NEW PORT RICHEY — Joe Rossi says he made a pact with the devil a long time ago so he could find out what happened to his daughter, and that pact — his soul for answers — is what's keeping him alive.
Last week he was in the hospital near death from congestive heart failure. His kidneys were shutting down. A priest gave him last rites. Rossi said he never saw any welcoming light, just cold darkness, as he flitted through consciousness, which is what he expected. But somehow he got better, went home and through his unending grief and rage and obsession, leaning heavily on a cane, he made it to the courthouse Friday to put his eyes on the man he blames for his daughter's disappearance.
Rossi has threatened to kill Jimmy Rappa before, so there was extra security waiting for him. The bent 69-year-old with white hair is physically fragile, but still a tough-as-nails New York Italian who relocated to Port Richey some years ago. On normal days, there are usually two to three bailiffs in each courtroom. For Rossi, who later needed a wheelchair, there were eight.
As always, he carried a rolled-up poster of his daughter's face.
Kim Marie O'Connell, 42, slim, striking, with dark hair and dark eyes, a mother to a teenage son, was last seen July 5, 2009. According to her family and authorities, she and Rappa, now 50, had an abusive, on-and-off-again relationship. He told detectives the last time he saw her, she stormed out of their Hudson home on foot.
Rappa has denied harming O'Connell and, eight months after she vanished, told a television station he didn't know where she was. "I wish I did," he said to a Channel 10 reporter. "I love her and miss her."
Detective Pete Federico of the Pasco Sheriff's Office has been on the case since 2009. He is with major crimes, though the disappearance is still listed as a missing person's case. He said Rappa is a person of interest. A search of Rappa's home and nearby grounds came up with nothing. Federico keeps working the case and said it will never go cold as long as he's on it. He is also from New York and has become close to the Rossi family.
"They are all in a living hell," Federico said. Rossi spent months searching for his daughter's remains, near her home with Rappa, in the woods. He tried to dredge water pits by himself. But he never found his daughter. So he zeroed his focus on Rappa. Rossi confronted him but never got any answers.
Every time Rappa has gotten into trouble on unrelated matters, Rossi has gone to all the court hearings, clutching photos of O'Connell. He goes to the podium to speak, whether asked to or not.
On Friday, Rappa was set to plead guilty to charges of selling cocaine and controlled substances. Rossi walked slowly to the center of the courtroom. He kept his voice controlled. He didn't swear. He felt like he was going to have another heart attack.
He looked at Rappa. Rappa looked away.
"This man should not be out on the streets," Rossi said. He is a danger, Rossi said, and if he isn't locked up for a long time, "we will be back in court with James Rappa."
Then he sat down. Rappa answered the judge's questions, but said nothing else. He was sentenced to 45 months in prison. "Thank you, Judge," Rappa said before being led away.
Rossi, incensed, wanted more time. Even though these drug charges had nothing to do with O'Connell's disappearance, the two are entwined for Rossi.
"My daughter's life for 45 months," he said in the courtroom. As he walked outside, he said repeatedly that he wished he would have killed Rappa, that he would serve 45 months in prison if he could take him out.
But he knows giving in to the urge for revenge would mean letting go of his hope for answers, and he can't do that.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.