By Sam Levin
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Sam Levin
By Timothy Lane
By Sam Levin
By Dennis Brown
By Chris Parker
By Sam Levin
In a quiet South St. Louis neighborhood near Lindenwood Park, Denise Wolff rounded a corner and headed toward her tidy two-bedroom home on Bancroft Avenue. She was behind the wheel of her brand-new, loaded Chrysler Cirrus LX -- fresh off the dealer's lot just days earlier.
As a card dealer at the President Casino on the Admiral, Denise usually worked the overnight shift from 8 p.m.-4 a.m., and on this warm summer morning, July 17, 1997, she'd clocked out at 4:09 a.m. She'd been in an unusually good mood. She chatted with a co-worker who drove her to the lot where she had parked under the Poplar Street Bridge, plucked off her car a note written by a man she'd been having an affair with and, still a bit giddy over the relationship, told her friend she had a "pocketful of them." Denise then drove off. She stopped briefly at the drive-through of a Hardee's on Hampton Avenue to pick up a breakfast sandwich. It was still dark outside, and as Denise neared her home, only the mercury-vapor street lights cast a faint glow on her surroundings.
The 39-year-old mother of two was terrified of the South Side Rapist -- a notorious serial rapist who wasn't caught until late 1998 -- so much so that she had had a motion-activated floodlight installed near her driveway. When she came home before dawn or after dusk, she would almost always pull her car straight into the garage. This Thursday morning, Denise did not. Instead, she got out of her car, walked down the driveway and -- perhaps toward someone or something -- across the sidewalk in her frontyard. She made it past only a few squares of concrete before a sudden burst of gunfire brought her crashing to the ground. The bullets pierced the garage door, the trim, the frame of a front window. They ripped through Denise's legs and torso.
The noise roused slumbering neighbors up and down Bancroft and on nearby Wenzlick and Prather avenues, many of whom peered out their windows and called 911. They reported the sound of gunshots, and most of them also described seeing a gray or silver conversion van driving away from the scene with its headlights off, heading east on Bancroft, then north on Wenzlick.
Denise lay crumpled on the sidewalk, her body riddled with bullet wounds. Her pink Bic lighter and a pack of Salems were scattered around her, along with her keyring and a brown paper bag containing her uneaten Hardee's breakfast. Clutched in her fingers were the handwritten notes from her lover, a married man who also worked at the casino.
The first person to reach her was a neighbor, an off-duty police officer who awoke at 4:37 a.m. to the sound of gunfire -- two controlled shots, then a rapid succession of 10 to 15 more. He found Denise lying facedown on the sidewalk, bleeding from numerous wounds. There wasn't much he could do.
A police officer dispatched to the scene was told Denise's husband lived about 100 yards away in a house at the corner of Bancroft and Jamieson avenues. He knocked at the door, and Larry Wolff, a city plumbing inspector who'd been legally separated from Denise for seven years, quickly answered, wearing a pair of boxer shorts. He told the officer he hadn't heard a thing.
Paramedics arrived within minutes, and as they struggled to stabilize Denise's condition, her husband stood in front of the ambulance. The police officers noted that his gaze seemed focused away from his wife, bleeding on the ground. Denise was transported, alone, to Barnes-Jewish Hospital. A doctor pronounced her dead at 5:41 a.m. The bullets had lacerated her kidney, colon, spleen, bowel and bladder, fractured several bones and caused massive bleeding.
It was a sudden and violent death for a woman who had led a rather unassuming life. Even in those early hours of the investigation, however, all of the signs suggested Denise was targeted for death, not the victim of some chance shooting. "This was a purposeful, vicious crime," St. Louis Police Capt. Dave Heath would later say, addressing the television cameras. "We are not looking at this to be a random act under any circumstances." Outside Denise's home on Bancroft, police officers and crime-scene technicians strung up yellow crime-scene tape and placed a brown paper silhouette of her body on her sidewalk. This was a homicide investigation, and the questions on their minds were obvious: Who killed Denise Wolff? And why?
By all accounts, Denise was a devoted mother to her two girls, who were born 13 years apart in separate marriages. Jennie, who lived with Denise, was 10; Angie Erickson was married, with a 3-year-old son, and her belly was bulging with another child. Denise's second grandchild was due at the end of September, and she couldn't wait.
As a single mom who'd been legally separated from her husband for years, Denise had gone to dealer's school because it seemed like a fun way to make a decent living without investing huge amounts of time or money in training and education. She'd made her family and friends play cards every night when she was enrolled in dealer school, shuffling and shuffling until she got it just right. She was a night owl, so the first chance she got, she asked for the overnight shift. It also gave her more time to spend with Jennie. Denise stood about 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed about 140 pounds. Of Lebanese descent, she had dark eyes and hair that she dyed a shade of red. She spent her nights working at the President Casino, earning more than $40,000 a year dealing cards at blackjack tables and spinning the roulette wheel. She loved the lights, the sounds, the slot machines, the people, the excitement of it all. "It's like going to a party every night," she'd say. Denise had worked on the Admiral about three years after first breaking into the business at the Casino Queen.
When Denise wasn't working, she was almost always with her family, whether she was bass fishing or playing bingo with her mother in Washington County near Potosi or taking her grandmother, who lived a block away from Denise, out for a day of shopping and French onion soup at Famous-Barr. She liked to putter around her gray frame home, making sure it was "just so," tending to the zinnias in her garden or her multicolored rosebush, splashing around with the kids in her backyard pool. On her days off, she'd have pajama parties with Jennie -- an evening of popcorn and movies, just the two of them huddled in front of the VCR. If Johnnie Brock's had a new shipment of Beanie Babies in, Denise could be found waiting in line, because Jennie loved them. Every Christmas, she showered her daughters with gifts, racking up charges on her credit card no matter how tight the family finances. It was her favorite time of the year. She'd have the tree up and decorated the day after Thanksgiving, without fail. She favored holiday sweaters, much to her older daughter's chagrin, especially a green one with a snowy landscape scene. She could be incredibly soft-hearted, and her generosity extended beyond her family. One year Denise took in a young girl and her mother who'd ended up at a Salvation Army shelter, buying the child a heap of presents that she could scarcely afford. When one of her friends, also a single mom, was struggling at Christmastime, Denise handed her one of her credit cards and instructed her to shop. "Pay me back whenever you can," she told her.
Denise's birthday was creeping up on her -- her 40th would have been in August -- and she was dreading it. At the same time, though, family members had begun noticing a surge of confidence and optimism in Denise that they hadn't seen before, or at least in a long time. At Angie's urging, Denise got a different haircut, a more up-to-date style. She was going to a tanning booth occasionally, getting manicures, talking about the men at work who flirted with her, such as a St. Louis Blues hockey player who repeatedly asked her out. Denise was flattered by the attention. She was also proud of the career she had carved out for herself, and she cherished the rewards of her hard work, trading her old Ford Escort for the white 1997 Chrysler Cirrus complete with the gold trim package. In the car, Denise listened to the same kind of music as her daughters and kept up with the latest tunes. In July, she and Jennie went out and bought a Third Eye Blind CD with the song "Semi-Charmed Life." "She used to say that was her life," Angie recalls. "She'd say, "This is the life I live, a semi-charmed kind of life.'"
It certainly hadn't been an easy one.
Denise grew up in South St. Louis the eldest of four daughters. Even as a child, Denise could be outspoken, hot-tempered and strong-willed. At 16, she insisted on moving out, dropping out of high school and marrying her high-school sweetheart. Her mother, Sandy Cantrell, described that time as Denise's "hippie stage." She was pregnant two months later and gave birth to Angie at 17. But the marriage was rocky, and Sandy says her daughter moved back home when she was pregnant. Denise and her husband gave it a second try when their daughter was 3 months old, but it didn't last. The marriage ended in divorce.
Denise married a second time when Angie was a toddler. But that marriage was also short-lived. It lasted about a year-and-a-half until Denise met, and fell in love with, Larry Wolff, who was a friend of her second husband's. They married in 1983 at a ceremony at City Hall. The wedding made the television news. "I didn't even know she was getting married; I tried to talk her out of it," Sandy recalls, describing Larry, back then, as a man with long hair who wore chains and boots with big heels. "Denny says to me, "Mom, you ain't gonna believe this, but watch Channel 4. We got married on TV.' City Hall had just decided they were going to do small ceremonies, and they wanted to do a little advertisement of what they were doing," Sandy says. "They had a cake and everything. It was bizarre."
That marriage was often rocky. Both Larry and Denise could be stubborn and hot-tempered, Sandy says, and when they had a big argument, the two would race to get home first and move all the furniture out of their house or apartment. Things seemed to settle down somewhat after a few years, and their daughter, whom they named Jennifer Sue, was born in 1987.
By 1990, the couple had moved into a double-wide trailer in Robertsville, Mo., near Pacific, where Larry's parents owned 3 acres. Denise felt isolated and bored there with no money and no car. Cathy Hatton, one of Denise's younger sisters, says Larry would often stay at Cathy's house in St. Louis, because he was working for the city as a plumbing inspector and had to have a city address, but often, when Denise called to speak to him, Larry wasn't home, Cathy says. "He stopped buying groceries and paying the bills down there, and he wasn't coming home," she says. Denise's older daughter, Angie, from her first marriage, also did not get along with Larry. Family members disagree on precisely what the final straw was, but eight months after moving to Roberts-ville, Denise called Cathy and told her to rent the biggest U-Haul she could find and help her move out of the trailer while Larry was at work. Cathy did.
Soon, Denise filed a petition for divorce from Larry. But Larry persuaded her to settle for a legal separation instead, and she agreed.
Within a few years, Denise bought the home on Bancroft with the help of her grandmother. Larry bought a house a short distance down the street, on Jamieson. Some of Denise's friends and family members questioned the wisdom of such a move, particularly if Denise ever decided to go through with a divorce, but she told them she figured it was best for their daughter. "When he moved down the street, I said, "You're nuts. What happens when you're done with this guy and you want a boyfriend?'" Cathy recalls. "She said, "This is perfect. This way, he can keep Jennie.'" The arrangement seemed to work, at least for a while. Over the years, Denise struggled to make ends meet, working as a waitress at the downtown Radisson Hotel and the Missouri Athletic Club, going to cosmetology school but then deciding hairdressing did not pay enough, cleaning houses and, ultimately, attending dealer school. With their homes so close, Jennie could sleep over at Larry's when Denise was working nights at the casino. The two maintained an unusual relationship, relatives says. Though they were separated, Larry sometimes slept over at Denise's and, up until about a year before she died, they occasionally had sex. From time to time, he'd help with the bills, and he regularly cooked meals for the three of them. On holidays, they were together.
In the six or seven months before Denise's death, however, things began to change. Denise told her older daughter and her sisters how she was yearning for independence. She told her mother she was tired of having "no life" and needed to find herself a husband she could get along with. She talked about divorcing Larry. And in the few months before she died, she talked about her new lover.
If Larry knew of any of the changes going on in Denise's life, he certainly didn't let police know in the hours after his wife's murder. Larry told police he didn't have a clue. He knew of no problems Denise was having; he had no idea why anyone would want to hurt her.
Angie, Denise's older daughter, was at Larry's house, in the same room with him, when police questioned him. A detective asked her to step outside for a brief interview. Who could have done this to your mother? the officer asked. Angie, visibly shaken and crying, motioned with her head back toward Larry, who was inside the house. Her mom had been trying to divorce Larry, she said. They'd been fighting a lot. She'd been dating a man she worked with on the Admiral.
Other witnesses provided additional tantalizing details. Detectives spoke with Scott Baird, a financial planner with the Travelers Group, who had been working with Denise on obtaining a debt-consolidation loan. He had met with her one week before she was killed; she had told him she was in financial trouble. She was in debt, with a new car and a house payment, and she had cosigned for her husband on his $9,000 car loan, but he hadn't made payments in more than a year. She also told him she was planning to finalize a divorce from her husband. The loan was approved on July 16, but the financial planner hadn't been able to reach Denise to give her the news.
Some family members offered a variety of possible theories that did not point to Larry.
Denise's sister Cathy told detectives that Larry fixed Denise meals almost every day, helped her with bills and, even though Denise treated him badly at times, he stuck around and loved her. She said Larry had never shown any signs of violence and that it was Denise who had the short temper. She told police she suspected Denise's "big mouth" might have had something to do with her murder.
Another sister, Sue Doetzel, told detectives that although Larry and Denise were separated, she felt they loved each other. They had keys to each others' homes and, when they were getting along, Denise would ask Larry to help around the house and ask him for money. When Denise was mad at Larry, Sue said, she would tell him she wanted a divorce, and though she had been telling Larry that for several years, she hadn't actually made an attempt to get one. There was never any violence between the two, as far as she knew. Sue knew of her sister's affair, and she asked Denise what she would do if Larry found out. "She said she was separated," Sue recalled, "and it was her house and she could do what she wanted."
Sandy, Denise's mother, says she had her suspicions about Larry, but she wasn't ready to tell detectives. Instead, she spoke about the casino: Could it have been a disgruntled customer who lost money there? Could it have been related to a complaint her daughter filed against the casino with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? Sandy told detectives that Denise had been demoted from supervisor to dealer, which meant a cut in pay. Denise's father, Roy "Buck" Cantrell, told detectives the same thing. "He believes the murder was somehow tied to the boat," a detective wrote in his report.
Kandi Maier, a friend of Denise's and her co-worker at the President, told detectives that Denise had been seeing a male co-worker, John DeBoer, at the casino for about three months and that he was Denise's first boyfriend since she and Larry separated seven years earlier. Kandi said she had tried to get Denise to date before but that her friend always refused, telling her that her husband "would kill her if she dated another man," according to police reports. Denise had begun complaining to Kandi that Larry seemed to be watching her every move, so much so that she had begun parking at the rear of her home and entering through the back door to avoid detection. She told Kandi she thought Larry knew of the affair; during a recent phone conversation, he walked in and demanded to know to whom she was talking. When she told him it was none of his business, according to police reports, he replied: "It's either Kandi or John."
Another co-worker and friend, Joyce Jeraldine, told police that Denise told her she and Larry argued all the time, though he did not physically abuse her. On one occasion, Jeraldine said, Denise described how Larry put a gun to her head, then pulled the trigger. She told her friend Larry was doing it "just to scare her. The gun was empty." She said Denise told her that if Larry learned of her relationship with John, he would "blow her fucking head off." Denise was falling in love with John, she told Jeraldine, and about two weeks before the murder she had given him an ultimatum: Leave his wife or end the relationship. She said he told her he needed time to decide what to do. And recently, Jeraldine added, Denise's attitude toward Larry had changed. She was bolder. She told Jeraldine: "Fuck him -- I don't care about what he thinks." She said she wished Larry would find a woman and get on with his life.
Detectives questioned John DeBoer, Denise's lover, at length, and he was told he was a suspect in the murder. A former New Jersey police officer who was married with children, DeBoer told police that he had been seeing Denise for about six to eight weeks. During that time, DeBoer said, Denise had spoken at length about Larry and their marriage, how they once had a lot of good times but had grown apart. She told him she wanted a divorce from Larry, that she hadn't loved him in years. She told him Larry lived across the street, which is why she always wanted DeBoer to come in the back door and park his car on Wenzlick. She told him that at times Larry had a violent temper and that he had once pointed a gun at her head.
The night Denise died, DeBoer said, he got off work at 1:30 a.m., left a note -- the latest of three he'd written her that evening -- on her car and went home. He said he woke his wife, spoke to her around 4 a.m. and didn't leave home after that -- which his wife later confirmed. He was asked to take a polygraph, which police later told him he failed. DeBoer was surprised. DeBoer, who says he was upset and scared when he took the test, said he was telling the truth, and he denied killing Denise.
Days later, DeBoer spoke to police again. He said he remembered another conversation with Denise, about a month earlier, in which she told him Larry had found her new birth-control pills. He was angry, she had said, and accused her of having an affair. DeBoer said Denise told him that she fabricated an explanation, claiming her doctor prescribed them to regulate her period. For about a week afterward, DeBoer said, Larry drove Denise to and from work.
Through the early days of the investigation, Denise's family, for the most part, stood by Larry. Denise's mother and sisters were reluctant to say anything that might implicate him. They wanted to give Larry the benefit of the doubt.
Over time, that would change.
For police detectives trying to solve a homicide, time is often the enemy. The more time passes, the less likely it becomes that a murder case will ever be solved. In the case of Denise Wolff, police had no murder weapon. They were unable to find the van seen driving away from the crime scene. If there were any eyewitnesses to the crime, none had come forward.
But such a violent shooting was an uncommon occurrence in the neighborhood near Lindenwood Park, and it was an area where many police officers lived with their own families. Numerous detectives canvassed and re-canvassed the area, searching for witnesses and hoping for a break. Detectives Ralph Campbell and Timothy Kaelin were among them.
It was Sunday, July 20, 1997, three days after the murder. As Campbell and Kaelin began a re-canvass of the neighborhood, two other detectives told them that they'd gotten information from a tipster who suggested that they talk to a woman who was known to walk her dog between 4 and 5 a.m. in the area of the murder.
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.
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.
About two hours after she arrived, the interview became more and more contentious, Chirco said. Campbell, she said, told her he was getting fed up with her and that "I was no better than the person who pulled the trigger. That this woman had suffered, and that I was a bitch." She said he also remarked that he "wondered what my priest would think of me."
Campbell left the room and returned with pictures of a woman at the morgue. Chirco recalled: "He said, "Take a good look at that.' He said her legs looked like Swiss cheese and the photographer didn't do her justice...." Chirco described a variety of good cop/bad cop tactics used by the officers. Soon, she said, they brought in a series of photographs of men.
"I looked at them," Chirco said, "and said that the man, well, at first I didn't say anything. Then Detective Campbell started slamming his fist on the table ... saying that I nonverbally identified somebody in the photographs." Eventually Chirco told them the man in the first photograph -- Larry -- "looked like someone" she saw on the corner that morning while she was out with her dog.
She had asked to leave again, but the detective, Chirco said, told her that her husband was "in bed with another woman right at that time." Throughout the interview, Chirco said, she was subjected to a barrage of verbal abuse. She said the detective, at one point, threatened to pick up her daughter and put her in foster care. She had mentioned a prior miscarriage, she said, and the detective told her she must have been having so much sex that she caused it herself. At one point, she was accused of "screwing" Wolff. Throughout the ordeal, she said, she was not allowed to leave or use the telephone. When she insisted that the most she saw was a man on the corner, they were not satisfied: "When I told them that was all I saw, and that is all I told them that I saw at the time, then as time went on, it got worse. The longer I was there, the worse it got."
Chirco also insinuated that something physical occurred in the interview room. She described how one detective insisted she take off her jewelry, her wedding band, her belt. She asked why. She asked for a female officer. She was told to take it off now, Chirco said:
"Campbell says: "Look at how quick she can get that belt off. She is used to taking her belt off and taking her pants down." He mocked the baby she miscarried, Chirco said, and told her "I didn't deserve a child."
After Chirco agreed to give a taped statement, she was released. It was 11 hours after she had first been brought to the police station. She complained about her treatment to Mayor Clarence Harmon. She filed a complaint with Internal Affairs -- though in February 1998, Chirco was notified by mail that her complaint had been ruled "not sustained."
In the days and weeks after being questioned by police, Chirco said, she was repeatedly contacted by various police officers, asking her to meet with them, asking for more information. One, she said, told her she was "hindering prosecution" -- a felony punishable by 10 years and a $10,000 fine. Another stuck his card under her door, told her of a reward, apologized for what the other officers had done. One, she said, told her police could take away her child and turn the girl over to the state until she cooperated. Chirco refused.
In September, Chirco said, she got a call from a sergeant. She told him she thought she had been followed in her car by someone she believed to be Larry Wolff. She said he told her police couldn't offer her any help: "If you can't help us, we can't help you." She hung up on him. And not long after the murder, she moved out of her apartment on Jamieson.
As police pushed forward with their investigation, the family of Denise Wolff struggled to deal with their grief -- without much success. And their feelings toward Larry began to change.
Sandy didn't want to point a finger at Larry in the early hours of the investigation. "For the first couple of days, we tried to act like, you know, somebody else did it, till we knew. You can't jump to conclusions," Sandy says. "But after a couple of days, we knew. Everything that come out of his mouth was a lie. First he said he was sleeping so sound he didn't hear anything, when people three blocks away heard it. First he said his dogs didn't bark, then he said the dogs did bark, and he went out to see the dogs. Then he told my niece, "I heard it, but I just lay there in bed.' Then he told someone he was under a window air conditioner, but he has central air -- the air conditioner is on his sun porch. He wasn't sleeping out there; he was in his bedroom."
She began replaying scenes in her mind, the way Larry acted strangely at a fish fry Larry and Denise attended at Sandy's house the week before Denise's death, and how he told her he wished Denise would drop this "talk about a divorce." She began thinking about the way Larry could be possessive -- how he raised two dogs from pups and, Sandy says, chose to kill them rather than give them away when he and Denise were moving from one rental property to another. "Someone said, "Why don't you give those dogs away?'" Sandy says. "And he said, "They're my dogs, and no one is going to have them but me.' He took them out and beat them with a crowbar and a hammer," she says.
Sandy found it hard to understand why her son-in-law made no attempt to go to his wife to comfort her after she'd been shot and made no attempt to go to the hospital with her: "He made no effort to go, to follow or see if she was dead or alive. He stayed right there at the house."
Angie had her own theory on why Larry didn't rush to her mother's side. "If that happened to my husband, I would be devastated and I would be at his side," Angie says. "I think he was scared shitless to think she might be able to say, "Why did you do this to me?' I swear I think that's why he didn't go to my mom. He didn't want to take that chance. I think he was afraid."
In the days after the murder, 10-year-old Jennie went to live with Angie, but with Angie due to give birth, her half-sister went the next month to live with her grandparents in Washington County. Shortly after the murder, Larry had signed a power of attorney that gave the Cantrells custody should he be arrested. But Sandy says she didn't keep her feelings secret from Larry when she told him Jennie was going to live with her.
"He kept saying, "I need to get that power of attorney back,' and I said, "You're not getting it back.' I said, "You know and I know that you killed her.' And he said, "I can't believe you're saying that.' I said, "You're not getting Jennie.'"
Larry Wolff hired a lawyer and filed a habeas corpusmotion in September 1997 in an effort to have his daughter returned to him. It was the first volley of what would be an 11-month custody fight.
In January 1998, with little or no progress being made in solving Denise's murder, her parents, sisters and friends held a candlelight vigil in front of her home, pleading for information that might solve her case. It made the news. Larry wasn't invited.
A few months later, Denise's sister Sue somehow tracked down Laurie Chirco, whom they knew about from talking to police. Sue called the office where Laurie worked and left a message asking that she be paged. Chirco returned her call, but she would only meet with Sue at the Clayton office of attorney Steve Ryals. (Ryals, when asked about the case, would neither "confirm nor deny" he ever represented Chirco.) Sue gave Chirco a videotape of TV coverage of Denise's murder.
Sandy says Chirco wouldn't say much to Sue during a meeting at Ryals' office: "All this lady did was cry. She kept crying, "If they found me, he can find me.' All my daughter wanted to know was: "Is that who you saw on the corner?' And she never answered."
In the summer of 1998, nearly a year after the murder, Laurie Chirco called police Detective Chris Pappas and said she wanted to meet. Over the course of three weeks, she called or left messages for Pappas more than 10 times before they finally met on June 21 at a Steak 'n Shake on Chippewa Street. At the restaurant, Chirco told Pappas she'd been repeatedly followed by Larry Wolff.
She gave the detective photographs of a car with city license plates behind her in traffic. She told the detective she'd had a hard time living with what she had witnessed the morning of the murder and that she now wanted to tell police what she'd seen.
According to Chirco, on the morning of the murder she was walking her dog on Jamieson when she saw a man dressed in blue jeans and a white T-shirt. The man saw her, she said, then walked east on Bancroft and stood at the mouth of the alley. She then said she saw a van, light or medium-gray, drive around the block two or three times before stopping in the middle of the street where the man, whom she identified as Larry Wolff, was standing. He talked to the driver, she said, then got into the van, which parked next to Denise's home. Then, she said, she heard shots coming from the van, and she hid in the bushes. When the detective pressed for more details, Chirco refused to say anything else.
She told Pappas she first wanted to confront Wolff herself and encourage him to turn himself in. When the detective discouraged her, Chirco left, saying she'd be in touch.
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.
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.
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.
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."
But for all Laurie Chirco's potential problems as a witness, what truly proved the pivotal point in the case came at the tail end of the second deposition of Chirco when she was asked whether she had ever taped any conversations in connection with the case. She said yes. Explaining that she often carried a handheld cassette recorder to record notes on patients for doctors, Chirco said she had taped the night when she was interrogated at the police station.
She said the tape existed, that it was in a "safe place," that she had listened to it once and that it contained a "very accurate" recording of what happened in the interview room that night, including a physical event she had repeatedly refused to describe in her depositions.
Sindel issued three subpoenas for the tape recording; a judge later ordered her to turn it over, as well as a diary she had kept since her interview at the station. She turned over the diary, but no tape. Sindel then filed a motion to strike her testimony and to strike her as a witness on the basis of her refusal to turn over the tape. On May 1, 2000, Circuit Judge Philip Heagney agreed. The next day, the circuit attorney's office dismissed the charges against Larry Wolff, citing the judge's ruling. Without Chirco, they had no case.
A Hallmark card later arrived at Sindel's law office. On the front of the card are drawings of leaves and the names of the seasons. Inside is a short note. "Mr. Sindel," it reads. "I hear off the record from several people that you didn't think you could win against me in court! I would have never thought you would quit. I know I would have won against you in court. But just remember you didn't win I gave it to you!"
It was signed Laurie L. Chirco.
Larry Wolff, 46, is a man of few words. Sitting in his lawyer's office, a few months after the case was dismissed, he continues to maintain his innocence. "All I know is, I sat in jail for 19 months, unjustly accused of that," says Larry, a somber-faced man with brown, collar-length hair. "I want that to come out."
He denies ever following Laurie Chirco -- but he says that she once showed up at one of his job sites demanding to know: "Why are you doing this to me?" He says he didn't know who she was.
And though he and Denise were legally separated, he says, they had a good relationship. "She's the one who had me buy the house where I'm at, which is catty-corner from where she's at. And that's why I bought the house, because of her, so our daughter, Jennie, could walk back and forth. The reason we didn't live in the same house was because of Angie, which was her daughter. That's why we were actually separated -- she was the reason. She was a teenager when we split up. I got along with her; I just couldn't be around her," he says, without elaborating. "So then, a few years later, she had talked me into buying the house, and that's where I'm at now."
Larry Wolff says he was unaware that his wife had a boyfriend: "I didn't know she was seeing anybody. We never talked about it. I know we had a good relationship, and that's it.
"I shouldn't have sat in jail as long as I did," he says. "It boiled down to, I sat there for 19 months, Rick [Sindel] did his job and I got out." As for Chirco, Wolff says: "Here this lady has lied for 19 months, trying to convince everybody that I done it when I hadn't done it, and then she can't show what she says she has and I got out."
If he didn't do it, then who did?
"I have no idea," Larry Wolff says. "If I knew, I would say it. I would tell."
Ask Sandy, Cathy or Angie who killed Denise, and they have none of that uncertainty. All three are convinced that Larry killed his wife. And they were stunned at how the criminal case against him unraveled.
"I was absolutely shocked," says Sandy. "I had never dealt with the law. I would have thought if you had an eyewitness, you pretty much had it made. Wouldn't you think so?" She does not blame Laurie Chirco -- and Chirco herself did not respond to repeated attempts to reach her for this story. "I had only seen her in court, and she looked like a very, very scared woman. I feel sorry for the lady, I really do. She has got to be terrified," Sandy says.
But a lot of other things about the case do trouble her. Why, for instance, didn't police test Larry's hands for evidence of gunshot residue in the hours after the shooting? Why, she asks, didn't police search the trash cans around Denise's home that morning? Instead, she says, they moved their patrol cars so the garbage truck could come through. Why did the lead prosecutor, Ed Postawko, take a leave of absence only weeks before the case was dismissed?
"We knew something fishy was happening the month before [Larry] was let off when the chief prosecutor decided he was under stress and took six months off," Sandy says. "I don't know what's going on. Something's just not right with all this. You get a couple of judges that refuse him bond and then you get another couple judges who do give him bond. Why would you give a murderer with an eyewitness bond?
Angie is equally troubled: "A prosecuting attorney that wants a murderer locked up behind bars doesn't work on a case for a year-and-a-half and then decide the case is "really starting to make me have nightmares at night, I think I need to take a six-month leave and leave the country.' That's what we were told. We kept calling him and calling him, and he wouldn't call us back. Then they told us he's leaving the country, and two or three weeks later, the whole case is dropped -- the man is a free man."
Postawko will not discuss the facts of the murder case, saying, "There is no statute of limitations on murder." But he denies that his leave of absence, or its timing, had anything to do with the Wolff murder case. As head of the sex-crimes/child-abuse unit, he handled sex-crime cases -- including that of the South Side Rapist -- as well as domestic-violence cases. With such an emotionally taxing caseload, he says, he needed a break so badly he planned to quit the office but was offered the chance to take a seven-month leave instead: "I get very involved in my cases, and there were certain things I wanted to get resolved. Some I did, some I didn't. The Wolff case was not one I was able to see through to its conclusion."
Angie believes other factors led to the case's being dismissed. Jeannette Graviss, the prosecutor who took over the case when Postawko took a leave, once told them she was "really worried about badgering the police department" on the witness stand, because the key witness in the case gave a completely different version of her interrogation than did the two detectives who initially questioned her. "She did not want to make the police department look bad," Angie says. "Not only do they regularly work with them, but here she's working against the police department and for the witness. She didn't want to do that." Graviss has not responded to repeated phone calls seeking her comment on the case, nor has outgoing Circuit Attorney Dee Joyce-Hayes, who left office last month.
Like her grandmother, Angie does not blame Chirco, who, she believes, was treated "roughly" by police officers. "It is so hard to say what happened to get this dismissed," she says. "I don't think it was Laurie. I don't think it had to do with how good Rick Sindel is or how flaky Laurie was. No one will ever convince me that's what it was. Something else went on ... I guess the [police and prosecutors] don't care. Their opinion is, probably, "So this guy killed his wife. He's not out every day murdering people -- he murdered her for a reason -- so we're just going to drop it. We're done. Case closed.'"
Lt. Ron Henderson, the homicide commander for the St. Louis Police Department, says he understands the family's frustration but also says the stalling of the case was "definitely not due to a lack of effort. There is not a detective up here that, if you mention Denise Wolff, doesn't know exactly what you're talking about, and this happened back in 1997 -- July 17, 1997; I even remember the date. We've done quite a bit. We've had different teams of investigators to give it a fresh look. I don't know what else we can do until we get a break."
Henderson says 18 officers were on the scene the morning of the murder and, contrary to what the family believes, trash cans were searched. He says Larry Wolff wasn't tested for gunshot residue because those tests are not reliable, with high rates of false positives and false negatives. "I was at the scene, and we did quite a bit trying to locate items of physical evidence," Henderson says. "I understand the family's frustration. This has been an ongoing thing. They believe Larry did it. People are entitled to their opinion, but we have to get enough physical evidence and corroborating evidence to take a man to court."
Henderson would not discuss details of the case, though he acknowledges police had a "witness problem." He says Denise's murder remains an "ongoing investigation." Even though the case against Larry was dismissed in May, charges could be refiled against him at any time, but only if new evidence surfaces. Henderson says detectives considered several suspects but that "Larry was our strongest suspect. We have looked at more than one person, and, no, we did not have tunnel vision because he is the estranged husband. He was a suspect, and he continually remains a strong suspect. My responsibility is to prove this. I want the responsible person. We're not dead set on Larry, but he does remain a likely suspect."
For Denise Wolff's family, it has been difficult to move on. Her mother, in particular, is haunted by the case, by the way her daughter's life ended so abruptly, the way she was never allowed to experience the joy of her second grandson, born two months after her death, the way she looked the last time she saw her, her body so bloated from her injuries that she lay in her casket wearing a size 18 instead of a size 8. "You know how when you look at a person in a casket, you see that relief?" Sandy says. "They look like they're at peace." Not her Denny. "She looked like she was scared to death. It did not look like her. It was horrible, unbelievable."
For her and the rest of their family, Sandy says, it's been a sort of never-ending nightmare. In August, after another costly custody fight, Sandy returned her granddaughter, Jennie, to Larry Wolff, after the judge in the case, Thomas Frawley, made it clear to them that they would not prevail in light of the dismissal of the murder charge against Larry. But that didn't mark the end of their court battles.
In July, the Cantrells and Angie filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Larry Wolff, essentially accusing him of murder. Sandy estimates her daughter had approximately $200,000 in life-insurance money, and she wants to make sure Larry never sees any of it. She wants $10,000 to go to Angie, to reimburse her for her mother's funeral expenses, and she wants the rest to go to her granddaughter Jennie. She also wants Larry to sign over Denise's grave plot. Larry never purchased a headstone for Denise, and her family would like to buy her one.
But the lawsuit isn't just about money.
"In our hearts, we know he did it," Angie says. "There needs to be some kind of justice served, and I don't think he should basically be paid for killing my mom -- and to me, that's what it is."
Denise's sister Cathy was one of Larry's staunchest defenders in the days after the murder. She scolded Angie for treating him badly and making accusations about him. And when her friends called her to offer their condolences -- most of whom asked, "Larry did it, didn't he?" -- she told them not to say such a thing. "It did cross my mind, but he was in our family for 18 years," Cathy says. "She was the mother of his child. You don't want to think he would gun her down like that. I would give anything in the world to beg that man for his forgiveness if he could prove to me that anybody had the motive he had."
Today, Cathy no longer has the doubts she once did. She says she is certain Larry did it. "Anything I can do to make his life hell, I will do it. I promise," she says. "He don't scare me. You got a gun? I got a gun. You want to play guns? Let's go. I am so fed up with him tormenting my family, and the fact that Jennie has to live with him just makes me sick.... I hope Larry is brought to justice," Cathy says. "I just pray he gets what's coming to him."
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