Bones in the backyard: How police cracked a grisly cold case

New York Published: Nov 05, 2021, 04:55 PM(IST)

(File photo) A backyard in the Richmond Hill neighbourhood of Queens Photograph:( New York Times )

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This week, in a case with all the makings of a prime-time television drama, law enforcement officials said decomposing bones they had found in a Queens backyard two years ago were Seitz’s long-buried remains, and they charged another Queens man with his murder.

On Dec. 10, 1976, George Clarence Seitz left his home in Jamaica, Queens, to get a haircut and never came back. His disappearance drew little attention at the time and was all but forgotten in the 45 years that followed.

But decades later, Seitz was at the centre of a much more modern mystery — one that captivated amateur online detectives and led investigators down high-tech trails seeking clues.

This week, in a case with all the makings of a prime-time television drama, law enforcement officials said decomposing bones they had found in a Queens backyard two years ago were Seitz’s long-buried remains, and they charged another Queens man with his murder.

The motive was robbery, the authorities said. Seitz, a reclusive 81-year-old veteran of World War I, had been known to carry all his money with him — often thousands of dollars. He was killed and dismembered, a Queens prosecutor said, before being buried in the backyard of the home of Martin Motta — one of the owners of the barbershop that Seitz had gone to visit that day in 1976.

Motta, 74, was arraigned this week and was charged with second-degree murder.

To crack the case, investigators crisscrossed the country and used genetic material from Seitz’s remains cross-referenced with public genealogy data from at-home testing services to find his surviving relatives.

“This was a 2 1/2-year investigation, we were relentless, and we did not stop,” Mike Gaine, a detective with Queens South Homicide, said Thursday at a news conference at Police Department headquarters.

The first break in the case came from a cryptic tip in 2019, when a woman called a detective in Queens and said she had lived in the borough in the 1970s and wanted to get something off her chest. When she was about 10 years old, she told officers, she had seen her mother’s boyfriend cutting up a body and burying it in the backyard.

The woman had waited decades to tell the police because she was afraid of intimidation and reprisals, police said. A day after her call, officers unearthed decaying human remains from a backyard lot in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, exactly where the woman had described.

The discovery, in all its lurid detail and historical sweep, was exactly the sort of true-crime mystery that can still captivate the public. Armchair detectives bandied the facts around in online forums, and real investigators dug into a case that appeared to provide precious few leads.

For nearly two years, the remains were unidentified, even after the city’s medical examiner put together a DNA profile of the victim. It was not until this February, when the Queens district attorney’s office and the police sought help from an outside laboratory, that investigators were able to locate potential relatives using advanced technology and publicly available genome data from companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com.

Seitz was identified not long thereafter. The ensuing investigation — which involved witness interviews and records searches spanning five states — led them to “crucial evidence” that linked Motta to the crime, the Queens district attorney, Melinda Katz, said in a statement.

It is unclear how or when Seitz may have made it to the shop, but investigators said he was killed by Motta not long after. His body was dismembered before being buried in pieces in the backyard of 87-72 115th St., where Motta lived at the time.

Motta made no statement at this arraignment, according to Daniel A. Saunders, a prosecutor with the Queens district attorney’s office. He was denied bail and is being held at Rikers Island. A lawyer for Motta did not respond to a request for comment.

Neighbours on the quiet residential block were stunned by the discovery in 2019, when police investigators and a police dog descended on the 115th Street property. John Guido, who had lived on the street for 40 years, said then that he had observed 13 officers — one in a white evidence suit — combing the backyard, and the dog frantically digging.

Guido said then that the home had been a rental property through the 1970s and had attracted “really bad guys.” The property was a blight on the otherwise quaint block, said another neighbour, Bill Corsa, who had also lived there for nearly four decades.

Lochan Rampersad, 55, has lived around the corner from the home on 115th Street for nearly 20 years. He had never known Motta, he said this week, but he vividly remembered the chilling day investigators had discovered Seitz’s bones in the very yard where he had once attended neighbourhood barbecues.

“It was kind of scary,” he said.

Michelle Jones said she owned a salon called “Sistas in Style” that operated in the space where Motta and his brother, Benjamin, ran their barbershop from the 1970s until 1985. She said that four NYPD officers visited her in early 2019, around the time Seitz’s bones were found in the backyard of Motta’s former residence. The detectives asked if she knew the Mottas.

Jones told the officers the truth: She did not. But during her time managing the space — 2016 to 2019 — she said that random men also stopped by asking if she knew the Mottas and telling stories about them.

“Crazy stuff, that they was into gambling, dogfighting,” she said. “Oh, my God, the stories I heard.”

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