Christine Ann Diefenbach (May 15, 1973 – Feb 7, 1988)

Christine A. Diefenbach / Photograph NYPD

Photograph NYPD

Christine Ann Diefenbach (May 15, 1973 – Feb 7, 1988) is the Case of the Month for February 2019. Her murder remains unsolved.

Introduction

It has been 31 years since Christine Ann Diefenbach (14) was murdered in Richmond Hill, Queens County, New York.

Christine was a shy, artistic ninth-grader at Intermediate School 217 in Queens County. She loved drawing and horses. She was a fan of Wayne Newton and David Hasselhoff, and would pour over the Sunday newspaper’s Parade Magazine looking for articles about her idols.

Richmond Hill was a working-class neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens County. Christine lived with her dad, John, her mom, Margaret, and her 5-year-old sister, Patricia. Their modest row house in the quiet neighborhood on 125th Street was just a few blocks away from Lefferts Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue. Those were the busier streets that were lined with stores.

The Time Period: Queens County, NY in 1988

Queens County, New York, was once filled with one-family homes that had small green lawns. By the decade that Christine grew up there, it had changed. Drug violence fueled by the crack epidemic seeped into the once stable middle-class borough, peaked in the 1980’s, and ravaged the neighborhoods that were once considered quiet and safe.

According to an article published in the New York Times, murders had increased 5.8 % citywide from 1987 to 1988, of which 293 murders in Queens County alone in 1987, an increase from 234 murders in 1986. (Crime Totals Confirm Fears in Queens, NY Times, April 21, 1988).

Increasing violence and crime meant that police was stretched thin and law-abiding citizens who had the misfortune of witnessing the drug dealing or murders were scared into silence by the violence that enveloped their neighborhoods.

Christine Diefenbach became a victim of that violence. Teams of NYPD officers and detectives from the 102nd Precinct and the MTA (transit) police worked around the clock to investigate her murder, interviewing neighborhood residents, checking leads, raising reward money, and asking the public for information. And then the unthinkable happened. On February 26, 1988, around 330 am, police officer Edward Byrne was executed as he sat alone in his blue and white police car. He was just 22 years-old and had been on the job for just two years.

From Wikipedia: “Byrne was sitting in his marked patrol car on 107th Avenue and Inwood Street in South Jamaica, Queens. He was assigned to keep an eye on the house of a local Guyanese immigrant named Arjune, who had repeatedly called the police to report on illegal activities on his street. The house had been previously firebombed on two separate occasions and the owner repeatedly threatened. Despite this recent violence, and an ongoing crime wave overtaking South Queens, Byrne was assigned to this post alone.

As Byrne sat in his car another car pulled up beside him. Two men exited, and one of them knocked on the passenger side window of Byrne’s cruiser while a second man crept up on the driver’s side and shot Byrne in the head five times, with a .38 caliber pistol. Two other men acted as lookouts. Byrne later died at the hospital.”

And suddenly, all the attention that had been dedicated to find Christine’s murderer shifted to hunt down officer Byrne’s killers. Eventually “the four killers were identified as Philip Copeland, Todd Scott, Scott Cobb, and David McClary. All four were apprehended within a week of the murder and were all eventually convicted: Copeland, Scott, and Cobb were convicted after trial of Murder in the Second Degree and Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Second Degree; McClary was convicted later as the shooter, in a separate trial, of Murder in the Second Degree and Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Second Degree.

All were sentenced to 25 years to life by Queens Supreme Court Justice Thomas A. Demakos, who had presided over the trials. Cobb, in a videotaped confession which was played at trial, provided graphic details of the killing and told of the bragging of the participants in the aftermath, as well as indicated that the killing was ordered from jail by drug dealer Howard “Pappy” Mason.

This, along with the changing tide of crime that continued to wash over Queens County, meant that without witnesses, without leads, Christine’s case slowly began to grow cold.

NBC Collage / Christine A. Diefenbach

NBC

Case overview

Shortly after 730 am on February 7, 1988, Christine put on her jacket and gloves and left her home to walk the five blocks to the newsstand on the corner of Lefferts Boulevard. She had money in her pocket to buy the Sunday newspaper and a gallon of milk. She had told her dad where she was going. He said it was ok and he went back to sleep for another hour.

When she didn’t return home, John got into his car and drove around the neighborhood, looking for her. Hours later, his attention was drawn to a group of police vehicles. They were gathered on 89th Avenue, around the corner from his house, by the wooden steps leading up to the railroad tracks.

The Crime Scene

Christine’s body was found by two men, a 23 and a 50-year-old man, at the top of a set of wooden stairs that led from 89th Avenue up to the tracks where the Long Island Railroad had operated. Police have not identified these two men and I have not read anywhere that those men were eliminated as suspects in this murder.

Christine’s cause of death: ”crushing injuries of the skull and extensive lacerations of the brain.” She had numerous cuts and bruises on her face and throat, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the city Medical Examiner’s office. She still had her newspaper money and a piece of gum in her pockets.

Some newspapers note that in 1988 this section of the railroad was abandoned or not in use at the time of Christine’s murder. The wooden stairs led from 89th Avenue up to the railroad tracks. In 1988, there were no fences, no locked gates, no security at all to separate the neighborhood from the potentially dangerous railroad tracks.

Everyone in the neighborhood knew that you could take the stairs and cross the tracks. It was a popular shortcut to Lefferts Boulevard. Taking it would have cut Christine’s time outisde in the cold in half.

To this day, the wooden staircase remains on the Long Island Railroad’s property however, now it is surrounded by a tall, locked, metal fence and a gate, cutting off access to the tracks from the street.

In 1988, the area surrounding the railroad tracks was filled with abandoned train cars. Those were used by drug users and dealers, vagrants, and others or by people looking for a place to sleep off the alcohol after leaving the bar ‘Glenn’s Tavern’ which was down the block.

Investigation

Christine was found with her jeans around her ankles. Her top was torn open and one of her shoes was found a few feet away from her body. Authorities believe the crime was sexually motivated however, there is no evidence that Christine was raped. She was wearing gloves as it was cold outside. Police knew she fought back but because she wore gloves, they could not find any skin under her fingernails. She was pronounced dead at 1245pm.

As Christine was a fan of Wayne Newton and David Hasselhoff, it became her Sunday morning routine to get the paper from the newsstand like she did the last day of her life. Someone might have watched her, learned her routine. Or, someone saw an opportunity.

Just like others in the area, Christine used the Long Island Rail Road tracks as a shortcut to get to the newsstand and other stores. Her father had told her not to do so but police believe that was exactly what she did that morning. Instead of staying on the sidewalk, she cut diagonally from 89th Avenue to Lefferts Boulevard along the railroad. She never reached the top step of the stairs. Somewhere on those stairs, she met a criminal. Her father has always blamed himself for not getting up that Sunday to drive Christine. If he had been there, she might not have been killed. But there are no guarantees in life.

No weapon was found at the scene, nor is it conclusively established that a weapon was used. Cold Case Squad Detective Thomas Wray worked on Christine’s case until his retirement from the NYPD in 2006. He speculated in an interview with the News 4 New York I-Team on January 8, 2018, that Christine could have been kicked or physically beaten to death. The link to this article is below under resources.

Modern technology

Is there was ever a time to review the Diefenbach murder, it is now. We have touch DNA, phenotyping, mitochondrial DNA, genetic databases, and more DNA collecting methods.

The NYPD is trying to review the case which I hope includes exploring all the old but properly preserved evidence for any materials that might hold DNA. They did review the case in the mid-90s but forensic technology has made enormous progress since then. In the mid-90s, police collected DNA samples from two men who might have visited the crime scene. However, you need to be able to tie these men to Christine.

I can imagine that the waistband of Christine’s jeans is an ideal place to search for touch DNA as they were yanked down. Depending on how her top was torn, the fabric edges too should be checked. I have not seen any information about Christine’s jacket that she wore that morning. Christine’s gloves can be a treasure trove too especially if she scraped her attacker’s face. What is needed here is the M-Vac to collect materials for DNA testing.

I would recommend using the Bardole DNA Collection Method. It is a new method that separates and isolates DNA material from small evidence items. The application could include many items that were once difficult to sample like shell casings, fingernail clippings, rings, gun parts, keys, bomb fragments, and other small items such as a belt hoop on a pair of jeans. Remember that the M-Vac can collect materials from object where the traditional cutting and swabbing methods were not successful. The M-Vac can be used on porous materials, concrete, leather, etc.

Where we used to need vials of blood a pin drop will do now. Discarded materials with saliva (maybe on Christine’s gloves?) or other bodily fluids can now be examined, entered into ancestry databases, and by using familial DNA the authorities can zoom in on people who share the same DNA characteristics. Then they narrow down the pool of people by using extensive background checks, surveillance, and possibly testing a discarded item for DNA.

With phenotyping we can get an image of what the DNA bearer most likely looked like at that time and that result can be age-progressed. In the case of Jennifer Bastian, the image gave people an idea what the murderer looked like. DNA sealed it. We now have a conviction.

The 1989 Anonymous Phone Call

In 1989, an anonymous phone call was made to police from Glenn’s Tavern, located just a few blocks from the railroad tracks and the spot where Christine’s body was found. The caller mentioned a conversation he had with another person in the bar about a year before the call, so 1988. This other person was known as “Tennessee.” He said he f***ed up a young girl on the railroad tracks and thought he may have killed her. The caller also said that “Tennessee” had been at the railroad tracks with a friend at the time of the attack.

“Tennessee”

Cold Case Homicide Squad Detective John Roberts mentioned as person of interest the man who is referred to as “Tennessee” as indicated above. “Tennessee” was a local man with a history of violence but when asked he claimed to have an alibi for the Diefenbach murder. Authorities hope that after so many years some of his friends will break their silence and either confirm that alibi or, tell the truth.

Time can hurt you and time can help you,” said Roberts. “Time can hurt you because people move away, witnesses die. But time changes people, too — and that can work in favor of the investigators. They can be in a totally different place in their life,” he explained.

They can say, ‘Hey listen — it’s time. I’ve carried this around for a long time. God forbid something happens to someone in my family. I’d want someone to do the right thing.”

Now according to the papers, police tracked down “Tennessee” and that friend and collected DNA samples from both. They wanted to know if there was a match between these two and evidence found on Christine’s body. What exactly that evidence is has not been made public. Alas, the technology from the mid-90s could not advance the case. But we are in 2019 now with major advancements made in forensic sciences. But there’s more.

Christine Ann Diefenbach book SHThe Restless Sleep

Christine’s case was profiled in Stacy Horn’s book, The Restless Sleep, that followed detectives from the NYPD’s Cold Case Squad, including Detective Thomas Wray, who investigated Christine’s case until he retired.

I have that book. The Chapter about Christine starts at page 38.

Horn’s description of the case is disturbing.

She starts off by calling Christine childish for being a fan of singer Wayne Newton and actor David Hasselhoff. Christine was just 14 years old, what do you expect?

On page 39, Horn continues that Christine’s attacker wanted to “f*** her. And when he can’t, he beats her so badly he tears off one of her ears, breaks up her skull, and rips into her brain.” That is a very graphic description with a part that I have not seen elsewhere in the public domain: a torn off ear. Is that true?

She continues with another detail that I have not seen elsewhere: “her underwear is gone.” Her jeans were yanked down so are we to believe that somehow Christine’s underwear was torn or cut from her body and taken away by the attacker? If so, did they leave scratches on her skin? In that case, they might have left touch DNA.

Horn then continues for pages to describe police officers to only return to the Diefenbach case on page 47. And then we get more conflicting information: “One name stood out. Trucker [not his real name]. Two years after Christine was murdered, an anonymous drunk called the 102 (precinct) from Finnegan’s Bar, an old bikers’ bar located two blocks from where Christine was found. The caller had been drinking next to this guy Trucker, who said he killed Christine after a fight with his girlfriend, Carolyn.”

So now we have a person of interest called “Trucker” and a bar called “Finnegan’s” and a girlfriend called Carolyn and a drunk anonymous caller and a two-year period as opposed to one to add to our lists. Horn continues: “Trucker bragged that he f***ed her up pretty good” the caller said. This detail is the same as above.

According to Horn’s book, police did talk to Trucker and Carolyn. Carolyn said she had broken up with Trucker before the crime happened. Trucker didn’t show up at the police department when he was supposed to on May 3, 1991. And then Horn writes that “detectives never spoke to Trucker again.”

Christine Ann Diefenbach book SHEven if Trucker is Tennessee, we hear for the first time about a girlfriend and a drunk caller. In other articles the caller is not referred to as drunk. When was the call made: one year or two years later?

According to the book, the drunk caller’s tip was not given much weight as some details didn’t match. For example, Trucker said he killed Christine around Easter and we know it was in February. However, Trucker has a history of violence against women and didn’t show up when he was supposed to. Can we eliminate this “Trucker” 100% as a suspect? Do we have his DNA for comparison purposes?

Horn continues to describe Christine’s family life as miserable as her mom is a Jehovah’s Witness and notes that “Christine had a loner-in-training childhood.” She shows utter disrespect for the victim.

Another detail not found elsewhere pops up on page 49: Christine wore corrective footwear as a child “which made her walk pigeon-toed” and then Horn continues to say it “irrevocably singled her out as a freak and taken her out of the popular-girl running.”

I deeply resent how Horn describes the victim and her family. She shows no respect or compassion for Christine.

Did Christine still wear corrective footwear the morning she was killed and if so, was it found? We know a shoe was found but did it have corrective materials?

Another detail Horn mentions that I did not see anywhere in the public domain: there is a brother. I quote: “She told her brother she wanted to be either a movie star or a director for Wayne Newton.” And then Horn continues to mock Christine again for her teen-crush on Newton. She conveniently waltzes over the fact that Christine was a teenager with age-appropriate dreams and plans.

On page 50, Horn describes how Christine had an imaginary friend based on the movie “the Dark Crystal” by Jim Henson. I quote: “Christine named her imaginary friend Cyren Careen.” I think Christine made a combination of characteristics that she loved from the movie’s main characters. She then formed them into one person. Horn claims to quote from Christine’s diary but this cannot be checked. There is no character called Cyren Careen in the Dark Crystal (I checked as I have the movie. If I missed it, let me know) but the main characters are Kira and Jen. Combine them phonetically and you could make it into Cyren.

In the book her school friend Yuri Forbin describes Christine much more favorable. He said that Christine was shy, not outgoing, but kind, and could tell when her friends were frustrated. She would help him in math by going over the problems and explaining it in steps he could follow.

A Plea to the Community

Christine’s murder has been unsolved for 31 years. Detective John Roberts from the NYPD Cold Case Squad is currently assigned to investigate her case. According to a New York Daily News Article published on December 20, 2018, he remains hopeful that the anonymous caller will come forward or, that friends of the man who made the startling confession would break their decades-long silence and help solve the case and bring answers to Christine’s family. But no matter what happens, let’s write about victims and their cases with respect and dignity.

Thank you for remembering Christine Ann Diefenbach with us.

Contact information

If you have any information about Christine Ann Diefenbach’s case please call the NYPD Crime Stoppers Hotline at 1-800-577-TIPS.

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In the series “Case of the Month” I highlight old cold cases. These posts are not an in-depth analysis and of course, often more information can be found online and in newspaper archives. The goal of these posts is to get the cases back in the spotlights, to get people talking again, and if anything to make sure that we do not forget the victims. Just because their cases are unsolved does not mean that we can forget about them.

If you have any thoughts about this case I encourage you to post them on your own social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. Every time that we mention Christine Ann Diefenbach’s name online we enhance her digital footprint.

We must make sure that she keeps her web presence if we ever wish to find answers in her case. You can help by linking to or sharing this post.

Thank you for remembering Christine Ann Diefenbach with us, rest in peace.

Rest in peace Officer Edward Byrne.

Resources

The NY Times

NY Daily News

NBC New York  In this article, you will see the name “Cherokee” mentioned. I am convinced that “Tennessee” and “Cherokee” are references to exactly the same man. Upon inquiry with the authorities, they prefer that we keep calling this man “Tennessee” as that name will ring a bell with people who know the case from back then.

Queens Chronicle