In the family’s version of Sneha’s final days, little had changed from the halcyon times of just a year or two earlier. Her drinking was merely a short stint of self-medication during a hard time. The depression was temporary and on the mend. The career was back on track, her recent suspension notwithstanding. The nights spent at the homes of random strangers were not illicit, just inconsiderate. And then, just when she was putting her life back together, she disappeared.
Perhaps Sneha’s family is trying to protect her, and themselves, from a truth that would taint her name and their memory. Perhaps they simply do not know about her other life, the one detailed by investigators after she went missing. Perhaps, though it seems unlikely, the police conjured up a wild story out of thin air. Ron refused to allow me access to the private investigator’s report, which might have corroborated or refuted the police account.
But as Ron puts it, “even if she did all these things, it doesn’t explain what happened.” No matter how Sneha spent the last months of her life, her family might be right about how she spent her last moments. At any given time there are approximately 3,000 active cases of missing adults in New York State, so people do, it seems, sometimes just disappear. But a murderer pulling off a perfect crime on the same day that 1,151 people (the number of 9/11 victims whose remains have never been discovered) also disappeared without a trace seems an extraordinarily unlikely coincidence. Even Detective Stark eventually testified in the death-certificate proceedings that he thought Sneha probably died in the towers.
Under New York law, establishing that a person died as a result of 9/11 requires clear and convincing evidence of the person’s “exposure” to the attack. But application of this law has been uneven at best. A Manhattan judge rejected a petition filed on behalf of Fernando Molinar, even though Molinar called his mother on September 8, 2001, told her he was starting a new job at a pizzeria near the World Trade Center, and was never heard from again. A Dutchess County judge, on the other hand, ruled that Juan Lafuente, who worked eight blocks north of the towers, did in fact die in the attack. During Lafuente’s death-certificate proceedings, his wife, Colette, the mayor of Poughkeepsie, presented no direct proof of her husband’s whereabouts on 9/11. Her circumstantial evidence included the testimony of a witness who frequented the same deli as Lafuente and claimed he overheard Lafuente tell a brown-haired man about an upcoming meeting at the Trade Center.
Sneha’s case contains a number of parallels to Lafuente’s. Both stories have red flags: Sneha and Lafuente each lost a job, suffered from depression, and spent a night or two away from home each month, according to their spouses. Both victims also might have been tempted to rush into the burning buildings: Sneha was a doctor and Lafuente a volunteer fire marshal. One factor, however, distinguishes Colette Lafuente’s successfully expedited death-certificate application and Ron’s four-and-a-half-year mission, Sneha’s parents believe. “Ron’s not the mayor,” says Ansu. The other difference: Sneha was a woman who allegedly engaged in an illicit lifestyle. The family’s attorney, Marc Bogatin, calls her death-certificate ruling moralistic and illogical. The decision implies that Sneha was “partially at fault for her own death for participating in this high-risk and immoral behavior,” he says. “It’s like she walked into a courtroom in the fifties.”
For Sneha’s family, the 9/11 death certificate would represent proof of what, disturbingly, has become the best-case scenario. “All her parents and I really want is for her name to be on the list,” Ron says. “End this family’s suffering right now. Her mother’s crying all the time. Is it going to hurt anybody to do it? But for some reason they’re not going to do it.”
At the Philips’ quiet, spacious home on top of one of the highest hills in Hopewell Junction, there are pictures of Sneha everywhere. In the den hangs her portrait, on the living-room wall a picture of Ron and Sneha at their wedding. On the mantelpiece above the fireplace sit another half dozen pictures of her—Sneha in her wedding gown, Sneha receiving a diploma, Sneha and Ron standing in the kitchen—and one of Jesus.
Sitting at the kitchen table while Philip listens quietly, Ansu talks about how close she was to her only daughter. “She tells me everything,” she says, slipping into the present tense more than four years after Sneha’s disappearance. “She can go on in detail. That’s one of the things I really love about her.” Ansu spent the Friday night before September 11 visiting Sneha in the city. They ate Chinese food, walked around Battery Park, and watched Portrait of a Lady on video. When Ansu left the next morning, Sneha said to her, “Mom, can we do this more often?”