Fayette County hunt for girl called off

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Pennsylvania State Police have suspended their search in Fayette County for the body of 7-year-old Jennifer Marteliz, who disappeared outside her Florida home 30 years ago, after failing to find her remains.

Dozens of state troopers, Mercyhurst University forensic anthropologists and two cadaver dogs have been searching a wooded area off Gilchrist Road in North Union since Thursday at noon without success. State police Trooper Joseph Christy said investigators have called off further searches and will talk to detectives in Tampa, where the girl disappeared in 1982, to decide what to do next.

Andrea Davis, spokeswoman for the Tampa Police Department, said police have not ruled out searching the site at a later date but plan to pursue the lead through other investigative measures.

For now, local investigators have come up empty-handed despite an intensive search of the property, said Dennis Dirkmaat, director of applied forensic sciences at Mercyhurst and one of the leaders of the search. Changes to the area's topography, the size of the property and the fact that the remains likely were buried all complicate their recovery.

"If the bones are on the surface and we use forensic tools to search for them, we're almost 100 percent certain to find them," Mr. Dirkmaat said. "But when they're buried, all bets are off."

Investigators probably will search the property with cadaver dogs again next spring, when the growth of new vegetation might have brought up smells from the ground, he said.

A Florida woman, Anna Cummings, brought the cold case back to the attention of authorities several weeks ago when she sent Tampa authorities a lengthy email claiming knowledge of Jennifer's burial site. In the email, she wrote that, as a 10-year-old, she had seen evidence linking Steve Visnosky, a now-deceased neighbor who lived on Rankin Airshaft Road off Gilchrist Road, to Jennifer's murder.

Ms. Cummings told investigators that one day in 1982, she watched Mr. Visnosky unload a large plastic bag from the trunk of the large brown car he sometimes drove from Pennsylvania to Florida, where he owned another home. A similar car was reported to have been seen in the area where Jennifer was last seen after walking home from school with a friend.

The next day, she told police, she noticed that one of two knee-deep holes she had played in earlier in the woods near Mr. Visnosky's home had been filled in with dirt, according to an affidavit of probable cause supporting the search of the land where Ms. Cummings and Mr. Visnosky lived, along with the properties of several nearby neighbors. Mr. Visnosky died in 1992.

On Thursday, Ms. Cummings accompanied officers during the search with the hope that "maybe spending more time there may aid in bringing back some memories and things like that for us to search," Trooper Christy said.

During the search, about 40 state troopers and forensic investigators walked shoulder to shoulder across the properties along gridlines, looking for depressions that would indicate soil that had been disturbed and then had settled -- one of the hallmarks of a grave site, Mr. Dirkmaat said. Depressions also were examined with a tool that shows the soil's magnetic field, which would be misaligned in an area where there had been digging, Mr. Dirkmaat said. Investigators used heavy equipment to clear some brush and other vegetation, and they systematically tested the area with 4- to 5-foot-long probes to check for softness that would indicate past disturbance. Cadaver dogs did not react strongly to any of the areas.

"We're talking about a hole in the ground, a buried feature," Mr. Dirkmaat said. "That's still a needle in a haystack."


Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719. Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 and on Twitter @MoriahBee.


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