Little Girl Lost

by

03/04/2002

e. 111th st, ny, ny, 10029

Neighborhood: Outer Boroughs

Like the homes of many New Yorkers these days, the Illera apartment in Flushing, Queens, has a small American flag taped to the door. Six-year-old Vanessa answers the knock, her hair held back with a stars-and-stripes headband. She walks inside, past the Colombian flag in the kitchen, into the living room.

The walls of the Illera home are covered mostly with portraits of relatives, especially Cesar and Olga’s three children and six grandchildren. One photograph, an intricately framed black-and-white portrait of a 4-year-old girl, Paola, her hair hanging perfectly on her face, holds the place of honor, high above the television. It is the face of a girl whose violent death has robbed an immigrant family of the optimism that comes with chasing the American dream.

In June of 1990, the Illera family moved to the East 111th Street apartment building from Cali, Colombia. On her way home from school seven months later, 13-year-old Paola buzzed their 30th-floor apartment and was last seen walking into an elevator. Two hours later, a man walking his dog found her body under the Wards Island Bridge. She had been raped, strangled and stabbed.

Although they moved to Flushing three months after Paola’s murder, every January, Olga Illera and her family returned to East Harlem to hang posters seeking information about her murder. For eight years, they heard nothing.

* * * * *

The Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y, is 315 miles north of East 111th Street. The prison is a foreboding place, its 30-foot concrete walls looming high above the one-stoplight town.

Inside the 157-year-old prison — the third oldest in New York State — Arohn Kee resides in the Alternative Program Preparation Unit, a division for inmates who officials believe require protection from the general prison population. Kee’s neighbors include sexual predators, serial killers and corrupt police officers.

Kee, who last December was convicted of three murders, including Paola’s, and four rapes — 22 counts of murder, rape, sodomy and robbery all together — is nearing the end of the first year of the 400 he was sentenced to serve. Prison is a lonely place, Kee said, and his mother, who lives in the Bronx, has not yet visited him. Neither has his ex-girlfriend, who he said he loves unconditionally, despite her damaging testimony against him in court.

The trial turned Kee into a celebrity, as he graced the pages of the four New York dailies. An episode of Law and Order: SVU was based on his case. And fellow inmate Joel Rifkin, who admitted to killing 17 women on Long Island between 1989 and 1993, made sure everyone else knew about it.

“Joel Rifkin, he’s the biggest gossip,” Kee said. “He’s always cutting out the articles and stuff about other people.”

* * * * *

Every Sunday since Paola’s funeral on Feb. 2, 1991, Olga Illera has visited St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst, Queens. She has not returned to Colombia, and doesn’t plan to, because it would force her to miss a Sunday with her daughter. Sometimes the entire family goes along, sometimes she goes alone, but Olga’s Sundays always begin the same way: “First I have to go to Paola.”

When they were old enough, she began taking her grandchildren, who were told that the aunt they never met died from an illness. The family ruse lasted until Valentine’s Day, 1999, when Alessandra, Paola’s older sister, asked her son Jonathan to check the weather on television before they went to a park. Jonathan, now nine, became immersed in a report about an NYPD search for a man accused of raping several women and killing three. Paola’s picture flashed across the screen.

“You lied to me,” he cried. “You lied to me about Paola.”

Jonathan and his sister Vanessa could no longer be spared the details of Paola’s death. Jonathan translated for Olga and Cesar the New York newspaper articles on the search for the killer and the trial. The case evidence, gruesome to an adult, rolls off of Jonathan’s tongue like facts about the thirteen American colonies, which he is studying in the fourth grade. He understands. Vanessa knows too, but is not old enough to fully realize what happened. After the sentencing in January, when Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Joan Sudolnik banished Kee for the rest of his life, Vanessa turned to her family and said, “Now that he’s going away, when is Paola coming back?”

* * * * *

Arohn Kee speaks in thoughtful, intelligent phrases. Nearly a year after the high-profile trial, it is hard to imagine him going off on the rambling, two-day rant he offered in his own defense. Since he was moved to Clinton in February, Kee has spent his time learning to play the guitar, reading religious history books and preparing his appeal. He is a better person now than before, he said, thanks to a newfound religious devotion and a reorganization of his priorities.

He maintains his innocence, claiming the police focused on him because of pressure to solve a high-profile case in the wake of the shooting of Amadou Diallo, on Feb. 4, 1999. With the heat on, he left for Florida on Feb. 14. Five days later, Kee woke up in his Miami motel room — where he had gone until “things blew over” — to find it surrounded by police. He has not known freedom since.

Despite DNA evidence in the form of hair and semen recovered from six of the seven victims that matched his DNA — no DNA could be recovered from the seventh victim, 19-year-old Johalis Castro, who was burned beyond recognition — Kee said he didn’t rape or murder anyone. His worst crime, he said, was cheating on the love of his life, former girlfriend Karisha Hickman, who he said testified against him because of his bouts with infidelity. For that he is truly sorry.

The public defenders assigned to his case filed for an appeal, but Kee is convinced he can handle defending himself. In the last two years, he has developed both a scorn for attorneys and a small library of knowledge about the legal system.

“I just don’t trust lawyers anymore,” he said. A computer whiz and hip-hop music producer before his arrest, Kee said he knows enough about technical language from his days negotiating recording contracts to write the appeal. His plan is to ask the courts to try each of the murder cases separately. If that had been done to begin with, Kee said, “they would have acquitted me of at least two of them.”

* * * * *

Olga Illera’s English is good, better than she thinks. But she is not always comfortable speaking the language her grandson has been teaching her, and when asked what she would say to the man who killed her daughter, she switched back to Spanish. Her chin began to quiver as tears streamed down her face. Jonathan translated.

“I want to ask him why,” she said. “What did she do to him? Why did you kill my daughter? Four of the other girls he left alive. What were you talking about when you killed my daughter? I want to know if she was saying, Please don’t kill me, and if she was calling for me. Maybe she called for me, maybe she cried my name. I want to ask him what he did first, strangled or stabbed her. Those are the questions I ask myself every day and every night.”

She had hoped Kee, or anyone really, would answer some of her questions at the trial. Every day for ten weeks she watched, waiting. Sometimes she sat in the courtroom with Gregory Washington, whose daughter Rasheeda was raped, strangled and left to die in a stairwell in 1998. When the jury returned the guilty verdict on Dec. 20, they hugged. Washington asked her, “What do we do tomorrow?” Olga didn’t know the answer.

After the sentencing, Olga sent a message to Kee’s mother, who lives in the Bronx, but there has been no response. She wants Kee to call her, but she does not want to hear the details on the telephone. She will drive to Dannemora, she said, but only if she knows Kee will tell her about her youngest daughter’s last moments.

“If any day he wants to say something, I want to know everything,” she said. “I want to see him face to face.”

* * * * *

At 5 feet 9 inches and 150 pounds, Arohn Kee does not look threatening. There is no anger in his eyes, no danger apparent in his speech.

“If they let me out today, I wouldn’t be a danger to anyone on the outside or anyone’s daughter,” he said. “Except maybe John Irwin, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case. No, I would even leave him be. I wouldn’t talk to him though.”

Someday, Kee believes, he will be exonerated and released from prison. Until then, he has no parole date to look forward to, no number of days to count down from. When the guilty verdict was announced and he was led past the crowd of relatives, he could only muster the words, “Fuck all of you.”

At his sentencing, he said he was sorry, not for the crimes, but for cursing at the grieving relatives. Should Olga Illera or Gregory Washington go to visit him to ask about what happened to their daughters — as both have said they would like to — Kee claimed that he could not give them the details and answers they seek because he’s not the man who did it.

“There’s nothing I can say to those families that will bring their daughters back,” he said. “I pray every day to God to bring those girls back. I’m very sorry about what happened, but I didn’t kill anyone.”

For Olga, this is not enough. The DNA evidence, the ex-girlfriend saying Kee admitted the crimes to her, the rambling conspiratorial testimony made up her mind. Nearly eleven years after Paola’s death, the pain is still fresh. Olga Illera knows far too well that the hurt of a sudden, pointless loss of a loved one does not subside with time, especially with so many questions left unanswered.

“We don’t think about the future,” she said, “we just live day-by-day.”

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