To find Marleny Cruz, one must start 28 feet away, at a guidepost in the back of Block 21 at Forest Green Park Cemetery in Morganville, N.J. That is Row A of graves. Each grave is seven feet long, head to foot. You move forward, counting the rows. In D, according to a brass plaque, lies a beloved husband, father and grandfather. In Row F, a beloved mother.
Between them, in Row E, six feet beneath a patch of grass with no marker, lies Marleny. The strangers who arranged for her burial here, on May 26, 1998, did not buy a plaque. What would it have said? It had been three months since her 14-year-old body was found, bruised and strangled and sexually abused, on a Bronx curb, and she still had not been identified.
She did not fall through the cracks — she was born there. Marleny grew up in the Dominican Republic with a mother who would be killed in a fight over drugs. Marleny moved to New Jersey to live with her father, whom she later accused of abusing her. She bounced around foster homes, sometimes staying just a couple of days before running away.
Several weeks before her death, she landed on East 166th Street in the Bronx, with Alice McLeod, a warm woman whose five children are outnumbered about two-to-one by her current and former foster children.
“She listened to her music, and danced right here in the house,” Ms. McLeod said.
Marleny, who was not attending school at the time, often visited an aunt somewhere in the Bronx. On Feb. 23, 1998, she showered, ate breakfast and left, and when she did not return, Ms. McLeod filed a missing persons report with the police.
The body had been dumped on Valentine Avenue, in another precinct, and the dots were not connected. “She was discovered partially nude, laying on the ground in the cold February rain,” said Detective Malcolm Reiman. “Beautiful girl.”
Nobody claimed her. The police released a picture of the dead girl’s face, her mouth hanging open as if she were asleep.
Another missing girl’s mother mistakenly claimed the body. Poor Chante Smalls, family and friends said, she had so much going for her — before the police caught the mistake and took the body back, and Chante Smalls came home, alive and well.
The body was finally identified after eight months through dental records. Swabs taken from her vagina yielded incomplete DNA data. They were sealed in a rape kit and parked in storage with the Office of Chief Medical Examiner.
Last winter, during a rape investigation by the Bronx district attorney’s office, advances in technology gathered more microscopic data out of those same swabs. There was a match: Marleny Cruz died, the police said, at the hands of a suspected serial killer.
JAMES DAVID MARTIN, 12 years older than Marleny, called himself “Snake.” When he was about 6, his mother beat his little sister to death, and he was sent to Maryland to live, Detective Reiman said. In 1989, when he was 17, he lured a 15-year-old boy into the woods, strangled him and, in a flourish that made the murder national news and put the case on the cover of Sports Illustrated, stole his Air Jordan sneakers. It was later revealed that the victim had been sodomized.
Mr. Martin served seven years in prison and was released in 1996 to live in New York City with his mother. Two years later, and five months after Marleny was killed, a junkie on a park bench awoke to find a man groping her, and the man asked, “Do you want to party?”
The police caught him nearby and arrested him on suspicion of possessing crack. It was Mr. Martin.
A year later, back out of jail, he took a 17-year-old male relative to a rooftop in the Bronx, pulled the drawstring out of his sweat pants and looped it around the boy’s neck, Detective Reiman said. When the boy lost consciousness, Mr. Martin stabbed him in the neck with a knife and left the blade in, fleeing with $30.
The boy awoke, pulled the knife out and made it to the hospital, where, Detective Reiman said, he pleaded with his family: “James did this to me. Don’t let James in here. He’ll finish me off.”
Just then, “James walks in,” the detective said. He was arrested but was allowed to plead guilty to attempted robbery and was sentenced to five years.
In prison, he kept in touch with a woman, Cicela Santiago, who became his girlfriend and then his wife. And then, three months after his release in 2005, she became his next victim. They had moved to Allentown, Pa., where her body was found in a parking lot trash bin. She was strangled.
He pleaded guilty and was in prison in Pennsylvania when the DNA match hit. Detectives flew down to question him.
“He admitted to strangling Marleny,” Detective Reiman said. “He’s very friendly, very articulate, very easygoing, an easy smile. Soft-spoken. Intelligent.”
On Wednesday, detectives flew Mr. Martin, who is now 40, to the Bronx. Detective Reiman said he was investigating whether there were other victims. “I would say it’s a very strong possibility,” he said.
His arrest this week is both a triumph of forensic science and police work and, for a girl in an unmarked grave an hour’s drive from the gutter where she was dumped, something of a final indignity. Here lies Marleny Cruz, motherless, runaway, Victim No. 2.