Dinorah Miranda wasn't very close to her uncle; no one was. Still, when Jose Gonzales disappeared nearly five years ago, the family did what a family is supposed to do.
"Blood is blood," says Ms. Miranda, a 25-year-old resident of the Bronx, N.Y. "I remember when I would go to the police station and look at all the pictures of the John Does, it would make me so sad to know all of them had families, people who loved them."
Mr. Gonzales disappeared in December 1987. In the days thereafter, family members traveled to Baltimore to search for him and file a missing person's report. For months and then years afterward, they kept in contact with detectives in the Bronx as well, urging police to follow up on the case. For a time, they hired a private investigator.
"We didn't know what happened," recalls Ms. Miranda. "You fear the worst, but you don't know. We were hoping that maybe he just ran off and started a new life."
But 200 miles to the south, Jose Gonzales was consigned to a Baltimore homicide detective's case file as John Doe, the victim of a brutal slaying that police believe to have been drug-related. His bludgeoned body had been held for a time in a medical examiner's freezer, then cremated and buried by the state in a mass grave.
This summer, more through luck than perseverance, police finally charged a man with the murder. Now, after almost five years, John Doe has been laid to rest, and in his place, Baltimore detectives have penciled in Mr. Gonzales, a native of the Dominican Republic who apparently came to this city with a small parcel of narcotics, only to be robbed of it and slain.
The mystery began three days after Christmas 1987, when a body wrapped in a rug was discovered outside a Pimlico elementary school. Detectives searched the battered victim's belongings and found no identification. A New York City subway token offered the only clue to the victim's origins. Jewelry on the body suggested that robbery was not a motive.
As the days went by, every effort to identify the dead man failed. Fingerprints sent out nationally for comparisons failed to yield a match to any existing criminal history or missing person case.
Before he disappeared, Mr. Gonzales, who owned a corner grocery, had told his mother that he would be traveling to Baltimore. For that reason, Ms. Miranda says, her grandmother and uncle drove south to file a missing person's report. The Baltimore missing person's unit, however, has no report for a Jose Gonzales on file.
In New York, meanwhile, Ms. Miranda kept up with the case, repeatedly contacting detectives in New York's 44th precinct and prompting follow-up efforts. She went to station houses time and again over the next few years to view photo books of unidentified male victims.
"There were so many of them," she says. "You wonder where their families are."
The young niece says the missing man's wife, whose relations with the rest of the family had soured, was of little help. She told Ms. Miranda that there was no point in worrying about Mr. Gonzales; that she had heard her husband had been "killed in Baltimore and then his body cut up," according to police reports. The victim's wife eventually sold her husband's New York grocery and returned to the Dominican Republic.
Last year, Mr. Gonzales' elderly mother died, never knowing what became of her son.
Then, last spring, Baltimore Detective Oscar L. Requer received a phone call from the Baltimore City Jail and talked with an old informant, who wanted help on drug charges. The informant knew about the murder of a Dominican drug courier around Christmas 1987.
The detective checked case records and came up with John Doe. Police immediately began searching for two suspects identified by the informant and, after more than a year, the two were located in separate New York prisons. Confronted by detectives, one suspect gave a statement implicating the other.
The second man, identified by police as Robert Levi "Black Bobby" Robinson, 48, of the Bronx, denied knowledge of the murder but admitted to knowing a drug courier by the name of Jose Rodriquez.
Robinson said he was to accompany Rodriquez to Baltimore in December 1987 but the man disappeared. He gave the courier's address as 1560 Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
In fact, Mr. Gonzales lived at 1220 Grand Concourse, and police suspect that Robinson may have provided the false name and address to appear helpful while deceiving them. Robinson, who is now jailed at Riker's Island in an earlier case, has been charged in a detainer with the murder and is awaiting extradition.
But even the misinformation was helpful.
Armed with the fact that their John Doe was decidedly Hispanic and that he may have lived in the area of the Bronx's Grand Concourse, Baltimore detectives were able to work with New York police and narrow the field for a renewed search. In late summer, a resubmission of fingerprints to the national crime computer matched Mr. Doe to the missing Mr. Gonzales.
Ms. Miranda says the family is surprised to hear that police
believe her uncle to have been involved in drug trafficking; they knew him only as a store owner and businessman. Still, she says, they are relieved to finally have an answer to the mystery.
"Not knowing was very hard on my grandmother," she says. "I don't know why it took so long for us to find out, but it's good to know the men who did this are in jail."
Detective Requer, who plans to take Ms. Miranda a formal death certificate when he travels to New York for extradition hearings, agrees: "No matter why he was killed, his family sounds like good people. And they waited a long time to know how it ended."