By Jeff Mays, Olivia Scheck and Murray Weiss
EAST HARLEM — Police are looking for a man they want to question after a 28-year-old woman was strangled and stuffed into a suitcase found on an East Harlem sidewalk early Wednesday morning, just down the block from Rao's, officials said.
The man was seen on surveillance video dragging the suitcase near where the woman was discovered shortly after midnight in front of 435 E. 114th St., police said. A witness noticed a leg sticking out of the black suitcase and called police, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
Autopsy results show the woman died from strangulation, according to the city medical examiner's office.
In the video, the man, dressed in a dark leather jacket, light-colored pants and what appeared to be a wool cap, seemed to stop to rest several times as he pulled the bag. Police were trying to clear up and enhance the footage on Thursday to try to get a sharper image of the man's face, Kelly said, according to the New York Post. Police have asked anyone with information about the man to call the Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-800-577-TIPS.
Police identified the woman as 28-year-old Betty Williams of the Bronx. Williams had had a history of drug arrests, sources said.
A man who lives in the building in front of where the body was found, said he saw the body in the suitcase.
"I saw the body in the suitcase and the foot was sticking out. It had a sock," said a man who lived in the building who asked not to be named.
"It was right there. It was disgusting. It smelled horrible," he said. "It's disgusting seeing a body."
Speaking at an unrelated press conference, Kelly said the woman suffered trauma to her head.
The way the woman's body was left on the sidewalk appears to indicate that she was killed in a sudden attack, sources said.
"The investigative assumption is that the body was brought from somewhere else," Kelly said.
Neighbors were horrified by the discovery.
"It's not the kind of thing you want to hear about happening on your block," said Fredrick Larrieu, 37, who moved to the block three weeks ago. "It's like something out of a movie."
Samantha Rivera, who grew up in the building, said the neighborhood has taken a turn for the worse.
"The area was fine when I was growing up but I don't know about now," she said.
Others said the location of grisly discovery made them think the killer wasn't a local.
"I think it's crazy, creepy," said Jeff Burton, 33, who lives on the block. "I figure it's just some sicko who randomly decided to dump a body here.
Rao's, the renowned Italian restaurant for which people have paid thousands of dollars just to get a reservation, is just half a block away.
Rao's was also the site of a Dec. 22, 2003 shooting by reputed Genovese mobster Louis "Louie Lump Lump" Barone, who allegedly put a bullet in the back of restaurant patron Albert Cirelli for insulting performer Rena Strober.
Rao's worker Lydia Vicen, 59, said she didn't notice anything unusual when she walked home from work at 11 p.m. on Tuesday night. Vicen, who lives at 435 E. 114th St., was stunned by the gruesome discovery.
"I'm in shock," she said.