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.

They arranged to meet again on June 25 at 8 p.m., but when Chirco showed up at 7:45 p.m. and Pappas wasn't in the lobby to greet her, she abruptly left, according to police reports. When Pappas called her at 8 p.m., she called back at 8:30 to say she was no longer interested in cooperating with police.

Detectives pressed her, and she agreed to meet with them again on June 29 with her attorney. This time, she gave an even more detailed statement -- describing how she woke at 4:07 a.m. to walk her dog, how she noticed the man on the corner and the van circling the block, how she got within 5 feet of Larry Wolff and how her dog began growling at him. She said she got a good look at the driver of the van parked in front of Denise Wolff's house -- white male, age 30-40, scraggly hair -- how she continued walking to the end of the street and then turned around and saw the driver a second time. She said she heard a car door close, then another car door close, then the muffled sound of a man's voice. She described hearing several gunshots and seeing muzzle flashes of eight to 10 shots. She said she hid behind some bushes and placed a hand over her dog's mouth. She said the van pulled away and headed west on Bancroft, then north on Jamieson.

She was asked about a discrepancy. The detectives told her that five or six other witnesses who lived on Bancroft looked out their windows and saw the van go in an opposite direction -- headed east on Bancroft, then north on Wenzlick. Chirco's version didn't budge. "These people must be wrong," she told detectives.

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).

As the interview wrapped up, Chirco told them she'd talked to Larry Wolff just a few days earlier. She said she looked up his number in the phone book, then called him at 5:30 a.m. to tell him she'd seen him kill his wife and that he'd better turn himself in. She said Larry asked if she was the woman seen walking her dog, and when she said she was, Chirco told detectives, he said if he ever saw her on the street he'd "shoot her in the fucking head."

The police continued to do a dance with Laurie Chirco. She'd agree to give a taped statement, then she'd refuse. Ryals, her lawyer, mentioned to one detective an incident that he found "curious" -- in which Chirco described being threatened by three men outside her apartment complex. Chirco had never mentioned this to the police.

When asked about it by detectives on July 5, Chirco said that four or five weeks earlier, three men had approached her outside her apartment building in South County -- one of them Larry Wolff. Another man did most of the talking, she said, and he told her to remember she didn't see anything. If she told what she witnessed, he threatened to kill her kid slowly and make her watch. The detective asked why the men would have approached her at a time when she hadn't even told police her detailed recollections of the Wolff murder. Chirco had no answer. Why hadn't she told anyone about this threat? Chirco said she was too scared.

She told the detective she believed she had been repeatedly followed by Wolff since the murder -- describing encounters in a parking lot, on Highway 40 -- and she described how she had phoned Wolff days earlier. The detective asked her: Why would you telephone a man who'd been involved in murder and threatened your life? She said she wanted "to tell him not to kill her and to turn himself in."

Despite the seemingly bizarre nature of what she had to tell police, it apparently was enough to jump-start the case against Larry Wolff. Detectives began re-interviewing Denise's family members, the man she'd been having an affair with. Three times in August, Chirco called police to report she believed she was being followed by Larry Wolff. At one time, she said, he pulled alongside her and smiled. Another time, outside an Amoco station, she said, she asked him, "Why are you doing this to me?" She told police that he replied: "Doing what?"

On Oct. 19, 1998, a grand jury indicted Larry Wolff for first-degree murder and armed criminal action. He was arrested Oct. 22.

Inside an interview room at police headquarters, Larry Wolff agreed to answer detectives' questions after his arrest, though he never underwent a polygraph examination. He told them that on the night before his wife was murdered, he went to bed at 10 p.m. and awoke when an officer knocked on his door the next morning.

He denied hearing any gunshots, saying there was an air-conditioning unit directly beneath his bedroom window. Told that a witness saw him outside in the early-morning hours, Larry Wolff changed his story, saying he had heard dogs barking and looked out his door to investigate. He was asked whether he remembered telling police previously that he had gone outside to check on his dogs. He told police he remembered the interview but was confused about how he had checked on his dogs.

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