June 22, 2004 -- Looks can be deceiving. Any cop working in New York knows that.
That's why Steve Di Schiavi, a homicide detective with the New York Police Department, is suspicious of the clean-cut guy in the expensive blue suit who could have a motive in the stabbing incident he's investigating.
According to what an Emergency Service Unit worker believes he heard the victim say, police think he could be the one who plunged a knife into her chest, just inside the entryway to his upscale apartment building on East 13th Street in Manhattan. As the victim, 26-year-old Shawna Kunkel, was rushed into surgery, her former boyfriend sits distraught in the front passenger seat of Di Schiavi's black Chevy Malibu.
But he adamantly denies he was there at the time of the attack.
In the interrogation room at the 9th Precinct, the man tells detectives he and Kunkel were supposed to meet at 9 p.m. at a local movie theater, but she never arrived.
Frustrated, he returned to his apartment, where he was stunned to find the police knocking on his neighbors' doors, searching for clues as to who assaulted his ex-girlfriend.
As Di Schiavi starts talking to the former boyfriend, he realizes the man's clothes are too clean. There was blood all over the hallway, yet none on his suit. He couldn't have stabbed Kunkel.
Drawing on his 20 years of experience as a cop, Di Schiavi hypothesizes to the shaken man sitting across the table that it could just have been a robbery gone badly.
"You know, we see a lot of crazy s--t in this city," he says.
As the man is cleared, Di Schiavi knows it's not going to be easy to catch the assailant. It never is.
Meanwhile, Kunkel clings to life in Bellevue's Intensive Care Unit with a collapsed lung. Di Schiavi, a father of a teenage girl, isn't looking forward to calling the victim's mother with news of the attack.
"Imagine having your daughter 1,500 miles away being stabbed in the chest by some animal," he tells ABC News. "And we don't have answers for her like, 'Yeah, we got the guy.' "
But there was something he did know for sure. "One way or another we'll get him."
The Cops Hit the Streets for Leads
Witnesses in the building that night saw a Hispanic male running from the lobby, clutching a bag. Earlier that day, several of the witnesses saw the same man sitting on the couch in the building's lobby. If the man on the run had attacked and robbed Kunkel, her cell phone could lead the police straight to him. A cell phone carrier can pinpoint exactly where a person uses a phone.
The next day, Di Schiavi and his partner Bill McNeely discover someone was making calls with the victim's phone near an East Harlem housing project. Immediately they began casing the area.
Within a short amount of time, Di Schiavi's team gets a lucky break, overhearing a teenager tell a friend about a cell phone he'd just gotten. When confronted and questioned, the teen reveals he bought the phone from a Hispanic male.
Unfortunately, the young man is unable to identify the seller from any mugshots shown to him at the 9th Precinct; but he was able to pinpoint the guy who introduced him to the seller.
In an effort to find the middle man, Di Schiavi's team focuses on a four-block radius in East Harlem. They easily nab the man as he walks down the street and bring him to the station for more questioning.
Incredibly he picks the seller of the cell phone from a group of photos. The cops think they finally have their man — a Hispanic male with black, curly hair.
After a background check, the police find out from the suspect's parole officer that he lives at a boarding house in Paterson, N.J. Detectives cross state lines and search his room, but he isn't there. Finally, they find him walking the streets alone.
Detectives put the suspect in handcuffs and bring him back to the 9th Precinct. The man claims he was nowhere near the apartment complex on the night of Kunkel's attack. The police decide to put him in a lineup.
The witnesses, residents from the apartment building, peer at the six Hispanic and black men through a one-sided window at the precinct. Some aren't sure it's him, and nobody makes a confident hit. Detectives are forced to let him go.
The Victim Clings to Life
A few days after the attack, Shawna Kunkel is still in the intensive care unit at Bellevue Hospital, but strong enough to talk to police. Through a clear oxygen mask, the blond-haired, blue-eyed woman describes her assailant to detectives.
With labored breath, she tells them about the short, Hispanic man with gray, curly hair, sitting on the sofa in the lobby of the apartment building. He immediately made her nervous.
He paced back and forth, talking about his sister taking long showers, when all of a sudden he turned around and stabbed her.
"Why did you do that?" she says she screamed. "You can just take my purse."
The police show Kunkel a picture of the man they just let go. She says he isn't the right guy.
"The hunt continues," says Detective Camardese.
A Bankcard Could Be the Key They Need
The cops are stumped, their leads slim. The man they thought was a slam dunk was everything but.
Then, a call comes in, which will turn out to be the most crucial lead in the case.
Someone tried to use Kunkel's Chase banking card in an automatic teller machine at a Pathmark Shopping Center on 126th Street. Detectives believe a security camera would give them an instant picture of the man they'd been trying to track down for the past two days. But when they pay a visit to the store's security office, the 9th Precinct officers can't see the man's face clearly.
The stolen bank card was also used to buy a subway pass. The police immediately have transit detectives track the history of where and when the pass was used. They quickly learn it was bought near the Pathmark store and it was frequently swiped around 10 p.m. at the subway station at 110th Street and Lexington Avenue.
Detectives understand the importance of being patient, allowing leads to develop.
"It gets boring sometimes," Di Schiavi says, looking at the rain drops hitting the windshield of his car. "You're sitting there, and just wait and hope something happens."
This time, Di Schiavi doesn't have to wait long. The voice coming through the transit police radio says, "I've got him in custody."
Di Schiavi springs into action.
He races out into the misty night, and down the stairs of the subway station. With the suspect in cuffs, he checks the man's pockets and blurts out the line he's said a thousand times, "Anything sharp on you?"
After a few hours of looking through pictures on a computer screen, the man identifies a black male as the one who sold him the metro card. Police later find out that man was arrested days before the stabbing on an unrelated charge, but coincidentally in the same neighborhood. The detectives also ask the man who bought Kunkel's cell phone to come down to the precinct to look at additional photos. He thinks one man's face looked familiar.
Both witnesses single out the same individual.
The new suspect's parole officer tells Detective Carlos Rodriguez that the man stays at a homeless shelter on Wards Island. Di Schiavi and his team devise a plan to find him.
The officers split into two groups: one heads to the shelter, while the other, accompanied by Di Schiavi, checks the buses that service the island.
To avoid tipping off the suspect's friends, detectives make up a story about why they're searching buses. They say they're looking for a runaway girl.
Climbing the steps of one bus, which stopped at the corner of 124th Street and Second Avenue, Di Schiavi stands next to the driver, placing his left hand shoulder-high to show the height of the imaginary girl.
All the while, he peers into the far reaches of the bus to see if his suspect is on board. "Looking for an 11-year-old girl," he yells. "Anybody see her? Female black. White coat. Red hat."
Nobody says a word.
After doing the same drill until the last bus departs, detectives return to the precinct empty-handed.
A few nights later, the call the police were waiting for finally comes over the radio. A team of detectives apprehended the suspect inside the shelter.
The man's blue satin jacket with a red collar glimmers under the street lights outside the shelter. With police on either side of him, he lights a cigarette.
At the 9th Precinct, the suspect denies all charges. But two residents of the East Village apartment complex where Kunkel was stabbed identify him in a line-up as the guy loitering in the lobby the night of the attack.
As Kunkel lies recuperating in her hospital bed at Bellevue, the man finally gives it up, confessing to the assault. He tells police he waited for people to come home on Friday night because he thought it was payday, and they might have cash in their wallets. When he saw Kunkel in the lobby, he pounced.
"I believe in an eye for an eye," says Di Schiavi. "Whatever time he gets is not going to be enough to me."
The man who stabbed Shawn Kunkel pleaded guilty last March to attempted murder. William Terado was sentenced to 15 years in jail.