The dead girl sat inside the glass display case, a pale and delicate curio placed on a shelf by a madman. In life she had been beautiful, with fine blond hair and cobalt blue eyes. In death her eyes pleaded for benediction, for the cold symmetry of justice.
The last thing they had seen was a monster. Her tomb was a stifling basement in an abandoned building in the Badlands, a five- square- mile area of desolate terrain and destroyed lives in North Philadelphia, running approximately from Erie Avenue south to Girard, from Broad Street east to the river.
Her name was Caitlin Alice O’Riordan. On the day of her murder, the day her brief story came to a close, she was seventeen.
For Detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Hom i cide Unit, Caitlin’s story was just beginning.
There are three divisions in Philly Homicide— the Line Squad, which handles new cases; the Fugitive Squad; and the Special Investigations Unit, which handles, among other things, cold cases. To the detectives of SIU, all of whom were members of the Five Squad, an elite group of investigators handpicked by the captain based on their abilities, their closure rates, and their investigative skills, a cold case investigation represented a second chance to right a wrong, an ultimatum to the killers who arrogantly walked the streets of Philadelphia, a statement that said the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the City of Brotherly Love, were not done with them.
The Caitlin O’Riordan investigation was the first SIU case for Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano.
When the detectives arrived at the Eighth Street address there was no yellow tape ringing the property, no sector cars blocking traffic, none of the blue and white Crime Scene Unit vans, no officer guarding the entrance, crimescene log in hand. All this was long gone.
They had read the reports, seen the autopsy protocol, viewed the photographs and video. But they had not yet followed the path of the killer.
Both detectives believed that their investigation would truly begin the moment they stepped into the room where Caitlin O’Riordan had been found.
The building had been sealed four months earlier at the time of the initial investigation, the doors replaced and padlocked, the plywood over the windows secured with lag bolts. Originally a single- family row house, this corner building had been bought and sold many times. Its most recent incarnation was as a small grocery, a narrow, slipshod emporium hawking baby formula, chips, diapers, canned meats, magazines, lottery dreams. Its stock- in- trade, its lifeblood, had been the Holy Trinity of crack addiction: Chore Boy scouring pads, disposable plastic lighters, and individually packaged tea roses. The roses came in long, narrow glass tubes that, within a minute or two of leaving the store, became straight shooters, a fast and easy way to fire up a rock, the ashes from which were caught by the steel wool of the scouring pad. Every con ve nience store in the Badlands carried tea roses, which probably made this part of North Philly the most romantic place on earth. Hundreds of times a day someone bought a flower.
The bodega had closed more than three years earlier, and no tenant had moved in. The building’s façade was still a Day- Glo green, with a strange sign painted over the front window:
open 24 hours. days 12 to 8 pm.
Jessica unlocked the padlock on the corrugated metal door, rolled it up. They stepped inside and were immediately greeted with the unpleasant odor of mold and mildew, the chalky scent of damp plaster. It was late August and the temperature outside was eighty- eight degrees. Inside it had to be nearing a hundred.
The first floor was remarkably clean and tidy, except for a thick layer of dust on everything. Most of the trash had long ago been collected as evidence and removed. To their left was what was once the counter; behind it, a long row of empty shelves. Above the shelves lingered a few remaining signs—kools, budweiser, skoal— along with a menu board offering a half dozen Chinese takeout items.
The stairwell down was at the back of the building on the left. As Jessica and Kevin began to descend the steps, they clicked on their Maglites. There was no electricity here, no gas or water, no utilities of any kind. What ever thin sunlight seeped through the cracks between the sheets of plywood over the windows was instantly swallowed by the darkness.
The room where Caitlin O’Riordan was found was at the basement’s far end. Years ago, the small windows at street level had been bricked in. The gloom was absolute. In the corner of the room was a glass display case, a commercial beverage cooler used at one time for beer and soda and milk. It had stainless steel sides, and stood more than six feet tall. It was in this glass coffin that Caitlin’s body had been discovered— sitting on a wooden chair, staring out at the room, eyes wide open. She’d been found by a pair of teenage boys scrapping for copper.
Byrne took out a yellow legal pad and a fine point marker. Holding his flashlight under his arm, he made a detailed sketch of the subterranean room. In hom i cide work, the investigating detectives were required to make a diagram of every crime scene. Even though photographs and videotape rec ords of the scene were made, it was the investigator’s sketch that was most often referred to, even in the trial stage. Byrne usually made the diagram. By her own admission, Jessica couldn’t draw a circle with a compass.
“I’ll be upstairs if you need me,” Jessica said.
Byrne glanced up, the darkness of the room a black shroud around his broad shoulders. “Gee, thanks, partner.” Jessica spread out the files on the front counter, grateful for the bright sunlight streaming through the open door, grateful for the slight breeze.
The first page of the binder was a large photograph of Caitlin, a color eight- by- ten. Every time Jessica looked at the photograph she was reminded of the Gene Hackman movie Hoosiers,
although she would be hard- pressed to explain why. Perhaps it was because the girl in the picture was from rural Pennsylvania. Perhaps it was because there was an openness to the girl’s face, a trusting countenance that seemed locked into the world of 1950s America— long before Caitlin’s birth, life, and death— a time when girls wore saddle shoes and kneesocks and vest sweaters and shirts with Peter Pan collars. Girls didn’t look like this anymore,
Jessica thought. Did they?
Not in this time of MySpace and Abercrombie & Fitch cata logs and rainbow parties. Not in this day and age when a girl could buy a bag of Doritos and a Coke, board a bus in Lancaster County, and ninety minutes later emerge in a city that would swallow her whole; a trusting soul who never had a chance.
The estimated time of Caitlin’s death was between midnight and 7 am on May 2, although the medical examiner could not be more precise, given that by the time Caitlin O’Riordan’s body had been discovered she had been dead at least forty- eight hours. There were no external wounds on the victim, no lacerations or abrasions, no ligature marks to indicate she may have been restrained, no defensive wounds that would suggest she struggled with an assailant. There had been no skin or any other kind of organic matter beneath her fingernails. At the time she was discovered, Caitlin had been fully clothed, dressed in frayed blue jeans, Reeboks, black denim jacket, and a white T-shirt. She also wore a lilac nylon backpack. Around her neck had been a sterling silver Claddagh, and although it was not particularly valuable, the fact that she wore it in death did not support any theory that she had been the victim of a robbery gone bad. Nor did the cause of the death.
Caitlin O’Riordan had drowned.
Hom i cide victims in North Philadelphia were generally not drowned. Shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, sliced and diced with a machete, pummeled with an ax handle, yes. Popped by a rebar, run over with a Hummer, stuck with an ice pick, doused with gasoline and lit ablaze— yeah, all the time. Jessica had once investigated a North Philly hom i cide committed with a lawn edger. A rusty
But drowned? Even if the vic was found floating in the Delaware River, the cause of death was usually one of the above.
Jessica looked at the lab report. The water in Caitlin’s lungs had been carefully analyzed. It contained fluoride, chlorine, zinc orthophosphate, ammonia. It also contained trace levels of haloacetic acid. The report contained two pages of graphs and charts. It all went way over Jessica’s head, but she had no problem at all understanding the report’s conclusion. According to the forensics lab and the medical examiner’s office, Caitlin O’Riordan did not drown in the Delaware or Schuylkill River. She did not drown in Wissahickon Creek, nor in any of the fountains for which the City of Brotherly Love was rightly known. She did not drown in a swimming pool, public or private.
Caitlin drowned in ordinary Philadelphia tap water. The original investigators had contacted the Philadelphia Water Department and were told that, according to the EPA, the water found in Caitlin’s lungs was indeed specific to Philadelphia. The three treatment plants at Baxter, Belmont, and Queen Lane had all made specific adjustments to their drinking water pro cesses in March, due to an oil- tanker spill.
There was no running water in this building. There were no bathtubs, plastic tubs, buckets, aquariums, or cans— not a single vessel that could hold enough water to drown a human being.
There was some quiet debate at the Round house, the police administration building at Eighth and Race, about whether or not this was a bona fide hom i cide. Both Jessica and Byrne believed it was, yet conceded the possibility that Caitlin had accidentally drowned, perhaps in a bathtub, and that her body had been moved to the crime scene after the fact. This would bring about charges of abuse of a corpse, not hom i cide.
One thing was not in doubt: Caitlin O’Riordan did not arrive here under her own power.
There had been no ID on the victim, no purse or wallet at the scene. Caitlin had been identified by the photograph that circulated via the FBI website. There was no evidence of sexual assault.
Caitlin O’Riordan was the daughter of Robert and Marilyn O’Riordan of Millersville, Pennsylvania, a town of about 8,000, five miles southwest of Lancaster. She had one sister, Lisa, who was two years younger.
Robert O’Riordan owned and operated a small, home- style restaurant on George Street in downtown Millersville. Marilyn was a homemaker, a former Miss Bart Township. Both were active in the church. Although far from wealthy, they maintained a comfortable home on a quiet rural lane.
Caitlin O’Riordan had been a runaway.
On April 1, Robert O’Riordan found a note from his daughter. It was written in red felt-tip marker, on stationery that had Scotties along the border. The O’Riordans had two Scottish terriers as pets. The note was taped to the mirror in the girl’s bedroom.
Dear Mom and Dad (and Lisa too, sorry Lisey
I’m sorry, but I have to do this.
I’ll be okay. I’ll be back. I promise.
I’ll send a card.
On April 2, two patrol officers from the Millersville Police Department were sent to the O’Riordan house. When they arrived, Caitlin had been missing for nineteen hours. The two patrolmen found no evidence of kidnapping or violence, no evidence of any foul play. They took statements from the family and the immediate neighbors— which, in that area, were about a quarter mile away on either side— and wrote up the report. The case went through the expected channels. In seventy- two hours it was handed off to the Philadelphia field office of the FBI. Despite a more than modest reward, and the fact that the young woman’s photograph was published in local papers and on various websites, two weeks after her disappearance there were no leads regarding the whereabouts or fate of Caitlin O’Riordan. To the world, she had simply vanished.
As April passed, the case grew colder, and authorities suspected that Caitlin O’Riordan might have fallen victim to a violent act.
On May 2, their darkest suspicions were confirmed. The original lead investigator in the Caitlin O’Riordan case, a man named Rocco Pistone, had retired two months ago. That same month his partner, Freddy Roarke, died of a massive stroke while watching a horse race at Philadelphia Park. Dropped right at the rail, just a few feet from the finish line. The 25- to- 1 filly on which Freddy had put twenty dollars— poetically named Heaven’s Eternity— won by three lengths. Freddy Roarke never collected.
Pistone and Roarke had visited Millersville, had interviewed Caitlin’s schoolmates and friends, her teachers, neighbors, fellow churchgoers. No one recalled Caitlin mentioning a friend or Internet acquaintance or boyfriend in Philadelphia. The detectives also interviewed a seventeen- year- old Millersville boy named Jason Scott. Scott said that when Caitlin went missing, they were casually dating, stressing the word casually
. He said Caitlin had been a lot more serious about the relationship than he was. He also told them that at the time of Caitlin’s murder, he was in Arkansas, visiting his father. Detectives confirmed this, and the case went cold.
As of August 2008 there were no suspects, no leads, and no new evidence. Jessica turned the last page of the file, thinking for the hundredth time in the past two days, Why had Caitlin O’Riordan come to Philadelphia? Was it simply the allure of the big city? And, more importantly, where had she been for those thirty days?
At just after 11 am, Jessica’s phone rang. It was their boss, Sgt. Dwight Buchanan. Byrne had finished his sketches of the basement and was catching some air on the sidewalk. He came back inside. Jessica put her cell phone on speaker.
“What’s up, Sarge?”
“We have a confession,” Buchanan said.
“For our job?”
“What are you talking about? How? Who?
“We got a call on the Tip Line. The caller told the CIU officer he killed Caitlin O’Riordan, and he was ready to turn himself in.”
The Tip Line was a relatively new initiative of the Criminal Intelligence Unit, a community response program that was part of a Philadelphia Police Department project called Join the Re sis tance. Its purpose was to provide citizens of Philadelphia with the opportunity to covertly partner with the police without fear of being exposed to the criminal element. Sometimes it was used as a confessional.
“All due respect, Sarge, we get those all the time,” Jessica said. “Especially on a case like this.”
“This call was a little different.”
“Well, for one thing, he had knowledge of the case that was never released. He said there was a button missing from the victim’s jacket. Third from the bottom.”
Jessica picked up two photographs of the victim in situ. The button on Caitlin’s jacket— third from the bottom— was missing.
“Okay, it’s missing,” Jessica said. “But maybe he saw the crime- scene photos, or knows someone who did. How do we know he has firsthand knowledge?”
“He sent us the button.”
Jessica glanced at her partner.
“We got it in the mail this morning,” Buchanan continued.
“We sent it to the lab. They’re pro cessing it now, but Tracy said it’s a slam dunk. It’s Caitlin’s button.” Tracy McGovern was the deputy director of the forensic crime lab. Jessica and Byrne took a second to absorb this development.
“Who’s this guy?” Jessica asked.
“He gave his name as Jeremiah Crosley. We ran the name, but there was nothing in the system near He said we could pick him up near Second and Diamond.”
“What’s the address?”
“He didn’t give a street address. He said we would know the place by its red door.”
“Red door? What the hell does that mean?”
“I guess you’ll find out,” Buchanan said. “Call me when you get down there.”
Excerpted from Badlands by Richard Montanari. Copyright © 2009 by Richard Montanari. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.