By: Julie (Haoning) Zhu
How a cold case victim’s family marked Christmas without a tree.
Until last Christmas, the Cheong family hadn’t really celebrated the holiday for ten years.
They didn’t put up any decorations, not even a Christmas tree.
Each year, the family simply gathered to have dinner.
That’s because Christmas is close to the date that this Guyanese family lost their oldest daughter, Marisha Cheong. She was a 24-year-old Long Island University student studying business administration who went missing outside her Jamaica, Queens home on December 19, 2012. She was found dead two months later in a marsh on February 16, 2013.
She was last spotted alive on surveillance footage the cold December morning, which showed Marisha being escorted by an unknown woman, leading her by the arm away from the house where she lived with her boyfriend and his family. Marisha was headed for class that morning, and it’s unknown what derailed her plans.
Her body washed ashore at Breezy Point, Queens, wearing pajamas with her hands and feet bound by a green rope. At the time, the medical examiner couldn’t decide the cause of her death as her body was badly decomposed. However, three months later, her death was ruled as a homicide on May 6.
More than a decade later, the killer is still at large.
“It was very hard for us,” said Richard Cheong, 33, Marisha’s younger brother. “We love to celebrate Christmas. Thanksgiving. We are a close family.”
The day after Marisha went missing, December 20th, was her younger brother Matthew Rahmaan’s birthday. Marisha helped raise him, as she always took care of him when her mother was busy with other kids or the family business.
Each year, on Matthew’s birthday, Marisha would make a phone call to him. Isabella Rahmaan, Marisha’s younger sister, said that before Marisha went missing, they had gone to a mall together and placed an order for customized T-shirts for Matthew’s birthday.
It was Marisha who came up with the idea of printing photos and logos on the shirts.
“I found out that [Marisha’s disappearance] was really serious after she missed my brother’s birthday,” said Isabella, “because she had all those things planned.”
Now, when it comes to Matthew’s birthday, his mother encourages him to invite his friends and spend time celebrating with them. Sometimes, she would also take Matthew out for a birthday dinner. But every time the family brought up their memories about Marisha, Matthew would leave and go into his room.
He still doesn’t want to talk about her.
Marisha’s mother, Bibi Ali, is also having a hard time moving on. She still has a hard time celebrating even her own birthday, which is just one day after Marisha’s birthday. They usually celebrated their birthdays together.
“We try to comfort our mother because it’s so hard, because as a parent, you watch your child pass away before you pass away,” said Isabella. “We sat to watch a movie or show, you know, we cut a birthday cake for her [Ali]. We hung out and tried to keep her mind off Marisha.”
Isabella said the family would also make posts on Facebook for Marisha three times a year, on the date she went missing, the date her body was found, and on her birthday, to make sure they never forgot her.
“We made videos of when she was young. We want to keep close to her and just keep reminding everyone that she was here with us,” Isabella said.
Marisha’s best friend, Sarah Profeta, also remembers her during the holiday season.
“I know that family is missing a daughter, a sister, a cousin, and we’re missing our friend,” said Profeta. “And every year, that family has to be without her.”
Her friends have their own reminders. As Marisha was from Guyana, in South America, she would always invite her friend Profeta to celebrate “Phagwah” together. “Phagwah” is an important festival in Guyanese culture, happening around March each year, celebrating the arrival of spring in the Hindu calendar.
“They threw colorful powders at each other, and it’s like a big celebration annually at Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens,” said Profeta. “And I would go with Marisha to do that. So every year, whenever I see that it’s happening, it affects me because that was something that we did together.”
“It was like a friend thing, but I’m never, ever going to be able to do that again with her,” Profeta added.
Last year, however, after the 10th anniversary of Marisha’s death, the family celebrated Christmas with decorations again.
They did it, not because they are no longer grieving, but because they’ve found a new reason to celebrate. Richard’s daughter was turning two years old, and her birthday was on December 23rd, a time around Christmas.
The family decided to put up the decorations to create a normal Christmas family atmosphere for the little girl.
“After so many years of not knowing what’s going on, we have to move on a little bit,” said Richard. “But not to the full point, until we find out what’s going on.”
This year, there will also be a Christmas tree in the Cheong home, and presents for their granddaughter. Living with grief for a decade, however, Marisha’s family and friends have found no closure.
They still know nothing about what happened to her during the two months she was missing.
Her case is still an open cold case on the NYPD’s website, but Ali has never heard back from a new detective who took over the case in October of 2022. Ali sent her three messages during the past year to check on the progress of Marisha’s case, but the detective’s unresponsiveness has made the mother feel even more frustrated.
“I have been waiting, and there is nothing I can do on my part,” said Ali. “I feel I fell behind in the things. I feel so stuck.”
Ali said she would go to the police station in January of 2024 to ask how the investigation of her daughter’s case is going.
“I still hope that one day it would be her twisting the doorknob and saying, ‘Mom, I am back.’ ”
Julie (Haoning) Zhu
Julie Zhu is a current data journalism student at Columbia Journalism School. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communication, awarded Highest Honor and Distinction in Major. She interned in multiple media organizations both in America and China, including HerCampus Magazine, Daily Nexus, KCSB-FM 91.9 Radio Station, Global Times (English Edition), and People’s Daily.
She specializes in leveraging various medium formats, including text, audio, video, data and data visualization, which also usually incorporate programming skills, to produce compelling and accurate news stories on various social issues and criminal justice topics. She wants her stories to promote people’s understanding of different groups, especially vulnerable minorities, to help create a better society.