The search was exhaustive. Helicopters flew back and forth in the sky, searching the neighborhood for clues, while Green Berets and National Guard troops worked their way through the area. At the same time, scuba divers were sent to the Shawsheen River and sniffer dogs combed nearby woodland. And just one piece of evidence would be enough.
On Saturday, August 21, 1976, a 10-year-old boy, Andy Puglisi, vanished from a public swimming pool near his home in the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. His disappearance prompted an extraordinary search operation. In fact, more than 2,000 volunteers joined in. Despite their best efforts, though, Puglisi was never found.
Today, though, more than 40 years later, Puglisi has not been forgotten. Friends and family remember the anniversary of his disappearance, and the police continue to follow up leads. However, the chances of finding him alive are vanishingly small. In fact, everything suggests that he met with a horrible fate…
Andy Puglisi was a quietly spoken boy with large brown eyes and brown hair. He was the eldest of five siblings. And he had “a smile that was bigger than he was,” according to his childhood friend Melanie Perkins, who talked to The Boston Globe in 1999.
Andy lived in the Stadium Housing Project, a complex of blandly colored apartments named after Lawrence High School Stadium. His mother, Faith, had married his father, Angelo Puglisi, when she was 15 and he was 19. Their marriage was never stable and a year before Andy’s disappearance, it ended in divorce.
The public pool where Puglisi was last seen was well known to local families. For just 15 cents, kids could escape the summer heat and stay in the water all day. “It was the place to hang out if you lived in the projects,” Perkins told The Boston Globe.
At around 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 21, Perkins made the decision to return home after having spent the whole day at the pool. She would often walk the short distance alone, but for some reason she was reluctant to that day. She asked Puglisi to escort her, but he didn’t want to leave. Instead, her brother Jeff took her. Then, at around 3:00 a.m. the following morning, the police called at her house with some disturbing news. Andy Puglisi had disappeared.
A thorough search of the area turned up nothing, but the police strongly suspected that Puglisi had been abducted. Furthermore, Puglisi’s parents were their first suspects. “Accusations and counter-accusations between the mother and father have only tended to muddy an already unclear disappearance,” stated a police memo written at the time.
Indeed, some believed that Angelo might have abducted Andy as revenge for Faith’s extramarital affairs. Others thought that Faith might have hidden Andy to punish Angelo. Still others thought that one of Faith’s jilted lovers, Jerome Phillips, might have been responsible for the abduction. In due course, however, detectives dismissed all of these individuals as suspects.
Instead, one of the people they spoke to was Gary Thibedeau, a resident of the Stadium Housing Project. They apparently approached him after hearing an allegation that he had behaved inappropriately with another boy. Thibedeau now has a long arrest record and, although he has denied any involvement in Puglisi’s disappearance, he does not have a water-tight alibi.
Eventually, however, police investigators announced that they had their man. In fact, they were so adamant that Wayne William Chapman had abducted Puglisi that they said so publicly, despite lacking sufficient evidence to convict him. Indeed, shortly after Puglisi disappeared, Chapman admitted to raping two boys in Lawrence. In fact, he had lured them from the same swimming pool that Puglisi had vanished from.
Chapman, who reportedly suffers from schizophrenia, admitted to the assaults after he was caught driving a stolen van in Waterloo, New York. The van contained pornographic magazines, a bloody sock, photographs of children and a tape recording of Chapman describing his pedophilic fantasies. He ultimately confessed to assaulting at least 15 young boys.
However, Perkins, for one, thought Chapman lacked the strength and courage to commit the murder. “He preys on young children because he can,” she told The Boston Globe. “As they got older, he couldn’t do it. He’s a mama’s boy. He was trying to seduce these kids to get love… He’s not smart enough to take Andy without a trace… unless he had help.”
In 1982, the investigation took a bizarre turn when patrolman Mike Carelli enlisted the services of Andrew Barnhart, a psychic. According to Barnhart, Puglisi was dead and buried “three feet down, with three feet on top.” From this information, Carelli deduced that Puglisi was buried in the old dump, which had had a soccer field built on top of it.
Barnhart also gave a description of the killer matching Chapman and claimed that Puglisi died accidentally by choking on a gag while being raped. Police made a decision to dig in the soccer field, but they never followed it through to conclusion, with office politics being to blame, according to Carelli. Meanwhile, Barnhart himself mysteriously vanished.
In 1989, Charles Pierce, a convicted murderer was dying in prison from prostate cancer. He announced that he wanted to confess to a crime in Lawrence. He told detectives that he had murdered a number of children, including a Lawrence boy who he killed in his van. Pierce also claimed that he had had sex with the boy’s dead body.
Could Chapman have gotten help from Pierce? Did the two act together? Indeed, Pierce actually claimed that he knew Chapman. However, Pierce retracted his confession the day after making it. Furthermore, upon examining the locations that he named, some of which no longer existed, police investigators concluded that his confession concerned a murder in the 1950s, and it had nothing to do with Puglisi.
In 1999, Perkins, by then a documentary filmmaker, began her own investigation into her missing childhood friend. Her search eventually led her to a site on a riverbank. There, forensic investigators located what appeared to be a burial pit. However, upon excavating it, they were unable to find any human remains. In 2014, there were further searches of the woodland areas close to the pool – however, they yielded nothing.
Meanwhile, in 2007, Perkins released Have You Seen Andy?, a documentary about Puglisi, the pair’s friendship and her experiences trying to unravel the mystery of Andy’s disappearance. After being aired on HBO, it went on to win the National Emmy for Best Investigative Journalism in 2008.
More than four decades have now passed since Puglisi’s disappearance, but Perkins has said that she will never give up looking for him. “For me, that means exhausting every possibility, finding everything I can about Andy’s disappearance,” she told The Boston Globe. “If I’m 80 years old, and I still don’t know what happened to my friend, at least I’ve announced to the world, ‘If anybody knows what happened to Andy, please tell me.’”