Sunday, November 19, 2017
Public safety

Cold case of missing girl from Florida stalls after search for bones in Pennsylvania

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For decades, Anna Lewis Cummings saved a milk carton, imprinted with the face of a girl missing in Florida.

Cummings was 9 when she first saw that face, in a newspaper clipping tacked up inside her neighbors' trailer in Pennsylvania. The man, she remembers, had done unspeakable things to her and her sister.

He said he knew the girl.

In a whim of curiosity this past March, Cummings, who is now 39 and living in North Carolina, searched the girl's name online:

Jennifer Marteliz

Accounts of the 1982 case flooded her screen — the massive search by police and psychics, a family who still believes Jennifer is alive.

The next day, Cummings wrote a letter to Tampa police about her old neighbor, Steve Visnosky.

It caught their attention. Two officers flew 1,000 miles north. More than two dozen other investigators converged on the lot where Cummings grew up, where she remembers seeing two knee-deep holes, and then only one, after Visnosky came home with a trash bag.

There would be no immediate resolution to the 30-year-old disappearance. On Friday, police announced they had called off the dogs and diggers with no results. They might search again in the spring.

Until then, the family of the missing girl, and that of Visnosky, and Cummings herself have to deal with the suspicion she has made known:

That he killed Jennifer.

• • •

Anna Lewis Cummings had just started grade school when a retired steel worker and his wife moved onto her family's wooded lot in Uniontown, Pa.

She was just Anna Lewis then, one of four siblings who loved playing in the woods.

During the summers, Steve Visnosky would join in the kids' games. The rest of the of the year, he lived in Tampa — five blocks from Marteliz's house.

Cummings learned to fear those hot months.

She remembers games that turned to "struggles," inappropriate touching and horrors she doesn't want to explain.

She and her older sister, Tania, endured three years of abuse at his hands, she said Friday.

She calls Visnosky a "pedophile."

One summer, Cummings said, she and Tania booby-trapped their bedroom window, carefully erecting tiny pins on a strip of duct tape so he couldn't sneak inside.

They thought the two holes in the yard were meant for them, Cummings said.

One day, in the fall of 1982, Cummings recalls, Visnosky pulled up in his brown car and removed a black plastic trash bag from the trunk.

He told the kids to "shoo," Cummings recalls. He had to take care of some garbage.

The next day, she saw that one of the holes had been filled.

Cummings says she didn't think much of it at the time.

Several months later, the girls told their parents about some of the abuse. Their parents confronted Visnosky and brought it up before elders at their church.

All discouraged them from calling police, said Cummings and her mother, Carol Lewis. Eventually, they did call.

Visnosky was not charged.

The Lewises kicked him off their property. He died in 1992.

Carol Lewis and Anna Cummings blame the abuse and ensuing gossip for wearing down Tania. In 2001, at age 31, she lay in bed and put a bullet through her heart.

The Visnoskys' only child, Lester, now 63, disparaged Cummings' tip in an interview with a Tampa Bay Times reporter Thursday.

"The only thing I can say," he said, "is consider the source."

Multiple attempts to reach him by phone Friday were not successful.

• • •

On Thursday, Cummings met more than two dozen officials on the 4-acre lot, about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh.

One of the experts was Dennis Dirkmaat, a forensic anthropologist who teaches at Mercyhurst College.

He and 20 students systematically stepped through the dense deciduous forest. Their eyes scanned the ground, looking for depressions and bits of plastic.

It's a difficult task, looking for remains from 30 years ago. The signs disappear pretty quickly, Dirkmaat said.

But even after three decades, the cadaver dogs sniffing the ground might be able to track something, and the looseness of the ground gives away holes that have been dug.

Then, there is the color of dirt. The soil in Pennsylvania is distinct: A black organic layer rests upon yellow clay. When someone digs, the two types mix. The dark and bright swirl together, leaving signs for those who come later.

By 3 p.m., the group had focused on two specific sites on a half acre plot of land. Police confirmed the area matched the information they received.

By the time the sun set Thursday, Dirkmaat and his crew had scrutinized 30 to 40 sites.

No bones. No Jennifer.

Not even signs of the two holes Cummings described.

• • •

Cummings and her mother say they remember telling police in 1983 about the connection between Steve Visnosky and Jennifer.

Lewis says she first called Pennsylvania police, who referred her to Tampa.

She remembers speaking to a detective who said he was in charge of the case. She never heard back from him. Cummings assumed it had been resolved.

Decades passed.

The email Cummings wrote this year made its way to Tampa cold case Detective Eric Houston.

When Cummings told him she would be in Pennsylvania in July for a family vacation, he flew up to meet her, she says. Tampa police would not provide more details and through a spokeswoman, Houston declined to comment.

When the search shut down Friday, police said they hadn't ruled out digging again.

Cummings hopes for evidence that could bring closure.

But the Marteliz family doubts that will happen with bones on a Pennsylvania lot.

It has been a difficult couple of days for Jennifer's relatives, said family spokesman Bryant Camareno. And the years have worn on them.

But Kathy Longo still carries her daughter's teddy bear, and in her heart, she still believes Jennifer is alive.

She doesn't want the search to uncover any bones.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3111.

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