NEW YORK — When they were shown her body stuffed inside a picnic cooler, naked and trussed like a chicken, the two detectives assumed it wouldn't be long before they heard from somebody--a relative, perhaps, or a family friend.
A year has passed. They're still waiting.
The girl they call Baby Hope remains as anonymous as she was that day last July when a highway worker smelled the stench emanating from a cooler lying off the Henry Hudson Parkway. He flipped it over and out fell a decomposed body and several cans of Coke.
It was hours before a forensic team was able to determine the child was a girl. An autopsy showed she was 4 or 5 years old. She was probably Latina or a mixture of Latina and Asian. She had dark hair and an overbite and was malnourished, weighing just 25 pounds.
Due to evidence of semen in her body, the medical examiner concluded she had been sexually molested. It's believed her body had been in the cooler for three to five days, though it could have been longer.
And she had been smothered.
A year later, despite an exhaustive search that took them around the country and put them in touch with dozens of relatives of missing children, police still don't know any more about Baby Hope.
But if Baby Hope had few friends in her short life, she has found two tenacious champions in death.
For six months, Detectives Jerry Giorgio and Joe Neenan worked exclusively on her case. They were forced to take on other cases after December, but still consider her murder their top priority.
They are typical New York police--tough, savvy, cynical. But they are altogether different when they talk about Baby Hope. They call her "our baby."
"It was very disturbing and upsetting," Giorgio said. "There is no other kind of case that affects you more than the death of a child. A child is defenseless, helpless. Who could this child have harmed in her short span of life that she deserved this?"
Giorgio, 58, a gregarious and emotional father of two, has worked on some of the city's most notorious homicide cases. He was the first detective on the scene of the 1980 murder of a violinist at the Metropolitan Opera House and co-authored the book "Murder at the Met."
Neenan, 39, a quiet and methodical father of four, is one of Giorgio's "kids" at the 34th Precinct in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. The area had 122 murders last year, more than any other precinct in the city.
"Somebody knows who this child is," Neenan said. "It's like she was just dropped onto this planet. But she's somebody's daughter, somebody's granddaughter. She's never far from my mind. I'm building a deck at home. I'll be hammering the nails in, and I'll start thinking about her."
On a recent weekday, between fielding the homicide, assault, burglary and other cases that come their way each day, Giorgio and Neenan sat in the small, grim interrogation room upstairs in the 34th Precinct.
Giorgio hauled in an easel displaying seven sketches by police artists and anthropologists of what Baby Hope might have looked like before she was killed.
Neenan placed his hand protectively over a pile of autopsy photographs and one of six thick case folders.
"It was probably one of the worst sights I've ever seen," he said softly, recalling last July 23, when the child's body was found.
Neenan doesn't like to show the autopsy pictures. His wife asked to look at them and "froze" when she saw them, he said. Spilled out on the table, they depict something that looks more like a creature than a child. Her face is half eaten away; her mouth is open in what looks like a scream.
Giorgio, sitting with his feet up on the radiator, stared at the sketches of the child on the easel as he talked. He got angry recalling how events have unfolded since that day.
"This is a classic case of people not getting involved," he said, pounding his fist on the table. "There are people who must have a very good idea of who this child is. Someone had to at least notice her and notice they never see her anymore. No one comes forward. That's as sad as her death."
Giorgio's frustration stems from the scanty clues, dead-end leads and dearth of witnesses in the year-old case.
He and Neenan have left little to chance in their investigation; still, they have nothing.
Because the child had been molested, the detectives believe her killer probably was a relative, possibly a father or stepfather. It fits the pattern of child sex abuse, they say, especially since her family never reported her missing.
When they began, they thought they had solid leads. They traced the manufacturer of the cooler in Texas and tried to track where the Coke cans were sold. They went to a Coca-Cola plant in the South Bronx and handed out 6,000 fliers to dozens of Coke deliverers.
"The drivers were great," Giorgio recalled. "This touches everyone. One guy pulled me over and said, 'Listen when you find who did it, just hand him over to us. We'll take care of it.' "