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Pennsylvania police search for grave of girl who vanished from Tampa nearly 30 years ago

A billboard was put up by Jennifer Martilez’s family in observance of her 10th birthday.

Times (1985)

A billboard was put up by Jennifer Martilez’s family in observance of her 10th birthday.

TAMPA — Thirty years after helicopters and search teams scoured Tampa for Jennifer Marteliz, a 7-year-old girl who vanished while walking home from school, police more than 1,000 miles away led cadaver dogs through dense Pennsylvanian woods Thursday, searching for her grave.

State police in southwestern Pennsylvania obtained warrants Thursday to search six properties for Jennifer's remains. The properties are linked to Steve Visnosky, a since-deceased Pennsylvania man who also had a home in the 900 block of Castle Court in Tampa, about five blocks from where Jennifer was last seen checking the mailbox at her father's North Tampa duplex.

The girl with pink ribbons in her raven-colored hair was carrying school papers and chatting with a friend just minutes before she disappeared on Nov. 15, 1982.

The days and months that followed would be heartbreaking for Jennifer's family, who waited as authorities investigated one of the most prominent missing persons cases in Tampa history. Long after officers stopped pounding on doors and consulting psychics for any trace of the vibrant child nicknamed "Firecracker," the family tried to find ways to live with the grief. They built a website and financed a feature-length film. Her mother wrote a book.

Jennifer's uncle Frank Longo, who heard of the development Thursday from the Tampa Bay Times, said he is trying to keep a level head.

"Through the years, we've had a lot of ups and downs with it," he said. "In the 30 years, it's never gone away. We think about her all the time."

According to an affidavit, the latest development came when a woman named Anna Cummings, who was just 10 when Jennifer disappeared, sent Tampa police Detective Eric Houston a lengthy email about Visnosky, who lived next door to her in Pennsylvania.

It's not clear why, after all this time, she sent the email.

Tampa police brought the matter to the attention of the Pennsylvania State Police, which obtained the warrants Thursday. The Tampa Police Department confirmed it is working with Pennsylvania police.

"Unfortunately, there's nothing else we can say about it at this point," spokeswoman Andrea Davis said.

State police from the Uniontown station, about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh, said they're involved in the search, but did not provide details.

According to the affidavit, Cummings told Houston that the neighbor owned a large brown car similar to one that had been reported as a suspect vehicle in the case. She said she had seen the neighbor remove a large plastic bag from the car in 1982.

And a few days later, a knee-deep hole in the woods on or near of one of his properties had been filled in, she said. She remembered, she said, because that was one of two holes she had played in before it was covered.

Cummings also told Houston that she saw Jennifer's picture and a news article about her disappearance inside Visnosky's house, the affidavit said.

The warrant application asked a judge to give police permission "for the purpose of attempting to locate a grave or partial grave" of the remains of Jennifer.

Visnosky, a steel worker for U.S. Steel, once owned a house on S Castle Court, a few blocks from Jennifer's dad, a property deed shows. He had no criminal past in either Pennsylvania or Florida, records show.

Visnosky died of coronary artery disease in 1992 in a Tampa hospital, a death certificate shows. His wife, Naomi, also died in Tampa.

Visnosky's son, Lester, 63, of Pennsylvania, said in an interview Thursday that he had visited the Florida home many times. He did not want to comment on the search, but said that many of the details reported in the affidavit "are just not true."

Lester Visnosky said police should be wary of the tip, and of Cummings.

"The only thing I can say is consider the source, consider who emailed you," he said. "Because I know the family well."

He would not elaborate on his connection to Cummings.

Cummings could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Jennifer's sister, Toni Lisa Marteli, was 11 when Jennifer was last seen. She said she believes her mother might recently have been contacted by the same woman who provided the information to police.

Marteli said she doesn't know how the woman learned of her sister's plight or why she recently decided to contact police.

Times news researcher John Martin and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Pennsylvania police search for grave of girl who vanished from Tampa nearly 30 years ago 07/05/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 6, 2012 1:21am]
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