Monday, August 24, 1998

Never-ending pain, never-ending hope over child lost 22 years ago

By Mark E. Vogler
Eagle-Tribune Writer

Any parent who leaves a child alone might think twice about doing it again if he or she heard Faith Puglisi's sad story.

picture
Andy's mother, Faith, and her daughter, Amanda, shown 22 years ago.
"I freak out if I see a kid in a car and no adults there," said the former Lawrence resident, whose 10-year-old son Angelo "Andy" Puglisi Jr. vanished Aug. 21, 1976, and was never heard from again.

For Ms. Puglisi, one of the few who cling to hope that Andy may one day turn up alive, the ordeal never ends. The pain will last forever. Until Andy comes home. Or his remains are found.

Andy's story is the Lawrence version of Adam Walsh, the young South Florida boy whose abduction turned his now-famous father, John Walsh, into a child protection advocate in the mid-'80s and led to the creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

But there was closure to the tragedy for Mr. Walsh and his wife. Adam's head turned up in a South Florida canal. Mrs. Puglisi does not know what happened to her son. For some parents, not knowing what became of their child is worse.

Mrs. Puglisi now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., far away from the city she has grown to fear and loathe. But every time she hears a helicopter hover overhead from nearby Fort Carson, she feels like she's back in Lawrence listening to the military choppers in the sky as they helped in the massive search for her missing son.

"To this day, that sound makes my blood run cold and gives me an eerie feeling when I hear them. I think of Andy, and I can still hear them going over the projects," she said in a recent telephone interview.

And over the years, when a national news story broke involving tragic deaths or mass murder, she would do her own investigation to find out whether one of the unnamed corpses may be her son.

For instance, in January 1979, she wondered whether her son was one of the 26 victims buried in the crawl space of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy's suburban Chicago home.

"Watching them carry the bodies out of Gacy's house on television was an ordeal. It's like I was trying to find him (Andy) through the blankets, through the coverings," said Mrs. Puglisi, who sent Chicago police a photo of her missing son.

On another occasion, after learning about a body of a child recovered in a fire in Boston, she kept calling police in that city until she finally learned that it was a young girl.

"The pain is enormous. You don't know what to feel. You don't know what you're dealing with or what he's had to deal with. It's an ugly blackness. The hurt is deep. The hole just seems to get bigger," she said.

"In my head, he's still 11 years old, even though he would be a young man if he's still alive," she said.

Mrs. Puglisi has found some peace of mind by trying to help other mothers avoid her tragedy. As a pediatric nurse, she has created programs to keep children safe.

"In my heart, I feel comfortable that God knows where he is. And God has his hand on him. And one day, whether in this life or another, I'll know what happened. Everything happens for a reason," said Mrs. Puglisi.

Angry at police

Mrs. Puglisi remains bitter about the way she had been treated by police during the investigation. She said one detective suggested she killed her son and that she ought to say where the body was buried.

Mrs. Puglisi is critical of the way the police investigation was handled from the outset, treated like a child runaway case.

When police called off their six-day search following Andy's disappearance, they said they believed he was alive. They also noted that the boy was a product of a broken home, and could have been torn between his divorced parents.

Andy's father, Angelo Puglisi Sr., took three lie-detector tests. Mrs. Puglisi's then-fiance also took a lie detector test.

Lawrence police officers involved in the investigation also have some doubts about how the case was handled.

"For some reason, they knocked off the search early. I think it could have gone on a little longer," recalled retired Lawrence Police Detective Thomas Carroll. For him, the inability of police to solve the case was a major disappointment in his 35-year career.

Still looking

Despite how badly Mrs. Puglisi feels toward the Lawrence Police Department, police do take her case seriously and periodically investigate new leads, though none has panned out.

And in fairness to police, the Adam Walsh case -- which came same several years after Andy -- forever changed the way police respond to missing children.

"It's an enduring case. A very emotionally draining one. And every now and then, some officer wants to take a crack at it, and looks over the file," said veteran Lawrence police officer Michael J. Carelli, who was involved in the 1982-'83 investigation.

New hope

Mrs. Puglisi hopes the best police investigation will result from the research of Andy's childhood friend, Melanie Perkins, a film producer who hopes to do a personal documentary about the case.

"I'm very touched by Melanie and that she is doing this. She has come the closest to actually being tuned in to what I am going through," said Mrs. Puglisi.

"Maybe it will prompt a bigger investigation, something with more clout," she said.

Ms. Perkins, who was 9 years old and considered herself a childhood sweetheart of Andy, was with him on that day. And she has agonized for years over what happened to him.

In addition to educating the public about missing children and how to protect them, Ms. Perkins wants to portray the pain of a parent who faces that emotional ordeal.

"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.

"It's a painful process for me. But the pain couldn't even be a tenth of what Andy's parents are feeling."

The psychic

Mrs. Puglisi is also angry at several psychics who made a mockery of the investigation into her son's mysterious disappearance, only adding to the emotional ordeal.

Yet, the strongest leads police have in the case still hinge on the visions of a Texas psychic, Andrew Barnhart, who also vanished without returning some of the child's belongings to Andy's mother.

"He has Andy's bank book, baby book, baby toy and report card. He gave me his word that I would get them back," said Mrs. Puglisi.

"But he never did. When somebody gives me their word, to me -- that's valuable. When they break it, that's the worst thing," she said.

Officer Carelli said he regrets that the valued keepsakes were never returned. And more sorry that Mr. Barnhart is nowhere to be found.

Officer Carelli scoffs at the skeptics who called the psychic a fraud.

He said is unshaken confidence in Mr. Barnhart is based on his past track record in helping other police find missing bodies and his accurate visions involving details about Andy, the chief suspect in the case and the area where police searched.

And he won the confidence of doubting fellow officers by revealing potentially embarrassing things about their personal lives. There was one married detective who did not believe Mr. Barnhart. The psychic lectured him about girlfriend he had just visited. "It was scary for that guy," said Officer Carelli.

On The Beat is a weekly feature by Eagle-Tribune crime reporter Mark E. Vogler that offers readers a behind-the-scenes look at police in the Merrimack Valley and the people, interesting experiences and issues they face on the job. If you have any questions, comments or material to add on this subject, please feel free to contact him by phone at 685-1000, by mail at Box 100, Lawrence, MA 01842 or by e-mail at mvogler@eagletribune.com


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