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.
About four days after Moore disappeared, police interviewed a 15-year-old who said she had been tied up and raped repeatedly in a house on Synder Avenue in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.
In an interview with detectives that ABC News was allowed to film exclusively, the teen said her captors told her "if I didn't cooperate, then I would end up like the girl they had last night." ABC News does not name minors in rape cases.
"She was feisty and they had to kill her," the girl said the men told her.
The 15-year-old said her captors tied her ankles with shoe laces and used duct tape to cover her eyes and mouth. (Moore was bound in the same way, police would learn).
Then, she said, they made her turn around and smell what they said was a dead girl's body. She told police there was "a funny smell," but she didn't know for sure whether there was in fact a body in the room.
When the men fell asleep, she bit through the tape and squeezed her ankles out of the laces, then ran away.
Nineteen-year-old Troy Hendrix, who lived in the house with his aunt, was arrested. He told police that he and a friend had consensual sex with the teen. Police didn't believe him, and sought his friend and suspected accomplice, Kayson Pearson.
Then, on May 9, the day before Mother's Day, Moore's mother received a mysterious phone call at home.
The man's voice on the other end of the line said he heard screams coming from a house on Snyder Avenue, and that Romona was dead. He also said her body was wrapped up.
The caller said that Romona wasn't the only woman abducted. There was another, who was lucky enough to escape, he said. Police believe he was referring to the 15-year-old.
Hinrichs went to the location that afternoon, and found part of the shoelaces that laced up Romona's light-blue Puma sneakers in a garbage can. Police then searched the adjoining house, and found a grisly sight in the basement.
There was a barbell, a hammer, and a saw. "These guys were off the hook," Hinrichs said. "They weren't building birdhouses." There was also plenty of dried blood.
An Unlikely Key Witness
By the time they had interviewed the teen, Romona Moore was probably already dead. But police today say they may have had a chance to save her.
A friend of Hendrix's says Hendrix showed Moore to him when she had been trapped in the basement of his family's house.
In an interview with ABC News, the friend said the woman's eye was swollen, her nose was bloody, and she had bruises on her feet and hands.
He says that although the scene sickened him, he did not call the police immediately because he was scared of possible retribution and wasn't confident the police could protect him. Eventually, he says, he had a relative place an anonymous call to the police. But it was too late. Although he didn't know it at the time, Romona was already dead.
Hinrichs is outraged at the friend's slowness in taking action . "Where is their head? It's so far up their ass, I don't know what it is," he said. "We would have had Romona alive and this girl never attacked if these people would have picked up the goddamn phone " and called police right away.
Police began the search for 21-year-old Pearson, Romona's alleged abductor and killer, in Brooklyn and Queens.
A tip led Hinrichs to Pearson's brother's house in Albany, but it turned out to be a dead end. His team found out that he had asked his brother's wife to send his girlfriend, who lives in Atlanta, Ga., his Social Security card and high school equivalency diploma. They thought he must be down in Georgia. His gut instinct told him that they had to move fast to catch up with him.
"You can't go home and say: 'Oh, take the weekend off and come back on Monday,' " he says. "Once you get information like this, a lot of things can happen."
But it turned out to be another dead end.
Exhausted, they traveled back to New York City. But they didn't have to wait long for good news. On May 21, a friend of Pearson's, who was outraged at how brutal the crime was, told police that he might be in Yonkers.
He was right under their noses.
After a brief standoff with police, hiding behind a barricade inside a bedroom in an apartment building, Pearson charged at an officer with a knife. The officer fired twice, hitting him in the leg.
Hinrichs was relieved. "This case is probably going to be one of those ones that I'll probably think about the rest of my life," he said.