Episode 113: Marisha Cheong

April 22, 2024

When a young woman disappears in broad daylight, investigators are left with a strange trail of clues to follow and one important question: What happened to Marisha Cheong?

Episode Media
Marisha Cheong (Long Island Herald)
Marisha Cheong and Latchman “LJ” Balkaran (Facebook)
Important case locations (Google Maps)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a cold case that has recently been brought back into the spotlight as investigators look for new information. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

Marisha Cheong was born in the South American country of Guyana, the oldest of four children. According to her mother, Bibi, Marisha had a motherly instinct and doted on her younger siblings. When Marisha was ten, the family immigrated to the United States, settling on New York’s Long Island. Although she could be shy at times, everyone described Marisha as bubbly and vibrant. Her cousin Aundrey told the Long Island Herald that she had an infectious smile. “She was the nicest person you could ever meet. She was very friendly. She never would raise her voice at anyone.”

In 2007, Marisha graduated from Valley Stream South High School, ready to take on the world. She wanted to be an interior designer and dreamed of one day becoming a business owner like her mother. Marisha was smart and confident, and everyone knew she would be a success.

In 2008, Marisha met Latchman Balkaran, an aspiring Bollywood filmmaker. Marisha and LJ soon moved in together, renting a little house in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. LJ worked part-time as a delivery driver while Marisha was taking business classes at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. Her mother helped with the tuition costs, but Marisha and LJ still struggled financially. By the fall of 2012, the couple was hoping to make their savings stretch just a little further so Marisha could finish her degree, then LJ could fully focus on his filmmaking career.

As the holiday season approached, both LJ and Marisha were extremely busy with work and school, trying to fit everything in before Christmas. Marisha went shopping with her mother, buying gifts for her younger siblings, her brother Matthew in particular. Matthew’s birthday was on the 21st, and Marisha had the idea of getting everyone custom-made t-shirts to wear at his party.

Of course, with the busyness of the season came an extra layer of stress. On the morning of Wednesday, December 19th, Marisha and LJ got into an argument, and tensions were high. There are some conflicting details about the exact timeline of that morning, but it seems as though Marisha left the house around 10:40, telling LJ that she needed a break. LJ later told the New York Daily News, “I thought she was upset. I thought she needed some time — she left just like that. We had an argument about the relationship. It wasn’t serious.”

The couple continued to argue via text message throughout the day. But according to LJ, something seemed off – Marisha was using extra “lovey-dovey” language, calling him pet names she’d never used before. He told CBS New York that Marisha’s messages didn’t sound like her at all, that her responses didn’t fit their conversation.

Later in the day, Marisha asked LJ to pick her up at the subway station on 71st Avenue in Forest Hills. If LJ found this request strange, he’s never said. But I do wonder why Marisha wouldn’t just take the train a few more stops – there was a subway station just five blocks from their house. Whatever the reason, when LJ arrived at the station, Marisha wasn’t there to meet him. He waited for a while, but when Marisha still didn’t show, he went home, figuring she must have gotten there on her own.

However, Marisha wasn’t at home, and now, she wasn’t responding to his messages. A neighbor told local news station PIX11 that LJ came over to their house to ask if they had any video from their security camera that might show if Marisha had come back home or left with anyone. The neighbor said he seemed genuinely worried.

Across town, Bibi was also getting worried about her daughter. She and Marisha’s sister Isabella had gotten a few strange texts from Marisha that day, including one saying she was “@71”. But Marisha wouldn’t call Bibi when she asked. Usually the mother and daughter talked on the phone several times a day, so this silence was unsettling. Finally, at 5:11pm, Bibi sent a frustrated text, demanding that Marisha call her or else. At 5:37pm – nearly half an hour later – she got a text back: “mom am fine. I just need Little time to think. Am good.”

Bibi was immediately alarmed. Even at 24 years old, Marisha never called her “mom”, only “mommy”. Bibi began sending message after message, begging her daughter to call her. But there was no response.

It’s unclear who filed the missing persons report first, Bibi or LJ, but by December 20th, police officers from the 103rd Precinct were looking for 24-year-old Marisha Cheong. Search teams – including officers from both the harbor and aviation divisions – scoured the area, focusing on nearby Jamaica Bay. Investigators also brought a cadaver dog to search LJ and Marisha’s house and car, but the dog didn’t alert anywhere. Police impounded the vehicle anyway, hoping it might yield results at the lab.

Upon searching the house, it was discovered that Marisha had left her iPad behind. Bibi told several news outlets that Marisha used her iPad constantly and took it with her everywhere. Also of note was the fact that Marisha had left both of her winter coats behind. If she had been planning to be gone for a while in the middle of New York winter, she would have taken a coat.

As police searched, Bibi continued to message her daughter over and over again, hoping for a response, anything to show that Marisha was alright. But when Matthew’s birthday passed with no phone call from his big sister, the family feared the worst. Marisha’s friend Jenny told CBS New York, “She’s not gonna just hide. She wouldn’t put us through this. That’s not her.”

Investigators began questioning everyone in Marisha’s life, hoping to find clues that might lead them to her. LJ cooperated with detectives, telling them everything he could remember about the day Marisha disappeared. He maintained that he had nothing to do with her going missing; he had been out on deliveries all that day, which police were able to confirm. LJ also said that even though they had been arguing that day, their relationship was solid. He had been planning to propose to Marisha on New Year’s Eve at her favorite restaurant. They were planning their future together.

But sadly, that future would never come.

On the morning of February 16, 2013, a person walking along the beach on the Rockaway peninsula discovered the remains of a young woman. Her hands and feet were bound with green rope. She was wearing a gray sweatshirt, pajama pants, and a single black Ugg boot. A pair of earbuds were tangled in her hair. It appeared that she had been in the water for a very long time and had just washed ashore. Dental records would later confirm that she was 24-year-old Marisha Cheong.

Bibi later recalled the moment she was shown a picture of Marisha’s earrings, when she was asked to identify her daughter’s clothing. “When they tell me that they find her body, it’s like… you’re hearing what they’re saying, but it’s not registering.”

An autopsy would later reveal that Marisha had several broken bones, including her neck and both upper arms. She had hemorrhaging on the right side of her neck and bruises on her hips. Because of the advanced state of decomposition, the medical examiner couldn’t determine whether these injuries happened before or after she entered the water. It also wasn’t clear whether or not she had water in her lungs. It would be several months before her cause of death was determined to be “homicidal violence of an unknown type.”

Marisha’s family was devastated by the news. In an emotional interview with NBC New York, Bibi said, “She didn’t deserve this. They threw her away like trash.”

Her cousin Aundrey told the Long Island Herald that they were all still in shock. “You can’t possibly think of anyone wanting to hurt her. We are trying to stay positive, but at the same time we want justice.”

And Marisha’s family believed they knew who was responsible: Marisha’s boyfriend LJ.

While LJ painted a picture of a happy relationship looking ahead to the future, Marisha’s family saw it in a completely different light. Bibi told multiple news outlets that LJ was obsessive and controlling. He watched everything Marisha did and wouldn’t let her go anywhere without his permission. Bibi told the New York Daily News that he wouldn’t let Marisha drive to school alone; either he would drive her or he would send one of his cousins. Sometimes he would sit outside the university campus for hours while she was in class. Bibi said, “Who does that? A possessive person. She would spend her spare time between classes with him. He would bring dinner, and they would eat it in the car. He was always there. He would drive her to see me, and he never let me be alone with my daughter.”

LJ denied the accusations, saying, “I don’t understand why they think I would do something like this. They know how I am.” He told PIX11 that he wouldn’t rest until he found out the truth. “That’s my main agenda now. Everything in my life is finding who did this.”

But Marisha’s family wasn’t convinced. They told LJ he wasn’t welcome at the funeral. LJ told DNAInfo that he would still try to attend, but the family disputes that claim. Bibi told CBS New York that LJ never tried to come to the funeral, that he didn’t protest at all. “If you love somebody so much, you would fight to be there, right? No matter what, you would want to be there to see the last of her.” It’s possible the truth is somewhere in the middle; perhaps LJ didn’t feel comfortable forcing his way into the funeral after being told not to come.

Marisha’s funeral took place on February 23, 2013, two months after her disappearance. Friends offered prayers for the family and spoke of Marisha fondly. It was clear that Marisha had been loved by all those who knew her.

While the family mourned, investigators continued to search for answers. Their two main sources of information were Marisha’s cell phone and the neighbors’ security cameras.

NYPD Detective James Lusk told PIX11 that they had combed through all of Marisha’s cell phone communications from the days leading up to her disappearance. After she left the house on December 19th, she only communicated by text with LJ, her mother, and other friends and family members. Detective Lusk said that the text messages claimed that Marisha was in one area of Queens, but the actual data from cell towers placed the phone in a totally different spot. Her last messages were sent from an area near the Addabbo Memorial Bridge that crossed from Howard Beach to the Rockaway peninsula. Investigators believed that Marisha’s body may have been dumped into the water from that bridge, which would make sense when compared to where her body washed up on the other side of the bay.

The security cameras would prove to be both useful and frustrating. Investigators pulled footage from cameras along the bay, including one from the Marine Parkway Bridge, which looked over the spot where Marisha’s body was found. But the cameras in that area had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October of 2012, so the video quality was poor.

However, video from the house directly across the street from Marisha and LJ’s home actually showed something important: Marisha leaving the house in the company of an unknown woman.

The NYPD released part of the video in October of 2013, but some parts have been kept private, presumably to protect the investigation. We know that LJ told police that Marisha left the house around 10:40am on December 19th to take a break after their argument. Based on statements from detectives, the video footage shows an unknown woman entering the house around 11am, then shows Marisha re-entering the house around 11:17am. Then, at 11:22am – just five minutes later – Marisha is seen leaving the house again, this time being led by someone else, possibly by force. As they pass through the gate and approach a vehicle, Marisha turns back, almost as if she is trying to get away, but the other person grabs her and pulls her towards the car. The video is grainy and shot from a distance, but it appears as though Marisha is wearing the gray sweatshirt and pajama pants she was later found in.

I’ve gone over the video descriptions given by detectives multiple times, and I have to wonder about the unknown woman getting into the house. Was the door unlocked? Did she have a key? Did she go inside and lie in wait for Marisha to come back? And the biggest question: where was LJ while all this was happening? Had he already left for work? I assume that detectives have the answers to these questions and are still trying to put the pieces together.

Detectives did question LJ about some of his female acquaintances, wondering if one of them had been the woman in the video. One of LJ’s ex-girlfriends was brought in for questioning but retained a lawyer and refused to cooperate. Marisha’s family has claimed that LJ was texting an ex in the days before Marisha disappeared, but that has never been confirmed by police.

After police released the surveillance footage to the public, the family hoped someone would come forward with information. But unfortunately, as time passed, Marisha’s case went cold. Bibi told DNAInfo, “It’s frustrating. I don’t know anything. You wake up every morning and you don’t know what’s going on. Why did your child disappear? It’s so hard for me… I really want to know what happened to my daughter and why it’s taking so long… If the public can help, if they know anything, they should come forward.”

The case was quiet – nearly silent – for 11 long years. Then, in April of 2024, CBS New York revived the story by featuring it on their investigative segment, Cold Case with Alice Gainer. Although there wasn’t any new information, no big reveals, it was a reminder that Marisha’s case is still unsolved, that her family still doesn’t have justice.

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz told Alice Gainer that they haven’t ruled out any persons of interest, that they are still trying to find answers. She urged the public to come forward with any information they may have, no matter how small or insignificant they think it may be.

Marisha’s family is also trying to find the answers they need. Bibi still feels the loss of her daughter so deeply. “I’m still waiting for her. For that call, that knock on the door.”

Even though Marisha’s case has been cold for so long, it can still be solved. If you have any information about the murder of Marisha Cheong, please contact the NYPD Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-800-577-TIPS or contact the Queens District Attorney’s Office at 1-718-286-6300. Let’s get justice for Marisha.