenue in Mohegan Lake. Early in the investigation, the investigators began to suspect it was a professional hit.
“It was a murder for hire,” says Investigator John Shaughnessy of the New York State Police Troop K barracks in Cortlandt. “Witnesses saw two white males in their 20s wearing white T-shirts approach the victim shortly before they heard gunshots. They gave a brief description, but it ended up that they got the wrong license plate on the car, so the attempts to locate the vehicle were negative.”
As a result, 35 years later, the identities of the two apparent hit men remain unknown. Because this case is older than some other cold cases, there’s less chatter about it and fewer leads, but Shaughnessy, who is assigned to the case, hasn’t stopped looking into it.
The belief that it was a professional hit is bolstered by the fact that the fatal shooting evidently was not the first attempt on his life. “A month prior to the homicide, there was an actual car bomb on his engine,” Shaughnessy explains. Edward discovered the car bomb before it went off and brought it to authorities. But whoever wanted him dead struck again that July.
After the murder, two main theories emerged as to the motive. One is that it was organized-crime retaliation after Edward, a Yorktown sanitation worker, crossed a picket line to work for a friend’s refuse company whose workers were on strike. Brian Hoff, senior investigator for Troop K, who has worked with Shaughnessy on the case, says the other theory is that the killing was more personal. “Tompkins has been a person of interest in a couple of sexually related crimes, which opens up our suspect pool. Maybe it was a revenge motive,” Hoff says.
Edward’s brother, James Tompkins, says he never bought into the picket-line-crossing explanation. “I don’t think that had anything to do with it at all,” he says, recalling a strange encounter he had a few days prior to his brother’s murder. “I was living in Mount Kisco at the time, and this guy I knew from Yorktown [where they grew up] told me that I needed to watch my back and my brother should watch his. A couple of days later, my brother got killed,” James says. He declined to provide more information on the incident other than to say authorities were aware of the encounter and that he doesn’t think this person was responsible, just that “he knew about it.”
Of late, investigators have begun to favor the second theory. “I’m leaning more toward a revenge homicide,” Hoff says. He explains there is a person of interest in the case who may have been associated with an alleged victim of one of the sexual crimes to which Edward was allegedly linked. “This individual had an alibi, but we think it may have been arranged and he refused to cooperate and take a polygraph.”
Despite this, Hoff adds the strike-related theory can’t be ruled out. “Back in 1980, the mob was absolutely involved in the sanitation industry, so we can’t overlook that angle, either.”
If you have information regarding this case, contact Investigator John Shaughnessy at 914.788.8044.
“We know you hired somebody to kill your wife.”
It was like a bad B-movie, recalls Paul Orofino with a sad laugh.
In March 1987, Paul had recently opened a recording studio in Millbrook, New York, and a band had booked the studio for a month straight. Because he expected to be working until about midnight each night, his wife, Sherri Orofino, decided to spend a few nights with friends in Queens, where both of them had grown up.
The couple had been married less than a year. Paul says his wife “was easygoing; everybody loved her. She was just a lot of fun.” The 24-year-old also was blonde and beautiful.
Paul and Sherri had moved out of Manhattan to Millbrook, in Dutchess County, only a few months earlier. They hoped to have kids away from the city, where it would be cheaper for Paul to operate his studio and where it also would be safer “away from the crime.”
After spending a few days in Queens, Sherri told friends she was going home to make dinner for Paul. She also called Paul to tell him the same thing. But she never arrived.
When his wife didn’t show up, Paul called all their mutual friends and went to the police, both in Queens and in Millbrook. He was told it was too soon for either department to do anything. When more time passed and Sherri didn’t turn up, a missing-person investigation was launched.
Sherri’s car was found abandoned off the Taconic State Parkway on Route 134 in Millwood. Six months after her disappearance, Sherri’s remains were found near the Croton Reservoir in Yorktown. The body had decomposed, and no cause of death could be determined.
Paul was shocked to find he was one of the prime suspects. “They told me the husband does it 90 percent of the time, and, if he didn’t do it, he hired somebody to do it,” he says. Paul readily agreed to take several polygraph tests during which he was subjected to intense interrogations. “Basically, you’re in a room with a light bulb like in one of those military movies, and every one of the cops or agents is yelling at you and swearing at you, ‘We saw you with this criminal. We know you hired somebody to kill your wife.’”
Even though it was difficult, Paul says he understands the necessity for thoroughness. And the investigation was thorough. While they interviewed Paul, authorities also were exploring other avenues. They set up roadblocks around the area where Sherri’s car was found and began interviewing people, asking if they’d seen anything that night. Witnesses recalled seeing a blonde woman pulled over by a cop around the time Sherri likely would have been passing through the area, based on when she left her friends in Queens.
In the course of the roadblocks, authorities learned that a Briarcliff Manor police officer, Ronald E. Langer, had stopped several women around the same area on the Taconic, which was illegal because it was outside of his jurisdiction. He was never charged with Sherri’s murder, but he became the main person of interest in the case. Langer was later convicted in federal court of illegally stopping women at night on the parkway after several women said he made sexual comments and advances during the stops.
Langer was suspended by the Briarcliff Manor Police Department and resigned. He served 30 months of a six-year sentence. Investigator Timothy Gleason, with the New York State Police Troop K barracks in Cortlandt, says Langer works for the New York State Department of Labor in upstate New York and remains a suspect in the case.
For Gleason, the big mystery surrounding the case always has been what caused Sherri to get off the Taconic where she did. “Why did somebody who’s leaving one location and supposed to be going to another stop at this spot?” he asks. “And in that same time frame, in that same area, we have a law enforcement officer who makes stops that are not appropriate stops and subsequently goes to jail because of it. It’s a tremendous coincidence, and I don’t believe in coincidence.”
This story will never have a happy ending for Paul Orofino, but Gleason vows to do everything he can to make sure it has an ending in which the person responsible for Sherri’s death is brought to justice. “With everything you do on this job, you have to think, ‘what would I want somebody in my shoes to do for my family member,’ whether they need help changing a tire on the side of a highway or, God forbid, somebody was murdered. In that case, I wouldn’t want anybody to ever stop trying to find out what happened, and we won’t.”
If you have information regarding this case, contact Investigator Tim Gleason at 914.788.8044.