This story is published in collaboration with CrimeReads.
Debra Star Rizzo, age fifteen, disappeared shortly after 4 p.m. on Monday, July 24, 1978. Her badly decomposed remains were discovered nine days later. That’s a long time ago, but I have not forgotten.
On that long-ago afternoon, Debbie had just left her daily one-hour counseling session at Comprehensive Mental Health Services of Pinellas, Inc., on South Belcher Road in Clearwater, Florida. It has since been rebranded as Directions for Living (“Life Gets Better Here”), but the center is still there. Landscaped oaks and palms shelter it from the sweltering sun and surrounding sprawl. A green awning wraps around the gray building like a sun visor.
Clearwater is part of the Tampa Bay region along Florida’s Gulf Coast, and back in 1978 was a city of about 85,000 residents known for its white sandy beaches. The population has since grown to 119,000. For many, young and middle-aged alike, it has been a place to start over after a marriage, divorce, or job loss.
The temperature at St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport at 4 p.m. on that day in 1978was 92 degrees. So when Debbie pushed open the front door and stepped outside from the air-conditioned lobby, a wall of hot, humid air likely took her breath away. This was her first summer in Florida, and she would not yet have acclimated. She was more accustomed to the frigid winter winds off the Long Island Sound back home in Milford, Connecticut.
She looked like a typical teenager in the summertime in the 1970s. She stood five-feet-two-inches and weighed 125 pounds, with brown eyes, shoulder-length brown hair, and a “peaches and cream” complexion. She had on a yellow T-shirt with the silk-screened logo of the rock band Santana, blue denim cutoffs, and brown leather sandals. Debbie probably paused to light a Marlboro. At fifteen she was already a chain smoker. Except for that subtle sign of distress, and her location at a mental health counseling center, nothing about her would have hinted at trouble.
Many old detectives have at least one unsolved case they cannot let go, a real-life mystery that haunts them into their own graves. This one is mine.
The mystery intrigues me, of course. But I think it is the tragedy of her life, as much as the crime of her murder, that bothers me. Debbie’s official police record began on October 3, 1976. She had just turned fourteen and was starting her freshman year at Jonathan Law High School in Milford. At about 4:30 on an autumn Sunday afternoon, police were called to investigate a fight between Debbie and a sophomore girl who was a year older. Apparently, their conflict had started at school the preceding Friday and spilled over into the weekend, though the police report does not explain what the dispute was about.
Debbie walked to the other girl’s house. Each accused the other of starting it, but in any event a fight erupted, with the two of them rolling around on the ground in the front yard, kicking and punching and scratching like cowboys in an old TV western. The other girl’s sister came out of the house and joined in, but just as the two of them appeared to be getting the better of the fight, some of Debbie’s friends happened by and ran to her aid. The other girl and her sister retreated inside their house.
Still enraged, Debbie kicked in the aluminum storm door on the side of the house. Then she went around to the front and kicked the storm door there. Finally, she found a baseball bat and smashed two front windows before walking away.
In the end, police charged Debbie and the two sisters with breach of the peace. They also charged Debbie with criminal mischief for damaging the house. Detective Howard Taylor counseled Debbie that using a baseball bat to break windows could not be considered “normal” behavior for anyone, let alone a fourteen-year-old girl.
After that, Debbie was in and out of several psychiatric hospitals and outpatient programs, both in Connecticut and later in Florida. Her first admission took place January 24, 1977, exactly eighteen months before her disappearance. It was court-ordered after she was involved in another fight and then made disturbing statements to her juvenile probation officer about hearing voices. She was evaluated at the adolescent crisis unit of St. Raphael’s Hospital in New Haven and then underwent further assessment by the court’s appointed psychiatrist. Clinical notes from those sessions remarked on Debbie’s parents’ lack of cooperation with her treatment.
Following her involvement in a yet another neighborhood brawl, the court ordered another thirty-day evaluation at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown (formerly Connecticut General Hospital for the Insane). Upon release, she was referred to outpatient counseling, but her parents did not keep her appointments. So, in January 1978, after acting out in court, she was readmitted to Connecticut Valley on a fifteen-day commitment. When it expired, she remained on a voluntary basis for a while, but her parents eventually signed her out, against medical advice.
Two weeks later, the family moved to Florida. And before long, Debbie was admitted again, this time at Pinellas Horizon Hospital, a Clearwater psychiatric facility. Her parents told staff she had become “unmanageable.” But once more, they signed her out against medical advice. After that, Debbie was in daily outpatient therapy at Comprehensive Mental Health.
The reaction of Debbie’s parents to her condition is the proverbial riddle wrapped in an enigma. After her first trouble with the police, a social worker wrote in a memo to the case file that Leonard and Anne Rizzo’s parenting skills were “basically inept.” Another social worker later appraised them in a clinical family history as “rather limited people.” In medical files, other mental health professionals along the way used more generous jargon, saying that the pair were “lacking insight.”
Debbie was schizophrenic. Dr. Tom Burns, an Oxford emeritus professor of psychiatry, calls schizophrenia “the iconic mental illness” in his book, Our Necessary Shadow: The Nature and Meaning of Psychiatry. He writes: “Over a century after its first description it remains the most disabling and, in many ways, controversial and complex of all the mental illnesses. It does not mean split mind or split personality, it is not Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Schizophrenia takes several forms and can display just about any symptoms but most often patients hear voices, have strange and frightening ideas, and have difficulties in thinking clearly.”
Clinical records show that Debbie heard voices in her pillow, saw ghostly lights in her bedroom, thought everyone hated her, and feared someone mysterious was out to get her. “She was not always in touch with reality,” her mother, Anne Rizzo, told the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times).In addition to intensive counseling, Debbie had been prescribed Mellaril, an anti-psychotic medication, the family told the Clearwater Sun.
The day before she disappeared, she had a premonition of her own death, her parents told the Sun. On Sunday, July 23, the family had gone to Walt Disney World in Orlando. While there, Debbie was briefly lost. When they found her, she asked, apparently apropos of nothing, if she was going to live. Family members assured her she would live a long time, just like her ninety-seven-year-old grandmother.
Meanwhile, in the course of her therapy at Comprehensive Mental Health Services, her counselors had grown more concerned about Debbie’s state of mind. They had increased her medication and tried without success to convince her parents to hospitalize her for more intensive treatment. In what turned out to be her last session, one of her counselors noted that Debbie “seemed to have a very hard time concentrating on anything we talked about.” The note continued, “Near the end of the session, she talked some more of still needing to do something, but she needed to have more courage, and when she had it, she would do it.” But Debbie would not elaborate on her intentions.
Outside Comprehensive Mental Health Services, Debbie likely scanned the parking lot for her father’s green Dodge station wagon. He was supposed to pick her up after her appointment. After dropping Debbie off at 3 o’clock, Leonard Rizzo had taken her seventeen-year-old sister, Sheila, and one of Sheila’s friends, a girl named Teresa, out to Clearwater Beach.
Clearwater Beach was less than seven miles away, ordinarily a fifteen-minute drive. Yet, in repeated interviews with detectives and reporters, as well as remarks to family members, Leonard Rizzo gave conflicting explanations forwhy he was twenty or thirty minutes late to get Debbie: He had lost track of time. The Memorial Causeway drawbridge had been up. He had stopped for a sandwich. When they were questioned by police, both Leonard’s first wife and his daughter Sheila said it was more likely he had stopped somewhere for a drink. Leonard had struggled with alcoholism for many years.
This was well before the age of mobile phones, and Debbiedidn’t go back into the building to use a phone. Instead, after a few minutes, she started walking. Her house was roughly a half-mile away, straight up Belcher Road and then left onto her street, Bell-Cheer Drive. It was less than a fifteen-minute walk.
At about 4:05 p.m., a secretary from Comprehensive Mental Health Services was leaving work a little early. She knew Debbie by sight and by name because of her daily appointments, and she noticed her walking across the parking lot toward busy Belcher Road. Debbie was alone and the secretary didn’t see anyone else in the area. As she unlocked her own car door, she lost sight of Debbie. And with that, the secretary became the last known person to have seen young Debbie Rizzo alive.
By the time Leonard Rizzo showed up at the counseling center, sometime between 4:20 and 4:30, Debbie was gone. After checking at the reception desk and insisting on a search of the premises, he drove home. It was only six blocks. He watched along the way but saw no sign of her.
When he arrived at the house, most of the rest of the family was there: Leonard’s second wife, Anne, 50; their eldest daughter, Jody, 19; Jody’s husband, Chuck Finateri, 21; and Jody and Chuck’s infant daughter, Jessica. (Sheila was still at the beach with her friend Teresa.) But not Debbie. And none of them had seen or heard from her.
Leonard and Chuck drove around for more than an hour, searching. They cruised main roads, side streets, and parking lots. They went back to the counseling center twice more. The last time was after hours, and they got a janitor to let them in to recheck the premises. They even looked in trash dumpsters behind stores. Leonard was already “thinking the worst,” Chuck later told police.
When her father didn’t show up for her, Debbie’s sister, Sheila, got a ride home from the beach with Teresa’s parents. She joined the search on her bicycle, looking for Debbie in the neighborhood. Now sixty, Sheila Heidelbaugh still remembers going to the dead-end of Bell-Cheer Drive, where a dirt road leads into the woods, and calling her sister’s name. By then it was twilight, and she said she was getting an “eerie feeling.” She turned around and pedaled home.
Shortly before 7 o’clock, Leonard called the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to report Debbie missing. Despite her father’s concerns about foul play and Debbie’s mental-health issues, the deputy treated the matter as a routine runaway. He obtained her physical description, wrote a brief missing-person report, and made a cursory check of the area. That took him less than forty-five minutes. He didn’t call for assistance to search the neighborhood or conduct any further investigation.
When Debbie didn’t show up by morning, Leonard called again. And when she still hadn’t turned up after a few days, sheriff’s detectives arranged to publicize her disappearance. This was long before Amber alerts and social media, and law enforcement depended heavily on local newspapers and television to get the word out. Leonard and Anne Rizzo’s plea for help in finding their missing daughter appeared in the August 3 edition of the Times, on page 3 of the local section. But it was too late.
The front page of the same day’s rival Sun reported, “Body Found in Woods; Police Suspect Murder.”
At about 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday, August 2, 1978, a neighborhood resident named John Blechschmidt and his twelve-year-old son were walking in the wooded field behind their home when they found Debbie’s remains. It was nine days, almost to the hour, since she’d last been seen alive. The body was just off the dirt road leading into the woods from the dead-end of Bell-Cheer Drive, where Sheila had experienced her “eerie feeling” the evening of Debbie’s disappearance. “Weeds covered the view from the road, but within a few feet it was visible,” Blechschmidt told the Sun.
The scene was only three-quarters of a mile from Comprehensive Mental Health Services and a quarter-mile from the Rizzo home, between those two locations. Today the area is well maintained and the main entrance on South Hercules Avenue has a playground and picnic pavilion. But in 1978, the Times described the property as “overgrown with weeds and blackberry bushes,” filled with trash, and troubled by “fires, teenagers gathering there and motorcycle noise.”
The Sun reported that local citizens had petitioned the city to clean up its nuisance land just three weeks earlier. In fact, the letter had been drafted by John Blechschmidt’s twelve-year-old son and another boy, as part of Boy Scouts civic project. The city had not yet responded to the letter at the time of Debbie’s death.
The rough conditions hampered the crime scene investigation. A detective’s report noted that the area was “so densely overgrown we could not completely search without the weeds and briar bushes, etc., being cut away.” In the end, they found a pair of brown leather sandals, a Marlboro cigarette pack, and an abandoned Winn-Dixie shopping cart. They lifted a few fingerprints from the cart. Otherwise, the Sun reported, “After sifting through dirt in hopes of finding either a murder weapon or some clue as to the time and cause of death, police came away empty-handed.” Police told the Times the clothing and some other items were sent to the FBI Laboratory in to be examined for trace evidence—hairs, fibers, etc. But the lab results were negative, and the fingerprints were never matched to anyone.
Meanwhile the autopsy also yielded little. By the time it was found, Debbie’s body had been exposed to summer heat and humidity for more than a week. Daily high temperatures had averaged ninety degrees, with high humidity and drenching afternoon thunderstorms. Dead bodies just don’t last long when exposed to such conditions. Times stories took to calling the body “skeletal remains.” “The medical examiner couldn’t help us very much,” Captain Al Vellucci, the detective in charge of the investigation, told the newspaper.
Both the Times and Sun reported the medical examiner’s early difficulties. According to the Times, the M.E. initially thought the remains were those of a slightly built female in her teens or early twenties who had been dead for about six weeks. But after the autopsy, he revised that estimate to “closer to three weeks.” Once positive identification was made, it turned out to be just nine days. A radiologist eventually confirmed that it was Debbie by comparing the remains with her X-rays on file.
Still, there was enough evidence for the M.E.to rule her cause of death as “homicidal violence, probably strangulation.” Clearwater police have never released the exact mechanism of Debbie’s death, and their Unsolved Homicides web page contains only a vague reference to “blunt force trauma” and the possibility of sexual assault. Beyond that, information is being withheld to avoid disclosing details of the crime that only the perpetrator would know.
Detectives Richard D. (“Mac”) McManus and Charles W. (“Bo”) Butler led the investigation into Debbie’s murder. They had worked together often. Less than two years earlier, they and another detective had solved a series of rapes at local laundromats.
McManus had been on the job for ten years. As a rookie, he had been named officer of the year for his underwater rescue of an older woman whose car was submerged after going off the road. Butler had joined the force the year after McManus. He had earned officer-of-the-year honors for solving a bank robbery.
They began with some basic assumptions about the case. The close proximity of three key locations—the counseling center where Debbie had last been seen alive, the vacant land where her remains were found, and her home—made it likely that whatever had happened to her had happened within that vicinity. Because the clothing on her body was the same as when she had last been seen alive, and because such advanced decomposition of her body would have taken considerable time, it seemed likely she had been killed the afternoon she disappeared.
So, McManus and Butler focused on that area and that time. They started at the beginning, contacting the staff and clients of Comprehensive Mental Health Services. But nothing indicated anyone’s criminal involvement in what had happened to Debbie. They were all in their four o’clock appointments or otherwise accounted for during the time in question.
The next step was to find out if anyone in the surrounding area had seen or heard something relevant that day. McManus and Butler were assisted by a half-dozen more detectives conducting a door-to-door canvass in the sweltering heat. Whenever they made contact—which was rarely, as so many people were not at home—they asked the same questions: Did you notice anything unusual on Monday, July 24? At any other time in the past ten days or so? Have you ever seen the girl in this photograph? And so on. Police also appealed to the public for assistance through the news media, asking anyone who had been in the area that afternoon to call the detective bureau.
All they got for their efforts were vague recollections of suspicious persons or cars seen sometime that summer, mistaken sightings of Debbie here and there, and crackpot tips. Nothing panned out.
Statistics consistently show that nearly 80 percent of homicide victims are killed by family members, friends, or acquaintances. And in this case, Debbie seemed to have had no friends in the area. Because of her illness, she had not attended school since the family’s move to Florida at the end of March. By all accounts, she was never even allowed to leave the house in Clearwater unless accompanied by a family member, due to her condition. Her sister Sheila recently confirmed that to me. She said Debbie never went anywhere except with her parents.
So, McManus and Butler turned their attention to Debbie’s household. There were indications that harsh Connecticut winters and dreams of golden years in the Florida sunshine—the factors the Rizzo’s gave to detectives for their move south—were not the only reasons the family had left Milford. “It was getting rough in Milford,” Anne Rizzo told the Times.
One of the things that had gotten rough was Leonard Rizzo’s drinking. Milford police had arrested him nearly a dozen times for public intoxication, drunk-and-disorderly, or drunk driving. By 1977, the year before their move, things got really bad.
Responding to an ongoing domestic dispute at the Rizzo residence on the morning of February 20 of that year, officers found Leonard intoxicated, loudly cursing and arguing with his wife. When he refused to desist, they arrested him, “at which time he began to rassle” with the officers, according to the police report.
Three days later, Leonard drunkenly dialed the Veterans Administration, Bridgeport police, and Milford police. He rambled about mistreatment by Milford officers and threatened to bomb police headquarters. He also said he was going to shoot some teenagers he suspected of giving his younger daughter drugs, apparently referring to Debbie.
The V.A. nurse who took his call considered him “homicidal,” according to the police report. But the Milford officer who spoke to Leonard dismissed the threats. He noted in his report that he “has known Mr. Rizzo for many years and knows of his chronic alcoholic condition and the fact that he has made many crank calls to this Department in the past.”
Later that year, on September 18, 1977, officers fished Leonard out of Long Island Sound. It appeared he’d fallen off the seawall at the end of his own street, Laurel Avenue. He was nearly dead drunk, unable to stand or sit without assistance, and was having trouble breathing. They sent him to Milford Hospital for detoxification. The year ended with police finding him again passed out, this time on New Year’s Eve and right in front of police headquarters on West River Street.
Both daughters talked to me about their father’s drinking. He liked port wine, Sheila remembered. And apparently, Leonard Rizzo was quite a character around town. He would get drunk and wander around the neighborhood sporting a white skipper’s cap and calling himself “Captain Krueger,” Sheila said. Other times he’d claim he was a secret agent, according to a retired Milford police sergeant, Thornton “Sky” Meyer.
Sheila said she was embarrassed by his behavior. “Other kids thought he was cool, but I told them, ‘You only think he’s cool because he’s my dad. You wouldn’t think he was cool if he was your dad.’”
Jody also recalled her father’s “Captain Krueger” persona. “He had all kinds of different personalities when he was drinking,” she told me. She attributed his alcoholism to trauma from his infantry service during World War II. She also said had been receiving a military disabilitypension for lung damage.
Leonard was sporting his white “Captain Krueger” skipper’s cap the day Debbie disappeared. During the canvass, McManus and Butler spoke to the janitor who had unlocked the door for Leonard and Chuck on their final check of Comprehensive Mental Health Services the day Debbie disappeared. The janitor didn’t know their names but remembered “an elderly man wearing a white sea captain’s cap.”
Still, despite his alcoholism and eccentricity, McManus and Butler never considered Leonard a suspect in Debbie’s death. At most, only thirty minutes of his time that day was unaccounted for. With his age and physical disability, it seemed impossible for him to have killed her after 4:05, when she was last seen alive, then deposited her body in the woods, and still made it back to the clinic by 4:30 or 4:35, when the staff recalled him coming into the office to look for Debbie.
Debbie’s mother was a character in her own right (In fact, Jody and Sheila both told me their mother had met their father while taking drama classes in New York). Anne Rizzo, née Malek, was Leonard’s second wife and twelve years his junior. She had come to America as a child with her Czechoslovakian Jewish parents during World War II, fleeing the Nazis. Debbie’s middle name, Star, was after the Star of David, Sheila told me.
Leonard had left his first wife and their daughter in New York to run off with Anne. In 1957, after he secured an out-of-state divorce, they married and settled in Connecticut, first in Bridgeport and then in Milford. Leonard went to work as a chef at United Aircraft and then Milford Academy. Anne took a job at the Remington Shaver factory. They had three children in short order: Jody in 1959, Sheila in 1960, and Debbie in 1962.
Both Jody and Sheila remembered their mother as a hard worker, coming home after the overnight shift to make breakfast and get the children off to school before getting to sleep. (Leonard worked during the day.) Anne also sold Avon products for extra money.
Sheila also recalls her mother yelling a lot at her father, especially when he was drinking. Jody remarked to me that, as kids, they couldn’t decide “whether Mom bitched because Dad drank, or Dad drank because Mom bitched.” It was so bad at one point that Sheila asked her mother why they didn’t just get a divorce. “Because we love each other,” her mother replied. “We just fight.”
Meanwhile, Anne had her own encounters with the law. In 1973 she was arrested for shoplifting a bottle of Sominex sleeping tablets and a tin of Sucrets throat lozenges from a Milford store. The police report describes her mental state as “hysterical.” It took two officers and the store’s security agent to transport her to headquarters. The charges were later dropped.
In another police incident three years later involving a dispute with a neighbor, the investigating officer described Anne as “incoherent” and “a mental case.” Records reflect that she, too, underwent psychiatric treatment at Connecticut Valley Hospital at some point.
As with Leonard, however, McManus and Butler never thought of Anne as a suspect. For one thing, she also had serious physical health issues and seemed to lack the strength for violence. In addition, the other family members vouched that she was at home, resting on the couch and watching TV, when Debbie disappeared.
Police records from Milford show that Leonard and Anne’s three children also had contributed their fair share to the family turmoil. Jody, Sheila, and Debbie fought with their parents, fought with one another, fought with schoolmates, damaged neighbors’ property, ran away, drank, smoked pot, and generally hung out with a bad crowd.
The girls’ troubles began in Connecticut around the time the Finateri family moved next door to them on Laurel Avenue in Milford. Soon, the three Rizzo girls began hanging out with the three Finateri boys, Chuck, Richard, and Angelo. They started calling themselves “The Brady Bunch” after the popular 1970s TV show about a blended family, but their lives were nothing like that sitcom. For one thing, there was a lot of drug use. And then Chuck got Jody pregnant.
About a year before the family moved to Florida, and while Jody’s pregnancy was still a secret, both households were involved in a big neighborhood melee. According to police records, it started at 6:32 p.m. on May 20, 1977. Milford police Officer Doug Phillips was dispatched to a reported fight at the Finateri house.
Patricia Finateri, the unmarried eldest sister, had been the guardian of her siblings since the death of their parents. That afternoon she tried to throw Chuck out—for not working, not going to school, not paying rent, and not contributing anything to the household. But he refused to leave. She told Officer Phillips that Chuck had shoved her and twisted her arm in the ensuing confrontation. The youngest brother, Angelo, then intervened on his sister’s behalf. When the two brothers’ brawl migrated outside, Patricia called the police.
When Phillips tried to arrest Chuck, he yanked free and bolted. Phillips ran after him and tackled him in the backyard. Soon, additional officers arrived to assist. As they walked their handcuffed prisoner up the driveway between the two houses, Jody, who was in a car out front, began yelling “Pigs!” and extending the middle fingers of both hands at the cops, according to Phillips’ report. After securing Chuck in one of the patrol cars, Phillips and the other officers turned their attention to the still-screaming Jody. They dragged her out of the car and told her she was under arrest for disorderly conduct. She tried to pull away.
Seeing the struggle, Sheila and Debbie leaped off their front porch and ran to Jody’s aid. Sheila jumped on Phillips’s back. He grabbed her and told her she, too, was under arrest. Debbie then kicked Phillips in the leg. He turned to protect himself, and Sheila pulled free. Both girls fled. When Phillips once more turned his attention to arresting Jody, Sheila charged him again. He doused her with his tear gas spray. She fell to her knees, crying, coughing, and swearing until another officer handcuffed her.
All the while, Anne Rizzo stood on the front porch screaming insults and obscenities, calling the cops “Nazis,” Phillips wrote. They arrested her next.
Meanwhile, a neighbor informed the officers she had spotted Debbie walking on the next block. They responded and apprehended her without any further resistance.
When I interviewed the long-retired Officer Phillips forty years later, he still remembered the two-family free-for-all. It was “almost comical,” he told me. And recently, Jody recalled the final scene in the drama, which took place at Milford police headquarters. Her father arrived by taxi to bail out the rest of the household. But he was drunk and forgot to pay the cab fare, so the taxi driver chased him into the lobby.
A history of questionable behavior notwithstanding, both girls had alibis for the time of Debbie’s disappearance. Jody was at home, attending to her infant daughter, as attested by the rest of the family. Sheila was miles away on Clearwater Beach, in the company of her friend Teresa, and without transportation.
But the neighborhood canvass had piqued McManus’s suspicions about Jody’s husband, Chuck. One neighbor remembered Chuck sunning himself in the driveway and whistling at one of the girls like he was calling a dog, commanding her to fetch him a beer. Another neighbor recalled seeing three young girls and a young man walking past her house a couple of weeks earlier. She didn’t know their names, but the descriptions fit Chuck, Jody, Sheila, and Debbie. They had been arguing. The young man said, “Go back, Debbie! Go back!” One of the young girls (presumably Debbie) kept asking, “Why? Why?” The young man replied, “Because we hate you!” Debbie then turned around and walked back up the street. The others continued toward the dead-end leading into the woods—where Debbie’s body would eventually be found.
Plus, Chuck not only had a police record in Milford, for assault, but he also had been arrested since moving to Florida with Jody and her family. That one was for possession of a felony amount of marijuana on Clearwater Beach.
So, McManus pressed Chuck hard about Debbie’s murder. Chuck adamantly denied it. An old cassette tape of the interrogation contains his tearful protests. I didn’t do it! That’s the honest to God’s truth! From my own heart, I didn’t do it! I didn’t! I swear to God!
Jody recently described her late ex-husband to me as “a piece of work.” She said he was very controlling, had a bad temper, and had committed domestic violence against her more than once. She was afraid of him, she said, and tried to avoid conflict. Back then, Leonard and Anne considered him “a bum” who wasn’t good to Jody and didn’t contribute anything to household expenses or upkeep. He just ate their food and drank their beer.
But still, they provided him with an alibi.
He was home the entire time of the afternoon Debbie is believed to have been killed, having slept late after working all night. He was still there when Leonard came home looking for Debbie less than an hour after her disappearance. In another taped interview, Leonard insisted Chuck was in the clear. He told Vellucci and McManus: May God be my witness, I swear to my mother, I swear on the Bible, I would tell you. Not only would I tell you, I would break his head before you got there. Because if I thought for a minute he did it, you wouldn’t even have to arrest him. You’d have to pick him up in pieces! That’s the way I feel because I loved my little girl. Chuck has been dead for a decade now, and both Jody and Sheila still maintain his innocence.
The family’s alibis forced Detectives McManus and Butler to look elsewhere for potential suspects. They began chasing down other leads, to widen the net.
Debbie’s contacts with the outside world had been limited. However, it turned out some of Chuck’s and Sheila’s friends from work had visited the Rizzo house on occasion. A few of them had met Debbie there. One or two had even expressed interest in dating Debbie. Chuck and Sheila had discouraged them because of Debbie’s mental condition. For one thing, Debbie wasn’t allowed out of the house. For another, Sheila was embarrassed by Debbie’s bizarre behavior.
The detectives checked the friends out, dragging a few of them in for interrogation. They all appeared to be relatively harmless young potheads and small-time dealers. Their stories were sketchy on details of their whereabouts, activities, and associates, as might be expected, given their lifestyles. But in the end, police could not connect any of them with Debbie’s death.
So, in search of more leads, detectives reviewed all police reports regarding assaults, sex offenses, prowlers, burglaries, drug abuse, and suspicious activity of any kind in the general area where Debbie’s remains had been found. They looked back six months but found nothing hinting at ties to her case.
Then, on August 21, nearly a month after Debbie’s disappearance, a woman reported she had been walking her dog one evening near where Debbie’s remains had been found. She walked there almost every night and never had any trouble, but on this occasion, a short, slender, sandy-haired adolescent boy on a gold bicycle rode past her a couple of times before approaching her on foot. The boy grabbed her by both arms and said, “Gee, I think you’re cute!” The woman made a fist at him and warned, “You better get out of here!” The boy ran back to his bike, she said, and pedaled away.
Her description was good enough to produce a composite sketch of the suspect. McManus canvassed the neighborhood with it, to no avail. Then, a week later, he and another detective staked out the area. Sure enough, they soon spotted a boy riding a gold ten-speed bicycle. When confronted, the fourteen-year-old tearfully acknowledged the incident with the woman. But he insisted he only grabbed her arm to keep from falling when he accidentally tripped. He said he really meant to say her dog was cute.
McManus wasn’t buying that. He took the boy home to his parents and interviewed him further. After arresting him for assaulting the woman, McManus questioned him about Debbie’s case. The boy denied any knowledge of the incident or the Rizzo family. He said hehad a summer job mowing lawns until 3 p.m. and that he was present for dinner with his family at 5 o’clock. The rest of his evening was accounted for, as he went to a local skateboard park with a friend, who corroborated his story. That left a two-hour gap in his alibi. McManus asked if he would take a polygraph, and his parents would not allow it.
But McManus could find nothing to connect the boy with the Rizzo family. Although he could not be definitively cleared as a suspect, the boy’s slight build and ready flight at the least sign of resistance from the woman he’d accosted, made him seem an unlikely killer. McManus did charge him with the assault on the woman, but with no evidence of any connections to Debbie’s disappearance and death, and no polygraph, he had nothing to pursue.
That same week, McManus heard about a young man who worked nights as a janitor at Plumb Elementary School, also near where Debbie’s remains had been found. According to police in the adjoining city of Largo, the young man had obtained the home phone numbers of female students, teachers, and staff from the office directory and made obscene phone calls to them. Largo’s investigation was ongoing. At first, McManus thought the lead looked promising. Like Debbie, the young man had been a patient at Comprehensive Mental Health Services. But it turned out his first session had been after Debbie’s disappearance. And McManus could find nothing else to indicate a connection.
Then, on August 30,another promising lead developed. A woman was jogging near the drawbridge on Memorial Causeway between downtown and Clearwater Beach, about five miles from where Debbie’s body had been found, when a young man jumped out from behind a palm tree. He grabbed her from behind and held a knife to her throat. She screamed and struggled and was cut on the neck before the man finally fled.
Based on her description, McManus and Butler recognized the suspect from a prior case and the woman promptly picked his mugshot from a photo array. When they tracked him down, the young man was mowing lawns in a subdivision not far from where Debbie’s body had been found. So, after getting his confession to the knife attack, they questioned him about Debbie’s murder. He denied any involvement and insisted he had been working several miles away that day.
His employer corroborated his alibi. The young man also agreed to a polygraph test. The results showed no deception.
So, a month into the investigation, in a status update for the file, McManus reported “no substantial good information concerning any suspects in the Rizzo homicide.”
And although he continued to work several angles, no such information was ever forthcoming.
Around a year after Debbie’s death, the investigation was reclassified as “inactive,” meaning there were no leads left to pursue. Since there is no statute of limitations on murder in Florida, such cases technically cannot be closed because prosecution is always legally possible. However, Butler and other detectives had long since been reassigned, and now McManus also set the matter aside. It became a “shelf case,” one that literally sits on a file-room shelf, untouched, unless new information comes in.
A couple of quite minor updates did come in over the next twenty years. One was a follow-up interview with Jody in 1985. She had left Chuck by then, but she still vouched for him. The other was an oddball tip on Halloween 1994 from a member of a Tampa witches coven, who had been just six years old at the time of Debbie’s death. He said the coven had cast a magic circle in the vacant field near where Debbie’s remains had been discovered. They had made contact with Debbie’s spirit, the tipster said, and learned that Debbie’s uncle had killed her. There was no uncle in Florida at the time of the murder.
When Debbie Rizzo was killed, I was a nineteen-year-old college freshman living a thousand miles away. I joined the Clearwater Police Department in 1983, five years after Debbie’s murder. By 1996 I was a detective sergeant, supervising investigations of child abuse and sex crimes.
That was before sex offenders were required to register. So, from time to time, I would review old murder files involving sexual assaults on minors. Such intensive investigations often identified sexual predators along the way and sometimes turn up potential suspects or information that might inform future investigations.
One summer day in 1996, Maggie Jewett, a veteran detective on my squad, set the Rizzo file on my desk, as part of that case-review process. Toward the end of the day, I found a moment to open the big three-ring binder. I was hooked the moment I started reading it.
It’s hard to say why, exactly. At first it was the professional obligation to finish important work, the opportunity to learn from a case study in homicide investigation, and the challenge of solving a murder long after others had given up. But over time it became more personal than that. I came to know both the family—their names, birthdays, and personalities—and the cops—their names, ranks, and attitudes (you might be surprised how much they reveal of themselves in the tone of their investigative reports). They all became the cast of a long-running drama series that in my mind crossed the family from Shameless with the detectives of Law & Order.
So, I kept the file at hand throughout that assignment and all my subsequent ones until the day in December 2000 that I retired as the captain in command of the detective division.
During those years, I re-interviewed Jody, Chuck, Sheila, and the Blechschmidt family. I contacted Leonard’s first wife and his daughter from that marriage. I researched the subsequent police records of nearly everyone mentioned in the case. I re-submitted the evidence to the state crime lab in the hope that modern forensic science would find something the FBI had missed back in 1978. I had the fingerprint cards scanned into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System database. I sent a summary of the case to VICAP, the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, which gathers information about possible serial killers and rapists across the country. I kept an eye on the news for any cases involving similar circumstances.
But in the end, I was no more successful than McManus had been.
Several years ago, I visited the cemetery where Debbie Rizzo lies buried. It is almost due south of her old house, shady, clean, and peaceful, tucked away from Pinellas County’s urban sprawl.
The day was bright and warm. It was just after noon on Memorial Day. The graves of all the veterans had sprouted tiny American flags.
Debbie’s marker is a simple bronze plaque on a marble base, flush to the ground. The inscription is also simple, just her full name and her dates, September 22, 1962—August 2, 1978. She would have turned sixteen if she’d lived about two more months. The Star of David is in each upper corner.
Her mother’s grave is to the left, also bearing the Star of David in the corners. Anne Rizzo died of cancer in 1982, just four years after Debbie, at the age of fifty-five. Leonard Rizzo’s grave is to the right. It doesn’t have the Star of David but bears the additional inscription, “U.S. Army/World War II.” Someone had planted one of the little American flags next to it. Leonard died at sixty-nine in 1986.
As I stood there, Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane” came to mind:
I with no rights in this matter
Neither father nor lover.
It was, after all, her family who felt the trauma of Debbie’s loss.
I remember first interviewing Jody back in 1997. She had a sixteen by twenty-inch color portrait of Debbie prominently displayed in her living room, and she quickly pointed out her own resemblance to the girl in the picture. She is now in her early sixties, and says she hopes the case can be solved while she is still alive.
Sheila is equally possessive of Debbie’s memory. She recently told me by phone that when they were children, people often mistook her and Debbie for twins. She also recalled being very afraid after Debbie’s murder, too afraid even to date anyone for years.
Debbie’s mother, meanwhile, never forgave herself for her part in the family’s decision to move to Florida. In August 1978, Anne Rizzo told the Times, “Imagine, to come here for happiness, and to have this happen.” As far as Sheila is concerned, Debbie’s death pretty much killed her mother, too.
Back in May 1979, the Times also reported on her father’s sense of guilt for not being on time to pick Debbie up that day. The reporter put it this way in the story:
“Leonard Rizzo makes all the motions like the rest of us. He eats, sleeps and drinks at all the right times. But while most of us live life day by day and look to the future, Rizzo stands rooted to the past and the terrible tragedy of last July 24.
“The worry had caused him a literal heart attack, he said.
“‘I must know who killed my little girl,’ Leonard declared, offering a $1,000 reward for information. ‘And that person must be punished.’”
But he never would know. He died on July 24, 1986, the eighth anniversary of his daughter’s disappearance.
Sheila said she prays every night that Debbie will come to her somehow and tell her what happened. Maybe if the case were solved, she thinks, her mother and father would rest in peace.
Still, with every passing year, such an outcome becomes increasingly unlikely. The years have brought with them the passing of many people who were involved in the investigation, including the cops. Captain Vellucci and Detectives McManus and Butler are gone. Butler was the last of them, and he died in January 2021.
Still, solving the murder is not impossible. Perhaps Debbie’s killer is in prison somewhere, locked up for decades for some other vicious crime, even sitting on death row, with no reason not to confess. It’s also possible her killer is still at large, but perhaps facing natural mortality and motivated to talk by a desire to die with a clear conscience. That doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Or her killer may have already said something relevant at some point—to a family member or friend who might belatedly decide to come forward.
Many a cold case has been solved over the years under one of those scenarios, several of them right in Pinellas County. For example, In August 1971, the body of fourteen-year-old Gina Justi was found in an orange grove north of Clearwater. She had disappeared on her way to a friend’s house. Like Debbie, she was dark-haired and wearing a T-shirt, denim shorts, and sandals. Like Debbie, she was strangled. But because her remains were more intact, investigators could tell more about her manner of death.
Pinellas County sheriff’s detectives considered several persons of interest at the time. They even made an arrest, but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. The case went cold for four decades.
But in 2011, advances in forensic DNA technology identified Gina’s killer as Jerry Fletcher, a former Florida resident previously unknown to Pinellas County investigators. By then, he was serving multiple life sentences in Illinois for a remarkably similar kidnapping and homicide of a thirteen-year-old girl near Peoria.
Fletcher subsequently pleaded guilty to Gina’s murder, too, in exchange for another life sentence. Then he reneged on his plea agreement to talk about his other victims.
He couldn’t have helped in Debbie Rizzo’s case, as he was in prison at the time of her death. Still, Debbie’s murder has some of the hallmarks of a serial killer. It just has never been linked to a series. If Clearwater police could make such a connection at some point, they might still learn the answer.
Many old cops have at least one unsolved case they can’t let go of. They suffer nagging doubts that something has been overlooked. That some key question has not been asked or, if asked, not adequately answered. That some crucial piece of physical evidence has been missed, or some definitive forensic test has not yet been run (or even invented, as with the improvements in forensic DNA technology). Any one of those things might bring justice to the victim and closure to the family, not to mention a balm for injured professional pride of a detective. So, they worry about it, dream about it. Sometimes they even annoy their successors about it.
I knew a retired St. Petersburg detective sergeant named Bill Carlisle. Well into his eighties, he was still obsessed with an unsolved murder a decade older than Debbie’s: On Halloween 1969, a young woman’s body had been found in a steamer trunk in the woods behind a popular seafood restaurant. Police were never able to identify her, let alone find her killer. Calvin Trillin wrote about it in the April 15, 1972, issue of The New Yorker, in a story headlined “Unmissed Person.”
Carlisle later taught at the police academy I attended in 1983. He talked so much about the “girl in the trunk” that my class presented him with a plaque engraved with an image of a trunk, the date of the crime, and the department’s file number. When St. Petersburg’s cold-case detectives dug up the woman’s body in 2010 for modern forensic testing, Carlisle was there at the cemetery.
He died a few months later. Bill Carlisle had been a devoted family man and a deacon in his church. He’d coached Little League baseball and officiated high school football and basketball. He’d been an avid golfer. For his good citizenship over the years, he’d been presented with the ceremonial key to the city. And yet, the Times headline over his obituary was, “Retired St. Petersburg Homicide Detective Never Let Go of 40-Year-Old Murder Mystery.”
I understand how he felt. Since I retired, I have spent many an evening with a glass of bourbon and my notes while my wife watches TV or chats with her Facebook friends. While walking the dogs I try to imagine various hypothetical scenarios. While running errands in the car I construct and deconstruct theories of the case, trying out motive and opportunity on the different players.
In spare moments I search Google, Facebook, Ancestry.com, and online newspaper databases for anyone I can think of who might be relevant to the investigation. I have even done a few more interviews by telephone and email. They’ve been fascinating, but inconclusive. So much time has passed.
When I do find something of interest, I pass it along to my old department’s Criminal Investigations Division. They thank me politely.
Jeff Patterson retired in 2000 from the Clearwater Police Department, where he ran the detective division. He has published several essays about policing. Anyone who has information relevant to the Debbie Rizzo case should call the Clearwater Police Hotline at (727) 562-4080 or email email@example.com.