NEW YORK — For some 30 years, detectives knew her only as the Scorpion Girl.
Her body had been found early on Sept. 20, 1991, in a ditch across from a psychiatric hospital on Staten Island by two employees who were walking by. They initially mistook her for a discarded mannequin, according to news reports at the time.
The woman was lying face up and handcuffed, dressed in a black dress with pink trim. She wore two gold chains and a ring watch on her right finger, and on her right buttock was a tattoo of a scorpion, so crude that investigators at the time thought it was the work of an amateur. Under her body was a hammer, the kind used by auto shop workers to bang out dents. “Loyd L” was scratched into the handle.
Until April 2021, those were the only clues the police had about her identity and the person who killed her, said Pat Savage, who took on the case in 1993 when he was a Police Department detective on Staten Island.
But a vial of her blood and her tissue that was kept by the medical examiner’s office helped police in New York and investigators in the FBI and Richmond County district attorney’s office finally figure out who she was: Christine Belusko, 30, the single mother of a 2-year-old girl. She worked for a retail chain, Rainbow Shops, setting up stores when they opened.
“This case was followed with great sorrow and public intrigue across the borough and beyond,” Michael McMahon, the Staten Island district attorney, said at a Tuesday news conference.
Learning her identity has encouraged detectives who have long been unsettled by the confounding murder. Belusko was strangled and beaten over the head 17 times, most likely with the hammer that was found under her body, said David Nilsen, chief of the detective investigators squad in the district attorney’s office.
Her body was also burned.
The police said they are still trying to answer two key questions: Who killed Belusko and what happened to her daughter, Christa Belusko, who has not been seen since her mother died?
“Is she alive? Is she well?” said Savage, now an investigator in McMahon’s office.
McMahon said that investigators are hoping that by providing photos of Belusko and Christa, they may spur someone who knew the family to come forward with information and help solve the case of the woman with the scorpion tattoo.
The police said they can only speculate about what happened to the child, who was born on Aug. 1, 1989, and would be 33 today. The last time she was seen was a week before Sept. 20, 1991, in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, according to the Charley Project, which tracks cases of missing people.
Belusko’s identity was revealed using forensic genealogy, which has helped solve hundreds of cold cases and given names to victims who for decades were unknown.
In Belusko’s case, her blood and tissue were sent to a laboratory in Houston around 2019, and the results were run through DNA databases. Investigators focused on possible matches in the New York and New Jersey area and eventually tracked down a biological brother who provided a DNA swab.
Investigators learned that Christine Belusko was the biological daughter of a New Jersey woman who had eight other children and placed her for adoption when she was an infant.
Detectives tracked down the identity of her adoptive parents: Frank Belusko, who had been a glass molder from Montville, New Jersey, and his wife, Dorothy, a secretary at an auto dealership in Boonton. The couple had also adopted another child, a son, Savage said.
None of them ever knew Christine Belusko was murdered, he said.
After Belusko learned she was adopted, Savage said she drifted from her family. She told them she was leaving Clifton, New Jersey, where she had been living with her daughter, and would be moving to Florida.
She left Clifton in July 1991 and briefly stayed in the Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos, according to investigators.
Investigators said they could not discuss the last days of her life or why she came to Staten Island, citing the continuing investigation.
In the years after her death, police briefly looked at whether she might have been a victim of Joel Rifkin, the Long Island serial killer who confessed to killing 17 women between 1989 and 1993, according to The Staten Island Advance.
But McMahon said the gruesome nature of her death suggests someone who knew her well and became enraged enough to beat her mercilessly.
“There is no indication at all that this was some sort of serial killer out on the prowl who picked her up,” McMahon said.
Belusko’s remains were buried in an unmarked grave on Hart Island off the Bronx, the site of the city’s potter’s field.
Her brother, who was in his 20s when she died, assumed she and her daughter had been living in Florida all these years and had chosen not to make contact, Savage said.
Her mother died in 2000, and her father died two years later. Both obituaries named Belusko and her daughter as survivors.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.