It was 44 years ago today that 17-year-old Leslie Sue Zaret (Sept 22, 1956 – Aug 17, 1974) was murdered in Bayside, Queens County, New York. Her case remains unsolved.
Leslie, a recent graduate of John Bowne High School in Flushing, Queens County, had spent the night hanging out with friends.
Shortly after 11:30 p.m. on August 16, 1974 Leslie left her friend’s house to make the mile and a half walk to her home. She was last seen walking past her former high school.
In this post, I will try to give an overview of her case, the investigation, what I found in the public domain, and what questions popped up based on all that information.
Queens County is one of five boroughs that make of the City of New York. Situated between the border of Nassau County, Long Island, and just over the river from Manhattan, Queens is one of the most diverse counties in America, made up distinct neighborhoods, ranging from suburban one-family houses to pre-war apartment buildings, luxury condos to housing projects.
Queens County had seen its fair share of violent crime. As an extension of the City, Queens was a reluctant host to gun violence, prostitutes, and drugs. Some neighborhoods, sadly, were less desirable than others. Bayside, an upper-class northern Queens’ neighborhood, was not one of those places.
In the New York Times from August 19, 1974 I found that Leslie left a girlfriend’s home on 58th Avenue in Flushing, New York. I wonder how many friends were at that girlfriend’s house (if at all) and if so, whether they were all cleared by police. I’d also like to know whether all friends were in good spirits when Leslie left or if they were arguing.
The papers said Leslie probably took Main to cross over to the Long Island Expressway to get home on 68th Drive, Kew Garden’s Hills. She never got there. I will come back to this walk further below.
According to various papers, there was or was not a telephone call made from the girlfriend’s house by Leslie to her family that she would be on her way home. IF there was a phone call it firms up the case’s timeline. Aside from that, there is conflicting information online about that call and what actions her dad did or didn’t take that night.
The NYT from Aug 18, 1974 said that before she left her friend’s house “Miss Zaret called her father to say she was en route home, according to the police. Her parents waited all night for her to arrive and called us early this morning when she didn’t show,” according to Lieut. Charles McGowan of the Queens Homicide squad.” But in the NYT from Aug 19, 1974 Leslie’s dad, David Zaret, denied his daughter called him that night from her girlfriend’s house to say that she was on her way home. Mr. Zaret said that he was not at home at the time of that alleged phone call however, he would have picked her up had he received such a call. Mr. Zaret said he told police at 5:17 A.M. Saturday morning that Leslie had not come home. He waited for more than an hour for police to arrive at his home to investigate.
Leslie Sue Zaret’s nude remains were discovered by a custodian behind an elementary school’s playground known as P.S. 203 off Springfield Boulevard in Bayside during the early morning of August 17, 1974. Was the custodian cleared as a suspect? At exactly what time was she found? The exact time of death might be helpful to retrace Leslie’s steps and to build a timeline matching other people’s statements.
Apparently, that playground was close to Queensborough Community College, where she was enrolled for the fall. I do not know what she wanted to study. I hope authorities also looked for suspects at that community college.
From Interactive Daily News of Dec 2, 2016 we know that “police said she was killed around midnight, but her body wasn’t discovered for several hours.” So what was the exact time of death? How much time went by between Leslie leaving her friend’s house and her death?
The neighborhood’s residents apparently told the papers that in the past the playground was used after dark as a gathering and party place by teens from that neighbourhood but also from neighboring suburbs.
The elementary school was over four miles from Leslie’s home, and not an easily walkable route. Combine that with what I read: “Leslie had been strangled. Her naked body was displayed on the asphalt behind the school, her clothes and shoes arranged neatly next to her.”
This raised several issues for me:
1: the shoes
From this site, I learned that Leslie was wearing platform shoes. This detail ties back to the walk she took that night. Were those shoes comfortable enough to walk 1.5 miles? How about 4 miles? It begs the question whether she accepted a ride. And if we ponder a car ride we need to ask ourselves how many people were in that car and if Leslie knew any of them. Police do think she accepted a ride and that she might have known them.
2: the clothes
According to the papers, Leslie’s clothes didn’t seem to be torn off her body but they were found “scattered around her body.” Were there any rips, buttons missing, etc.? If her clothes were preserved they must be examined with the M-Vac to search for touch DNA. I’d also like to know whether the clothes found were a complete wardrobe or whether an item is missing as I have not read anything about a jacket or underwear. What about her jewelry? Do we know what she wore that night and was everything found?
According to this site, the Gothamist dated Aug 13, 2006 Leslie’s clothes were a “long-sleeved, flower-print blouse, blue jeans and beige platform shoes were neatly piled beside her.” So a neat pile, not scattered, and no underwear. This site also says “in a pile near her body.”
3: the cause of death
The cause of death was strangulation. The paper said that her autopsy didn’t show any trauma other than the strangulation marks on her neck. I’d like to know whether this strangulation was manual or by object. The shape and depth of the bruises might tell us something about the killer being left-or rights handed, wearing gloves or not, having used an object to press against Leslie’s neck, etc.
Authorities initially said in this article that Leslie was sexually abused. Other papers mentioned rape, others denied that. Ultimately, I found Leslie had been sexually assaulted with a hairbrush. Was that her own hairbrush? If she had a hairbrush with her where is her purse or did she carry it in one of her pant pockets? If that brush was not hers it is a treasure trove for DNA testing.
When I read about the hair brush I saw the papers reflecting on an impotent male killer. However, I immediately thought about a woman. Frankly, I thought about a young woman whose cruel act was not premeditated but the result (death by strangulation) came as the unintended climax of torturing Leslie with an object that had some sort of penis resemblance. Either the brush was already there at the playground and caught their eye or it was the only item they had on them that resembled a penis.
Maybe a male killer who didn’t/couldn’t get an erection did this however, it reads more like a woman teaching Leslie a lesson. A very jealous person, a territorial person. Maybe this explains the contradiction with the clothes. If this person made Leslie take off her own clothes she may also have been forced to do that neatly.
If there were no signs of ligature marks on Leslie’s wrists and/or ankles, we need to consider the option that someone controlled Leslie with a weapon. A weapon that came with the killer and was again taken away from the crime scene. In case of a male killer I would expect a beating and possibly trauma to the victim’s face as this was a highly personal crime. The papers do not mention Leslie was beaten (nothing seen about trauma to her face) so if she was kept under control it wasn’t by beatings. It made me think about weapons.
Maybe the strangulation ligature was taken from the crime scene or we never recognized the item as such.
4: the playground
In the NYT from Aug 19, 1974 I learned that whoever killed Leslie knew their way around the area. To get to the playground behind Oakland Gardens Elementary School at 53‐11 Springfield Boulevard you needed to know about a hole in a fence on the 54th Avenue side of the school. You also needed to know about a footpath along a wooded ravine in adjoining Alley Pond Park which is known for holes cut into the fence by vandals.
All the above is difficult to take in. While searching online for details, I found several other interesting things to ponder in this case.
1: the poem
I found this poem written by John F. McCullagh and dated Aug 2014.
It goes back forty summers to a hot August night.
This cold case I’m working with no end in sight.
The girl, Leslie Zaret, was last seen alive
At the Pioneer tavern, she was standing outside.
Main Street runs North- South on Queensboro Hill.
She was ten blocks from home on that night she was killed.
She accepted a ride- was it someone she knew?
A Janitor found her- cold naked and dead
In a schoolyard in Bayside, the old reports said.
She was raped with a hairbrush, no semen was found.
The girl had been strangled, but hadn’t been bound.
If the killer was male- was he impotent too?
The victim was pretty, with long Brunette hair.
She never came home and her parents despaired.
My cops cleared the boyfriend, her ex- boyfriend too.
Still we always believed it was someone she knew.
She attended John Bowne, a high school nearby.
Was the killer a classmate? She was too young to die.
Her class graduated, now grown old and gray.
Most stayed in town although some moved away.
Some have passed on and are taking their rest
But none died liked Leslie with her neck tightly pressed.
People will talk, surely some must suspect
I think someone knows something
About poor Leslie’s death.
Please come forth from the shadows, help me solve this crime.
Leslie’s waited for justice for a very long time.
“A cold case murder from August 1974. The P.O.V. is of a detective working the cold case file.”
UPDATE Nov 2019: the link to that page doesn’t seem stable so I made screenshots.
The poem brings up Leslie’s boyfriend and ex-boyfriend. They were apparently cleared as suspects but I wonder about the women in their lives.
The poem states that no semen was found. That opens up the possibility of a female killer. See above where I discuss the hair brush.
The poet also mentions that Leslie was not bound so I assume that means wrists and ankles. This goes back to my earlier remarks about ligatures above.
2: the reunion
After a reunion of the John Bowne HS Class of 1970, Leslie’s alma mater in Flushing, authorities reached out to ask the alumni what they thought and remembered about the crime. It might be that they hold a clue but do not know it. The smallest detail about a sequence of events, knowing another nickname for a person, knowing who else feared someone, all these details might be the last dots police need to complete the picture.
I found a site where Leslie’s class has options to message each other. Someone left a message there for Leslie too. I don’t know who that is or what they said. But if it is something police needs to know, please let them know.
From the New York Post from Aug 13, 2006 we know that police revealed they had partial DNA from a hairbrush found at the scene – enough evidence “to consider a suspect or eliminate a suspect.”
The Queen’s Chronicle from Aug 21, 2014 confirms that “evidence showed that Zaret was not raped or had sex, but that she had been abused with a hairbrush.” The article also mentioned the exhumation of 2006. “They hope advances in technology will improve their chances this time.” Technology advanced rapidly after 2006. That is why, just like in Teresa Sue Hilt‘s murder, I think forensics will solve this case
1: Touch DNA
Leslie’s clothes and the hair brush are crucial. On the clothes, the M-Vac could be used to gather materials. The M-Vac’s wet vacuuming collection system uses a solution that is sprayed on a surface while simultaneously vacuuming that surface. It creates a “mini-hurricane” that loosens the DNA material which is transferred to the collection bottle and later concentrated onto a filter. It picks up particle that traditional cutting and swabbing could not. Surfaces are not limited to clothes but range from concrete, rocks, to leather, cork, all porous surfaces, and even animal skin. It is the current gold-standard for touch DNA collection and has been used in courts successfully.
2: Familial DNA and ancestry databases
If there is enough DNA to exclude someone we have enough to find out who is genetically similar. We have seen this technique now used in several cold cases where authorities search in online genetic or ancestry databases for people with similar characteristics and zoom in from there.
This technique can show us approximately what the DNA bearer looks like and it can be age-progressed. This too is used now in many cold cases and with success. The latest was the case of the 1984 Colorado Hammer Murders.
4: The Bardole DNA Collection Method
This new method separates and isolates DNA material from small evidence items. The application could include many items that are now difficult to sample like shell casings, fingernail clippings, rings, gun parts, keys, bomb fragments and other small items. If other small items were found, it is worth a try.
If you have any information about Leslie Sue Zaret’s case please call the NYPD tip line 1-800-577-TIPS
John F. MuCullagh Screenshots added in text
NYT Aug 19, 1974
Newsday Aug 15, 2014
NYT Aug 18, 1974
Interactive Daily News Dec 2, 2016
Thank you for remembering Leslie Sue Zaret with us.