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A Funeral Without A Body

A Funeral Without A Body

A version of this appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on August 26, 2003.

 

Barbara Jean Monaco is frozen in time.

While those who love her have grown up - some are stooped with a sorrow beyond imagining - she's the same fresh-faced 18-year-old with the impish smile and cascading brown hair that she had when she vanished in Virginia Beach in 1978. Of course, she didn't really 'vanish.' Police believe she was murdered.

On Saturday morning those who still love her came to St. Mary's Catholic Church to say goodbye.

Her funeral mass was held 25 years to the day after her death.

It was a sign that her aging parents, who sought justice for so many years, then simply a body, had given up on both.

They came to St. Mary's seeking something else. Peace.

Where Barbara Jean's coffin should have stood, was a little table with her photo. Next to it was a lush wreath of flowers, bisected by a pale pink ribbon with one simple word.

Daughter.

It made your heart ache just to look at it.

The pews in this gothic 19th century church on a hill - with flying buttresses, cool marble and rich stained glass - were crowded with mourners. Many were elderly, friends of her parents and relatives. Others were middle aged. Those were Barbara Jean's friends and her sisters.

The only 18-year-old in the room was a nephew Barbara Jean never met. The son of her sister Theresa, whose wedding she missed.

Barbara Jean's father, Joseph, who was 55 when she disappeared, came to the service in a wheelchair. He suffered a stroke several years ago.

Her mother, Pauline, is 72 and remains the vibrant rock of the family. She was 47 when her daughter was taken from her. That daughter would be 43 now.

Barbara Jean's pretty, older sisters were there with their husbands. They both suffer pangs of guilt. Joanne, for inviting her kid sister along on a Virginia Beach vacation in 1978. Theresa, for giving her the money to go.

"I still have the canceled check," Theresa Maciog told me after the service. "I wonder - um, I wish - I'd never given it to her."

While time stopped for Barbara Jean just as she was on the edge of adulthood, her friends have gotten jobs, married and had children of their own.

But they haven't forgotten the girl who went to Virginia Beach and never came back.

Dennis Amato of New Haven was at the funeral. He's a big man with hair flecked with gray, who said he'd been working up the courage to ask Barbara Jean out on a date when she was killed.

"I was a shy guy back then," he confessed.

Barbara Jean's best friend, Lisa Presutto-Curley, a stunningly pretty brunette, read a scripture passage during the service.

Sipping coffee in the church basement afterwards, Lisa said she and Barbara Jean had been majorettes together at Derby High School. They'd also been inseparable look-alikes, often mistaken for each other. Lisa said that's why she'd avoided the Monaco family in recent years. She worried that whenever they saw her they were reminded of the woman Barbara Jean might have become.

"I didn't think this was going to be so difficult," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "After all this time."

The person who offered a eulogy so powerful that the mourners burst into spontaneous applause at the end never met Barbara Jean Monaco at all.

Lt. Douglas Hanahan of the Connecticut State Police was the point man in a joint task force - between Connecticut and Virginia law enforcement - assembled to help solve the troubling Monaco murder.

When he retired 15 years ago, Hanahan took his fat files on the Monaco case with him, lest someone throw them away. Hanahan was - is - an old-fashioned cop. To him, murder cases were always were more than just abstract puzzles to be solved. They were hideous tragedies that devastated real people.

An unsolved homicide is an affront to a man like this.

"This is a case you don't forget," Hanahan said, squinting in the bright sun on the steps outside the church. "I worked on two of the biggest mass murders in Connecticut history. But this case, this one, really got me."

It got me, too.

I wrote my first story about Barbara Jean in 1985 after her mother called the paper asking us to please, please revisit the Monaco mystery.

Intrigued, I dug out the clippings. What spilled from the folder was a pile of front-page stories.

And that same high school picture of Barbara Jean. All brown hair and big smile.

To see her was to like her.

Her story was both mystifying and horrifying.

On Aug. 20, 1978 - one day after she turned 18 - Barbara Jean drove to Virginia Beach with her sister Joanne for a week's vacation. They registered at the old Aloha Motel on 15th Street and set out to do what kids still do at the beach: have fun.

On the night of Aug. 22 the girls went to the Country Comfort bar on Pacific Avenue. Barbara Jean kept trying to lose a pest who was trying to pick her up by bragging about his yacht.

She turned him down. She had a late-night date with a bartender at Peabody's.

So, at 1 a.m. on Aug. 23, Barbara Jean said goodbye to Joanne and set out to walk six blocks to Peabody's. Somewhere along Pacific Avenue she vanished.

When her panicked sister reported her missing the next day, the police told her she had to wait 48 hours before filing a report.

By then the trail was cold.

Eight months later, frustrated by what they saw as a sluggish police investigation, the Monaco family placed a newspaper advertisement offering $10,000 for information leading to the return of Barbara Jean. "Dead or Alive."

An informant, calling himself "Condor," came forward. On Good Friday, 1979, Joseph Monaco put on a bullet-proof vest and a police wire and set out to meet Condor in the lobby of an Oceanfront hotel. There the man was captured by Beach police.

The informant - who reportedly passed a police polygraph test - told detectives what happened that August night and who was in the car that abducted Barbara Jean. He said she was picked up in a station wagon along Pacific Avenue and driven to a lakeside cottage near Oceana where she was gang-raped and strangled.

Her body, he said, was in the water.

Police dragged the lake and found a cinder block with a freshly cut rope. But no body.

Although the Monaco family begged Beach prosecutors to offer the informant immunity in return for his testimony, they refused.

Former Commonwealth's Attorney Andre Evans told me in 1985, "I was not going to give immunity to someone who appeared to be criminally involved. I think we made the correct decision at the time."

Maybe. But despite assurances that they were close to making an arrest, Beach police never did.

In 1986, the joint task force combed the area again, using archaeologists and infrared aerial technology.

Still no body. Still no arrest.

Two years ago, Virginia Beach's cold case homicide unit tried to breathe life into the Monaco case.

They looked up the old suspects and those who may have knowledge of the murder.

One, who wasn't lawyered up like the others, agreed to a polygraph test.

Hours after he left the police station, the man parked his truck off Laskin Road and ran a hose from the tailpipe into the cab. He was dead by morning.

Before he died, the man provided the cops with some interesting tidbits. The Monacos say police told them that the man offered details about Barbara Jean that put him with her on the night of her death. They say that something he told police led them to believe that her body may have been dumped in the ocean.

Once again, the trail went cold.

Which brings us to the 25th anniversary of Barbara Jean Monaco's death and the realization that sometimes life does not have a happy ending.

Or any ending at all.

Then there's the realization that sometimes people get away with murder.

And sometimes families who want justice have to settle instead for peace.

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