By Curtis Skinner
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The accused killer of a small girl dubbed "Baby Hope" whose death was a mystery for more than two decades pleaded not guilty to her murder on Thursday.
The child's body was found bound and stuffed inside a picnic cooler dumped alongside the Henry Hudson Parkway in upper Manhattan in July 1991.
She remained unidentified until police got a tip over the summer from a woman who said she thought she knew the slain girl's sister and used the information to track down her mother.
Conrado Juarez, 52, a relative of the victim on her father's side, was arrested on October 12 and charged with second-degree murder. Juarez lives in the city's Bronx borough and was working as a dishwasher at a Manhattan restaurant.
Prosecutors said Juarez has confessed to sexually assaulting and killing the girl, who authorities now know was 4-year-old Anjelica Castillo.
"He admitted that he had sex with the victim and killed her by smothering her with a pillow, then packing her into the cooler as previously described and bringing and leaving her body at the uptown location," said assistant district attorney Melissa Mourges at the arraignment in state Supreme Court.
Authorities said she had been starved and sexually abused.
New York detectives, who stayed on her case for years, called the nameless child "Baby Hope" and paid for her funeral and burial when no one came forward to identify her.
The fresh lead emerged last summer after police cold case investigators launched a publicity campaign.
Juarez's defense attorney Michael Croce told reporters following the court appearance that he questioned the integrity of the confession and would seek to have it thrown out.
If found guilty, Juarez could face a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. He is being held without bail.
(Reporting by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Gunna Dickson)