NEW YORK (WPIX) — Jason Di Trapani wasn’t exactly sure how he would find his mother’s grave at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Park in Staten Island.
Unlike most of the graves at this African American burial ground, the one holding the remains of Di Trapani’s mother was unmarked until cemetery workers put a small flagpole stick there.
Di Trapani’s mother was not African American, but she was buried there in 1993 as a “Jane Doe,” eight months after she was found murdered, dismembered and placed in a Yonkers dumpster.
Her name was Meresa Hammonds; she was one victim of serial killer Robert Schulman, a Long Island postal worker.
“When I first arrived to the grave site, it was hard,” Jason Di Trapani told WPIX, “because all I saw was the stick coming out of the ground.”
He’s hoping to get a headstone for his mother. “I want it to be a beautiful headstone, with her name on it, when she was born, when she passed away,” Di Trapani said.
Hammonds’ body was discovered in the dumpster on June 27, 1992. Detective John Geiss of the Yonkers Cold Case Squad started looking at her file in the year 2000.
“She still was a Jane Doe, and that’s not her name,” Geiss said. “I thought it was important for us, the City of Yonkers, to give her her name back.”
Di Trapani knew his mother’s name, but he spent 29 years not knowing what had happened to her because his mother’s friend adopted him.
Detective Geiss knew the awful truth, but he didn’t have a name for the victim. So this past fall, Geiss consulted with Assistant District Attorney Laura Murphy in Westchester County, who runs the Cold Case Unit in her office. They decided to utilize genetic genealogy in an effort to find out the real name of Yonkers Jane Doe.
“We had to get in contact with the FBI,” Detective Geiss said. “Because they have a genealogy unit, two agents who are assigned to this.”
Genetic genealogy websites have become increasingly popular with the public in the last decade or so as Americans seek to find out more about their ancestry. The technique was famously used to find the Golden State Killer in 2018, a former California police officer who had raped or killed dozens of people.
It only took three weeks for Detective Geiss to learn the FBI had made a match with Yonkers Jane Doe and DNA found in a genealogy site. A niece had submitted the DNA, he said.
After visiting Hammonds’ relatives in Michigan, he finally met her son in November and took a DNA swab. The testing confirmed Hammonds was his mother.
“I was in shock,” Di Trapani said. “It was a relief, in a weird way. At least I knew she was just not looking for me.”
When Di Trapani found his mother’s unmarked grave, he initially stood over it and somberly clasped his hands together in prayer. Then, he knelt down, kissed his hand, and placed it over the stick that marked his mother’s grave site.
Di Trapani has learned quite a bit about his mother since meeting her family over the holidays. She was born in Kentucky, lived in Michigan, and later did modeling with her sister.
Hammonds was living in Jersey City when she gave birth to two sons.
“This whole time, I didn’t have one family member that looked like me,” Di Trapani said. “Now, I have a whole bunch of people that I resemble.”
Di Trapani has started a GoFundMe page, hoping to raise money for his mother’s headstone.
Detective Geiss said some assistance might be available through a crime victims fund.
“They want to keep her there,” Geiss said of the family’s wishes to have Hammonds’ remains at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park. “She’s spent most of her life there.”