SC Law Enforcement Division (SLED)

 

Sat May 24 12:06:31 PDT 2003

FROM THE WEBMASTER:

We're pleased to announce an exciting new break-through in the "John Petrazzuoli" case.

 

John was burned to death in his car at 1 a.m. on May 6, 1999, in an allegedly deserted parking lot in Garden City, SC. Police closed the case as a suicide/accident, despite John's family's belief that John was murdered.

 

Last week, on the fourth anniversary of John's death, his mother placed an ad in the paper directing people to the Real Crimes web site to read John's story. That ad brought forth a witness, who had driven past the parking lot and seen three vehicles, with a man walking away from John's burning car. That witness, who called 911 at the time, was never questioned by the police and didn't even know that a victim died in the blaze. Until reading the write-up on this website, he hadn't realized the importance of his information and the fact that what he saw that night was murder and arson.

 

We sincerely hope this causes the Horry County Police Department to reopen John's case and investigate it as a homicide.

 

 

The following questions were posted on the Real Crimes message board.  The responses are from Pam Petrazzuoli, Johnny’s mother:

 

 

THE NEW INFORMATION FROM THE 911 CALLER:

 

Regarding the new information from the good person who called in the fire, what exactly was the response the police department gave you for not re-opening the case? How could they refuse? Isn't there ANYBODY overseeing that shameful police department? What about the State Attorney General?  NO family should ever have to go through what the Petrazzuolis have for the last four years!

 

The reason they gave for refusing to reopen the case was that the case is closed. Yet, when we met with them on June 3, 1999, they assured us, “If you bring us any new evidence, we will reopen the case.”

 

They didn't reopen the case when we brought them information about the bullet hole. They didn't give a damn about the threatening note found in Johnny's brief case. And now they have no interest in the 911 caller who saw two vehicles other than Johnny’s at the scene and a person hurrying away from Johnny’s burning car.

 

We haven't contacted the SC Attorney General on this occasion, but previously, when we wrote to him, his advice was to hire an attorney and/or consult the Solicitor.  All the families on this web site have gone through the very same ordeal as we have, some worse and most for a longer period of time.

 

 

How many people called 911 to report the fire?

 

A total of three calls were made to 911.  Detective Richard Jernick stated in his investigative report that the initial call came from a cellular phone and that no caller information was available. (That's apparently the caller who has now contacted us.)

 

The two other callers lived behind the Food Lion. One caller could see the burning car from his porch and stated that he heard a big bang, saw a 25 foot high fireball, and heard four or five smaller bangs after the initial bang. He did not see any vehicles come or leave before the fire trucks arrived. The other caller was a resident of that same development. That caller originally saw the car on fire from 17 By Pass and drove past it while pulling into the gated development. Detective Jernick never spoke to that person, but to someone else who lived in the same house.

 

After our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, we were given a copy of the 911 tape recording. At first it was "misplaced," then mysteriously surfaced. After listening to that, we realized that one of the three callers was not on the tape. We were then told that there were only two calls.  We knew there were THREE, because they had been discussed with us during a meeting with Detective Jernick, (that meeting is on tape) and the fact that there were three calls also appears in Detective Jernick’s written report.

 

 

JOHNNY’S EX-GIRLFRIEND:

 

Were the last people known to be with John ever questioned?

 

Not all the people known to be with Johnny were questioned. Johnny's ex-girlfriend, a stripper named Nicole Lampo, was interviewed. Nicole said that, when she and her friend Amber MacIves, arrived at the bar, Johnny was sitting with two females and one male. Their identities are unknown. No questions were ever asked about them.

 

Of the group that was later at the table with Johnny (see the photo on the web site) only Nicole and Amber were interviewed. The identities of the other people in that photo are unknown. The detective assured us that the police interviewed all those people, but since nobody (even Nicole and Amber) knows their names, that doesn’t seem likely.  Those alleged interviews don’t appear in any police reports.

 

 

How long had Johnny known Nicole?  How long did they date?

 

Johnny was introduced to Nicole by mutual friends in February, 1998, so he knew her a total of 15 months.

 

Johnny and Nicole dated less than six months off and on, and he had not seen her for more than nine months until that evening at Cowboy’s. While they were dating, Nicole slashed Johnny’s arm during an argument. Johnny’s friends, Gregg and Connie, who witnessed the knife attack, gave all the information to Sergeant Lilley. Sergeant Lilley's handwritten notes do not say one word about this, and he denied tape recording the interview.

 

We mentioned the knife wound to Detective Jernick and Detective Merritt, since it showed that Nicole had a flash temper and was capable of violence. Nicole denied the incident and told Detective Jernick that Johnny cut his own arm. Again, they took Nicole's word over ours and over that of eyewitnesses. One police report implies that Johnny self-mutilated himself by slashing his arm and therefore was fully capable of setting himself on fire.

 

 

I was wondering if anyone knows if John left Cowboy’s with his ex-girlfriend?

 

No, Johnny did not leave Cowboy's with Nicole. The incoming calls on Johnny's cell phone indicate that he left at or before 11:02. (It wouldn't make sense for him to be in the bar at the time somebody called him from the bar phone.)

 

We are convinced he left shortly before 11. In Nicole's interview, she stated that Johnny left around midnight. Amber stated that Johnny left between 12:00 and 12:30. I had already told the detectives that Johnny came home about 11:30 and went back out again. Johnny could not be in two places at once.

 

The detectives contend that Johnny left Cowboys 12 to 12:30, (taking Nicole & Amber's word rather than mine), stopped at a phone booth, left a message on Nicole's phone at 12:36, went to the Food Lion parking lot and set himself on fire.

 

 

Did detectives interview any of Johnny's friends, customers and neighbors? Was his ex- girlfriend investigated?

 

Detective Richard Jernick and Detective George Merrit held their interviews in our kitchen on May 7, 1999. They interviewed our daughter, Patti; my brother, John Cassidy; and Johnny's close friend, Chad. Chad arrived with his wife, but they did not interview her. Detective Jernick took handwritten notes and tape-recorded those interviews. We have copies.

 

Sergeant James Lilley interviewed Johnny's best friends, Connie and Gregg, at their residences on May 6,1999.  Gregg is Sgt. Lilley’s nephew.  Sergeant Lilley denies recording Connie and Gregg, (although they have signed statements attesting that he did tape them) but he did take handwritten notes. We have a copy of those notes.

 

Detective Jernick interviewed Nicole Lampo and her friend, Amber MacIves, at Amber’s residence on May 9, 1999. Merrit phoned one of Johnny’s customers and one employee from Golden Image, who did not work in the same store as Johnny and did not know him well.  No neighbors were interviewed.  No one was interviewed at the last place Johnny was seen alive, Cowboy's Bar & Grill.

 

 

Why do you think Sgt. Lilley lied about taping his nephew's interview?

 

We have not been able to figure out why Sergeant Lilley would deny tape recording that interview. We always thought it was standard procedure, when a member of law enforcement interviews a member of his own family, that another detective has to be present as well.

 

We do know that Gregg and Connie gave Sergeant Lilley information about Nicole that he left out of his report, including the fact that Nicole attacked Johnny with a knife.  Lilley’s stated reason for not taping the interview was that he did not want to record the grief of Johnny’s friends when he informed them that Johnny died in a car fire. That makes no sense, since Gregg and Connie knew the circumstances of Johnny’s death before Sergeant Lilley arrived at their home.

 

We suspect that Lilley either misplaced the tape or is protecting someone that Gregg and Connie mentioned during the interview.

 

 

JOHNNY’S CELL PHONE:

 

Did the police investigate to see who answered John's cell phone after his death? Obviously someone took his phone from his vehicle the night of the fire, so he wasn't alone then, was he?

 

No attempt was made to see who answered the messages. The police do not admit that any messages were answered.

 

Shortly after Johnny's death, the cell phone was shut off. The person at the phone company, who took it upon himself to shut it off, just happened to be a retired Horry County Police Detective.

 

The phone bill shows two incoming calls from Cowboy’s Bar, but the Detectives never went to Cowboy’s to inquire who used the phone there. They didn’t interview anyone at all.

 

 

On Johnny's cell phone did the detectives get a subpoena to get the records?

Did they subpoena Nicole's phone records also? Or anyone else’s?

 

Yes, a subpoena was issued for Johnny’s cell phone records on May 12, 1999, and the police file contains a copy of the incoming calls.  The police did not acquire a record of out-going calls until much later. That record shows nine voice mail messages, picked up after Johnny's death.

 

A subpoena was issued on May 12, 1999, for Nicole's phone records, but was never submitted.  We don’t know why.

 

The detectives told us that when Johnny left a message on Nicole's home phone he used a phone booth. They came to that conclusion because of all the noise in the background. They refuse to believe that Johnny made the call while driving the vehicle with the window down, (he always drove with the window down, because he was a smoker), since  Fire Investigator George Jones said the car windows were up when the fire broke out. It is obvious that they have never viewed the records at all, since to this day they continue to insist that Johnny used a phone booth. The phone bill shows he used his own cell phone to call Nicole’s home.

 

We know that Johnny made the call to Nicole on his cell phone.  If both windows were up when the fire broke out, it’s because the person who set the fire wanted to enclose the interior of the car.

 

The detectives did not issue or request a subpoena for anyone else’s phone records. We thought they would have at the very least issued a subpoena for Cowboy's, knowing two calls were made to Johnny's cell phone from that location, but they didn’t.

 

 

Is it possible that there is a record of the incoming calls to his cell phone? How would just anyone know the passcode to access it, if they weren't a close friend?

 

The incoming calls were voice messages that were answered after his death. In order to get the voice messages, you would have to know the pass code. Johnny had that cell phone for a very long time for his business. The access code was probably common knowledge to friends and the ex-girlfriend. We had the code, but without the phone we could not access the messages

 

 

THE CAR FIRE AND THE GUN:

 

Was a gun found in the vehicle and if so was it ever tested?  Which was Johnny’s dominant hand?

 

Yes, Johnny's gun was found on the left side of the vehicle in between the seat and door.   Eight bullets were in the magazine and one bullet in the chamber. All bullets detonated from the fire.

 

Since Johnny was right handed, how did that gun end up on the left side of the vehicle with the bullet hole on the right side of the vehicle?  Even if he had wanted to, he couldn’t have fired the gun with his left hand. His left index finger was in a splint after being crushed between his work truck and a wheel barrel.

 

During our meeting, Jernick stated that police never handled the gun and it was sent to ballistics exactly as it was found. Yet their photos show that all the debris that melted on top of the gun was removed. Also, the magazine was taken out of the gun and replaced before it was sent to South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED).  Once again, the police lied. They did NOT send the gun exactly as it was found. They tampered with it and got rid of the debris before sending it to SLED.

 

 

Johnny was obviously shot to make sure he couldn’t get out of the car.  How badly was the car damaged and where is it today?

 

The entire interior of the vehicle was completely destroyed. Basically, the vehicle is a shell. There are no seats left, only the metal frames. Yet, in Detective Jernick’s report, he stated that he found a shell casing from the gun on the seat. Since there were no seats left, how could Jernick find a casing on the seat?

 

Glass was discovered within the door panels. The front windshield appeared to have melted inside the vehicle. Johnny always drove with his window down, regardless of weather conditions, yet apparently the window was up when the fire broke out.

 

The front dashboard was completely gone, including the air conditioning unit, radio, door locks, seat belts, etc. Absolutely nothing was left to the vehicle. The spare tire inside the vehicle melted to the rim, as did the front tires. There was just as much damage under the hood.  The vehicle was released to us on May 13, 1999.  We have it in a storage bin in the hope that someday it will be property investigated.

 

 

Was ATF called in to investigate since a gun was found?

 

On May 13, 1999, Horry County Police Department requested ATF assistance in determining if a destructive device had detonated in or around the vehicle. Special Agent Lester Rich arrived with another agent and an explosives detection K- 9 Shea. Agent Rich informed Horry County he would not be conducting an additional fire scene exam, as he was not requested to do so.

 

K-9 Shea searched portions of the interior but had no alerts and no indicators were noted which would indicate a device functioned on the exterior.

 

Based on the inspection of the vehicle and information provided, it appears a fuel/air mixture was created in the front compartment and was ignited by an underdetermined ignition source.

 

The ATF report indicates that Johnny's vehicle did not reveal any damage from an explosion as fire investigator George Jones insisted it did. As with any fire, the windows blew out from the build up of combustion. Which again shows the importance of the 911 cell phone caller, who witnessed the fire begin inside of the vehicle.

 

 

Why wouldn't ATF reinvestigate the vehicle? Isn't that their job?  Did any other fire investigators examine the car other than Jones?

 

ATF wasn't requested to do an independent fire examination. The only reason Horry County requested their assistance was George Jones’s insistence that the fire was an explosion, the car blew up, and it was not a fire. Most agencies will not reinvestigate after another agency has done so.

 

Agent Lester Rich did say during a phone conversation that this fire was beyond George Jones’s capability to investigate. They should have notified ATF immediately, before removing the body, before removing the vehicle, and before disturbing the debris.

 

George Jones also stated at the meeting -- (his statement is documented in the ATF report) – that Agent Lester Rich believes that no one else was involved in the fire other than Johnny. He quoted Agent Rich as saying that, due to the condition of the vehicle and the location of where the fire started, it would be impossible for someone else to have started the fire.

 

Agent Lester Rich denies making that statement and said, “Even if it is in my report, I did not say that.” (It is NOT written in his report, but is part of Detective Richard Jernick’s report.)

 

Horry County Fire Investigator Bill Johnson was at the scene and took photographs. His report was not in the original case file, because it wasn’t written until 11/2000. We did not receive a copy until 6/2001. Most of what he wrote was incorrect information. Johnson has since resigned from Horry County Fire Department. We believe he was given the same option as George Jones -- either resign or get fired.

 

Phil Kennedy examined the engine compartment and found no evidence of electrical or mechanical malfunction and no evidence of fuel leak. That report was received in 6/2001 and was not in the file until our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

 

 

f the fire investigator examined the vehicle, how come he didn't discover the bullet hole?

 

The fire investigator, George Jones, did not examine the vehicle as well as he claimed he did. Jones not only missed the bullet hole, he did not recover a watch, the ignition keys, half of a gold bracelet, the bottom of an aerosol can, one large bag cell phone. Jones did say he thought he saw a watch, but it was not his job to retrieve it or to place it into evidence. If not his job, whose job was it? He had no way of knowing whether that watch was Johnny's. For all he knew, it might have belonged to Johnny’s killer.

 

Finally responding to our repeated queries about Johnny's gold bracelet, Detective George Merritt swirled his pen around in the debris and found it immediately. Merritt placed the bracelet into the evidence room May 19, 1999.

 

 

If the fire investigator didn't find the watch, keys, etc., who did?  Have these items been placed in the evidence room?  If so, are they still there? And if they are not,  WHY aren't they????

 

We hired Steve Reed, Forensic Fire expert from NC. Mr. Reed sifted through the debris and found the items, and also the bullet hole. Mr. Reed stated in his report that it was noted that the burned debris had not been completely sifted or removed by Horry County Investigators. There was evidence that some of the debris had been moved around but not sifted. It is recommended and accepted practice to sift debris in vehicle fires, especially when there is a fatality. Mr. Reed's conclusion revealed that this incident was a fire and not an explosion. Fire Investigator George Jones still insists the fire was an explosion.

 

The piece of gold bracelet found by Detective George Merritt was placed into evidence.  Since the case had already been closed by the time the other items were found. Horry County Police were not interested in collecting them, examining them, or placing them in the evidence room. They are in our possession.

 

Was a ballistic person called in by the detectives?  Do they at least admit it is a bullet hole?

 

The bullet hole was discovered in June 1999, by the forensic fire expert we hired. According to the law, when "new" evidence is found, it is considered a new crime scene (not in this case), and all investigating must stop until the police are notified and arrive.

 

Detective George Merritt, Fire Investigator George Jones, and Fire Investigator Bill Johnson did come to view the bullet hole and gave their theory as to how it might have gotten there.

 

Horry County Police Department refused to have SLED's ballistic expert examine the bullet hole. When Senator Thurmond sent Special Agent David Roper, he made an appointment for SLED's ballistic expert to view the bullet hole, but that appointment was canceled.

 

Eventually, in October, 1999, Deputy Coroner Dan Bellamy made the request to SLED's ballistic expert. The written report states that the defects in the vehicle seat frame and floorboard COULD have been caused by a bullet's having been fired from a position in the approximate middle of the driver's seat and passing through the front edge of the seat and exiting through the floorboard at a downward angle in a slightly right to left direction. Our next question to SLED's ballistic expert was, “Why didn't you go to the scene and look for the bullet in the newly paved parking lot?” His response was, “It wouldn't make a difference if we found it, as it would be considered tainted evidence.” He added that he couldn’t be sure that the hole in the car was a bullet hole, because he was not there and did not see the gun go off.

 

Johnny had a hole in the right side of his head, and skull fragments were found in the rear of the vehicle. The detectives have tried to explain the location of the skull fragments by saying they must have been relocated by pressure from the water hose. Their theory is that Johnny shot himself before burning himself up. But, if he blew his brains out, how did he start the fire?

 

 

What was the date the investigation was closed?

 

Looking at the police report, it appears that the investigation stopped on May 13, after ATF came.

 

 

Was a reenactment of the way the car was burned ever done or could it be done? To see if the fire could travel in that same way and what the possibilities are?

 

We considered buying the same year, make and model of Johnny's vehicle for the purpose of a reenactment. The Horry County Police Department told us that they didn't think the Fire Marshall would give us permission to do that. When we submitted our request and the Fire Marshall did give permission, the police told us a reconstruction would be meaningless since we couldn’t guarantee that the weather conditions were the same.

 

 

THE AUTOPSY:

 

Was an autopsy performed? What was the medical examiners findings?

 

An autopsy was performed at MUSC, Charleston, SC, by a forensic medical examiner, but he didn’t perform a forensic autopsy.  (The Detectives and Deputy Coroner assured us that he did.) We believe the medical examiner decided not to perform a forensic autopsy because of misinformation he received from Horry County Detectives.

 

There were no drugs found in Johnny’s system, yet the ME's report states that Johnny was "known by local police to abuse cocaine." We have to wonder who gave him that information, since Johnny was never arrested or known by the local police.  At the tape-recorded meeting, all officials stated that Johnny had no drugs in his system, he did not use drugs, he was not a drug dealer, he had no enemies, and there was no evidence to indicate this was a homicide.

 

During the meeting, we inquired if Johnny had any injuries to his body. Everyone said NO. In Sept. 1999, when we were finally allowed to view the autopsy report, it was clear that Johnny's right leg was burned through at the level of the mid femur and detached at exactly the place where the bullet hole was found. Johnny also had head injuries. The medical examiner never x-rayed Johnny detached right leg to see if the leg was severed by the bullet.

 

The Carboxhemoglobin level was 13.2%. Johnny was a heavy smoker, and the level for a heavy smoker would normally be 9%. That indicates that Johnny was alive at the start of the fire. We believe that Johnny was shot in the leg during a struggle inside the vehicle and was unconscious and about to expire from the bullet wound when the fire was started.

 

The Medical Examiner ruled "probable cause of death thermal injuries, manner of death undetermined."  The report also stated that electronic investigational equipment was used at the scene. That is not true either.

 

 

THE INVESTIGATION:

 

I don't understand why the case wasn't reopened when it was "known" that the fire investigator didn't have any reports. Isn't that obstruction of justice?

 

We couldn’t understand that either. During our first meeting with the officials in charge of the case, Fire Investigator George Jones stated that he had "his reports" and there was solid evidence that "no one was involved with the fire other than John L. Petrazzuoli, Jr." We were bewildered by the fact that he couldn’t even tell us how the fire ignited or what accelerant was used, yet KNEW that Johnny “set himself on fire.” When we expressed our doubts that George Jones really had reports, Detective George Merritt jumped out of his seat and stated adamantly, “If George Jones says he has reports, he HAS them!” We taped recorded that meeting.

 

Like all the families on the Real Crimes web site, we wrote letters to everyone we could think of trying to get Johnny's case reopened. Senator Strom Thurmond did take an interest and requested SC Law Enforcement Division (SLED) to send an agent to look into the entire case. Special Agent David Roper interviewed us, wrote down our concerns, and promised to reinvestigate, but was pulled off the case shortly thereafter.

 

Agent Roper did tell us that George Jones did not have any reports in August 1999, explaining that he did not have to write reports on "vehicle fires." Once Agent Roper was pulled off the case, we filed under the Freedom of Information Act, requesting copies of all reports. Eventually, we brought Horry County to court, and it became public knowledge that George Jones did not have any reports. He was fired.