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Friend reports message from missing Shaler man

Sunday, July 22, 2001

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For nearly two years, not a word had been heard from Joseph Rusiski of Shaler, who disappeared Aug. 2, 1999, after leaving for work Downtown.

Early this month, the mystery may have been solved.

A Vermont woman informed Rusiski's family, who in turn told Allegheny County police, that a man whose voice she knew to be that of her friend Rusiski, 47, left a message on her answering machine.

The Rev. Debra Thomas-Rusiski, pastor of Payne Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Canonsburg. Her husband Joseph disappeared in 1999. Earlier this month, a family friend in Vermont reported receiving a telephone answering machine message from Joseph. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

"He said he was OK, not to look for him, that he didn't want to be found and he didn't want to talk about the reason he left Pittsburgh in the first place," said Detective John Schur.

The Rev. Debra Thomas-Rusiski, who has said she had no idea why her husband disappeared, was overjoyed at the news of the call, even with the message that the caller didn't want to be found.

"I really, truly believe you wouldn't make a phone call if you didn't want anybody to know anything about you. He wants to relay a message," said Thomas-Rusiski, who since her husband's disappearance has become pastor of Payne Chapel A.M.E. Church in Canonsburg.

"Whenever you have a good conscience and you've done something bad to hurt someone, it starts to bother you. He does want to be found, to bring himself back. I believe that," she said, adding that her faith had sustained her the past two years.

Schur said last week that he hadn't yet talked with the woman who got the message. He said he would close the case if she tells him she was sure it was Rusiski.

"The woman told [Rusiski's] sister it definitely was his voice," Schur said. "Personally, I never suspected any foul play. There never was a reason to suspect it."

Schur said the call to the Vermont home could not be traced, indicating it was a local call. Rusiski attended the Vermont Culinary School and, after graduation, opened a restaurant there.

He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1994, after his business partner cleaned out the restaurant bank accounts and left town. Police investigating his disappearance, however, said he no longer was under the care of a psychiatrist.

Rusiski had been food services director at the Renewal Center, a halfway house Downtown for jail inmates in work-release programs. He had $20 in his pocket when he kissed his wife and left for work at 4:26 a.m. Aug. 2, 1999, in his pickup truck.

Shortly before 5 a.m. Rusiski called the center to say his truck had broken down within walking distance of the center, but that he didn't want to leave it unattended.

Police were able to determine that a call was made to the center from a pay phone at Tripoli and East streets on the North Side at 4:45 a.m.

His truck was found Jan. 21, 2000, in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Erie. On the seat was a folded and unread copy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from Aug. 2, leading police to believe the truck had been there since the day he disappeared.



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