See No Evil

Denise Wolff was gunned down in front of her home in a quiet South St. Louis neighborhood. Police thought they had the killer until their star witness wrecked the case.

The two detectives went to the apartment building at 3934 Jamieson, and Campbell and Kaelin began knocking on doors. There was no answer at apartment 2-South, but they could hear dogs barking inside. As they were leaving the building, a woman walked out of that apartment. She identified herself as Laurie Lynn Chirco. She acknowledged that she had walked her dog the morning of the murder, around 4 a.m., but denied hearing any gunshots. She said she had no other information.

The two detectives weren't satisfied. They asked her to come downtown to the police station. Reluctantly, she agreed. Inside Interview Room No. 2 downtown, she told detectives that she woke up around 3:50 or 3:55 a.m. Her dog was standing at the front door, wanting to go outside. She put on some clothes, put a leash on her dog and walked out to the front of the apartment building. When she left, she noticed the time on the digital clock in her living room was 4:07 a.m. She estimated she was outside for 5 or 10 minutes, then came in, made a glass of tea, turned off her alarm clock -- set to go off at 5 a.m. -- and left her apartment at 7 a.m. to go to work. Her 13-year-old daughter, asleep in the apartment the entire night, told Chirco she heard the air conditioner making a popping sound during the early-morning hours. Chirco again insisted she never heard any gunshots or police sirens.

The detectives didn't believe her. In their reports, they wrote that she exhibited "non-verbal communication signs" indicating that she knew more. She told detectives she was worried about the safety of her daughter, that she didn't want to get involved. They say they told her that her identity could remain anonymous, that she would be afforded protection if she was a witness. They showed her five photos, including pictures of Larry Wolff and John DeBoer. They said she scanned the photos and stared at Larry's, shaking her head back and forth as a tear streamed from her eye.

Denise Wolff was murdered outside her home on Bancroft (right) in July 1997. Her husband, Larry, lived a short distance away, in a house on Jamieson (left).
Denise Wolff was murdered outside her home on Bancroft (right) in July 1997. Her husband, Larry, lived a short distance away, in a house on Jamieson (left).
Denise Wolff was murdered outside her home on Bancroft in July 1997. Her husband, Larry, lived a short distance away, in a house on Jamieson (above).
Jennifer Silverberg
Denise Wolff was murdered outside her home on Bancroft in July 1997. Her husband, Larry, lived a short distance away, in a house on Jamieson (above).

Then her story began to change, the detectives wrote in their reports. She told them she hadn't been truthful and that on the morning of the murder, she had actually walked her dog south on Jamieson, on the east side, toward Bancroft, and when she was two buildings south of her own, she saw a man standing at the northeast corner of Bancroft and Jamieson. She thought he matched the description of the South Side Rapist, and the man -- white male, stocky build, wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans -- began walking east on Bancroft, in the direction of Denise Wolff's house. Chirco said she then turned around and headed home, reaching her apartment around 4:20 a.m.

She told the detectives she believed the man she saw was Larry Wolff.

If Laurie Chirco's statement seemed like a big break in the case, that break would turn out to be rather tenuous, and it wouldn't last for long. Something happened between the two detectives and Chirco inside Interview Room No. 2 -- though precisely what happened may forever remain in dispute. So instead of cooperating with police after that day at the station, she hired a lawyer and filed a complaint with the police department's Internal Affairs division, alleging she'd been mistreated by the officers. She then went on KTVI-TV (Channel 2) -- identified as "Mary," with her face slightly out of focus -- to describe the detectives' behavior and to publicly disavow witnessing the murder. She said detectives told her she was "playing with the big boys now," and that they'd given her name to the prime suspect. She said she had decided to go on TV in case something happened to her.

At the time, Chirco was a 33-year-old nurse case manager for a hospice. She lived in an apartment with her daughter, and in January 1997 she had married Marcello Chirco, a Sicilian immigrant who worked as a meatcutter at Schnucks. They did not live together. Police noted that Marcello Chirco owned a gray GMC full-size van with a silver stripe and a red Ford Escort, in addition to a Chinese SKS rifle -- similar to the gun used in the Denise Wolff shooting. Several witnesses reported seeing a gray van the morning of the murder, and a couple of others reported seeing a small red car. Marcello Chirco agreed to a search of his van, and he turned over his gun for tests, according to police reports. He was questioned by police -- though it is unclear whether he was ever seriously considered as a suspect -- and at least one witness viewed his van and said it was not the same one he saw driving away from Denise's home the morning of her death.

In depositions taken more than a year after the murder, Chirco said she told the officers who showed up at her apartment building that day in July that she had seen nothing. When they didn't believe her, one stood in the doorway of the building and told her, she said, "We can do it the easy way or we can do it the hard way." Though she said she voluntarily agreed to go to the station, once there she continued to tell them she had seen nothing and asked to leave "more than 30 times." When she asked to go to the bathroom, Chirco said, one of them handcuffed her wrist to a table.

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