On Jan. 22 at 10:30 p.m., her shift over, Elda Vasquez Adorno left the Red Robin restaurant in Ellicott City, hailed a taxi and, according to police, "just absolutely disappeared off the face of the earth."

Howard County Detective Thomas Lau quickly found a suspect, the woman's estranged boyfriend who lived in a rowhouse on Benninghaus Road in Northeast Baltimore.

The detective questioned him, searched his home and, on many evenings, sat in a plain-looking car on a dead-end service drive across the street, keeping the suspect's house just off York Road under surveillance. Most of the time, Lau and his partner parked near a manhole cover. Once, they parked directly over it, giving them an unobstructed view of the front door just 15 yards away.

What Lau didn't know was that the body he had spent so many months trying to find was 12 feet under that very same manhole cover, at the bottom of an underground cable vault floating in six feet of water. Two Verizon workers checking phone lines found it Oct. 2 when they lifted the 130-pound lid and peered inside for maintenance.

City police had a mystery: the decomposed body of a female dressed in a black fleece hooded jacket and black pants. She had on a generic work uniform common in the food industry, but with no restaurant identified. Her hands were missing. Her left foot, still inside a tennis shoe, was floating nearby. Police found a hoop earring next to her left ear and a gold necklace with an eagle charm around her neck.

Lau knew nothing of the discovery until the next morning, while he was at home, finishing coffee and preparing to take his wife out for a season-ending outing on the Chesapeake aboard his 35-foot sport cruiser, the Tia Maria, named after his Chihuahua. He flipped through the paper and stopped when he saw a photograph of a city police officer peering into a manhole.

His eyes went to a house in the background, the one he had watched for so many days and nights, the one at 543 Benninghaus Road, the one Victor Hernandez Cruz had rented when he had dated Adorno during their two-year, tumultuous relationship.

For Lau, it immediately confirmed what he had suspected for 21 months - 40-year-old Cruz had killed 30-year-old Adorno. He had accumulated a pile of circumstantial evidence. Now he had a body.

"My God, that's it, that's the case," he recalled thinking.

The outing on the Chesapeake would have to wait. He picked up the phone and called Baltimore City homicide.

The next day, Sunday, Lau and Baltimore Detective Daniel T. Nicholson IV had positively identified the body, helped by co-workers and a photograph showing her wearing the gold eagle charm, and had arrested Cruz and charged him with murder. Police said he confessed to strangling Adorno, and the next day officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center found him dead in his jail cell of an apparent suicide.

"I'm glad we have answers for the family," said Lau, who spent 20 years as an officer and homicide detective in Baltimore County before joining the force in Howard five years ago. "Unfortunately, we didn't have any good news."

The victim grew up in a rural hamlet in the southwestern Mexican state of Tabasco. She had two boys and three girls between the ages of 9 and 16, fathered by a man who left to seek work in 2001 but never returned. Adorno worked as a cook, but it didn't pay enough to feed her family, which includes her mother and her invalid father.

In 2002, Adorno crossed the border and made her way to Maryland, where she found work in Howard County at the Red Robin and Eggspectations restaurants. She sent money home to her mother, Josefa Adorno Cazango, who said in a telephone interview in Spanish that her daughter "left to help get ahead. She supported her children. She never abandoned them."

Cazango, 52, said Adorno had not seen her children since she left Mexico seven years ago, but had saved money and had planned to visit this year. She never made it home. Cazango said her daughter mentioned Cruz only once, saying she had met a friend.

When she learned he was suspected of killing her daughter and then apparently had taken his own life, Cazango said, "His conscience must have taken him." The mother said she sells tamales to get by, and of her grandchildren, "Sometimes they eat, sometimes they don't."

Adorno's body remains at the state Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore. Police told me her two employers reissued paychecks that Adorno didn't collect and are raising money to fly her body back to Mexico for burial.

Lau had suspected Cruz from the day the Red Robin manager reported her missing on Jan. 29, 2008, after she had failed to show up for a week. She had been last seen outside the Red Robin the night of Jan. 22 and co-workers reported seeing Cruz in the parking lot that night watching her leave.

Lau immediately focused on Cruz.

The victim's cell phone bill showed that Cruz had called her obsessively, but all calls stopped the day she disappeared. Lau said Cruz had stalked her at work.

In December 2007, Adorno reported that Cruz grabbed her, hit her in the head and tried to drag her into the woods behind her apartment on Footed Ridge in Columbia. A few days later, she took out a protective order and sought help from a county domestic violence center. But Lau said she continued to see Cruz.

Lau said that just a few weeks ago, search dogs from Pennsylvania spent a day combing the woods along Footed Ridge but found nothing. The detective said Cruz moved to Middletown, Ohio, and Lau was preparing to go there in the next month to further press the suspect.

He said that before the body was found, Cruz appeared "very calm and detached." Looking back, Lau now thinks he understands: "He knew while I was talking with him that we didn't find the body. He could stick to his story. As long as we didn't find the body, he was one up on us."

Lau told me he was so confident that Cruz was the killer that he was preparing to press prosecutors to charge him even without a body. That all changed on Sunday, Oct. 4, when Lau again confronted Cruz over the now-confirmed strangulation of Elda Vasquez Adorno.

"He seemed remorseful," Lau said.

For the first time, Lau was a step ahead of his suspect. "The case we had was insurmountable," the detective said. "We had him all the way."

Baltimore Sun reporter Nick Madigan contributed to this article.

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