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A cold case is cracked, 26 years on

The officers entering the room saw her slender frame lifeless on the bed. Her baby bump was visible. A little boy was wiping the blood under her nose.

The two-bedroom apartment on Davidson Avenue in the Bronx was otherwise immaculate: clothes tucked away, the dishes clean, toys tidy. The boy’s bedroom, with its skateboard, yellow trucks and Barney bedspread, appeared untouched.

Jeremy Porter, left, with New York Police Detective Robert Klein in March 2023. Porter grew up without a mother, and Klein was driven to find the person who deprived him. VIA nyt

The officers photographed the scene on Feb 5, 1996. They took pictures of the dark bruises on the woman’s neck, indicators of strangulation. The boy, who was 4, later told police that he had seen a man on top of his mother, and investigators believed that she might have been raped.

They estimated the boy had been with her at least 24 hours before they arrived. He had used an ice cube to try to wake her.

The woman’s brother identified her from a crime-scene photo. She was Jasmine Porter, 36, a gifted singer who had been raising her son alone. In life, she had been beautiful. At her funeral, the marks of brutality were so severe that her coffin remained closed.

Detectives canvassed the neighbourhood. They questioned her family, friends and people in her building. One detective delayed retirement to work on the case.

In May 1996, a man was arrested and charged, but at trial, a key witness who identified the defendant admitted he had lied, and the man was acquitted. After that, the case went cold.

Nearly a quarter-century later, in late 2020, Detective Robert Klein’s phone rang. It was a Bronx prosecutor who knew that Mr Klein specialised in unsolved cases, and he had a tip: He had heard through jailhouse chatter about an old murder and a victim named Jasmine Porter.

The United States has had at least 340,000 unsolved homicides during the past 60 years, according to FBI data analysed by the Murder Accountability Project. They are cases in which the flow of information has stopped and new leads have dried up. Often, decades have passed.

Advancements in forensics and DNA testing and the passage of laws that permit such evidence in court have helped bring some of those cases to a close. Even so, solving old murders requires months or years of old-fashioned legwork, a modicum of good luck and a smart detective.

The Detective

Mr Klein is a member of the Police Department’s Bronx Homicide Squad. He is 6-foot-4 (195cm), with a dark, low-set brow, and his broad shoulders are accentuated by the tailored suits he wears to work.

He chooses the cases he wants to pursue. No one in the Police Department demands updates; in fact, no one expects him to solve them at all. But he expects it of himself, and he starts with a straightforward approach: See what evidence still exists and what has been left undone.

This often begins, as it did in Porter’s murder, with a hunt for a file folder.

In January 2021, about a month after Mr Klein received the prosecutor’s call, he searched through stacks of cardboard boxes in the musty basement of the 46th Precinct, which covers the area where Porter was killed. No luck.

The next month, he paid a visit down the hall to his boss, Lt Sean O’Toole, a Bronx homicide historian of sorts who has kept hundreds of old files.

“Give me something good, Lieu,” Mr Klein recalled saying as he entered the office.

Lt O’Toole pulled a thick brown accordion folder from a filing cabinet and handed it over. “You should have come to me first,” Lt O’Toole replied. “Here you go, kid.”

At his desk, Mr Klein opened the file and flipped through its contents. There were about a dozen glossy photographs, some of Porter’s kitchen, living room and bedroom. He was struck by how neat the second-floor apartment was.

There were interview notes, forensic biology reports and autopsy findings that showed she had been six months pregnant. One report that said clippings of Porter’s fingernails were “retained but not tested”.

Mr Klein paused. Porter must have scratched her assailant. If he could find the clippings, he thought, perhaps DNA on them could lead to the killer.

Two days later, he called the city medical examiner. Officials there said it could take months to locate the clippings, if they could find them at all.

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He hung up and waited.

Mr Klein identified at least two people of interest in the weeks that followed. He visited both, although not much came of those meetings. But in the spring, the medical examiner located Porter’s nail clippings. By Thanksgiving, they had a hit.

The DNA matched a genetic profile in the state database. It belonged to a man named Gregory Fleetwood.

Mr Klein gathered all the documents he could find on Fleetwood and began to read.

The Suspect

Dereke Porter and his sister Shaunna Faust at a diner in Bay Shore, on New York’s Long Island in October last year. They lost a cherished sister when Jasmine Porter was killed in 1996. photos:  Sasha Maslov/nyt

Twelve years before Porter was killed, another young woman was attacked.

She was Denise Wiggins, a 21-year-old with long, graceful limbs.

She had grown up along Davidson Avenue in the Bronx about a block from a steep, concrete staircase that leads to the 4 train.

On Aug 6, 1984, Ms Wiggins and her friend rode the train to Manhattan. Also on board was Fleetwood, a man she knew only as a loner who lived across the street from her.

Ms Wiggins did not see Fleetwood again until about 6pm, when she walked out of a corner deli and felt a large hand grab her from behind.

Ms Wiggins would later tell police that Fleetwood dragged her up to an apartment and held her there for about 13 hours, repeatedly raping her. At one point, she said, he choked her until she lost consciousness.

When she came to and he allowed her to go, Wiggins returned home, went to her room and shut her eyes.

She filed a police report, and Fleetwood was arrested Aug 8, 1984, and charged with first-degree rape. But Ms Wiggins said her parents feared that what had occurred would be a burden of shame for her. Fleetwood’s sister also urged her to drop the charges, she said.

She told police she did not want to proceed, and Fleetwood, who had been held at the Bronx House of Detention for six days, was released, according to city Correction Department records.

Ms Wiggins said in an interview that she had rarely spoken of Fleetwood until decades later when Mr Klein knocked on her door in the Southern state where she moved after the crime. She told him the whole story.

But that wasn’t all Mr Klein had to unearth. Three years after Ms Wiggins went to police, Fleetwood had been locked up again, city Correction Department records show. This time it was in the death of Linda Miller, a 25-year-old pregnant woman from Paterson, New Jersey, whose body officers found in the afternoon of Aug 7, 1987. She was lying on a bed in an apartment on Corsa Avenue in the Bronx where Fleetwood had been staying.

Fleetwood, who had called police himself, stood outside the building and told the officers his version of what happened.

He said he had met Miller on the street before they went to the apartment to use drugs, Police Department records show, and he admitted to smoking crack. The night quickly turned violent: Fleetwood described how he had repeatedly struck Miller before falling asleep. He said he later woke to find her dead.

Fleetwood told officers he had cleaned the room before they arrived.

The city’s medical examiner ruled that Miller died from strangulation, and police charged Fleetwood with second-degree murder. But Mr Klein learned that Bronx prosecutors had downgraded the charges to first-degree manslaughter as part of a plea deal.

Fleetwood went to prison on Dec 13, 1988, according to state Corrections Department records. He would remain there only until Aug 4, 1994, after the New York parole board authorised his release on the first day he was eligible.

He returned to Davidson Avenue.

The Murder

On Feb 5, 1996, Shaunna Faust, a property manager who lived in Fallsburg, New York, was sitting at her office desk in a nearby town just before 5pm. She was writing a card to her sister, Porter, and one to her sister’s son, Jeremy. Mother and son shared a birthday in 11 days.

Ms Faust and Porter — Jazzy, to her sister — were close: As children, Porter would braid her sister’s hair; they wore each other’s clothes; Ms Faust would make Porter laugh so hard that she could not catch her breath.

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The office phone rang, and for a moment, Ms Faust considered letting the call go to her answering machine. But she put down her pen and picked up the receiver.

“Shaunnie? Baby, it’s Mum. Your sister is gone.”

“What do you mean, Mum?”

“Jasmine is gone.”

Ms Faust hung up the phone, put the birthday cards in her pocketbook and rushed out the door.

In Long Island, Dereke Porter, Porter’s brother, heard the news. He had worried about Porter and Jeremy ever since they moved to Davidson Avenue. He found the block unsettling, and had recently helped his sister find a place to live on Long Island, closer to where they grew up. Jasmine Porter was days away from moving.

When he learned she was dead, Mr Porter fell to his knees and wept.

That evening, Jeremy sat at the 46th Precinct, waiting for Dereke Porter to pick him up.

Jeremy had told officers what he had seen: a man naked on top of his mother as she fought him off. He had heard her scream, “Jeremy, help!” Then, his mother told him to run.

When the man left, Jeremy said he went to his mother’s side. He knew she was hurt, and he knew people who were hurt needed ice. So he dragged a chair to the freezer, climbed up and grabbed an ice cube. He then went back to his mother and placed it on her forehead.

The Arrest

Last summer, Mr Klein was ready after 20 months of building a case against Fleetwood.

Mr Klein’s search for evidence and answers had been relentless. He had become close with the Porter family, answering their calls, even in the middle of the night. He kept a photograph of a smiling Jasmine Porter inside the case file because he wanted to think of her as she was in life.

An undated family photo shows Jasmine Porter, known to her sister as Jazzy. Sasha Maslov/nyt

He planned to be the one to arrest Fleetwood. Officers in the Police Department’s violent felony squad would normally be the ones to bring in Fleetwood, but Mr Klein wanted to oversee every element until the moment the handcuffs came out.

On the morning of Aug 8, Mr Klein and his colleagues pulled up in an unmarked car to Fleetwood’s apartment building on Laconia Avenue near Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, just 8km from where Porter was killed. They parked on the avenue and positioned themselves with a clear view of the entrance.

Six hours passed.

Then, Mr Klein spotted a lanky, greying man in a white T-shirt and gym shorts walking out of the building. It was Fleetwood. Mr Klein got out of the vehicle and approached.

At 188cm, Fleetwood was nearly eye to eye with Mr Klein. The now 66-year-old man did not look like the monster his pursuer had pictured. He was meek, calm, unassuming — and surprised.

Mr Klein told Fleetwood that there was a case against him and that they would speak at Bronx Homicide. Fleetwood did not resist as his hands were cuffed behind his back. Mr Klein then took Fleetwood’s forearm and led him to the police vehicle.

Fleetwood was charged with second-degree murder. Lawyers from the Bronx Defenders, who represent Fleetwood, declined to comment. His case is still pending.

The Meeting

Seven months later, at Peter Pan Diner on Sunrise Highway on Long Island, Mr Klein met the boy with the ice cube. Jeremy Porter is now 32.

In the years after Porter’s killing, Jeremy had lived with his grandmother on Dairyland Road in rural Sullivan County, New York, kilometres away from most of his uncles, aunts and cousins.

After high school, he had moved to Albany, New York, where he took college courses before relocating to Rochester, where he now works as a plumber and lives with his girlfriend of nearly seven years.

Like most people in his life, she had not known his mother was murdered until the arrest. Had it not been for that, he said, he might never have told her.

On March 9 in the diner parking lot, Jeremy, in dark glasses, a leather jacket and blue Converse sneakers, stood next to Mr Klein, who wore a suit and tie.

Mr Klein put his right arm around Jeremy’s shoulder. The men smiled for a photograph before they parted ways.

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