Sunday, August 23, 1998
'Have you seen Andy?'
By Mark E. Vogler
For 22 years Melanie Perkins has been haunted by a childhood sweetheart.
She was among the last to see Angelo "Andy" Puglisi who disappeared from Higgins Memorial Pool in Lawrence on Aug. 21, 1976.
"Have you seen Andy?" is both the tentative title of her film and a question that has stayed with her long after she grew up and moved away.
She is counting on help from several Lawrence police officers who have also been unable to forget the unsolved disappearance of the little boy with the big smile.
"I'm trying to resolve some unanswered questions so I can understand as an adult what I couldn't understand as a child," said the 31-year-old Boston area resident.
For children growing up in the Stadium Courts housing project, the Higgins Pool next door was a summer pleasure. For a quarter, they could hang out at the pool all day.
Ms. Perkins recalled she spent her final hours with Andy at the pool and stayed until late afternoon on the day he disappeared.
A couple of hours later, there was a knock on the front door of her home and somebody asked, "Have you seen Andy?"
That night, many people went out searching for the boy. The next day, it was apparent something terrible had happened.
Citizens Band radio operators converged on the neighborhood.
Sixty Green Berets from Fort Devens joined the hunt through woods and backyards.
Hundreds of National Guardsmen, civilians and police took part in the six-day search.
"As time went by, it sunk in for me that some bad man had gotten him," said Ms. Perkins.
Andy was her special friend. He stuck up for her and made sure she got to play in neighborhood boys' games.
"He was a sweet-natured, good-hearted kid. If there was a stranger who needed help, his inclination was to help. And maybe that's why he was picked up by the person who abducted him," she said.
Ms. Perkins lost track of Andy's family and friends as she grew up and moved away from the projects.
But she never forgot her friend.
When she was 15, she was flipping through a magazine and found Andy's childhood photograph and an artist's sketch of what he might look like five years later, part of an advertisement for missing children. She cut it out and saved it.
A couple of years later, she read about the latest psychic called in, this time to search the dump for Andy's body.
Then she went off to Fitchburg State College and studied communications and television.
Always on her mind
In her early 20s, she started keeping a file of news clips on Andy.
After graduating from college, Ms. Perkins went to work for public television and has helped make several television documentaries.
About two years ago, she started to consider making her own documentary on Andy with a focus on what happens to a family when a child disappears and is never found.
The family agreed to help Ms. Perkins along with the police investigators originally assigned to the case.
"I need to know as much as I possibly can and I need to make an effort as his friend to try to find out what happened," said Ms. Perkins.
Her research is reopening old wounds that never really healed for many involved in the case.
"His parents are not convinced he's dead. Why should they be when there is no evidence?" she said.
Officially, it remains an unsolved and open missing person case, though most police believe Andy was abducted, molested and murdered after leaving the pool, about 100 yards from his East Dalton Street home in the Stadium Courts housing project.
Wayne W. Chapman, a Providence R.I., man convicted of raping two boys after luring them from the same swimming pool a year earlier, remains the key suspect, though police have never been able to prove it.
Mr. Chapman is serving time at the Bridgewater Treatment Center for the Sexually Dangerous. In their wildest dreams, police hope he will one day confess to killing Andy and lead them to where he was buried.
But Ms. Perkins is not convinced Mr. Chapman was the killer and wonders whether his bones are buried somewhere in South Lawrence.
Ms. Perkins said she believes more evidence can be gathered and has picked up the investigation which police have not actively pursued for years.
"I'm hoping that through my research and talking to people, some new evidence does come up. Ideally, it would be an end to a very sad event if somebody would come forward and let Andy's family know what happened to him," she said.
Lawrence Police Detectives Capt. Michael S. Molchan said he welcomes Ms. Perkins' documentary, particularly if it helps develop new leads that help solve the case.
But he is not optimistic.
"Short of an admission from somebody we can use in court, I think it's going to remain a cold case. Without that, I don't think we can do anything," said Capt. Molchan.
Even with an admission, police would still need more evidence, such as skeletal remains.
"It's very difficult to prove a homicide without a body," he said.
The divorced parents of Andy, who have been long disappointed by the results of police investigations, say they hope Ms. Perkins' project may lead to a break in the case.
"The police say he's been molested and buried in shallow ground. But I can't accept that. Not until you can show me proof," said Andy's father, Angelo Puglisi Sr. who now lives in Haverhill.
Andy's mother, Faith Ann Puglisi is still hoping for a happy ending. She continued to live at the projects in Lawrence for years longer than she wanted, afraid Andy might come home and not find his family.
Finally, she moved near Fort Carson, Colo., several years ago.
"Somebody knows something. He didn't just disappear. He could have been kidnapped and taken by somebody who was wealthy and wanted a child. Maybe the program will cause somebody to come forward," said Mrs. Puglisi, a pediatric nurse and mother of eight.
The experience has left her suspicious of most people. She no longer trusts teachers, principals, Boy Scout leaders, coaches and others who may come in contact with children.
Mr. Puglisi said he gets depressed on special days during the year, such as Andy's birthday on Sept. 2 when he would have turned 33.
"I still have his baby pictures on my dresser. I still have the pictures when he was 9 or 10-years old. He's in my thoughts and prayers every night," he said.
Ms. Perkins hopes Mr. Chapman will agree to be interviewed and wants to find out what happened to some crucial evidence in the case: a bloodstained pair of socks found in Mr. Chapman's car.
Police believe the socks could have been worn by Andy, but they have disappeared. With today's DNA testing, detectives could find out whether it was Andy's blood on the socks, she said.
Ms. Perkins has set up a post office box where people can write if they have any information that might shed new light on Andy's disappearance: PO Box 156, Andover, Mass. 01810.
"I know this could be a 10-year project. I warned Andy's family that it could take a long time. I also warned them that we might not get answers," said Ms. Perkins.
"But at the minimum, even if were unable to produce a documentary, I would hand over the research that I gathered so they could have a complete file of the case," she said.