Courts & Crime

Lots of evidence but father fears no justice in girl's murder

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Seven years ago. Apartment Five. A depressing, one-room flop just east of the FEC railroad tracks here.

That cramped space with a floor out of plumb provided a final incongruent address for a 17-year-old runaway, miles from her suburban home in western Broward County.

Marissa Elan Karp had wandered into circumstances far more horrific than those often imagined by parents worried that a wayward child might fall in with the wrong crowd. She became fatally entangled in a nest of killers.

Marissa was battered. She was shot in the chest. Her body was crammed into a plastic garbage bag, hauled to the Everglades and dumped into the L-28 Canal under the interstate highway known here as Alligator Alley.

Discarded beer cans and mindless graffiti sprayed on concrete bridge pillars mock the depravity of what a water district worker discovered there on Aug. 19, 2002. Perhaps her killers thought the death of some runaway teen would attract scant attention in South Florida, where the scores of unidentified young murder victims molder in eternal anonymity at the county morgues.

But Marissa, we learned that year, was among 393 foster children classified as missing from the Department of Children & Families' custody. The body, found floating like a bag of rubbish, became a ghastly symbol of agency failure. It wasn't just murder. It was scandal.

Nor would the killers have calculated the obsessive determination of a father trying to keep his daughter's murder from fading from the public memory.

Despite the notoriety, seven years have passed with no arrests, no indictments. Officially, the death remains an unsolved murder. But that's not quite the case. Investigators know details. They know names.

Police know so tantalizing much about the kid's fatal encounter with a Bahamian drug ring operating in Broward County that Gary Karp has been driven to distraction waiting for an arrest. "It has been seven years,'' the father said, his voice knotted with frustration. "Enough already.''

Police have matched a gang member to DNA evidence scraped from beneath Marissa's fingernails. They have a statement from one of the men who tossed her body into the canal. They've interviewed witnesses who recalled gang members discussing the shooting and the shooter.

It's not enough. A source close to the investigation told me that the suspects in Marissa's murder and the cover-up and disposal of her body are so utterly tainted by criminal acts that they're nearly immune to the usual law enforcement squeeze tactics. What truth cops have gleaned from the investigation has been obscured by braggadocio and lies and denials and conflicting accounts. Investigators think they know who was involved, but they haven't yet sorted out the actual shooter from a mess of bad actors.

Nor have police recovered the murder weapon; probably tossed into the canal. And Apartment Five, which wasn't searched until more than a month after the shooting, yielded little in the way of evidence other than a bullet hole in the refrigerator.

There's another major complication: Names that surfaced seven years ago in the Karp investigation have since been linked to other brutal killings in Broward County, including the Nov. 12, 2006, roadside shooting of BSO Deputy Brian Tephford.

"When I saw on CNN that night that there was a manhunt for a [suspected] cop killer named Devon Ingraham, the hair on my neck stood on end,'' Gary Karp said.

Eloyn Devon Ingraham, 31, a Bahamian immigrant now awaiting trial in the Tephford murder, was implicated in the Karp case back in 2002. But prosecutors won't be offering plea deals to a suspected cop killer for information on another murder.

The Tephford shooting was the second time Gary Karp had heard names from his daughter's case raised in another Broward murder investigation. On Oct. 10, 2002, two low-level drug dealers were shot to death in a Sunrise apartment. A third victim survived the mayhem but was left paralyzed.

Police theorized that the shooting was retribution for a bad drug deal. Two Bahamian immigrants implicated in the Karp investigation also surfaced on the Sunrise suspect list, including Almonto Coakley. Marissa Karp had been living with Coakley in that tiny Hallandale apartment in the days before her death.

Court documents indicate a cellphone that had been used by Coakley "was recorded pinging numerous cellphone towers indicating that the cellphone was moving from the Hallandale area north on I-95, west on I-595 and then west on I-75 (Alligator Alley)'' between 2:56 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 19.

No one has been charged with the Sunrise shootings. Coakley, police think, has returned to the Bahamas. Randy Gilbert, the other name common to both the Sunrise triple shooting and the Karp murder, became a murder victim himself, caught in a drive-by shooting in the Bahamas in 2007.

After seven years, Gary Karp worries that there will be no justice in his daughter's case, either, despite pushing police, prosecutors, the media, and holding press conferences on both the anniversary of Marissa's death and on her Dec. 6 birthday. Karp has compiled his own considerable dossier on the suspects. He has traveled to the Bahamas looking for evidence.

Broward Sheriff's Office spokesman Jim Leljedal insisted last week that "we're real close to doing something. Marissa Karp will have justice.''

But Gary Karp, his voice weary, said that he has heard this before.

His daughter's descent into her long incorrigible despair began with her mother's death in 1996 during an asthma attack. The girl became depressed, given to bursts of anger, then violence. Finally, Karp decided he couldn't control his child. Marissa became a ward of the state.

In 2001, DCF placed her in a privately run shelter. But she became a chronic runaway. The agency lost track of her in April 2002. By that August, she had moved into the dank, cheerless apartment that Almonto Coakley was renting by the week.

Various witnesses later told police they'd heard gang members discussing a shooting incident involving Marissa at Apartment Five. They knew this wisp of a girl, just 5 feet tall and barely 100 pounds, as "Shorty'' -- Coakley's sort-of girlfriend. The court records indicate that several witnesses claimed that Ingraham, the gang leader, had been in the apartment with Karp just before her death. The records also indicate that a neighbor in an adjoining apartment told police she had heard what sounded like a muffled gunshot next door very late the night of Aug. 18, 2002.

Two years ago, investigators finally scored a bit of hard evidence. Court documents indicate that two separate labs matched DNA material recovered from the dead girl's fingernails to a member of Ingraham's drug crew, Thaddeus Christian Sondej, 28.

Sondej, now serving a five-year prison sentence for cocaine possession, grand theft and aggravated battery, was also implicated by his own brother, who told police that he and Sondej had hauled Marissa's body to the Everglades and tossed her into the canal.

The DNA results, I was told, might support a charge that Sondej was, in legal terms, "an accessory after the fact'' in the Karp killing. The evidence doesn't support a murder charge. Not yet.

But Gary Karp, with a nearly manic efficiency, can rattle off avenues that the police, in his mind, have not yet traveled. He thinks, for example, that if detectives pushed hard on the Sunrise triple shooting -- the key would be the paralyzed survivor in the Bahamas -- they would have leverage to bust his daughter's killer.

In his mind, he maintains a kind of flow chart connecting the nefarious characters associated with the Ingraham gang and their various criminal pursuits.

It's an obsession. Karp, 56, seems almost haunted by his fateful decision to relinquish custody of Marissa, based on the mistaken notion that DCF would keep his out-of-control daughter safe.

Seven years have passed since Marissa was killed in that sorry little room in Hallandale Beach, but for Karp, waiting to see a murderer brought to justice, the calender has hardly moved beyond Aug. 18, 2002.

"I've waited long enough,'' he said.