If you had a magic key to somewhere, where would you choose?
Fort Knox? The Federal Reserve? That vault where they keep the secret recipe for Coca Cola? If you ever get offered a magic key, here’s my advice: the New York Police Department’s case files.
Perhaps not the most financially remunerative idea, but certainly among the most interesting. And disturbing.
Working backwards through the NYPD’s cold cases is like walking away from the light into a gradually darkening corridor. At the start, a somewhat functional computerized system. Then, typewritten notes and stenotype paper. At the beginning, handwritten police reports, some of which detail unsolved crimes more than a century old.
Much of this stuff has never been digitized. Nobody ever looks at it. I had access to the full files for a brief period of time. For a couple of months, they were my recreational reading.
And yeah, I noticed things.
On January 16, 1938 there was a boiler room accident in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. A leaky valve exploded, flooding the room with steam and killing three people. Two were engineers. One was a girl, between 12 and 16 years of age.
Who was she? That’s the $64,000 question. We’re not sure. One of the engineers’ daughters? If anyone could figure it out, it didn’t make it into the police report. All of their faces were badly disfigured.
The police did find some fingerprints on a doorknob – a big fingerprint, one of the men’s, and a smaller one, presumably the girl’s. These were entered into a database as ID.
On February 28 1964, a train derailed near Newark. This incident’s almost forgotten now, but it made headlines coast to coast when it happened. Dozens were killed. If memory serves, city planner Robert Moses mentioned the incident in his defence of not building a light rail out to Staten Island.
The train’s brakes were found to be faulty. The railway line blamed the subcontractors. The subcontractors blamed the regulators. The regulators blamed the union. Everyone pointed the finger at someone else, except for the volunteers who carted the bodies away. There was no shirking that job.
They did a pretty good job of matching up body parts, but there were some leftovers. A stray piece of skin here. A part of a limb there. Somewhere in that twisted hail of metal, the tip of someone’s finger was cut off and landed in a ditch, a hundred yards away.
Trying to work out whose fingertip it was, they fingerprinted the tip and matched it against various databases.
And got a result so astonishing that many of the people involved simply refused to believe it.
It was a perfect match for the girl who died in the boiler accident in 1938.
This should have been the subject of a much bigger investigation than it was. Everyone involved was too busy digging themselves out of a pile of class-action lawsuits.
The weird duplicate fingerprints were quickly forgotten. Fodder for the National Enquirer and its ilk. And me.
The final incident happened on April 11, 1998.
A fire began on the upper floor of a Queens apartment. It burned for hours, billowing smoke like a Roman candle. After it burned itself out, firemen rappelled in, and found a scorched black interior, and several bodies, cooked to charcoal.
The dying people had left fingerprints on the smoke on the wall. None were very good. Most of them tentatively matched with the family that had been living there, but one was matched with a certain set of fingerprints from 1938 and 1964.
The girl’s fingerprints.
The bodies were too damaged to learn much. Dental records were taken, and one of them seemed a probable match for a girl not younger than 10 and not older than 20. All the tenants recorded as having lived there were in their thirties or older. Again, we have no idea who this girl was.
This fingerprint data is utterly incredible. The NYPD has offered no formal explanation. The final words on the case writeup are “unexplained coincidence.”
And make no mistake, this is something that needs an explanation. Absolutely needs it.
The odds of even two people having the same set of fingerprints are to the order of 1 in 64,000,000. Much less three girls, of a similar age, all living in New York, all dying in New York, all in violent accidents.
But there’s something else going on here that the NYPD hasn’t noticed yet.
January 16, 1938. February 28 1964. April 11, 1998.
See it yet?
These dates are all precisely 11,000 days apart.
I wish the NYPD would get their shit together. I wish they’d fully document and cross-reference all this stuff. With a 21st century system, they might discover additional patterns not even I could find. I wonder if we know where the 1938 girl was buried? If we could get access to her remains, there might be some usable DNA there. We could get some dental records. We could learn so much.
And we could be ready.
Ready for what, you ask? I’m surprised you need to ask.
May 23, 2028.
As I write this, we’re 4,476 days away, and counting.$i;?>
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