A Killing in the Night

updated 04/10/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Twenty-four years old, a graduate student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and beloved by her family and friends, Imette St. Guillen could have been anyone's daughter or sister. Her murder, on a night out in Manhattan, made headlines. Over the course of four weeks, the crime and its step-by-step investigation—from an anonymous caller's reporting a body on Feb. 25 to a grand jury's indictment of a suspect on March 22—unfolded like a Law & Order episode made tragically real.


Acting on a tip called in from a pay phone, police find a woman's body in a weedy area near a Brooklyn highway around 8:30 on Saturday evening. The victim, who has been strangled, is naked and rolled up in a comforter; her face has been wrapped in translucent packing tape. Worse, there are signs that she has been tortured and sexually assaulted: Her hands are bound behind her with plastic ties, her feet cinched tight with shoelaces, her genitals have been mutilated, and a sock has been rammed deep down her throat. Even veteran homicide cops are sickened by the level of violence. "You don't see innocent people tortured like this very often," one law enforcement official tells PEOPLE. "We're dealing with a very sick, sadistic person. No one is sleeping much right now."


The next day, Sunday, a cousin of St. Guillen, whose worried family has been trying to reach her, reads a newspaper report about the dead woman and goes to police. She identifies Imette. In the days that follow, St. Guillen emerges as a kind of ideal vision of a young New Yorker—warm, ebullient, intelligent—who had quickly become infatuated with her adopted city. "Just going and hanging out in New York, that's what Imette loved," says family friend Katrice Paulding.

Yet nothing was more important in her life than her family. The daughter of a drug counselor, Seimundo Guillen, who died in 1990, and Maureen, a receptionist, Imette was uncommonly close with her mother and her older sister Alejandra, 29, a nonprofit staffer. Although they both had their own bedrooms, Alejandra recalls that after their father's death she and Imette slept in the same bed together almost every night until Alejandra went off to college. "She was a person who was so full of love," says Alejandra. "Imette was one of the last people who actually wrote letters and cards. She just believed in personal connection with people." More than 1,900 mourners will attend her funeral and wake in Boston later that week.


By now investigators have established that St. Guillen had been out drinking Friday night with a friend, Claire Higgins, at the Pioneer Bar, a popular spot in lower Manhattan. Around 2:30 a.m. Higgins had decided to call it a night, but St. Guillen told her she wanted to stay out later. Police have no idea what happened to her after that. There is speculation in the press from police sources that she may be the victim of a serial killer.


Police determine that St. Guillen went to the Falls, another popular bar near the Pioneer. Initial interviews turn up only that she had a few drinks and left alone about 4. Investigators—who have quickly cleared those close to St. Guillen, including her boyfriend—are stymied, with no apparent motive and no suspects. On cable TV a debate breaks out: Was Imette courting disaster by being out alone, drinking, at 4 a.m.?


St. Guillen would have turned 25 today. Cops issue a nationwide appeal for reports of any similar cases, in hopes of spotting a connection. Over the next few days, dozens of officers comb the area where the body was found in a desperate search for clues. According to the Daily News, forensic tests have found that the killer left no fingerprints on the body or the packing tape.


The case breaks wide open. The manager at the Falls that night, Danny Dorrian, whose family owns the bar (as well as Dorrian's Red Hand, the bar on the Upper East Side where 20 years before Jennifer Levin had met "Preppy Killer" Robert Chambers), suddenly changes his story. He tells cops he had the bouncer at the bar, Darryl Littlejohn, escort St. Guillen out around 4 a.m. because she was intoxicated—and that Dorrian may have heard a muffled scream shortly thereafter. Cops are furious at the delay; crucial evidence could have been destroyed. "It's been a frustrating investigation for a hundred reasons," says one law enforcement official, "but that kind of 'cooperation' does more damage than you can imagine." Cops put a tail on Littlejohn, who evidently got his job at the bar by claiming to be a federal marshal.

Littlejohn phones a Daily News reporter to complain that he is being harassed. "I have nothing to hide," he insists. But he does have much to explain when police begin questioning him later in the day. Littlejohn, who has used several aliases, is on parole for the armed robbery of a Long Island bank and has an extensive criminal record, including convictions for drugs. Though Littlejohn lives in Queens, investigators traced his cell phone to an area in Brooklyn at 6 a.m. on the morning in question, close to where St. Guillen was found. Authorities hold him on a parole violation for breaking his 9 p.m. curfew.


Cops swarm Littlejohn's home and later search the interior of his two vans. Police sources also say the blanket used to wrap her body came from the Falls. What's more, cat hairs have been found on the blanket and the Falls has cats in residence. But are they the same cats? Only one or two laboratories in the country are equipped to analyze feline DNA. "I'd put money on the fact that the cat hair from the Falls is in that lab right now," says Lawrence Kobilinsky, a professor at John Jay. "The hair is a major linkage between the bar and Imette's body."


The case takes a step back when tests show that a semen stain on the blanket was not Littlejohn's. On another front police investigate the possibility that the suspect could have committed as many as two other rapes during the past year, where women were abducted from the street by a man matching Littlejohn's description and attacked. That theory suffers a setback when police put Littlejohn in two lineups and the victims cannot identify him.


At a dramatic press conference, the normally cautious police commissioner Raymond Kelly declares, "Today we're announcing a break in this case." Tests have come back on the plastic ties used to bind St. Guillen, showing that traces of blood invisible to the naked eye match Littlejohn's DNA. According to Kelly, the odds of it not being his blood are "one in a trillion." But the result may not be quite the slam-dunk that authorities hope. Normally 150-160 blood cells, which would be evident to the naked eye, are used to run a DNA test. Given that the trace recovered from the plastic ties was supposedly invisible, experts assume that scientists on the case have used a new method called low-copy-number DNA, which has been pioneered in New York and which can show a match with only five or six cells. "This is a procedure that sometimes gives spurious results," says Kobilinsky. "Even though it is valid science, it is new enough to be contested."

Mindful of that, Kelly also announces that two witnesses—homeless people who live in a park across from the Falls—have been found who allegedly saw someone resembling Littlejohn bundling St. Guillen into his van. "She is saying, 'Why is he kicking me out?'" one of the witnesses, Miguel Angel Cruz, tells PEOPLE. "Then he shut her door and got in and drove away fast."


After hearing evidence for a week, a grand jury indicts Littlejohn, who pleads not guilty. Investigators have found rug fibers, as well as rabbit and mink fur, recovered from the packing tape, that are consistent with samples taken from Littlejohn's home. St. Guillen's family and friends are present for the indictment. "She saw the best in people and wanted the best for the people she loved," says best friend Higgins. Alejandra has offered her family's thanks to everyone who had helped and paid tribute to her sister. "She had a passion for life and a thirst for seeing the world and learning new things," she said. "With Imette's death, the world lost something very special far too soon."

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