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The Missing: Sometimes the search can be never-ending

Sunday, July 22, 2001

By Michael A. Fuoco and Liz Austin Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Oftentimes, Therese Rocco goes to the basement office in her Brookline home and pulls out the 4-inch-thick file of news clippings, photographs and Pittsburgh police reports typed on now-faded blue, white and yellow paper.

She studies the weathered photos and stares deep into the big brown eyes of the smiling girl wearing a First Holy Communion dress in one picture and everyday clothes in the other.

"Mary Ann, where are you?" she hears herself saying.

Therese Rocco, retired Pittsburgh Police commander, remains interested in the case of Mary Ann Verdecchia, who was 10 when she disappeared on June 7, 1962. Files on the case, including the old photograph of the girl Rocco is holding, are in the basement at the Rocco home. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

That mystery has been haunting Rocco since June 7, 1962, when 10-year-old Mary Ann Verdecchia disappeared from Bloomfield. At the time, Rocco headed the Pittsburgh police missing-person squad. But even today, seven years after retiring as an assistant chief, she still revisits the case via the file, hoping to find some clue, some overlooked fact or statement to put an end to the mystery.

The events of the past week in Monessen, where the body of 8-year-old Annette Bright was found in a wooded area three days after she was reported missing, increased Rocco's self-described obsession with Verdecchia's disappearance, considered the most publicized missing-person case in city history.

"It grasped everyone's attention in the city of Pittsburgh and beyond," Rocco recalled. "And now with that little girl in Monessen, all I can think about is Mary Ann.

"To this day, I'd give anything to know what happened to that child. I want to know what happened to her, as a closure."

For police and loved ones alike, nothing may be as frustrating as the search for someone who has disappeared.

Just recall the troubled looks on the faces of those who hunted for Annette Bright until her body was discovered Wednesday.

Or think about the increasing concern of those trying to understand just what happened to Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy.

Now multiply the emotions in those two instances by the thousands of people who are missing nationwide, and the cascading effect such cases can have on everyone involved is clear.

Of course, no one really drops off the face of the earth. When people are missing, children or adults, one of three things has occurred: They either left of their own volition; they've met with foul play; or they disappeared due to confusion brought on by a mental or medical condition.

Last year, 876,213 missing person cases were reported to the FBI. Even more cases, 882,163, were cleared when the persons were found or turned up, including people who were reported missing in previous years.

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In only a handful of cases, the New York Times reported last week, is the person killed or never found.

Detectives who handle missing-person cases usually get a gut feeling of the circumstances pretty quickly.

Does the person have an otherwise stable life? Is he or she responsible, with a job and a spouse and children? Have there been similar instances in the past? Is there a problem with drugs or alcohol? Who are their associates, relatives, friends?

"The bulk of missing-person cases, probably 98 percent, are runaways. A very small amount are actually missing," said Pittsburgh police Sgt. Janet Morrissey, who in January took over as head of the missing-person squad.

At any time, Pittsburgh police have about 50 open missing-person cases they suspect are runaway children. In another 10 cases, detectives are uncertain what caused the disappearance.

The oldest dates to Nov. 20, 1959, when Marcella Krulce, 30, a Canonsburg native and diabetic, was reported missing. Investigators found her clothes, jewelry, insulin and syringes--everything--all in place in her home in the Martinique Apartments on Baum Boulevard in Oakland.

In a powerful coincidence fewer than three years later, the Martinique was the last place Mary Ann Verdecchia was seen.

'I wonder every day'

Maybe it was because it was a simpler time then, a time when unspeakable acts involving children didn't seem as pervasive as today. Perhaps it was the angelic look and sparkling personality of a young Catholic school girl who had been abandoned by her father and mother. Or maybe it was because the case exposed the darkest fears of any parent.

Whatever, the disappearance of Mary Ann Verdecchia resonated throughout Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania unlike any similar case since.

The story was front-page news day after day. And even as the years went by, veteran KDKA-TV news anchor Bill Burns would do a story about little Mary Ann on each anniversary of her disappearance.

Rocco can't forget it. And neither can Ruth Riley, Mary Ann's aunt, who was raising her.

Riley, 81, still lives in the house on Morewood Avenue in Bloomfield where she cared for Mary Ann from the time she was 6, when the girl's mother took off with a railroad dining-car porter. Her father, who never really was a part of Mary Ann's life, died in 1973; her mother passed away 10 years later.

"I never gave up hope until years later," Riley said. "Now I can see ... I think she's gone. You never give up hope, but now I know you have to give it up.

"We often think of her," she said of Mary Ann's surviving relatives. "We think of how old she would be, what she would look like. I wonder every day."

Mary Ann's birthday -- she would be 50 Aug. 15 -- particularly evokes such memories. So, too, does the anniversary of her disappearance. And, also, news stories about missing people.

"When I see stories about the missing intern and the little girl in Monessen, it brings it all back. It sure is a mystery. She was real friendly, nice, everybody loved her."

Mary Ann's disappearance was the first major case Rocco undertook after being named as head of the missing-person unit. Mary Ann had returned home after a half day of classes at Immaculate Conception School, changed from her uniform and went outside about 12:30 p.m.

She was seen going into the Martinique Apartments on Baum Boulevard. She ran errands for a lady there, and the woman sent her to the store. She was seen going back into the apartment about 2:45 p.m.

"That was the last reported sighting we had of her," Rocco said.

About 6 p.m., her relatives began looking for her, and they called police at 10:30 p.m.

Rocco led one of the largest manhunts in city history. Among the hundreds of people interviewed were two children who eventually joined the force and worked with Rocco -- Cmdr. Linda Barrone and Detective Michael Ranallo.

Ranallo, who lived a half-block from Mary Ann, said people attending the Immaculate Conception Church fair just last month talked about her.

"Any time there is a gathering like that, people bring her up," he said.

The initial hope was that Mary Ann was with her mother. In the month preceding Mary Ann's disappearance, the mother, after years of silence, had begun telephoning.

But where was she?

For three weeks, Rocco and detectives interviewed railroad workers to learn the name of the man with whom Mary Ann's mother had left the city. He lived in Chicago and FBI agents were dispatched.

The mother was there, but not Mary Ann. After interviewing the mother, investigators concluded she had nothing to do with the disappearance.

"It was a great success to find the mother, and then we were totally and completely disappointed," Rocco said.

Rocco began to believe Mary Ann was dead.

"I thought that whatever happened to her happened in the Martinique," Rocco said, glancing at Mary Ann's picture. She paused.

"Wasn't she beautiful?"

A year of questions

Friday will mark a year since Lynda McClelland was reported missing from her Forest Hills home.

Her daughter, Amanda Repasky of North Braddock, said she and her sister believe their mother, whose 45th birthday recently passed, is dead.

Repasky told police she last talked with her mother July 26 and said McClelland had argued with a boyfriend earlier that night. The next day she could not be found. Everything--her keys, purse and cigarettes--had been left behind.

Repasky said she doesn't believe her mother got disoriented and wandered away.

"I know my mother better than anyone," she said. "She's never forgotten her name, she's never forgotten where she lived, she's never wandered off."

Repasky said Allegheny County detectives check with her frequently but have run out of leads. Moreover, she said she realized they just don't have the resources that are being expended in the search for Chandra Levy.

"Just because maybe you were dating someone important, they called in all kinds of investigators," Repasky said of the Levy investigation. "They had 100 people looking for a body. If you're a normal, average person, you don't see that."

Following the leads

It has been 11 weeks since Gail Platt, depressed and reacting poorly to his medication, disappeared from his Shadyside home.

Jean Platt said her 80-year-old husband, who had just spent four weeks battling depression in West Penn Hospital, was lying on the sofa May 6. She left the room to call the doctor about changing his prescription and returned to find him gone.

Bloodhounds that day tracked a scent from the Platts' house on Devonshire Road to a bus stop at Morewood Avenue. Police believe he got onto an eastbound bus.

At the end of May, a woman who knows Platt told detectives she had seen him entering a newsstand on Forbes Avenue in Oakland on May 16. She said she didn't immediately report it because she didn't know he was missing.

A short time later another person saw a man who looked like Platt in East Liberty. Bloodhounds picked up Platt's scent and followed it to the Port Authority garage in East Liberty.

Last week, people twice reported seeing a man resembling Platt in Oakland, once in front of a bagel shop and later near a gas station. Again police searched the area but found no trace of him.

Neither police nor family members -- who have canvassed hotels, hospitals, homeless shelters and parks -- understand how the retired engineer has survived with no money and no shelter. Though Platt took his wallet, his wife doubts he had much money and has canceled his credit cards. None of his accounts has shown any activity.

Nevertheless, Jean Platt holds out hope for her husband's safe return. She and family friends plan to continue flooding Oakland, Squirrel Hill and Shadyside with posters and watching bus stops and the area around the Carnegie and Hillman libraries.

"We are just convinced he's alive and in Oakland somewhere," she said.

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