Seeds Of Doubt

At 10.30 a.m. on November 2, 1942, a New York resident named Fridolph Trieman was exercising his German shepherd in a remote region of northeast Central Park. When they reached a heavily wooded hill that overlooked Harlem Meer, the dog disappeared into some tall grass. This was a shady, dark area, not popular with visitors, and when Trieman went to follow he had to pick his way carefully beneath the low hanging branches of the dogwood and elm trees. Suddenly he stopped. Ahead, in a two-foot ditch, lay a young woman, fully clothed and obviously dead.

Puzzling Cause of Death

Establishing the cause of death wasn't straightforward. There was a trace of blood at the nose and some faint bruising around the neck, but nothing to indicate obvious signs of assault. The first detectives on the scene didn't even rule out natural causes. Then a sleeve torn from the coat at the shoulder was found several feet from the body. This changed the dynamic completely, raising the prospect of some kind of struggle. Sure enough, an autopsy confirmed strangulation as the cause of death. Apart from that, there was no other injury, nor any indication of rape. The medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Gonzales, put the time of death at somewhere between 9 and 10 o'clock the previous night.

The police were puzzled. Ordinarily the absence of a handbag or any money would suggest some kind of mugging, except that this woman was still wearing a gold chain and crucifix around her swollen neck. It was hard to imagine any mugger overlooking that.

The Body is Identified

Identifying the body proved surprisingly easy. The previous evening, at 6 p.m., Mrs. Viola Petecca had filed a report with the Missing Persons Bureau, saying that her daughter, Louise, had not returned home. Mrs. Petecca explained that just five months earlier, Louise, a 24-year-old waitress and Sunday school teacher, had married a diminutive Puerto Rican clothes presser named Anibal Almodovar. The marriage had been a disaster from day one. Almodovar was fond of using his fists to settle marital disputes and even fonder of chasing other women. Within weeks, battered, bruised and emotionally wrecked, Louise had limped back to the family home at 2090 Arthur Ave, the Bronx. Now her parents had to make the sad journey to the city morgue at Bellevue hospital to identify their daughter.

Abusive Husband

Police traced Almodovar to his home at 7 East 113th Street. When told of his estranged wife's fate, Almodovar just shrugged. So what! She was a crazy woman, he said. Why, she'd even swung punches at a couple of his girlfriends! Almodovar's narcissism and cold-blooded indifference to Louise's death sickened the interviewing officers and they immediately made him their number one suspect. Except that he had a seemingly ironclad alibi. The snappily dressed Almodovar said he had spent the entire evening of November 1 dancing up a storm in a Harlem rumba palace – he had ambitions to be a professional hoofer – with one of the very woman whom Louise had attacked. Furthermore, there were dozens of other witnesses prepared to testify to his presence.

This stopped the investigators dead in their tracks and they began widening the search for suspects. Until Louise's parents showed them a string of threatening letters that Almodovar had written to their daughter in the days before her death. The fury that dripped off every page convinced detectives to hold Almodovar as a material witness.

Breaking the Alibi

But there was still that seemingly impregnable alibi to overcome. However, when detectives visited the dance-hall, just a few hundred yards from the murder scene, someone had an idea. What if Almodovar sneaked out the back door without anyone seeing, went to Central Park for a previously arranged assignation with Louise, strangled her, and then crept back into the dance hall without anyone being the wiser? Tests showed it was possible. But without any solid evidence against Almodovar, he swaggered cockily out of the station, free as a bird.

Or so he thought.

Alexander Gettler (left) and Dr Charles Norris
Alexander Gettler (left) and Dr Charles Norris

Real Life CSI

Alexander O. Gettler's official title was New York City Chief Toxicologist, but that only tells half the story. He was one of the most brilliant all-round forensic scientists in America, a regular Gil Grissom. And as he studied the Central Park crime scene photographs, he noticed that the body was lying in some very tall grass. This set him thinking. At the time of Almodovar's arrest, his clothes had been analyzed by Gettler, and in the trouser cuffs and jacket pockets he had found some tiny grass seeds. Gettler now had high-powered enlargements made of the original photographs. Bingo! The stems of grass matched the seeds found in Almodovar's clothing. When confronted with this evidence, Almodovar blustered that he had not visited Central Park for over two years. Any seeds in his pockets, he said, must have been picked up on a recent visit to Tremont Park in the Bronx.

Gettler decided to test this story. He forwarded the seeds to Joseph J. Copeland, a former Professor of Botany and Biology at City College. It didn't take Copeland long to identify the grasses in question—plantago lanceolata, panicum dichotimoflorum, and eleusine indica. All were exceptionally rare and the only place in New York City where such grass occurred was Central Park. Moreover, Copeland said it could be further isolated to the rarely visited region were Louise's body had been found.

Confesses at Last

After nearly two months of parrying questions, Almodovar was utterly floored by Copeland's intervention. On December 23 he finally cracked and confessed. He had arranged to meet Louise in Central Park on the night of November 1 to discuss salvaging their marriage. But, said Almodovar, Louise had snorted her derision at his ambitions to be a professional dancer, jeering that he was a moderate amateur at best. The red mist had descended and Almodovar had wrapped his hands around her throat....

Later in court, he recanted this confession, claiming it had been beaten out of him by cosh-wielding detectives. All to no avail. The jury took just three minutes to found him guilty of first-degree murder. When sentence of death was passed on March 11, 1943, Almodovar, despite being shackled from head to toe, fought so hard that nine guards were needed to restrain him. At one point he broke free and threw himself on the floor. Still shrieking maniacally, he was dragged off to Sing Sing. (His intake photo shows him laced into a strait jacket.) His spell on death row obviously calmed him down. Six months later, on September 16, the man who thought he had committed the perfect murder walked – without saying a word – to the electric chair.

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