A Pregnant Worker, an Enraged Boss
(“A Voice From Beyond,” Forensic Files)
This week, it’s back to concentrating on an individual Forensic Files episode, and “A Voice from Beyond” is good way to start, with its blend of nostalgia and horror.
The story takes us back to a pre-intenet world, when people kept handwritten address books with real paper.
It was exciting to see how investigators applied millennial-era forensic technology to evidence from the 1960s.
Only in L.I. In fact, the story had everything a true crime fan could hope for: an affluent businessman leading a double life, a desperate mother-to-be, a 95-year-old woman praying for word on her daughter, a crucial anonymous call to the police.
Oh, and a mummified body discovered in a crawl space.
And for a little extra flavor, this Greek tragedy took place in Long Island, the same New York City commuter haven that gave rise to Amy Fisher, Joey Buttafuoco, and numerous others who can’t quite pronounce the letter “r” in words that contain it but append it to words that don’t.
Forensic Files, as usual, did a great job of telling the story in 22 minutes, but I was curious about something not shown — the reaction of friends and neighbors when they learned a horrible secret about the respectable-seeming retiree in their midst.
No Barrel of Fun. So let’s get started on the recap of “A Voice From Beyond,” along with some extra information drawn from internet research.
On September 2, 1999, as Ronald Cohen was preparing to vacate the Jericho, New York, house he had just sold for $455,000, he pried off the lid of a 55-gallon drum that had sat undisturbed beneath the bottom floor ever since he moved in.
He smelled noxious chemicals and saw a hand poking out of a pile of plastic pellets.
Authorities found an intact mummified body of a woman inside the barrel. They determined the deceased was young, petite, dark-haired, and pregnant and had died from blunt force trauma. She had some unusual dental work, likely performed in South America.
Very pregnant. The body had been preserved because the drum was airtight, but the pages of an address book (Millennial readers: This is how folks kept track of friends before Outlook, iPhones, and Facebook) found in the barrel had decayed.
The fetus was a boy, 17-inches long.
What really gave the episode armrest-grabbing suspense was the effort — via moisture extraction, magnification, and a video spectral comparator study — on the part of forensics experts to yield clues from the rotting paper.
They uncovered some names, addresses, and phone numbers, although the first batch yielded no leads since the people had long moved away or changed phone numbers. And this was 1999, post-internet but before social media enabled everyone to track down anyone.
Locals help. By this time, police had traced the barrel to a chemical company in Linden, New Jersey, and dated its manufacture to 1965. It contained some plastic leaves in addition to the pellets.
Neighbors in Jericho remembered that an occupant around that time period, Howard Elkins, was part owner of the Melrose Plastic Company, a New York City maker of decorative artificial plants.
The neighbors didn’t mention any gossip about him, but the aforementioned anonymous caller did, telling Nassau County police that, in the 1960s, Elkins had been having an affair with a Hispanic woman who worked in his factory.
Elkins had long since moved to Boca Raton, Florida. He was none-too-happy to find New York detectives on the other side of his door in his upscale retirement community.
Resolution by gunfire. Presented with the evidence of the barrel and green dye inside, Elkins denied he’d ever seen such a thing. He admitted to having an affair but said he couldn’t remember what the woman looked like or her name.
He refused to give a DNA sample to determine whether he was the father of the fetus. Before leaving, Nassau County Detective Brian Parpan told Elkins the police would be getting an order for a blood sample.
Elkins, 70, promptly bought a shotgun and ammunition from Walmart and killed himself.
By this time, the lab had tapped the address book for the name of one more of the dead woman’s friends, and this one answered when police dialed her 30-year-old phone number.
Kathy Andrade knew immediately the body belonged to a friend she met in an English class, Reyna Angelica Marroquin, who disappeared in 1969 at the age of 27.
Emotional turmoil. Marroquin came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1966, went to fashion school, and got a job at the Melrose factory. Shortly before disappearing, she let on that she was pregnant and that the father told her he was going to marry her.
But he already had a wife and three children and Marroquin was worried he would never keep his promise.
(Something mentioned in more than one newspaper story that Forensic Files didn’t bring up: Marroquin already had a small child whom she sometimes brought to the factory with her; it was never revealed who the father was, but co-workers suspected Elkins.)
According to Kathy Andrade, after Marroquin called her boyfriend’s house and told his wife she was pregnant, the man became enraged and threatened to kill Marroquin. She disappeared soon after.
Merciful messenger. Police theorized Elkins beat Marroquin about the head in a fit of anger, took the body to Long Island with the intention of dumping it in the ocean, put it in a steel drum, and weighted it with plastic pellets from his factory.
But at 350 pounds, it was too heavy to load onto his boat, so he pushed it into a crawl space, where it remained untouched for 30 years.
With the mystery solved and the perpetrator dead, the last loose end was finding Marroquin’s family.
Newsday reporter Oscar Corral flew to El Salvador and tracked down Reyna Marroquin’s mother in the town of San Martin. The 95-year-old, known as “Grandma Marroquin,” nearly collapsed when told of the discovery, Corral recalled in his Forensic Files interview. She’d been heartbroken ever since Reyna stopped writing home with no explanation in 1969. She’d had dreams depicting Reyna in a barrel.
Well-enough liked. As for Elkins, it sounded as though he’d been able to mask any feelings of guilt about his role in the tragedy. Below are two excerpts, including neighbors’ statements, from newspaper articles published after his suicide in 1999:
“Howard was very active in the community, very much in the social scene,” said neighbor Robert Froment. Elkins’ Florida neighbors yesterday were shocked that the big, bearded, jovial man could have been involved in such a crime. — New York Post
“He seemed like a very sociable fellow,” Frank Lonano, a neighbor in Boca Raton, said of Mr. Elkins, whom he had known only casually around the walled and affluent community of town houses overlooking a golf course. “He was just not the type.” Judith Ebbin, who with her husband, Arthur, bought the Jericho house from Mr. Elkins and his wife, Ruth, in 1972, owned it for 12 years, never suspecting all that while that a woman’s body lay in a drum in a crawl space under the den. “They seemed like such a lovely family,” she said of the former owners. — New York Times