A talented actress and filmmaker at the cusp of stardom is found dead in her bathroom, purportedly an act of suicide. But N.Y.P.D. investigators with a close eye for detail would turn the investigation upside down, leading them to a teenager who almost got away with murder.
On November 1, 2006, at around 5:45 p.m., authorities were called to an apartment in Manhattan’s artsy Greenwich Village after Andy Ostroy found his wife dead. Adrienne Shelly, 40, was found in the bathroom of an apartment she used as an office away from home, seemingly the result of a suicide, according to Detective John Cantone of the N.Y.P.D.’s Crime Scene Unit.
“We went into the bathroom where we found a white female with blond hair, middle-aged, fully-clothed, hanging from a sheet that was tied to a shower curtain rod,” Cantone told New York Homicide, airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
Investigators believed Shelly was dead for about five to six hours, noting marks above her right eye and cheeks.
Loved ones, including Shelly’s marketing executive husband, were left reeling from the tragedy. It was all the more heartbreaking because she left behind a 2-year-old daughter. However, those closest to Shelly didn’t subscribe to theories of suicide, a reaction detectives knew was all too common for grieving people.
“Adrienne was madly in love with her baby,” said friend and agent Rachel Sheedy.
Loved ones dispute Adrienne Shelly’s suicide
Friends and family attested that Shelly had no history of depression and that her and Ostroy’s marriage was a happy one. She was also excited for the future, especially since her film, Waitress, starring Keri Russell, was a contender for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
Shelly stood at the edge of a breakthrough, having previously appeared in the 1989 film The Unbelievable Truth and as a guest on Law & Order and HBO’s Oz, according to her IMDB page.
“I couldn’t imagine that a woman who’s waiting by the phone to hear from Sundance felt it was her time to go,” Sheedy continued.
Ostroy told detectives that on the morning of Shelly’s death, he’d dropped her off at the apartment-turned-office at around 9:30 a.m., according to Officer Bill Stanton of the 40th Precinct. Ostroy found it “highly unusual” to not hear from his wife for the rest of the day, prompting him to leave work and find her.
Photo: Getty Images
An intricate knot and a shoe print raise suspicion
At face value, it appeared to investigators that Shelly had taken her own life. Despite this, it was their job to process the crime scene and look for clues to support or disprove their theories. There were no signs of a break-in, nor did the apartment appear in disarray, but detectives found it peculiar that the knot of the bedsheet used to hang Shelly was rather intricate.
“It just didn’t make sense to me,” Det. Cantone told New York Homicide. “I had a gut feeling that there could be a little bit more to this story.”
Eagle-eyed detectives also discovered a latent shoeprint atop the toilet seat. The pattern belonged to a Reebok Allen Iverson-style sneaker, men’s size eight, which didn’t match any of Shelly’s shoes. Detectives found no match when they compared the print to Ostroy, authorities, and medical personnel who’d visited the scene.
“I immediately thought this was going to be very important to the case,” said Cantone.
Meanwhile, Ostroy’s alibi of being at work at the time of Shelly’s death panned out. The results of Shelly’s postmortem examination revealed neck compression as the cause of death.
Possible Suspects and a Revealing Clue
Detectives began speaking with those closest to Shelly, including people in her work circle. A producer, they learned, claimed an aspiring writer known for being a “wannabe” pestered Shelly about reading his screenplay, though Shelly wouldn’t accept the request.
“It seems that he was very frustrated with Adrienne,” according to Ofc. Stanton. “Constantly trying to get her attention, but she wasn’t having any of it.”
Investigators went to visit the “wannabe” at his apartment, finding he’d moved out and traveled to another country, according to detectives. However, the writer left before Shelly’s death, as gleaned from flight records, bringing investigators to look at more possible suspects.
None stood out.
Days went by without any huge breaks when, on Nov. 5, 2006, police revisited the Greenwich Village apartment. With fresh eyes and ears, detectives discovered there was a construction project on the floor directly below Shelly’s, according to Detective George Boston of the N.Y.P.D.’s Crime Scene Unit. When police entered the specific apartment, there was dust-covered construction paper on the floor with a sneaker’s imprint.
“I said, ‘Wow, that’s the same print; a Reebok, size eight Allen Iverson,’” Boston told New York Homicide. “The first thought is, ‘This is not a suicide, this is a homicide.’”
The shoeprint matched the one found atop Shelly’s toilet.
Police spoke with the person in charge of the construction project, identifying Wilson Pillco as the foreman, according to Assistant District Attorney Doug Nadjari. Nadjari surmised, “There may have been somebody on this construction crew who found their way into Adrienne’s apartment.”
Police zero in on a 19-year-old construction worker
Detectives visited Wilson Pillco at his Brooklyn residence. Wilson answered the door and, as quickly observed by detectives, a backpack was on the floor with a pair of sneakers jutting out. Wilson explained the bag belonged to his 19-year-old brother, Diego Pillco — a construction worker who’d illegally immigrated from Ecuador — who was also in the home when detectives arrived.
The shoes matched the one found at the crime scene, which A.D.A. referred to as “the golden slipper.”
Pillco admitted to being in Shelly’s building but initially denied seeing her. He also claimed to have never been inside Shelly’s apartment, which investigators knew was a lie, given the shoeprint evidence.
Pillco, now detectives’ number one suspect, appeared nervous in the interrogation room, fidgeting with a prayer card. One of the female detectives appealed to Pillco’s religious nature and learned that Pillco was fond of a young niece, using the information to draw a confession.
“He said he didn’t want his sins to be delivered upon the child, and at that point, Diego gives it up,” A.D.A. Nadjari told New York Homicide.
Rachel Sheedy on Adrienne Shelly: “She Had So Much to Live For”
Diego Pillco claimed he was alone in the apartment under construction when Shelly came downstairs to complain about the noise. Pillco reportedly slammed the door on Shelly, though she opened it and slapped Pillco across the face. When Shelly allegedly threatened to call the police, Pillco — fearing deportation — followed Shelly back to her apartment and pleaded with Shelly not to report him.
He was triggered when Shelly picked up the phone, prompting a violent response.
“He said he was a peaceful person, but that was a trigger for him,” said Nadjari. “It flipped some sort of an emotional switch in him.”
Pillco told authorities he punched Shelly in the face, not meaning to knock her unconscious. Then, inspired by a Spanish-speaking telenovela he once watched, he staged Shelly’s death to look like a suicide.
As for how he staged the suicide, Pillco was familiar with tying intricate knots since he frequently tied pigs while living back in Ecuador.
“It’s awfully cold. It’s awfully calculating,” said Nadjari. “He hangs her, and he tried to blame it on her and have her family, her children, her husband, live with that lie for the rest of their lives.”
Investigators and loved ones challenge Diego Pillco’s statements
Those closest to Shelly, including Rachel Sheedy, weren’t satisfied with Pillco’s version of events — that Shelly initiated a confrontation. Sheedy said she “knew that couldn’t be true.”
“She was not confrontational,” Sheedy told New York Homicide. “She was not someone who would argue… it just wasn’t her.”
Investigators agreed that the story didn’t match up, noting that there was no construction dust on Shelly’s shoes (which would have been the case if she had confronted Pillco in the downstairs apartment).
Pillco was charged with second-degree murder and eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges of first-degree manslaughter. As part of the plea deal, he was required to give a full confession in court, finally revealing what really happened on the day of the murder.
Pillco recanted his previous statements that Shelly came downstairs to make a noise complaint. Instead, Pillco admitted he found Shelly on the elevator and chose to rob her, claiming he needed money to send to the people who’d helped him illegally enter the United States.
“The door was open; it was ajar,” said A.D.A. Nadjari. “He saw the purse on the table and went in there to take money out of her purse and run.”
Rachel Sheedy Reflects on Adrienne Shelly’s Passion for Filmmaking
Shelly allegedly caught Pillco, catching him by surprise, and threatened to call 9-1-1. He physically attacked and strangled her before hanging her in the shower, per Pillco’s courtroom confession.
Pillco was sentenced to 25 years behind bars without the possibility of parole.
“This could have been ruled a suicide, and the family would have never gotten closure,” said Det. Boston. “Now they know what happened. Now they can finally put her to rest.”
Adrienne Shelley’s film, Waitress, was posthumously accepted into the Sundance Film Festival on the same day of Pillco’s arrest. It went on to have success after being adapted into a Broadway musical and being nominated for a Tony Award.
“She was this tiny little firecracker. She was this little thing, but she had so much power and so much presence,” said Sheedy. “I still wish I could have seen what else she would have created.”
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