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.

Was Denise dating anyone? No way, Larry replied. His sister-in-law told him she was, but he didn't believe it then and still didn't. Did she want a divorce? No, Larry said. He and his wife had a "wonderful relationship," he said; they rarely fought, and he loved her very much.

Larry said he believed his in-laws were behind his arrest because he had won the custody battle against them and had had his daughter, Jennie, returned to him in August.

Did you ever assault your wife? he was asked. Once, Larry told them, he put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger, but the gun wasn't loaded. Then Larry Wolff started laughing. He said he had been just messing around.

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).

Fifteen months had passed since Denise was gunned down in her frontyard, and now her husband was being held in jail, accused of her murder. He retained one of the most prominent criminal defense attorneys in town, Richard Sindel, and pleaded not guilty to the crime.

Sindel remembers the first time he saw Laurie Chirco testify at a hearing in the case, and he told his client things didn't look good: "When I first started the case, I thought, "This woman is very forceful, insistent; this isn't going to be a walk in the park. A case can be one witness. Rape cases are almost always one witness. A robbery case is usually one witness."

But Sindel also found out about the woman's Internal Affairs complaint against the two officers, and the more he delved into her story, the more questions he had: "If a lawyer got in there and didn't know about the police complaint, Larry would be in big trouble. She would have gone in there and said, "That's the man. I saw it happen.'" The two police officers who had initially questioned Chirco, detectives Campbell and Kaelin, said in sworn depositions they had never threatened, harassed or intimidated Chirco. They denied even being rude to her. They said she was free to leave at any time during the interview and free to use the telephone, though they did admit to handcuffing her to a table at one point because, they said, her husband was in another room and she was attempting to go to him as he was being questioned.

Someone was obviously lying. Their statements, and hers, blatantly contradicted one another. "We had two officers saying this woman is a liar, a big liar. So, I thought, well, at least in terms of strategy, we have to make the police look like the bad guys, or her the bad guy," Sindel says. "You could make the police officers look like the bad guy by saying they forced her to make some kind of statement. Or you could make her the bad guy by saying she just made this up. We didn't know where to go, because we weren't sure."

There were other factors that Sindel interpreted as being in Larry's favor. Though Larry's in-laws were now convinced of his guilt, that hadn't been the case in the hours after the murder, when several of them pointed fingers at the casino. The indictment had come not long after they lost a contentious custody fight over Jennie. And there was at least one other potential suspect in the case: the man she'd been having an affair with.

"All the family members described [Larry and Denise's] relationship as good," Sindel says. "Most of them suspected it had to do with the boat, because she had filed an EEOC complaint against the boat and there were a lot of things going on with the boat she didn't feel comfortable with," Sindel says. "It only swung around to Larry when they began a dispute over the custody of the child. During all the turmoil, Larry said, "Keep her until we get this straightened out." Then, when he said, "I got everything straightened out, and I want her back,' they said, "No, you can't have her back.'"

Sindel also found elements of Chirco's story implausible. One aspect involved the direction in which the van headed after the shooting -- Chirco described it heading one way; six other witnesses said it went the other. "We had a pretty good feel that she could not have seen the van going in the direction she said. Plus, it made no sense. This is a woman whose story is: "I'm walking my dog. I see someone who looks like the South Side Rapist. I can go inside, I can walk the other way, or I can walk across the street, or I can walk directly towards him, so I walk directly towards him ... I follow him on Bancroft ... I look in the van, and this guy eyeballs me.' So if I'm the guy in the van and if I'm with Larry Wolff, and I'm going to kill his wife, I'm thinking, "It isn't going to happen tonight. I just got eyeballed; there's no way I'm going to do anything. Larry, it's going to be another night.' She walks to the corner, turns around and walks back and eyeballs the guy again. If I'm in the van, I'm sweating, and I say, "Oh shit, how'd I get involved with this Larry Wolff? He's a maniac, this is crazy, this woman has seen me.' This woman is standing right there, and, according to her, she hides in some bushes. I know right where she is, and, if anything, I say, "Larry, we've got to shoot this woman, too, because she's an eyewitness.' But instead they drive right by and go in the opposite direction than anyone else says," Sindel says. "It just didn't make sense."

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