Homeowner Ronald Cohen didn’t know how long the huge industrial drum had been stashed in the shadows of the crawlspace under his house; he only knew it had been a huge pain to get rid of it.
The family set to buy Cohen’s home on a quiet, tree-lined street in Jericho, L.I., insisted it was the seller’s responsibility to remove the rusted, 300-pound metal barrel that had likely been stored there decades ago by a previous owner, and Cohen grudgingly obliged.
On the morning of Sept. 2, 1999, Cohen, with help from the moving men, finally got the cumbersome old drum to the curb. Curiosity then got the better of him, and he decided to pry open the lid and see what was inside.
The sight — and the overwhelming stench — made the Long Island man’s knees buckle and his stomach turn.
Floating on a greenish-brown sea of sludge that filled the drum was a woman’s shoe.
Next to it was a human hand, rising from the muck.
A typical moving day in a serene suburban town suddenly became a macabre murder mystery from another time.
Nassau County cops turned the 55-gallon drum over to forensic investigators, who discovered it held the mummified remains of a petite, dark-haired Hispanic woman in her late twenties.
She was stuffed cross-legged in the drum, which had been filled with plastic pellets that weighed it down. She’d been bludgeoned to death, as evidenced by a deep wound to the back of her head from a blunt instrument.
Her front teeth were rimmed with gold, and her clothes, including a faux leopard skin jacket, dated from the 1960s.
She was also nine months pregnant.
While detectives set about trying to ID their Jane Doe by poring over missing persons reports from three decades ago and tracking down the Jericho home’s previous owners, the drum held several tantalizing clues.
At the bottom of the barrel was a 6-inch, green plastic stem, apparently from an artificial flower. There were also traces of green dye in the drum that matched the color of the stem.
But the most promising lead also turned out to be the most frustrating. Inside the woman’s pocketbook was a small, soggy address book — though most of its pages were mashed together like pulp after years of sitting in the victim’s body fluids.
Detectives quickly traced the steel drum to a New Jersey plant that made similar containers in the 1960s to transport paints and dyes. One of its customers was a Manhattan company that manufactured artificial flower displays that had since gone out of business.
Meanwhile, cops checking on the home’s previous owners found it had only three others before Cohen. But it was Howard Elkins, the original buyer of the split-level, four-bedroom house where he lived with his wife and children, who they zeroed in on.
Elkins was no longer living in the New York area. He had sold the home and moved to Florida in 1972 after selling his business — an artificial flower display company in Manhattan named Melrose Plastics.
As Nassau detectives were set to fly to Boca Raton to interview Elkins, there came a big break in the case.
The department’s documents unit had managed to dry out the victim’s address book and found an immigrant visa number that helped ID the mystery woman in the drum.
She was Reyna Marroquin, a 27-year-old native of El Salvador who had moved to New York City in 1966.
But cops didn’t have much else to go on other than a name and photo from her immigration papers — the 30-year-old phone numbers in the address book police dialed were all disconnected.
All but one. In a stroke of luck, a Manhattan woman named Kathy Andrade answered the call, said she’d been Marroquin’s best friend and filled cops in on the missing details they’d been searching for.
Andrade told them how Marroquin, an attractive, stylish, sweet-tempered girl with a passion for clothes, had left her homeland in the hopes of breaking into New York’s fashion industry. Instead, she’d gotten a job — hand-painting artificial flowers at a W. 34th St. company named Melrose Plastics.
The friend then dropped another bombshell.
In 1969, Marroquin confided that she had been dating an older married man — and her lover had gotten her pregnant. Andrade couldn’t remember his name, but Marroquin said it was her boss.
The boyfriend eventually moved Marroquin into a Hoboken apartment and promised to leave his wife, Andrade said. But one night Marroquin called Andrade in a panic, saying she had made the “big mistake” of calling his wife and telling her all about the love child she was about to have with her husband.
The next night a frantic Marroquin called again, claiming the boyfriend was so angry he’s threatened to kill her.
Andrade rushed to the apartment and found the door ajar, an unfinished meal on the table and no sign of her friend.
She never saw Marroquin again.
Armed with this new information, Nassau detectives promptly paid a visit to Elkins at his Florida home. The distinguished-looking Elkins, now 71 and retired, calmly claimed he didn’t remember Marroquin, didn’t know anything about a drum in his former home — and adamantly refused to take a DNA test that could prove his innocence.
The cops left, promising they’d be back.
The following day, the detectives got a call from local police. Elkins had bought a shotgun that morning and blown his brains out, taking whatever he knew of Marroquin’s murder to his grave.
“To me, it seems like rage ... (a) ‘you ruined my life type thing,’” Nassau detective Robert Edwards said at the time. “But that’s conjecture. We don’t know.”
Cops surmised Elkins, livid that Marroquin confessed the affair to his wife, drove the frightened woman to his factory, where he smashed her head open and stuffed her body in the drum.
Elkins, who owned a sailboat, then brought it to his Long Island home and filled it with the plastic pellets to weigh it down so was could dump it in the ocean. Cops figured the drum was now too heavy to move on his own, so he left it in the crawl space, hoping no one would open the lid someday and reveal its ghastly secret.
But the knock on his door he’d been dreading for 30 years finally came.
A month after Marroquin was found, DNA samples taken from Elkins' body confirmed he was the father of her unborn baby.
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