http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/...decchia-639270/After 50 years, search continues for Mary Ann Verdecchia
June 7, 2012 12:23 am
By Sadie Gurman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Fifty years ago, Therese Rocco got a late-night phone call that marked her career and still obsesses her: A 10-year-old girl had been missing since noon.
Then the head of the Pittsburgh police missing-person squad, Ms. Rocco set out to the Bloomfield home where little Mary Ann Verdecchia was last seen.
"And there we began our investigation," she said. "And it went on and on and on."
As the decades since June 7, 1962, wore on, theories about the fate of the doe-eyed Catholic schoolgirl multiplied but never panned out.
"Everything that was done in those years was done without the assistance of technology," Ms. Rocco said Wednesday in the living room of her Brookline home. "Our assets were the telephone, the teletype and our legs."
Detectives then could not rely on modern DNA technology, which they now hope can help put an end to one of the city's most troubling missing-persons mysteries.
Ms. Rocco, for one, said her hope was renewed late last year, when city Detective William Fleske worked to have DNA from two of Mary Ann's closest surviving relatives entered into NamUs, an online database that profiles missing persons and the unidentified dead. The database routinely checks their DNA information against that of recently discovered remains nationwide. If Mary Ann is dead, the system increases the likelihood of identifying her body, Detective Fleske said.
Still, the addition of her profile into the database has yielded few answers.
But for Ms. Rocco, who retired from the police bureau 18 years ago as an assistant chief, the case is cold but hardly closed.
"Somebody knows something," she said. "Somebody does."
Mary Ann had been living with her aunt and several cousins on Morewood Avenue, abandoned by an absentee father and a mother who took off with a railroad dining-car porter.
On the last day she was seen alive, the little girl with a wide smile had returned to her aunt's home after a half day of classes at Immaculate Conception School, changed out of her uniform and went outside to play. Witnesses spotted her going into the nearby Martinique apartment building on Baum Boulevard, where she ran errands for a woman. She went to the store, returned to the building and was never seen again.
The case gripped the city and the police bureau alike.
"Neighbors wouldn't allow their children to come out to play. People were building fences and changing their locks," Ms. Rocco said. "It was shocking. The entire city of Pittsburgh had an intense interest."
Ms. Rocco led one of the largest police manhunts in history, involving throngs of detectives who combed the neighborhood and beyond.
"Anybody who was on the Pittsburgh police department at that time did something," she said.
Detectives interviewed hundreds of people. Ms. Rocco herself went door-to-door talking to children, some of whom assumed she was the missing girl's mother. Tracking down Mary Ann's actual mother in Chicago was a task in itself for Ms. Rocco and her detectives, who eventually found her but came no closer to Mary Ann.
"We lived on hopes that the mother had her," she said. "She didn't have her. She was heartbroken."
Mary Ann's face continued to peer from missing-person fliers.
Decades passed. Leads dried up. Mary Ann's aunt died.
"It came to the point where we had absolutely nothing," Ms. Rocco said. "We assumed she was kidnapped and murdered. We brought in a lot of child predators, they were questioned and polygraphed. We assumed there could have been an accident. ... We exhausted every possibility."
The case continued to nag at Ms. Rocco, even in retirement. Hundreds of miles away in Chicago, Mary Ann's half brother, Thomas Linnane, a Chicago police sergeant, was feeling the same way.
"I grew up with my poor mom living that nightmare," he said Wednesday. "It ate away at her. She wished I could join law enforcement. She said, 'Maybe someday you can find Mary Ann.' "
Sgt. Linnane's curiosity did not wane with his mother's death in 1983. He periodically combed the Internet for news stories about his half-sister, and finally, at the urging of a cousin, called Ms. Rocco last summer.
"I had no idea she was still so passionate," he said.
He came to Pittsburgh to "walk the ground myself," visiting the site of the since-demolished Martinique apartments.
"You feel a lot of spooky things," he said. "I really wish someone would come forward after all these years." He maintains contact with Ms. Rocco, who continues to offer city detectives bits of information she gleans.
"They have an eye on this case," she said. "And I am never stopping."