Sneha Anne Philip
Flyer circulated by Philip's family and friends after her disappearance
|Born||October 7, 1969|
|Died||Legally declared dead on September 11, 2001 (aged 31)|
|Known for||Contention surrounding time and location of death|
Sneha Anne Philip (October 7, 1969 – ruled to have died September 11, 2001) was an American physician who was last seen on September 10, 2001, by a department store surveillance camera near her Lower Manhattan apartment. She may have returned to the building at some point that night or the next morning. Due to the proximity of the World Trade Center and her medical training, her family believes she perished trying to help victims of the following day's terrorist attacks.
Two investigations were conducted. The first by Ron Lieberman, her husband, and private investigator Ken Gallant, a former FBI agent, initially presumed her disappearance and possible death were unrelated to the attacks but later concluded it was the most likely outcome. A later investigation by New York City police delved into her life leading up to September 11 and found details of a double life, a history of marital problems, possible affairs with other women, job difficulties and alcohol and drug abuse by Philip, as well as a pending criminal charge against her, in the months before her disappearance. This led them to conclude it was just as likely that she had met a different fate.
Lieberman and Philip's family have strongly disputed some of the facts and many of the conclusions of the police report, insinuating that the police did poor work or even fabricated some of their evidence. Her family have pointed out that there are many other 9/11 victims whose remains were never found, and other victims who were added to the list despite equally tenuous connections to the attack. No physical evidence has been found to suggest that she was killed in the attacks.
Citing the evidence from the police report, a Surrogate's Court judge had denied her family's petition to have her declared a victim of the attacks, suggesting it was equally possible she may have intentionally disappeared or been murdered by someone she met on her frequent nights out. However, on January 31, 2008, a New York State appeals court overturned a lower-court ruling and declared that she had been a victim of the attacks, officially making her the 2,751st victim of the Twin Towers' collapse.
Sneha Anne Philip was born in the Indian state of Kerala. Philip later moved with her parents to upstate New York, settling first in the Albany area and then in Hopewell Junction, New York, a small hamlet in Dutchess County. Following her graduation from Johns Hopkins University, she decided to pursue a career in medicine and enrolled in the Chicago School of Medicine in 1995. There she met Ron Lieberman, a student a year behind her from Los Angeles, and began dating him. The two shared creative interests outside of their intended career—he was a musician and she was interested in painting. She took a year off traveling around Italy so the two could graduate together. They moved to New York City where they had both gained internships. Lieberman was at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, while she did hers at Cabrini Medical Center, closer to their small apartment in the East Village.
The couple were married in May 2000 at a small ceremony held in Dutchess County, combining Jewish and South Indian Christian elements. Lieberman gave his bride a minnu, a traditional Malayali Christian wedding pendant shaped like a gold teardrop with a diamond set in it. They moved to a larger apartment in Battery Park City shortly afterwards.
Philip was last seen on September 10, 2001. On the day she disappeared, Philip was off from work. According to Lieberman, she was planning to spend the day cleaning up the apartment in anticipation of a dinner visit by her cousin two nights later. She had a two-hour online chat with her mother, during which she mentioned that she was planning to visit the Windows on the World restaurant on top of the nearby North Tower of the World Trade Center, where a friend was to be married the next spring. At 4 p.m. she signed off and went to drop off some clothes at a neighborhood dry cleaners, then went to a Century 21 where she used the couple's American Express card to buy lingerie, a dress, pantyhose and bed linens. Afterwards she bought three pairs of shoes at an annex to the store.
A security camera at Century 21 recorded her during this shopping trip. The taped image and the credit-card records are the last confirmed records of Philip's presence anywhere.
Ron Lieberman returned to the couple's apartment after midnight that night and noticed Philip was not there. He believed she had stayed out late or all night, as she had been doing, and resolved to remind her the next time he saw her to call him under those circumstances. He went to bed as he had to get up early the next morning for work.
Later investigation found that someone had called Lieberman's cell phone from the apartment at 4 a.m. Lieberman does not remember it, but thinks he may have awoken briefly to check his voicemail. When he got up for work at 6:30, his wife had still not returned. That evening, after the terrorist attacks, he was able to use his medical credentials to get through the security perimeter and return to their apartment. Since the window had been left open, dust from the towers had accumulated throughout. There were tracks in it from the couple's two kittens, but none from any human.
She was one of hundreds of people reported to police as missing that day. Like those of other victims, her family posted flyers all over the city in an effort to find her. Her case was the only one not connected to the attacks, and, in order to generate media interest, her brother claimed to the media that he had last heard from her during the attack. She has never been found or otherwise accounted for.
Lieberman called American Express and learned about the credit-card purchases on the previous evening. He posted flyers in other Century 21 stores, and later that week a clerk from the Lower Manhattan store who had been relocated to Brooklyn called to say she remembered Philip, who had come in frequently. On the evening of September 10, the clerk recalled that Philip had been accompanied by another young woman, possibly Indian. After reviewing videotape footage for three weeks, Lieberman found the recording of his wife browsing in the coat department, but without anyone else.
Since police detectives initially seemed to be unhelpful to Lieberman and assumed that Philip had died with the other victims, he hired Gallant, who found two pieces of evidence suggesting that she may have returned to the apartment building early on the morning of September 11. The first was the call from the home phone to Lieberman's cell; the second was some videotape from the security cameras in the lobby. Timestamped at 8:43 a.m., just 3 minutes before American Airlines Flight 11 was crashed into the North Tower, and within the 7-9 a.m. timeframe during which, Lieberman later testified, Philip always returned after her nights out, it shows a woman entering the building, waiting near the elevator and leaving after a few minutes. Due to the poor contrast from the sunlight in the lobby, she was visible only in silhouette, but her hair and dress are consistent with Philip as seen in the Century 21 tape from the previous evening. Her family also says the woman exhibits similar mannerisms. She is, however, not carrying any of the bags that she would have had from her shopping trip, and again she is apparently unaccompanied. Lieberman could not positively identify her as his wife, but a city police investigator believes it was her.
Gallant at first considered the possibility that Philip had used the attack to flee her mounting personal problems and start a new life under a new identity. But her computer's hard drive revealed no evidence of any such plans or contacts, and she had also left her glasses, passport, driver's license and credit cards, except the American Express card, behind. Lieberman kept the account open in case any leads developed from attempts to use it, but none ever did. Gallant and Lieberman eventually concluded that Philip witnessed the attack and, as a physician, rushed to the site to render aid and subsequently perished there, either within the towers or in the ensuing collapse.
The police department was not able to begin investigating the Philip case for some time after the attacks. When it did, it found many details about Philip's life prior to September 11 that suggested she may have been elsewhere, or already dead, when the towers fell.
Earlier in the year, Cabrini had declined to renew Philip's contract, citing repeated tardiness and alcohol-related issues, effectively firing her. Shortly after she had been informed of that decision, she went out to a bar with other Cabrini employees. The outing led to her spending the night in jail. She complained to police that a fellow intern groped her during that time. The prosecutor who investigated the case dropped the sexual abuse charge and instead charged Philip with third-degree falsely reporting an incident, a misdemeanor under New York law. He offered to drop the charge if she recanted the original complaint, but she refused and was held overnight pending release.
After her dismissal from Cabrini, she began spending nights out at gay and lesbian bars in the city, some known for their rough clientele. According to police, she would sometimes leave with women she met at these bars. Police also claim her brother discovered her and his then-girlfriend having sex, which her brother disputed. She got another internship, in internal medicine, at St. Vincent's Medical Center on Staten Island, but was running into similar problems there—she had already been suspended for missing a meeting with a substance abuse counselor.
On the morning of September 10, she had been formally arraigned on the criminal charge and pleaded not guilty. The police report says she and Lieberman fought loudly at the courthouse afterwards about her problems and nights out, which ended with her walking away and leaving him to go home alone and get ready for work. After reviewing it, the city medical examiner removed Philip from the official list of victims in January 2004, one of the last three.
Philip's husband, brother and family dispute much of what the police say and their interpretations of the documentary evidence. She was fired from Cabrini not because of alcoholism but because she had been a "whistleblower" who complained about racial and sexual bias (the hospital later told a reporter it had no evidence of any formal complaints by her). Lieberman says that while his wife frequented lesbian bars, it was because she did not want a repeat of the situation that had happened with her coworker. She never had sex with the women she went home with, he claims, and they would often merely listen to music, sleep or paint. One time, in fact, she came home covered with paint after going home with an artist. Her drinking was a temporary phase to ease her through the depression she was experiencing after being fired by Cabrini, and would stop once her life got back to normal, as he believed it was doing.
Her brother says the report of him catching her with his girlfriend is completely fabricated and that he never even spoke with the detective who wrote it. Similarly, Lieberman says the couple never fought at the courthouse after her arraignment. The police, they believe, were extrapolating from what little they could find in an effort to make up for their early inattention to the case.
In 2003, after the police investigation concluded, Lieberman filed a court petition in New York County Surrogate's Court, which handles probate matters, to have his wife declared a victim of the attacks regardless of what the police had said. New York state law requires "clear and convincing" evidence of a possible victim's exposure to any lethal peril in order for any presumption of death and subsequent legal provisions, including benefits from the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, to apply. He believed that his wife's profession would have led her to rush to the nearby World Trade Center, if she was in the vicinity, and offer aid to victims. Her mother further testified to their online chat, in which she said she was going to check out Windows on the World and possibly do some shopping at the Trade Center's mall. The author of the police report testified that he believed Philip probably died in the attacks.
Ellen Winner, appointed guardian ad litem for Philip, introduced the police report and argued that there was no clear evidence she was at or near the Trade Center during the attacks. On June 29, 2006, Judge Renee Roth ruled that it could not be established that Philip died on September 11, 2001 and instead set the date of her legal death at September 10, 2004, three years after she was reported missing, per state law.
The family appealed, contrasting her case with that of Juan Lafuente, another possible victim whose petition the court's counterpart in Dutchess County, where he lived, had accepted. Like Philip, his exposure to the attacks is based on circumstantial evidence. He, too, had recently lost a job and struggled with depression, and as a volunteer fire marshal in Poughkeepsie might himself have had a reason to offer assistance at the attack site. His office was eight blocks north of the W.T.C. complex, but the court accepted testimony from someone who frequented the same local deli claiming he had overheard Lafuente say he had a meeting at the Trade Center that morning. Philip's family believes Lafuente's petition, with similarly minimal evidence of the alleged decedent's presence at the site of the attacks, was accepted primarily because his wife, Colette, was mayor of Poughkeepsie at the time and the case was heard there rather than in Manhattan.
Despite it being suggested that the chances of success were low, Lieberman and the family's lawyer went ahead with an appeal. On January 31, 2008, a five-judge panel reversed Judge Roth's decision, finding the simplest explanation to be the most likely – that Philip died trying to help people at Ground Zero.
"This is a disturbing case," wrote Judge David Saxe for the other three majority judges. Its central problem was the lack of direct evidence putting Philip at the site of the attack, he agreed. However, he said the "clear and convincing" standard
...does not require an absolute certainty; it merely requires that the evidence make the conclusion "highly probable". Even without direct proof irrefutably establishing that her route that morning took her past the World Trade Center at the time of the attack, the evidence shows it to be highly probable that she died that morning, and at that site, whereas only the rankest speculation leads to any other conclusion.
He dismissed the claims made in the police report, saying they were hearsay and had not been properly introduced in the original hearing, instead appended by Winner to a post-hearing report. Nor did she properly follow up on assertions made in the report during the actual hearing. Thus, "any reliance by the court on purported facts asserted in those reports but unproved at hearing was improper." If Juan Lafuente had been found to have faced exposure to the attacks, then Philip could be too, he concluded. He considered it unlikely that she had deliberately disappeared due to the lack of evidence of preparations, and agreed with Lieberman, Gallant and Stark that had she died some other way, some evidence would have turned up in the years since the attack.
The dissenting judge, Bernard Malone Jr., said:
Since it is not known where the decedent spent the night of September 10, it requires speculation to say, as petitioner does, that her route home … southwest of the World Trade Center, took her across or dangerously near the World Trade Center grounds, or that at 8:48 a.m., when the attacks began, she was even in the vicinity of the World Trade Center.
He contrasted her case to Lafuente's by noting that he had had a more predictable daily routine, a stabler life, and that there was independent evidence confirming the meeting at the World Trade Center he might have been on his way to. "The degree of speculation is greater here", he said.
Philip was thus officially declared the 2,751st victim of the Twin Towers' collapse. The decision leaves only one missing person whose possible death at the World Trade Center is unresolved. Fernando Molinar, a Mexican immigrant, has not been seen or heard from since September 8, 2001, when he told his mother on the telephone that he was starting a new job at a pizzeria near the building. A similar petition to Surrogate's Court on his behalf also was rejected.
Since the victims' fund made all its payments and closed in 2003, Lieberman will not receive any money. The decision does mean that Philip's name can be added to official memorials to the victims. One to her specifically has already been established at Dutchess Community College, where her mother works as a computer programmer. The family buried an urn full of ashes from Ground Zero at a cemetery near their home. Six months after the appeals court decision, in July 2008, the family was officially notified by the city that Philip had been added to the victims' list.
No physical remains have been found for over a thousand victims of the attacks at the Trade Center, but the family still hopes that they might find yet some remnant of Philip. Her minnu, which they believe she was wearing at the time of the attacks, could have survived in the freshly collapsed buildings. They have sent pictures of it to the city property clerk's office in the event it can be matched to several hundred other unmatched personal items recovered from the ruins.
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