- An hour after the guilty verdict, they formed a circle
around the grave of Shaline Seguinot, clasped hands, and gave thanks
that at last, after more than seven years, they had justice at least.
Leading their prayer was the nun who had tirelessly pressed Camden
authorities to make the murder case a priority. Next to her was one of
the homicide detectives who had pursued the case for five years,
tracking the suspect to Puerto Rico and Florida, where Miguel Figueroa
was caught. There were the victim's cousins and parents, who had their
first child when they were just a few years older than Shaline, who died
at 13. Her little sister, Crystalina Vasquez, who turned 13 during the
trial, also joined the circle.
In a city where 59 others were murdered in 1995, these people ensured
that the memory of the girl would not diminish, and that her killer
would be found.
On Nov. 1, a jury convicted Figueroa of the murder and sexual assault
of the seventh grader, who went for a bike ride and never came back. Her
body was found in an overgrown lot behind Pyne Poynt Family School,
where she was an honor student and a cheerleader.
The Seguinot murder was one of the most gruesome in Camden in years -
a "stake in the heart of the city," as Lee Solomon, who was Camden
County prosecutor during most of the investigation, recalled last week.
She had been raped and stabbed 10 times in the chest, and her throat had
Sister Helen Cole, who runs the social-work outreach of Holy Name
Roman Catholic Church in North Camden, had not met Shaline or her family
before Aug. 4, 1995, the day the girl disappeared. But from that day,
the nun turned her energies to working on behalf of the slain girl and
the grieving mother. She called the Prosecutor's Office and police
homicide division regularly for updates on the investigation, often
"She's one tough sister," said Capt. Michael Kantner of the
Prosecutor's Office, one of the case's principal investigators. In his
office, Sister Helen was affectionately known as "Sister Charles
Bronson." She was at every step of the investigation, every court
proceeding. During the trial, she sat with Shaline's mother, Lourdes
Vasquez, and offered support and comfort - and bottles of water, snacks,
tissues, mints. "When someone has a trauma like this, you surround them
with care, and that helps the healing," Sister Helen said last week. She
persuaded a bank near the courthouse to allow Vasquez to park in its lot
during the trial, saving her the $6 daily lot fee. At Holy Name, she
organized a collection to pay Vasquez's bills for the month, and
coordinated a schedule for a homemade dinner to be delivered to the
family each night of the trial.
And over the years, a strong bond formed between the nun and the
mother. They complete each other's sentences as they recall details
about the investigation. Vasquez drew much of her strength from Sister
Helen over the seven years they call "a journey." When it began, Vasquez
struggled to accept the tragedy. "Shaline was afraid of the dark. I knew
when she didn't come home - I just knew," she said. But for about a
year, she didn't believe the body found behind Pyne Poynt was her
daughter's. "I kept thinking she was going to knock on the door."
At Sister Helen's prompting, Vasquez eventually reviewed the autopsy
report and its graphic photos. The body had decomposed and could not be
visually identified; dental records were needed to confirm it was
Shaline. Vasquez was finally convinced by a notation of a scar, on the
right side of the victim's face, under the chin. Her daughter had been
bitten there by a dog. After the murder, Vasquez tried to maintain a
normal life. A month after the slaying, she went back to work as a
teacher's aide. After a few weeks, she took a leave of absence at her
doctor's insistence. When she returned to work a few months later,
Vasquez was transferred to another school. Her new assignment was at
Pyne Poynt, in a classroom that looked out on the field where the body
"It was therapy," she said. "It was hard. Really, really hard."
The next several years were dedicated to her daughter.
Family and friends celebrated Shaline's 14th birthday at the cemetery
with cake and balloons. Vasquez accepted her diploma at what would have
been her graduation from eighth grade. And there were the vigils,
marches, dinners, and one-year-anniversary Mass behind Pyne Poynt. The
family and Sister Helen organized the "Shaline Seguinot Fun and Safety
Awareness Day" and the "Shaline Seguinot Dream Day." They held
fund-raiser after fund-raiser to collect money for a park in Shaline's
name. Each event had two purposes: to remember Shaline, and to make sure
the investigators didn't forget.
Camden Police Detectives Frankie and Miguel Ruiz, who are brothers,
had grown up in Shaline's North Camden neighborhood. They had attended
school with the girl's parents and uncle. Miguel's daughter was the same
age as Shaline. For the Ruiz brothers, the case was personal, and
horrifying. "If you got a drug dealer who is on a drug corner doing
something illegal, that's one thing," Miguel Ruiz said last week in the
detectives' office, where a plaque with Shaline's photo hangs on the
wall. "But when you have a little girl who is just going on a bike ride
and ends up raped and murdered - that's hard to deal with."
The Ruiz brothers, and Kantner and Martin Devlin from the
Prosecutor's Office, spearheaded the investigation, spending countless
hours interviewing 100 potential suspects and witnesses. A break finally
came in 1998, when a female informant told authorities that Figueroa had
admitted the killing. When Figueroa learned he was a suspect, he fled to
Florida and later Puerto Rico, authorities said. In October 1998,
Frankie Ruiz traveled to the mountainous area near Yabocoa, outside San
Juan, to find Figueroa. But he eluded capture. Frankie Ruiz, Devlin and
Kantner returned to Puerto Rico in February 1999 seeking the help of the
island police, media and citizens in locating Figueroa. But after two
weeks, the Camden officers returned empty-handed again.
Finally, in December 1999, Puerto Rico police informed the
investigators that Figueroa was in Tampa, Fla. Kantner, Devlin, and the
Ruiz brothers flew to Tampa the first week of 2000. They finally
captured Figueroa, without a struggle, in a McDonald's restaurant.
"There are some cases you'll never ever forget. Seven years, we never
would give up," Kantner said last week.
It took two more years for the case to go to trial, and 14 hours for
the jury to find Figueroa guilty. These days, Shaline's father is a
corrections officer and lives in Woodbury with a new family. Shaline's
mother works as an administrative assistant for a sports agent in
Voorhees. But she also attends night classes at Rowan University in
Glassboro, where she is a sophomore law and justice major. She wants to
be a lawyer, perhaps a prosecutor. "I always wanted to, but this gave me
the push," Vasquez said. "And I think I can do it."
Vasquez said her personality had changed in seven years. "Before, I
was so shy, and I was really quiet. Then this happened, and I became her
voice. I became so outspoken. Maybe it was the shock of knowing that I
will never see my daughter again. Maybe that told me, 'You have to wake
up and do something,' " she said.
Now that the journey to find her daughter's killer has ended, Vasquez
is not sure what is next. "I would love to help other parents. I would
love to sit next to them and tell them that it's not the end of the
world, although it feels like it," she said. Memorials to Shaline
continue: Vasquez presents an annual scholarship to a Pyne Poynt honors
student. Sister Helen has helped secure a lot at Sixth and Grant Streets
that will become a memorial park.
Shaline's 21st birthday would have been tomorrow. "I wanted it solved
before her age of 21," Vasquez said. "I got my wish."