MANHATTAN — Jerry Giorgio remembers the day “Baby Hope” was found 22 years ago as though it were yesterday.
Giorgio was one of the NYPD detectives who caught the gruesome case, where an unidentified girl's body was found inside a cooler in a bucolic section of Inwood Park. This week, cops were out in the neighborhood handing out fliers in the ongoing search for leads.
But back then, the detective, who later became the model for Jerry Orbach’s “Law & Order” character, was at his desk in Washington Heights' 34th Precinct. At the time, the squad was running on more than 120 homicides every year, an unimaginable death toll by today’s standards.
“We got a call that workmen who were on the parkway doing construction saw this cooler and went down out of curiosity and, unfortunately, when they pushed it over some fluid, we think it was Coca Cola cans in the cooler, ran out . . . and they then were hit with the odor of the baby decomposed,” Giorgio told “On The Inside.”
The girl was virtually a skeleton.
“She certainly did not have a good life, that is for sure,” Giorgio recalled with sadness still in his voice. “They must have been starving her because she weighed all of 28 pounds.”
An autopsy later disclosed she had been smothered. There were also signs of sexual abuse that were never proven by science. An anthropologist determined she was 4 years old.
Detectives theorized whoever killed her placed her body into the cooler, covered her with Coke cans and ice to mask their crime if they were stopped, and then left it along the banks of the Hudson.
They believe she was dead a week, and that the hot summer sun not only melted the ice but popped several of the cans causing soda to leak out and destroy forensic evidence such as fingerprints and DNA.
The murder received plenty of attention from cops and the media back then, and investigators had every reason to think the case would be solved quickly.
After all, family members commit most child homicides. And detectives believed the dead child would be reported missing or another relative would step forward to crack the case.
The opposite became reality. There were countless tips, and plenty of dead ends.
“About six days after we found the baby, two women called, but did not identify themselves, and said on a Sunday they were going to a wedding and from the tollbooth of the Hudson they saw a man and woman walking north on the parkway,” Giorgio said.
“The woman was in high heels and the man in nice slacks as though [they] were coming or going to church...and carrying a cooler," Giorgio recalled. “It was our best lead we ever had, but they refused to cooperate and help with a sketch, and hung up.”
There were other near-hits, including a young female drug addict who claimed the girl was her niece, and a grieving grandmother who insisted the child was her granddaughter.
For nearly two years, the NYPD kept the girl's body in the city’s morgue. During that time, they also engaged an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institute who produced an enhanced sketch of what she might have looked like.
“Nothing panned out,” Giorgio said.
Finally, it was time to let her go.
He and his colleagues reached out to the Campbell Funeral Home, which would handle her body. Giorgio’s wife, Catherine, bought her a communion dress. And the Archdiocese helped with the funeral at St. Elizabeth’s on Wadsworth Avenue.
But she needed a name.
“We kept calling her ‘The Baby, The Baby,” and we said, ‘We have to give her a name,’” Giorgio said.
They knocked around possibilities before Detective Sgt. Robert Maas said, “Baby Hope,” because they always had hope they would find her killer.
On July 23, 1993, Baby Hope’s tiny coffin, carried by uniformed cops and led by eight children, marched down Wadsworth Avenue, which was lined with spectators. The church was packed with more than 500 people, most of them children from the neighborhood and a contingent of New York’s Finest.
“I want you all to know that this funeral does not mean we are burying the investigation,” Joseph Reznick, then the squad's commanding lieutenant, and now a top police official, said in a eulogy. “Knowing she is respectfully and properly buried is of great comfort to all of us.”
The detectives obtained a simple black headstone that reads “Baby Hope” and has the date July 23, 1991, etched on it.
There is also a three-word inscription: “Because we care.”
As the years passed, Giorgio and several of the veteran detectives continued to pursue empty leads.
They visited the grave periodically, including on the anniversary of her death, to pay their respects and to see who came by on the odd chance it would be the conscience-stricken killer, or someone who knew the killer.
“Every year there was someone who would place a toy, a doll, something to show they remember, but none provided clues,” he said. "We thought some day the killer might die and perhaps someone who knows the truth would call us."
This year, for the first time, Giorgio, 79, was unable to visit her grave on the anniversary of Baby Hope’s burial. A kidney transplant ended his storied career in June after working 38 years at the NYPD and another 15 with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
His recovery prevented Orbach's real-life “Lennie Briscoe” from paying his respects to a young victim he says he will never forget.