The Jet Ranger 2 helicopter took off from Allegheny County Airport at 10:15 Sunday morning, Dec. 28, 1997. Inside were the pilot and Baldwin Borough police officers Robert Artman and Matthew Kearns.
Their goal: find the red Z28 Camaro belonging to Anthony Proviano, and, hopefully, the missing 29-year-old medical student, too.
The department had borrowed a helicopter from KDKA-TV after three days of unsuccessfully trying to locate him. The officers flew above the route Anthony likely would have driven from school in Cincinnati to his parents' home in Baldwin Borough.
Sgt. Artman was not hopeful.
"I thought it was a one-in-a-million chance that we'd find that car," he said. "When you're in the air, every car has the same shape."
With enough fuel for only two hours, the helicopter flew low at 500 feet, swooping over malls and motels, parking lots and truck stops along Interstates 79, 70, 470 and 71.
Just after 11, the trio were about to return to Pittsburgh when the pilot decided to check one last area off Interstate 70: the L-shaped parking lot of a Days Inn hotel near St. Clairsville.
As they dipped toward the ground, the pilot pointed to a red car.
The helicopter dropped to 250 feet, and circled the parking lot several times. The car had Ohio plates, but the helicopter's fogged windows and heavy vibration made it hard for the officers to make out the plate through their binoculars.
The first letter, "S," matched the plate on Anthony's car. Officer Kearns strained to see with the binoculars. The final digit was "3," also a match. They couldn't read anything else.
The helicopter landed on a small flat patch of land 15 feet below the parking lot. The officers jumped out and, hunched over to avoid the blades, scrambled on all fours up to the parking lot and toward the car.
About three dozen hotel guests were on their balconies in the blustery cold, gawking.
"Are you guys OK?" one called to the officers.
The two were at the car before they could read the full plate: SUF-703.
Both of them swore.
It was Anthony's car.
About the same time -- 11:05 a.m. -- the phone rang at Olen Martin's home in nearby St. Clairsville. Still asleep after working late the night before, the chief deputy for the Belmont County Sheriff's Department mumbled into the receiver.
It was the department dispatcher; a helicopter had landed near the parking lot of the Days Inn.
Asked if the highway patrol had been called, since it investigates air crashes, the dispatcher answered no. "We found the car from the carjacking."
Deputy Martin's mind raced as he dressed. He recalled a Christmas Day teletype about a University of Cincinnati student's car, one that suggested he might be a victim of a carjacking. But he saw hundreds of teletypes every week and hadn't focused on it.
Anxious about what he might find at the Days Inn, he almost forgot to call his wife; today was his day with the separated couple's 2-year-old daughter.
By the time he pulled into the lot, Anthony's car had been unlocked, his room -- No. 125 -- searched and the hotel grounds stampeded by media.
The burly chief deputy, gruff and short-tempered, ordered his deputies to secure the scene. He found out from the hotel that Anthony had checked in at 6 p.m. on Dec. 23.
Deputies broadened their search out from the hotel. At a bend in the road leading to the hotel's driveway, Deputy Chip Williams saw a single set of footprints in the mud along the left side of a mound of dirt on an abandoned township road.
He eased his way down the frozen rutted dirt road about 500 feet and stopped. He called his boss on his radio.
"We found the body," was all he said.
Tomorrow: The Scene
Gallery of key figures
Index to the serial
Robert A. Artman discusses improbability of finding Anthony Proviano's missing car from a helicopter.
"I thought it was like looking for a needle in a haystack."
Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette
Members of Proviano family gather to comfort each other while waiting to hear any news on Anthony Proviano, who was on his way to Baldwin from Cincinnati.
Click photo for larger image.
Robert A. Artman