New York mom steps on a skull, and opens a murder case

The car skidded to a stop in the highway median’s thick underbrush, and the young mother behind the wheel realized that she and her 3-year-old son had survived the accident unscathed. Her sedan was stuck on top of some early spring brambles, and she’d need to borrow a cellphone to call a tow-truck and her husband, but she’d run off one of Long Island’s busiest roads, the Northern State Parkway, at high speed without striking any cars or trees.

Relieved, she opened the driver’s side door to get out and flag down help – and stepped directly onto a human skull.

Within hours, on that March day in 2004, investigators from the New York State Police were unearthing the fully clothed skeleton of an unknown male, partially stuffed into a plastic bag just inside the eastern border of Nassau County. Before long, however, they had to admit they were stumped. Who was this man and how did he die? And who dumped his body?

One of their best clues to his identity and how long he’d been lying under the leaves was an item of clothing, an iconic artifact from the era of Pac-Man and MTV – his 1980s Members Only jacket. The coat helped establish that the man had probably been hidden in the lonely strip of woods between the east and westbound lanes of a freeway more than two decades before Willis found him.

Almost ten years since the body’s discovery, however, detectives still haven’t identified the victim or figured out who might have killed him, and now they’re asking for the public’s help in solving a mystery they call the Members Only case.

“We want to identify him to give somebody, somewhere, closure,” said Senior Investigator Thomas Hughes, when asked why the state police are taking a fresh look at the long-cold case. “Maybe there’s a kid out there who wants to know what happened to his father.” 

Hughes, who caught the case when the body was first found, says the 2004 investigation was “painstaking,” and that it was frustrating not to have resolution.

“When it went cold,” he said, “I kept working on it myself.” He’s now been paired with a new investigator to take another pass at the evidence.

Do you have information on the Members Only cold case? Call the New York State Police Troop “L” Major Crimes Unit at (631) 756-3300.

No bullets or casings were found at the crime scene, and no identification was found on the body. But investigators have used his facial structure, his clothing and some of the items from his pockets to make educated guesses about who he was, when he died and where he lived.

A computer generated reconstruction of the victim shows a high-cheekboned face with dark hair and a slightly dark complexion. During the original investigation, the Medical Examiner believed the victim to be Caucasian, based on his cheekbones, but Hughes says that now he’s not so sure. A 1970s-style “Afro-pick” comb was found with the body, and police renderings of his possible appearance include both straight and curly hair. 

The victim was wearing a white button-down shirt, bellbottoms, tube socks and the Members Only jacket. Bellbottoms were popular in the 1970s, and the jacket had its heyday in the 1980s.

There were coins in the pocket of the bellbottoms, and the date on a dime, the newest coin, was 1974, meaning the crime couldn’t have happened any earlier.

After the jacket had been taken to a laboratory, some chemical cleaning and a microscope revealed a serial number. Hughes called the factory in Sri Lanka, where he learned that a coat with that number had been manufactured in 1982.

The man’s money clip was empty, but the clip was a promotional item emblazoned with the logo of a New York City heating oil company called Paragon Oil.

Despite his unglamorous clothing, he was also wearing a fancy Bulova watch. The timepiece had been manufactured by the Queens, N.Y., based company in 1960, when it had carried a retail price of $500.

The single most distinctive thing about the dead man, however, was his height. When his skeleton was first pulled from the leaves, police thought he might have been a child, because he was only 5 foot 1. But dental examination by a forensic anthropologist put his age at anywhere from 35 to 55. 

During the original investigation, the combination of a fancy watch and the unusually small stature gave one of the investigators an idea. Two major horseracing tracks, Aqueduct and Belmont, are within 30 miles of Plainview, where the body was found. Was the dead man a jockey?

But calls to racetracks in the New York and New Jersey came up empty. No jockeys had gone missing.

With the case getting new eyes, however, investigators still believe the man’s height is the key to his identity. They have decided to scrap the idea that he had to have died in 1982 or after, just in case the serial number on his jacket or the Sri Lankan factory records were wrong, and focus on identifying a missing person who was shorter than 99 percent of American adult males.

Hughes said he and his partner will also restart his probe in the New York City borough of Queens, because of the watch and the Paragon Oil money clip and because Queens lies at the western end of the Northern State Parkway. That means their next step is to head to Queens and get another taste of what life was like in the 1980s.

Few of the missing persons cases from the early 1980s and before have been computerized. “Back then missing persons cases were filed and put in a box,” explained Hughes. “We’ll literally be looking through warehouses full of boxes in Queens.”

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