Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Capture of Serial Killer Arohn Kee

Death in the Projects

Paola Illera
Paola Illera

Paola Illera, a dreamy 13-year-old, stood in the lobby of her East Harlem housing project on a chilly January afternoon in 1991 and pushed her family's apartment number on the intercom box. The girl, arriving home from school, nodded in close to the speaker and said, "Soy yo,"it's me.

Entrance to Illera's building
Entrance to Illera's building

Upstairs, her mother, Olga, buzzed her in by pushing the button to unlock the lobby door. She glanced at the clock4:45 p.m. Paola had stayed late at school, and it was dark outside. The routine interaction was the last that Olga Illera, a Colombian who with her family had immigrated to New York just seven months earlier, would have with her precious daughter.

The girl passed through the lobby door and got into an elevator, but she didn't make it up to the 30th-floor apartment. Her mother quickly sensed trouble, and she frantically searched the neighborhood for Paola, a slightly built, fair-skinned child with a mop of curly black hair.

Three hours later, a man walking his dog noticed a prone figure on a pedestrian promenade a few steps from the East River. It was Paola's lanky body. She had been raped, strangled and stabbed three times near the heart. Her lifeless body had been redressed and then dumped more than 10 blocks from her building along the busy FDR Drive beneath the Ward's Island Bridge.

When she was killed, the child was bearing the totems of her adolescence: a New Kids on the Block watch on her wrist and, in her pocket, a piece of chalk that she used to draw hopscotch grids. During the autopsy, the medical examiner noted curious elongated marks on her thighs. It seemed the girl had resisted the rape, and her attacker had pried her legs apart with such force that he left bruises on her thighs that mirrored the shape of his fingers. "She was beautiful and very delicate," her mother later said. "She wanted to be a lawyer. She was painting dreams."

"She was a young girl with many plans for the future," her uncle, Guillermo Ospina, told reporters. "She was very intelligent, very advanced for her age. She thought like an older person. She was very happy here because she loved English. She said, 'Uncle, every day I love it here more and more.' "


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