Fiocco search continues at landfills

MONDAY, 10 p.m. – At press time, College freshman John Fiocco Jr. had been missing for over a week, and little or no information was being reported from the two landfills in Pennsylvania where police were searching for clues that might steer them in the right direction to find him.

“There’s been no change at this time,” Lt. Gerald Lewis of the New Jersey State Police said Monday afternoon.

According to Lewis, the police are searching a combined area of two acres in the Tullytown and GROWS landfills in Bucks County, Pa. Lewis said the search will be conducted in areas 20 feet deep.

Lewis said the police will continue their search until they come to what they could consider a “successful conclusion.” If nothing comes of the landfill search, however, Lewis said the investigation into Fiocco’s disappearance will not be dormant. “It’ll never stop,” Lewis said. “After (the search is over) we will continue to look for leads.”

Fiocco has been missing since 3 a.m. on Saturday, March 25, when he was last seen in the room of one of his Wolfe 4 floormates. The 19-year-old graphic design major was reported missing at approximately 2:40 p.m. on Sunday, March 26. At that time, Campus Police notified local law enforcement and hospitals and also started searching for him on campus and in the area. State Police were brought in to begin a more intricate investigation on Monday.

Fiocco attended an off-campus party Friday night. “We can confirm that he was out on Friday evening,” Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph L. Bocchini Jr. said at a press conference last Tuesday night. “As most of the campus was.”

Fiocco returned to Wolfe Hall intoxicated, but unharmed, according to one of Fiocco’s friends, who met up with Fiocco after he returned from the party.The source, who asked to remain anonymous, described Fiocco as always being “really nice to everyone” and “the funniest kid on the floor.”

On Tuesday, police activity blocked off the Travers/Wolfe Lot 8 parking deck and the area behind Wolfe Hall, as investigators searched through dumpsters for any evidence pertinent to the case. Bocchini revealed in last Tuesday’s press conference that unnamed items in the dumpster had led his office to obtain six search warrants for areas of the campus.

Those warrants were executed the next day, when police brought in cadaver dogs and evacuated first Wolfe, then Travers, to conduct floor searches. Police also questioned all students in both residence halls.

Last Wednesday morning, the New Jersey State Police Major Crimes Unit officially took charge of releasing all information in regard to the missing persons case.

Sgt. Stephen Jones of the State Police said that the transfer of media control from the College to the State Police was based solely on organization size and experience.

“The State Police are better equipped to handle a large investigation such as this,” Jones said.

A campus-wide e-mail from College President R. Barbara Gitenstein cited the change as “upsetting news that (would), undoubtedly, raise the level of concern we all share.”

Campus and state police continue to work together in the missing persons investigation, in conjunction with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.

According to Lewis, last Thursday the police sent a special fiber optic camera down the Wolfe Hall trash chute to look for evidence. Officials refused to comment on what, if anything, was found in the chute – an aspect they have been particularly tight-lipped about since the beginning of the investigation.

Also that day, one of the Wolfe dumpsters was hauled away in a truck for processing at the State Police Forensics Lab in Hamilton.

Last Friday morning, a press conference was held in Brower Student Center where Bocchini announced that DNA tests had confirmed that blood found in and around one of the Wolfe dumpsters was Fiocco’s. Bocchini would not comment on the quantity of blood found.

The test results were in last Thursday night, but the information was not released to the public until the next day in order to give officers a chance to notify Fiocco’s family.

“We’ve delayed in the release of this information to present this information to the Fiocco family and for the family to have the opportunity to process this information,” Bocchini said.

Despite the discovery of blood, Bocchini stressed last Friday that the case is still a missing persons – not a homicide – investigation.

“You have no body, you have no person, you have blood . anyone that draws conclusions from that is speculating on your own,” Bocchini said.

Since the investigation first got off the ground early last week, the rampant speculation by the media has been commented on by both Gitenstein and by officials at press conferences.

In an e-mail last Wednesday, Gitenstein warned students “about the dangers and potential ramifications of jumping to conclusions,” and said “making reckless assumptions will only exacerbate the stress, sadness and fear that have gripped our campus.”

Before last Thursday’s press conference, Bocchini reminded the gathered media that the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and the New Jersey State Police are the official sources of information relating to the missing persons investigation. He encouraged them “to refrain from speculation and innuendo,” which he said doesn’t “help the family with the pain they’re going through.”

Last week, Lt. Col. Frank Rodgers, State Police deputy superintendent in charge of Investigations, said that no one was in custody in the case, and no evidence that there was any off-campus or non-College students were involved in Fiocco’s disappearance. An e-mail to students from the office of Public Affairs said that investigators believe this to be an isolated incident.

Last Friday, Rodgers and Bocchini also announced their intent to begin searching the two landfills, after informing the press that there had been multiple trash pick-ups between the time of Fiocco’s disappearance and the start of the investigation.

They said that trash pickups are taken to a transfer station in Trenton, where the trash is compacted before being sent off to local landfills.

According to Jones, the search began its preliminary stages that day. While officials migrated to the landfills Friday, others stayed on campus with a search dog and a boat to tour lakes Ceva and Sylva at the College for potential evidence.

“(Searching the lakes) is a continuation of our full-scale canvassing and search,” State Police Capt. Al Della Fave said last Friday. He added that investigators will continue searching the peripheral area until they have conclusive evidence.

Over the course of last week, College administrators reached out to residents, volunteering their time to help students deal with the situation.

Gitenstein and Elizabeth Paul, vice president of Student Life, spoke to students last Thursday night in Travers/Wolfe lounge to discuss student fears in the wake of a growing police investigation.

“We are all in this together,” Paul said.

Gitenstein stressed that students were under no obligation to speak with the press, who at the time had lined news vans in front of Townhouses South, across the street from where the Wolfe dumpster had been. “(The students) are empowered to say ‘I don’t want to talk about it,'” Gitenstein said.

According to Gitenstein, a group of College staff members has volunteered to escort students who might feel unsafe when walking alone on campus.

Campus Police officers usually provide this service, but due to their involvement in the investigation, the College enlisted additional help.

At last Friday’s press conference, Gitenstein spoke of the courage of the campus family.

“Our students, parents, faculty and staff members, alumni and friends are wonderful and caring people who will sustain one another with compassion and strength,” she said.

She also commented on her belief that the campus was a secure and safe place. Since last Wednesday, access to Travers and Wolfe has been restricted. According to a Residence Life staff member, the buildings are on 24-hour swipe access for residents. For several days there was an around-the-clock police presence throughout the building.

Students who were not residents of the towers and chose to eat in the Travers/Wolfe Dining Hall were required to speak with a Residence Life security staff member at the entrance of the building between 6 p.m. and midnight, when the dining hall was open.

Gitenstein said though she believes the campus is safe, “the feelings are another thing and that’s a reality.”

Gitenstein was the first to note the surreal atmosphere that has pervaded the College as the investigation continues, concisely summing up what seems to be on the collective mind of the campus community: “This is a horrific event, whatever the outcome.”

These feelings were echoed by students and teachers in Gloucester County where Fiocco grew up. Since Fiocco was only a freshman, the memory of his high school days remains fresh in the minds of students and teachers at Clearview Regional High School.

“He had just visited here a week or two before he disappeared,” Andrea Schmidt, his high school chemistry teacher, said. “We chatted for a few minutes and then I had to go to class. When you talk to somebody that way, you don’t think something is going to happen to them.”

Schmidt said that many of her seniors are “visibly upset” and have required counseling to get them through this period of time.

Clearview is going through an especially rough year. In September, the junior class president was killed as an innocent pedestrian caught in the middle of a drag race. Another alumnus was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Considering Fiocco’s disappearance, Schmidt said, “It’s making a bad situation even worse.”

Schmidt said Fiocco left a great impression at his alma mater, and that everyone there is hoping that some answers are found soon.

“If my son grows up to be like John,” she said, “I’ll be happy with that.”