Hope Maltz at the tree dedicated to her brother, killed in 1987. Credit: Paul Fairbanks

ITHACA, N.Y.—“It was like being in a darkness of swirling, gusty winds,” Hope Maltz said.

Maltz is the sister of David Malcom, the victim of a 1987 homicide in Ithaca that went unsolved until earlier this year. Malcom was Maltz’s older brother, a source of stability in her young adulthood since both of their parents had died. The killing had haunted Maltz since that night, Feb. 12, 1987, flooding her life with fear, confusion, frustration and angst, without a rescue ever seeming apparent. 

“Then Vince threw me a lifeline,” Maltz said. In an interview with The Ithaca Voice, Maltz emphasized that point several times. “Vince Monticello saved my life.”

The Ithaca Police Department announced in late May it had settled on a suspect they conclusively believed had committed the crime, ending decades of ebbs and flows in the investigation. 

The announcement came after an eight-year resurgence in the investigation, during which DNA samples of blood collected at the scene were tested and retested, anonymous tips were solicited, received and investigated, extra state funding was sought, and Monticello, who was a young cop when Malcom was killed, made finding Malcom’s killer his personal mission. 

Monticello rediscovered the case following his promotion to Deputy Chief of the department, and was able to obtain state police funding for cold case work when he reopened the Malcom investigation. Maltz applied a bit of pressure of her own, sending open letters to local media demanding justice and asking for anyone with more information to come forward. It took until 2019 for someone to finally come forward with an anonymous tip that refocused the investigation and eventually led to its resolution. 

For Maltz, it also brought some amount of closure that she had been anxiously waiting on for 36 years. 

“For me, somebody killed my brother, and nothing happened,” Maltz said. “I had no reason to believe there would ever be any answer or any solution.”

Revealed in May, the current narrative of the crime alleged by police is Malcom was killed because he would not reveal the location of a 17-year-old girl from Danby who was staying at his then place of employment, the former American Red Cross’s shelter at 717 West Court Street, while fleeing from her abusive boyfriend. 

The abuser is believed to have accosted Malcom, a well-liked shelter worker at the time, and demanded Malcom identify the girl’s location. When Malcom refused, he was stabbed to death, according to police. 

Monticello is still reticent to discuss details of the case at length. One of the lone details IPD has released about the suspect they now believe committed the homicide is that he died in 2019. Monticello confirmed that the man had at least one other felony conviction (Maltz said this was for child abuse), but that DNA was not collected at the time. Still, the vindication of solving the case is significant for Monticello, even if it is mitigated by the fact it will never have a full legal resolution in the form of a prosecution and conviction. 

Deputy Chief Vincent Monticello in his office. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

IPD has not officially named the suspect. Monticello said that back in 1987, the suspect was briefly investigated in the early days of the investigation, just after Malcom was found in the shelter. Detectives soon shifted their focus to another person, a man who frequented the Red Cross facility where Malcom was killed. The man had been on the department’s radar as a person of interest since Malcom was found. 

Maltz said police had told her during their initial investigation that the man, who had struggled with mental health issues, had “developed a romantic fixation” on Malcom, but that David had told the man he was not interested. This was their initial theory of the potential motive for the stabbing that has now been abandoned—Monticello said one of the last things he wants to do before leaving the department is locate and inform the person who has now been cleared to let them know. 

Maltz said the original explanation of the crime never quite rang true to her, but the case stalled for decades and that was the only answer she was left with from about the late 1980s until the mid-2010s. She had a murky vision of how an eventual conversation with the killer might go: sitting across from him at a table in a meeting room in a prison, both of them telling the story of how they each came to be in that room, a scene she had futilely run through in her head countless times. Then Monticello picked the case back up. 

A picture of David Malcom, the victim of a 1987 homicide in Ithaca. Credit: Photo provided

“It was like a miracle. Suddenly, there was hope for answers where I thought none would ever come,” Maltz said. “[When Vince called], suddenly I had a human being, a representative of law enforcement, telling me that my experience mattered, that my brother’s death mattered, and that he felt a personal investment in solving my brother’s death.” 

Monticello has said he saw parts of himself in Malcom, which reinforced his interest in the case. Both were young men at the time of Malcom’s death, with Monticello having recently gotten married. He was spurred to reopen the case in earnest by funding from the New York State Police that was made available for cold case work; with the support of then-chief John Barber, Monticello applied for the funding using the Malcom case and it was awarded to him. 

Still, Maltz had to wait another eight years, from 2015 until she met with Monticello and Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten earlier this year, before the police would come forward with more definitive answers instead of regular, incremental updates. Eight years is a long time to wait, particularly after already accepting over the previous 28 years (between the murder in 1987 and Monticello’s reopening the case in 2015) that the tragedy which defined Maltz’s life may never be solved. 

There were points when Maltz said it looked like the new effort would conclude in the same result as before, with her brother’s murderer unidentified and her grief unconsoled. In 2019, Monticello called her with news that the case was running cold again. A series of leads had resulted in dead ends, and Monticello had been pushing off retirement. Despite the four years of renewed scrutiny, it did not seem the police were much closer to a breakthrough than they were decades before. 

As a last-ditch effort to keep the case in the public’s mind, the police issued a press release in August of that year, urging the public to reach out if they had tips or information. Three weeks later, Maltz said, her phone rang again. It was Monticello, who called to say an anonymous tip had been received regarding a suspect who had not previously been closely considered. 

The tip, Maltz said, was essentially that the alleged murderer’s identity had been a secret, known but closely guarded, within the suspect’s family since the killing. 

“That sparked a whole new round, which led us here,” Maltz said. 

Evidence from the scene had been sent to Albany in 1987 for DNA analysis, which was then combined with new DNA samples and other leads gathered during the investigation, particularly in fall 2019.

Monticello is reserved in his commentary about the case. He praised the teamwork necessary to vet each possibility, and insisted that was one of the most crucial elements to finally cracking the case—though, of course, without a living suspect to interview and prosecute, the conclusions can’t be viewed with absolute certainty. 

“I’m happy we were able to provide Hope some answers regarding what happened to her brother all those years ago,” Monticello said. “The investigators back then had some challenges, technology is a lot different. They at least had the wisdom to preserve the evidence. […] If this was my family member who was killed, I would want the police to try to solve it and provide answers to the family and friends. A lot of people were impacted.”

The anguish of the investigation has given way to feelings of gratitude for Maltz. The other emotions, ones that may be expected of someone in her position, have become too fraught over the years for Maltz to embrace. 

“What is justice? What is closure?” Maltz asked. “They’re both questions that I have arrived at, I have no idea what they mean. People like to throw them out and ask about that, and if you’re where I sit, you start to realize that it’s kind of meaningless. […] Ultimately, what killed my brother was the ills of our society.”

While she is grateful for the efforts of Monticello, others in IPD and the Tompkins County District Attorney’s office, she remains frustrated at the missteps from police during the initial investigation, back in 1987. But as the investigation’s final stages unfolded, Monticello called her once more and relayed some of his conclusions that provided Maltz with some measure of comfort: that all the evidence indicated Malcom had died a hero, protecting a victim of domestic violence. 

“People say they can provide closure, I can’t say,” Monticello said. With the case in his rear view, Monticello is slated to retire later this summer. “If I were in that situation, maybe there’s a level [of closure], but this was a senseless killing. Her brother did not give up the location, and it cost him his life.” 

If there is some solace for Maltz, and friends of David and hers like Paul Fairbanks, who still lives in Ithaca, it is that Malcom died doing something heroic. That, they both said, proves to them that Malcom died as he lived.

“Even now, when I repeat it, I get a chill. At the time, it was like I heard bells ring,” Maltz said of Monticello first telling her of Malcom’s actions. “I felt myself turn a corner and begin to heal. […] I had been afraid for 35 years, and it wasn’t until I heard that the guy was dead that something inside me finally unclenched. The relief of not being afraid outweighs all the other feelings, in some ways. I don’t quite know what to do with the anger, outrage, disillusionment.”

Matt Butler is the Editor in Chief of The Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.org.