The mother of the slain girl known as "Baby Hope" until investigators learned her identity last week and arrested a cousin for her death spoke publicly for the first time Monday, telling reporters that she never knew her daughter had been killed.
Margarita Castillo, speaking in Spanish through the door of her Queens apartment, identified herself as the mother of the girl, whose real name is Anjelica Castillo.
She said she was devastated to learn that her daughter had been abused and killed, and said she knew nothing about what happened to her so many years ago.
On Saturday police said they had solved the mystery of the decades-old cold case, arresting a cousin for allegedly smothering the 4-year-old to death after raping her. Police said he and his sister, who's now dead, together devised a plan to dispose of her body in a cooler in the woods in upper Manhattan in 1991.
Anjelica was never reported missing, and investigators had pursued leads for 22 years after she was found, dubbing her "Baby Hope" because her name and age were not known.
Her mother would not say Monday why she didn't report the girl missing; police have said Anjelica was living with her father at the time that she was attacked by her cousin at the man's sister's home.
Investigators now believe Anjelica was also tortured at that home, at times tied to a table and denied water, according to law enforcement sources.
A neighbor of Margarita Castillo who grew up with her other children says he's in disbelief.
"She always treated her kids well, she always went everywhere with her kids, she always pushed them to do better," said George Gonzalez. "She never, that I know of, she never abused them or anything like that. We would have known when we were all kids."
The NYPD's special victims squad has also joined the investigation, NBC 4 New York learned Monday. Detectives are looking into whether there are more victims of sexual abuse from the home.
The 52-year-old cousin, Conrado Juarez, was arrested and charged with felony murder.
The girl's body was found by construction workers on July 23, 1991 along the Henry Hudson Parkway near Dyckman Street.
Investigators launched a renewed push this summer for leads in the case, and it was amid that publicity for "Baby Hope" that a tipster contacted police, saying she thought she might know the child's sister, now an adult.
That tip led detectives to relatives of the girl, and eventually the cousin.