Answers still sought for 'lonely child' who disappeared from Pittsburgh in 1962
In the time it took Mary Ann Verdecchia to walk four city blocks, her life changed forever.
The 10-year-old girl disappeared from her Bloomfield neighborhood on an early but hot summer day in 1962, never to be seen again.
Her disappearance became a cause célèbre in Pittsburgh – one of the most widely-reported, infamous missing person cases in the city’s history and one which, for months, seemed to consume the entire police force.
Although she is not believed to be alive, Mary Ann continues to haunt the people who have devoted their lives to finding her.
“Mary Ann, what happened to you?” Therese Rocco still asks herself that question every day.
Rocco, who retired in 1994 as Pittsburgh’s first female assistant police chief, believes she knows who was responsible but can’t say, because she can’t prove it.
“Let’s just say there’s a strong belief … a feeling that we know where it ended,” said Rocco, of Brookline. “If this had happened during a period of time when there was all the technology we have today, we would have had a better chance of solving it.”
In the days before Google, DNA evidence and national databases, Rocco relied on old-fashioned shoe leather police work after Mary Ann was last seen on June 7, 1962. She interviewed dozens of witnesses and suspects, tracked down Mary Ann’s mother in Chicago and spent countless hours sorting through tips and evidence.
Rocco was dogged in her determination to find Mary Ann, so much so that she still considers herself on the case — even decades into retirement.
“The case is still open, with the anticipation and the hope that someday we will come up with the true answer,” she said.
Rocco devoted a long chapter about the Verdecchia case in her 2017 memoir, “Therese Rocco: Pittsburgh’s First Female Assistant Police Chief.”
She first learned about the girl late on a Thursday evening while moving out of her house near Duquesne University. The dispatcher’s call said a girl had been missing since earlier that evening and Pittsburgh police had already begun their search. Rocco’s expertise as head of the Missing Persons Bureau was needed.
She left what she was doing and went to the home of Ruth Riley, Mary Ann’s aunt, at 119 Morewood Ave. in Bloomfield. She interviewed family members and searched the house.
Rocco soon learned that Mary Ann had been living with her aunt’s family for five years. A fifth-grader at Immaculate Conception School, she had been abandoned by her parents, Joseph and Marilyn (Riley) Verdecchia, and spent many evenings with friends or wandering the neighborhood.
“She was a little kid who would be on her own constantly, going from place to place,” Rocco said. “She was a very, very lonely child.”
Rocco’s investigation took her to the Martinique Apartments on Baum Boulevard, where Mary Ann had a penchant for visiting a former neighbor, Jean Emery, and her cat. On the day of her disappearance, Mary Ann had left school early – it was the last day of school – gone home, changed into her play clothes and made her way to the Martinique.
There, Emery had asked her to run to the store to buy some cat food. She returned and was told by the apartment manager, William Dozier, that the woman was no longer home.
Mary Ann was last seen by Dozier crossing Baum Boulevard at 3 p.m., headed toward home.
Rocco’s first order of business was to find Mary Ann’s mother – the police’s working theory was that Marilyn Riley had returned to Pittsburgh and kidnapped her daughter. A 1949 Schenley High School yearbook provided the clue that Rocco needed.
“Everyone had their own ideas. I thought the mother took her. Nobody worked as hard as I did to find her,” Rocco said.
Later that month, FBI agents in Chicago found Marilyn Riley shacked up with a former railroad dining room porter named Adolf. Agents brought her back to Pittsburgh, the city she had left five years earlier, and delivered her to Rocco.
Neither Riley nor Joseph Verdecchia, an alcoholic who was out of the picture, could provide information as to Mary Ann’s whereabouts. Both passed polygraph tests.
“Over 30 people were put on the lie box,” Rocco said. “We picked up sex perverts. We picked up anybody who we thought would molest a child.”
The investigation dragged on. One tipster told police that he saw Mary Ann get into a car, but police never got his name and were unable to follow up. Other leads led nowhere.
Then, in 1991, three years before Rocco retired, police in Baldwin were contacted by a man in his 30s who said he had witnessed a girl being killed when he was 9. He said the killer was a Presbyterian minister who had sexually molested him.
The tip led police to an area near Baldwin United Presbyterian Church, where the suspect had been a pastor from 1958 to 1964, according to contemporaneous news accounts. An excavation yielded only animal bones, and the investigation stalled again.
The minister, who had moved to Seattle, resigned his position as a Presbyterian counselor but was never charged. He reportedly was questioned about the case years later but never acknowledged his involvement, Rocco said.
One day, a few years ago, a man showed up at Rocco’s front door with a bouquet of flowers and identified himself as Mary Ann’s half brother. Thomas Linnane, a Chicago police officer for 29 years, said he wanted to learn everything he could about the case that so shaped his own life.
Linnane, 52, never knew his half sister – he was born three years after her disappearance – but she was a presence nonetheless because of their mother, who never stopped talking about Mary Ann.
“It’s something I just grew up with,” he said.
Raised as an only child, Linnane remembers his mother crying about Mary Ann and being overprotective toward him. She showed him newspaper clippings and pictures of her.
“My mom always hoped that one day we would find out what happened to Mary Ann,” he said, noting that Marilyn Riley died in 1983.
Linnane believes Mary Ann’s disappearance informed his own decision to become a police officer. As he got older, his curiosity about his half sister grew, and he sought out Rocco as a way to settle the questions in his mind.
“She saved a lot of the documents and the typewritten reports. We went over everything,” he said.
Linnane also provided a DNA swab to Pittsburgh police for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs .
Rocco is hopeful that the case can still be solved.
“I have a lot of faith in God. I just believe that some way, somehow this thing will crack open,” she said. “I only hope I’m still alive to see it.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, email@example.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.