New York, a late February night 1997. More than a few were taking a good stiff drink to keep out the cold, but that was not the reason why young Patrick McNeill was staggering along 2nd Avenue from the Dapper Dog bar. It’s not a pleasant sight to see someone so drunk that they fall against parked cars, stumble, fall to the street, bend over and throw-up. Yet that was what casual passersby saw this dark night; that and one other thing– a car, sedan in make, a dark sedan, had been double parked outside the Manhattan bar. After McNeill got back up and continued on down 2nd Avenue, the car started and slowly followed. When he lurched, fell against a parked car and got sick, the sedan stopped and waited, that is to say, the two people inside waited– a man and a woman. When McNeill continued on, the car slowly followed.
Soon McNeill turned left on 90th Street. Soon thereafter, so did the dark sedan.
Visually, that’s about it.
McNeill vanished. He never turned up back at Fordham University. Leaflets were handed out over Manhattan by his college friends. The leaflets carried the picture of a tall, athletic, handsome man 20 years old. There was the chance that he may have been in a hospital or have been taken in by someone who realized how sick he was.
Unfortunately, 50 days later on April 7, 1997, his body is recovered from the East River at Owls Head off Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge section. Officially, McNeill was declared to have drowned, due to being heavily intoxicated. It was noted that 90th Street heads toward the East River. Owls Head is 12 miles down the East River from 90th Street.
A New York detective, Kevin Gannon, did not agree. This case launched him onto a decade of investigation both as a cop and as a private eye. Due to his working relationship with McNeill’s family he was able to obtain much relevant evidence.
For starters, the body was found floating right side up. Unusual for drowning victims. He was only wearing his jeans, underwear and socks. McNeill had not only gotten sick on the street, according to Gannon he was also seen to be sick in the bar’s bathroom. On the surface, his blood alcohol level should have been found to be quite high, considering how drunk McNeill appeared to be. However:
“Patrick was recovered with a 0.16 BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration). Human bodies naturally produce alcohol after death (postmortem) as a part of decomposition. Considering that he was supposed to have been in the water for almost two months (50 days), his BAC should have increased by 0.04 due to postmortem alcohol production. This means that his actual BAC upon entering the water was probably more like 0.12 or around 6 drinks. This is not that drunk for a young, 6-foot, 195-pound man. It is also not consistent with the kind of behavior he exhibited in the bar’s bathroom or outside the bar right after that. If this were his true BAC upon leaving the bar, then something else made Patrick sick that night.”
Further study of the autopsy photos showed that lividity was not posterior, making it impossible that McNeill drowned and floated face up in the first 8 hours of death (before fixed lividity).
However, of far more importance than this the coroner noted (and the photos confirmed) that McNeill had marks “circumferentially around the neck there is a pattern which consists of numerous vertical lines evenly spaced (1/16″) around his neck in a pattern as if to suggest some type of binding.”
Something ponderous was also found. Gannon’s investigative team reports:
“Additional review of the autopsy photographs discovered that there were multiple fly eggs in the pubic hairs of Patrick’s groin area; they were in an arrested state of development. Gannon and the team concluded that Patrick had to have been dead on land for a period of time in order for the flies to lay their eggs on him before he was placed into the water. Simply put, flies do not lay eggs on a deceased human body in temperatures under 52 degrees, especially at night with NYC temperatures in the 40s (like when Patrick went missing). This makes Patrick’s case clearly a homicide and brings into question the Medical Examiner’s Office that made this determination.”
After consulting a number of pathologists and an entomologist (Dr. Lou Sorkin, American Museum of Natural History) it was unanimous that flies would not be able to lay eggs in such weather outdoors on a body floating in water. Gannon concludes: “Patrick had to have been dead indoors, in a environment warm enough for flies to survive during a New York winter, for a sufficient period of time for the flies to lay their eggs, which ceased their development upon entering the frigid water.”
Without becoming too macabre, further study of the autopsy photos revealed, according to Gannon’s investigation, that McNeill had been subjected to fire. His head and upper body had been charred black. His back had been protected and most of the area around the waist. Gannon speculated that McNeill had been bound to a chair or other firm backing, with a ligature around the neck, and subjected to torture by burning. The back was not scorched because it was protected from the direct flame. Dr. Cyril Wecht (Forensic Pathology) agreed the wounds were by fire and were ante-mortem.
Further examination revealed that the body had not been in the water for 50 days but rather perhaps less than 24 hours. This was especially seen in that there was no slippage of the skin on the feet, which should have happened in that period of time.
Gannon’s investigative team concluded:
“Given all of this, we posit that Patrick’s death was not an accidental drowning. He was stalked, abducted, held for an extended period of time, murdered, and disposed. After his torture and burning, he remained on-land for a short period of time in order for the houseflies to lay eggs in his groin area. During this time, decomposition started, and became visible on his legs. He was then transported to Owls Head and placed into the East River. Whereon, he was discovered and recovered within 24 hours, which explains the absence of skin slippage on his feet. Since Patrick’s murder and disposal only involved 3-4 days of the total 50 days that he was missing, then one must ask, ‘Where was Patrick for the other 47 days?'”
If this is true, we must tentatively deduce a few things here, some rather obvious deductions. Torture and brutality such as this, especially including fire, is not something that was done in Bensonhurst. Those who did this to McNeill had to have a rural house, somewhere where nobody could see that someone was being held captive, nor hear any hint of the torture. Since it is unlikely that any such killer(s) should wish to take the risk of transporting a dead, decomposing body through Manhattan, it seems logical to deduce that this rural house was on Long Island and the killer(s) therefore needed only to drive through the suburbs to get to Owls Head area. The body was dumped at night. It was unlikely the crime scene house was on Staten Island, since the body need not be transported at all.
The question naturally arises, why not dump the body elsewhere off Long Island? The answer appears to be that if the body was found anywhere else than at the entrance to the East River it would be proof that McNeill had been abducted and taken somewhere else in the interim. Therefore the purpose of the extra risk of driving through Brooklyn was to make it look as if he had drowned and drifted down the East River. (According to Gannon, however, the drift would not have taken the body to the area of Owls Head nor should it have taken 50 days to drift 12 miles.)
Altogether the deductions that can be made are these. There was more than one perpetrator, probably more than the man and woman seen in the sedan stalking McNeill from the bar. We can deduce they also had a van for transporting the putrefying body. We can deduce a rural Long Island location for the actual crime scene. The perpetrators were involved in something that required an isolated location. They engaged in unusual torture of a bound victim. They needed to keep the victim for quite sometime before engaging in their final torture. Heat was on in the house or in whatever indoor location the victim was kept. The perpetrators did not have a boat. If they had a boat I would think they could dump the body at sea and therefore McNeill would remain a disappearance.
There are problems, of course, with this entire scenario. For the flies to have laid their eggs where they were found I would suppose the body was nude. Yet from the descriptions of the charring it sounds as if the victim’s pants were on, thus protecting him below the waist from the fire. Why were they removed after only to be replaced? Or why were the pants lowered far enough to reveal the groin? This would mean that soon after the victim died the flies were present and laid eggs. The victim was then re-dressed or the pants raised and fastened. Why was the rest of the body not re-dressed? From the sounds of it, it would require touching too much of the charred, rotting areas. The only alternative is that McNeill was nude when alive and kept tied up in the days before the final torture. Not long before death the flies laid eggs. He was dressed from the waist on down before being tied to the chair by the neck and then tortured by flame. Being tied by the neck is not sufficient to restrain someone under torture. But there is no indication that the victim was bound ankles and wrists in order to believe he was completely bound to a rigid structure.
Logistically, this is all quite peculiar if not incredible. It requires that we believe that after the upper body was burned, and apparently the victim dead, the body was left alone for enough time indoors in a warm environment or that the victim had been only partially re-dressed just before his death, the flies having laid their eggs just before McNeill being dressed. Since fly eggs can hatch in under 24 hours, this all had to happen fairly close together sequentially. Then the victim was transported away to be slipped into the cold East River, thereby stunting the hatching of the eggs.
If the torture of the victim was for a few weeks (perhaps even 47 days) after he vanished, then just before he died he would have to be given the equivalent of about 6 drinks to get his blood alcohol to the level at which it was found. Apparently the reason was to fool the medical examiner into believing the young man had simply fallen into the river that February night after having been seen in what appeared to be a drunken state.
Gannon’s report does not note if the areas of the neck which indicated there had been ligature marks were equally scorched as the surrounding areas of skin. If the charring was due to ante mortem fire than the skin bound by the ligatures, being thus shielded from the flames, should not show equal signs of charring since this area of skin was protected by the bindings from direct effects of fire. If the skin areas show equal “scorching” then it would seem the fire, if that is the cause of the blackening of the upper torso and head/face, was post mortem after the ligatures were removed or the victim was untied (at least around the neck) while alive before the fire torture commenced. It would seem that the victim, if then being burned alive, would let out with wretched screams unless a gag is in place. If the face is equally charred all over then there was no gag since the mouth and parts of the cheeks would not show charring.
Such details as getting the victim drunk again to mimic in BAC the actions of the victim when last seen are not beyond the criminal mind, at least not beyond the sophisticated criminal mind, but they are at a contrast to the clumsy torching of the body and the leaving of telltale ligature marks around the neck. It assumes that the medical examiner will be fooled. Although this is Gannon’s assertion, it is not something that a perpetrator can anticipate with certainty. There are simply too many contradictions here to sort it out.
If McNeill’s death had been declared a homicide to begin with, how would the body’s condition have pointed to any perpetrator?
So far, it would basically have revealed more than one perpetrator and a rural setting for the crime. Maybe that was enough in itself. But if the perpetrators sought to disguise a homicide, they didn’t do too well a job; or McNeill’s death must be explained some other way.
Gannon’s theory suggests that McNeill had been drugged inside the bar, ostensibly by one of those in the car or by an accomplice in the bar who then made his/her way back to the crime lair. This is hard to believe. The stalking appears to be purely by waiting for the right type to come out of the bar. If premeditated drugging, how could the perps possibly anticipate that McNeill would come out alone? After all he was with friends. And being this sick, it would be only too natural to assume his friends would not let him walk off unescorted. What seems more likely is that it all came together this night. McNeill tried to make his own way back to Fordham. If he was stalked then it seems, once again, merely by a couple waiting for the right type of victim to present themselves.
At present, with the information released, it is not possible to backwork in detail and reenact in order to assert homicide or the manner of homicide.