After 12 years investigating death, Tampa homicide sergeant struggles to let go

Sgt. Chuck Massucci says it’s hard to leave behind unsolved cases. “It will make me very happy if another detective closes a case. It’s what I think any good homicide detective would hope.”
Sgt. Chuck Massucci says it’s hard to leave behind unsolved cases. “It will make me very happy if another detective closes a case. It’s what I think any good homicide detective would hope.”
Published Aug. 30, 2015

TAMPA — As his time winds down, the city's longest-serving homicide investigator can't shake the feeling that his work is unfinished. And after more than a decade hunting killers, Chuck Massucci wonders how he can adjust to a life when he is no longer on call.

Massucci, 55, is set to retire this week after spending the past 12 years with the Tampa Police Department's homicide unit — the last two as its commanding sergeant.

He leaves in the midst of an unusually violent year in Tampa. The city's tally of homicides stands at 23. The total for all of last year was 28. Four of this year's victims have been teenagers. About half the cases remain open with no arrest.

Those are the hardest cases for him to leave behind. The unsolved ones.

"(That is) the hardest thing about leaving homicide," Massucci said.

• • •

The business of investigating death was an unlikely career for Massucci.

He grew up in Pittsburgh, one of three children born to a Catholic family whose grandparents were all Italian immigrants. He served in the U.S. Navy for four years before moving to Tampa in 1984 to work construction.

In 1989, he was working as an electrician at the old Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (now the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts).

There, he came to know the many police officers who worked security. That got him thinking about the police academy.

In 1990, at age 30, he became a patrolman. Later, he moved to the street narcotics unit. It was his first investigative assignment.

His wife, Julie Massucci, was a homicide detective before him. They talked about her cases. And he came to know her squad. In 2003, on the day she was promoted to another assignment, he became her replacement.

• • •

Two unsolved murder cases mark the beginning and the end of Massucci's tenure. Both remain unsolved for different reasons.

The first was Renae Hilleboe, a mother found dead in her South Tampa apartment in 2003. Massucci said he knows who is responsible. The problem: no witnesses and no forensic evidence to prove it.

The other case, the 2013 shooting death of Wayne Lanier, has the exact opposite problem: forensic evidence that doesn't point to a suspect and witnesses who won't talk.

Between the two are many closed cases. Some victims and killers stand out:

• Katrina Froeschle, an insurance claims adjuster killed in 2005 after she visited a man's Sulphur Springs home to assess hurricane damage.

After she went missing, Massucci was one of two detectives who found her body in the Hillsborough River. Still a rookie homicide investigator, he led the team in collecting a trail of evidence that culminated in a murder charge against Jason Funk.

Funk is now serving a life sentence.

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• Steven Lorenzo and Scott Schweickert were convicted and sent to federal prison for drugging and raping gay men. They were also suspected of killing Jason Galehouse and Michael Wachholtz. Both suspects were sent to federal prison. Schweickert still awaits trial on state murder charges and faces the death penalty.

• Mike Roberts, David Curtis, and Jeffrey Kocab — all Tampa police officers murdered in the line of duty in recent years.

Roberts' killer is doing life. Last month, Massucci testified in a trial that landed a third death sentence for Dontae Morris, who killed Curtis and Kocab and three other men.

• • •

Mussucci was the lead detective in more than 50 murder cases. He helped send scores of killers to prison.

But he's not big on taking credit. Every investigation, every arrest, he said, is the result of teamwork — detectives, crime scene technicians, medical examiners, prosecutors.

New detectives learn from seasoned detectives. But even seasoned detectives are still learning, too, from the investigators and forensic pathologists they work with.

"We meet after most murders and we discuss, sometimes argue," Massucci said. "You don't want to make any mistakes. Because what does a mistake lead to?

"Missing evidence. Acquittal of a bad guy … you just don't want to do that to a family."

• • •

Massucci has always had a hard time letting go of the murders he couldn't solve.

He still worked on those cases, even after his promotion to sergeant in 2013.

"I thought I wouldn't be able to retire," he said, "because I couldn't close them."

In recent weeks, he handed his cold cases over to other detectives — reluctantly.

He hopes they'll find something he missed.

"It will not hurt my feelings," he said. "It will make me very happy if another detective closes a case. It's what I think any good homicide detective would hope."

Among them is the murder of Levi Dixon, 17, who was shot to death in 2008. And Linda Helms, 62, and Vickie Sterling, 54, sisters who were found shot to death in 2012.

He still talks to both families.

The Lanier murder case, Massucci said, remains unsolved because of a problem that has frustrated the sergeant in his last years on the job: lack of cooperation.

"There has always been elements of non-cooperation," he said. "But it seems worse now."

A more recent case frustrated him for the same reason. Sharon Watkins was a grandmother who died in bed, caught in the crossfire of a gun battle outside her apartment. The family pleaded for help. An $8,000 reward was offered. Still, police got no tips.

"The community doesn't seem to care about that anymore," he said.

He knows it's not everybody. He knows many mothers who tell their children to trust the police. He knows some people do care.

"But when you get the first and the second and the third and the fourth dead teenager," he said, "and then you get the grandmother who was just lying in bed, you get frustrated."

• • •

Tuesday is his last day. His wife, who retired six years before him, has planned a small gathering of friends. He will spend more time with her, their two grown children and their two grandchildren.

He has offers for post-retirement jobs. He has yet to accept any.

His work will still follow him in trials at which he is expected to testify.

In time, he hopes, he'll learn how to quit being a cop.

It won't be easy, he said. "But I think it's time."

Contact Dan Sullivan at or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.