Omar Soriano has waited 22 years for good news from police about his younger cousin Minerliz, ever since that winter day in 1999 when the 13-year-old never returned home from school.
Her body was found in a Bronx, New York, dumpster days after she went missing, prompting an exhaustive investigation that went cold but was reignited nearly four years ago.
“It’s been an open festering wound,” Soriano said, as he recalled the years he spent with his younger cousin, braiding her hair and playing together, and the times he walked her to elementary school. “Minnie,” as she was known, was like a sister to him.
Soriano got emotional at times Tuesday as city officials announced they had finally found Minerliz Soriano’s killer, identifying him as a former resident of the building where she lived.
Officials with the NYPD and Bronx District Attorney’s office said they solved the crime by using familial DNA, hitting a historical milestone for the city, which had never closed a case by using the investigative technique.
“This case brings together modern science and traditional investigative work along with the determination to never give up on justice for an innocent little girl,” Inspector Neteis Gilbert said at a news conference.
Joseph Martinez, now 49, was arraigned Tuesday on two charges of second-degree murder after a grand jury returned an indictment in the case. Martinez pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail until his next court date in March.
“He has no criminal history in his entire 49 years,” his court-appointed attorney Troy Smith told CNN. “This is shocking to say the least and he maintains his innocence.”
For investigators, cracking open the case took years of work. The NYPD’s Bronx Homicide Squad began to reexamine Minerliz’s case in February 2018 and granted CNN rare access to their efforts, including exclusive interviews with detectives and witnesses, a review of parts of the case file and access to pieces of evidence.
What emerged was a case that showed how science and old-fashioned detective work could provide justice for the “sweet” 13-year-old girl who wrote poems in her journals about love, rainbows and the stars.
Familial DNA match comes back to suspect’s father
What happened to Minerliz eluded detectives both current and retired. Over the years, NYPD investigators interviewed numerous witnesses, chased hundreds of leads, even collected DNA samples from more than a dozen potential suspects before the familial DNA match ultimately led them to Martinez, said NYPD Lt. Sean O’Toole, commanding officer of the Bronx Homicide Squad.
New York state approved the use of familial DNA in 2017.
The investigative tool allows law enforcement to run DNA through an advanced software program to see if the DNA matches any male relatives in New York’s database who have been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor crime.
By comparing the DNA from a sample of semen taken from Minerliz’s sweatshirt that she was wearing at the crime scene, the state was able to provide police with a familial DNA result, officials say.
It came back as a match to Martinez’s father, who was in the state’s DNA database for a previous conviction, according to Deputy Chief Emanuel Katranakis, who leads the Forensic Investigation Division at the NYPD.
Authorities were then able to home in on Martinez after detectives legally collected an abandoned DNA sample, resulting in a direct match to the sample taken from Minerliz’s clothing, Katranakis said.
“It is unequivocal that this individual deposited his DNA in the form of semen on the front of the victim’s sweatshirt,” he said.
Earlier this week, Martinez, of New Rochelle, New York, a New York City suburb, voluntarily met with homicide detectives to discuss the case, sources said, and he denied having any physical contact with Minerliz.
Martinez, or “Jupiter Joe” as he calls himself online, advertises a sidewalk astronomy business. He offers private and public astronomy observing sessions and party planning services.
Numerous local media outlets have featured Martinez setting up his telescope on subway platforms and trains, providing free lessons to New Yorkers — something his social media accounts show he was doing as recently as mid-November.
‘She was so bubbly, just a sweet person’
Minerliz, a seventh-grader living in the Bronx, was described by one friend as mature for her age, someone who took on many family responsibilities, like running late night errands, doing laundry and caring for her younger sister, Nadia.
“She was so bubbly, just a sweet person in general. She always wanted to help, especially with poetry. She was so natural at it,” her classmate Kimberly Ortiz said.
Ortiz said the two of them bonded in an after-school program. She remembers when she last saw Minerliz. It was February 24, 1999.