Ruffo Proviano was mad. His nephew, Anthony, was laid out for viewing in the funeral home on New Year's Day and two men he didn't recognize were accosting his brother's friends and relatives.
He made his way over to the shorter of the two, interrupting him in mid-conversation.
"What do you guys want?" Ruffo asked loudly.
Olen Martin turned, unperturbed. Confrontations came with the job. As the lead investigator into what he believed was the murder of Anthony Proviano, he not only had permission from Anthony's parents to be at the John F. Slater Funeral Home in Brentwood, but basic police procedure in any unsolved case meant working the funeral home, finding people who knew the deceased, checking their reactions to the casket, recording license plates, asking questions.
Making people uneasy was the least of his problems.
"Olen Martin, Belmont County Ohio Sheriff's Office," he said simply, sticking out his hand.
Deputy Bart Giesey quickly explained to Ruffo that they were investigating his nephew's death.
Anthony had died in St. Clairsville, Ohio, and in the five days since his body was discovered, scores of leads had flooded the Belmont County Sheriff's Office, along with incessant news media calls. The chief deputy didn't care for the media anyway, and to date, in this case, they'd done nothing but slow his investigation down by pestering him for interviews. He had already decided that if any showed up at the funeral home that day, he would "go off" on them.
He was disturbed enough by what he already knew about the case. The coroner had ruled the death a suicide, which Deputy Martin had angrily disputed. When police checked Anthony's car, it had already been wiped clean; there was not a single fingerprint in the car, or on the flashlight found near his body. Neither was there a hotel room key, although housekeeping reported the room had been locked. And Anthony's gun, the gun that fired the fatal shot into his upper left chest, was found 100 feet from his body.
Between the afternoon and evening visitation, he let Maryann and Carmen Proviano treat him and Deputy Giesey to lunch at their Baldwin Borough home. He kept to himself the calls he'd received intimating that Anthony was gay and involved in drugs. The St. Clairsville Days Inn and another nearby hotel were well known to law enforcement as locations for drug activity.
At the house, he got another surprise: Anthony's parents gave the investigator a Texas hotel receipt they'd found in their son's laundry when he'd last been home in September.
Within a few days, Deputy Martin learned that Anthony had made a five-day trip to El Paso in August 1997, stayed in a hotel known as a drug haven and driven 880 miles in a rental car, taking it into Mexico even though he hadn't signed the rental waiver required to do so. Within days of returning to Cincinnati after that trip, he paid off a nearly $5,000 credit card bill.
As intriguing as that information was, there also was the drudgery of cross-checking names, following up leads and interviewing everyone who might have come in contact with Anthony in the days surrounding his death.
He and Deputy Giesey compared the Days Inn guest list with the funeral home's sign-in book. They spent days talking to people in Belmont County's gay community to check on rumors. Nothing came from either endeavor. His pot use? Recreational only. They scoured Anthony's apartment again and found a photo of him and two men at an outdoor concert that somehow had been overlooked before.
On a tip they visited the Bella Via restaurant in Elm Grove, W.Va. They showed Anthony's photo around and three waitresses said they'd seen him at the restaurant.
"That's him," one said, in a shaky voice. "He was here."
She also said he was accompanied by a man.
Before Deputy Martin brought a police artist in a few days later to sketch a composite, he realized the waitresses were confused on their dates, and that Anthony was dead on the day the waitresses claimed to have seen him. But he went ahead with the composite and released it to the media on Jan. 12, figuring "what could it hurt?"
A few days later he was in Chicago, interviewing a past girlfriend of Anthony's, someone he'd known from work at the GM plant in Warren, Ohio. She called him "the greatest guy I ever dated."
Gallery of key figures
Index to the serial
Investigator Olen Martin discusses the initial investigation into Anthony Proviano's death.
" We really didn't have any solid leads ..."
A composite sketch of the man seen with Anthony Proviano
From Chicago, he drove to Cincinnati where a memorial service for Anthony was being scheduled for Jan. 17 at the medical school. He was joined by Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation Special Agent Karen Rebori. The pair immediately butted heads with the school's dean, who made them wait for more than an hour to speak to him.
When he finally met with them, he said he couldn't help.
"Privacy issues are involved," he said.
"It's not like someone stole a Barbie [doll]," Agent Rebori shot back. "We're looking at someone's death."
Tomorrow: The Autopsy