On a warm afternoon last May, Mike Hinrichs stood in an alley in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn while his partner, Sam Ortiz, described the heavy, shapeless package that crime scene officers dragged from underneath a rusting ice-cream truck.
Ortiz described how the officers unwrapped a dark blanket to reveal a woman's body.
A detective in the New York City Police Department, Hinrichs had seen more than his share of ghastly crime scenes on the city streets. But this investigation would be one of the worst in his career.
Ortiz went on to explain that the woman's face had been crushed and her feet and hands were bound with duct tape. This clearly wasn't just another sexual assault, Hinrichs thought.
Both men soon realized that their search for a missing 21-year-old college student, Romona Moore, had ended. The body Ortiz was describing turned out to be hers.
Hinrichs is the NYPD's most-decorated officer. He was once shot in the chest by a fleeing robbery suspect, and a bullet nearly took his hand off while he was trying to subdue a man nearly twice his size. He joined the NYPD 20 years ago, and he was confident that if anyone should be the lead investigator for a case as grisly as this, it should be him.
"I do good with these cases," he said.
He thrives on finding slim leads that after some digging can turn into solid evidence. Hinrichs likes a challenge, and the Moore case was going to give it to him.
A Trip to Burger King
The last thing Moore said to her mother on April 24, 2003, was that she was going to a local Burger King. When it started getting late, her mother, Elle Carmichael, figured she must have stopped by a friend's house. Moore, a quiet and bookish psychology major at Hunter College, normally called when her plans changed.
When she didn't come home at all that night, Carmichael filed a police report with the 67th Precinct the next day. Officers at the station told her Romona was old enough do what she pleased, and she probably just ran away from home.
"It was total disrespect," said Carmichael, who immigrated from Guyana when Romona was 4 years old. "All I got from the police was that if my child is out there and she don't want to come back, you know, she don't have to come back."
Detectives assigned to the case used bloodhounds to track her scent and interviewed close family and friends. The family thought this wasn't good enough — and that the lead investigator, Detective Wayne Carey, wasn't trying his hardest to look for Romona. They demanded that he be fired.
While Hinrichs understood the family's frustration, he disagreed that the police were indifferent to the fate of a young black woman. He prides himself on having compassion for each victim: "If [the case] doesn't bother you, then there's something wrong with you," he said.
The discovery of Moore's mangled body gave authorities even more motivation to find what had happened to her — and who was behind it. Hinrichs felt he owed it to the community, but more importantly, he owed it to the young victim.
"There's no like 'Oh well' or 'We came up short, we tried,' " he said. "This case gets solved. And that's what we're going to do."
A Gruesome Discovery
Moore had been missing for two weeks when her body was found. But before that, police were closer than they realized.