NEW YORK – An elevator operator pleaded not guilty Monday in the death of a cleaning worker whose body was found stuffed in a skyscraper's air conditioning shaft.
Joseph Pabon snatched the 46-year-old Eridania Rodriguez on July 7 as she worked on an empty floor in the 26-story office building, investigators said. They said he smothered her with tape, hid her body in the shaft, and then told his manager he was ill and went home.
Police found Rodriguez's body four days later. Prosecutors said his DNA was found under her fingernails.
Pabon, 25, appeared in state Supreme Court and was held without bail on second-degree murder and kidnapping charges. His attorney, Mario Gallucci, said the district attorney's case is circumstantial and the DNA could have come from routine work at the building.
He said his client went home that day because he had a stomach virus and couldn't work overtime at the office tower, which is located a few hundred feet from the World Trade Center reconstruction site.
Rodriguez was assigned to clean floors five through eight of the tower. She showed up for work at 5 p.m. and was last seen on security cameras about 7 p.m. in an elevator lobby. Her cleaning cart was discovered abandoned on the eighth floor.
Police said that when they questioned Pabon about his missing co-worker, he had scratches on his torso, head and neck and bruising on his arms.
Gallucci said the severity of the scratches was exaggerated.
"The scratches are not the scratches made by somebody fighting for his life," he said.
Rodriguez was married with three children. Her brother, Victor Martinez, a top-ranked professional bodybuilder, said it's been incredibly difficult to explain her death to younger members of the family. "How can a person do this to another person?" he asked outside court. "It's very hard to swallow."
About a dozen family members watched the proceedings Monday, and Martinez said they would attend as many hearings as possible to "let the justice system know they took away someone very important to our lives," he said.
Tenants of the building include noted ground zero architect Daniel Libeskind, another architectural firm and law firms.