How did a popular, handsome college freshman end up buried in a Bucks County landfill? A tale of a baffling death, Joyce Carol Oates, and the secret society that may have cracked the case
By Dan P. Lee
TINY TULLYTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA, population 2,090, sits on the banks of the Delaware River, 25 miles from Philadelphia. It’s an old, modest town to which the picturesque grounds of William Penn’s summer home are immediately adjacent. Liquid is everywhere, both natural and in the vast blue lakes that are the product of gravel harvesting, Tullytown’s former lifeblood. In the late 1980s, renewal came in the form of the large, verdant hills that rise 220 feet above town, visible even from the tall buildings across the river in Trenton. Buried within them are 50 billion pounds of human refuse.
On April 25, 2006, as on any other day, massive trucks came and went, orderly but relentless, kicking up fresh dust by the minute. It was a warm, windy day. The trucks rumbled deep into the landfill, to the area known as the “working face.” Above it swarm some of the highest concentrations of rare gulls in North America, which in turn attract birders who point their binoculars toward them. Through their lenses on the afternoon of April 25th, however, the birders observed not just the gulls but also a small flock of television news helicopters, hovering above a cordoned-off one-acre area. Below, police officers wearing white plastic suits were erecting a makeshift tent to block the view.
For three weeks, the officers had toiled, excavating down through 25 feet of rotted food, paper, bottles, diapers, containers and dirt, using backhoes, rakes, shovels and even their hands. Around 2 p.m., an investigator finally uncovered what remained of the body of John Anthony Fiocco Jr., a well-liked, smart, athletic, curly-blond-haired freshman at the College of New Jersey in Ewing who’d gone missing one month to the day earlier. He was 19 years old.
Fiocco (pronounced “fee-AH-co”) was last seen alive in the early morning hours of March 25th, asleep in a dorm room near his own. A protracted search had discovered his blood in and around a basement trash container at the college, which brought the investigation to Tullytown. But the unearthing of his body, fractured and badly decomposed, failed to provide any insight into the cause of Fiocco’s death; who, if anyone, might have played a part in it; and how his body had ended up in his dormitory’s trash system. It did, however, rekindle the media frenzy that had ignited following his disappearance.
From CNN’s Nancy Grace, April 25, 2006; a rabid Grace interviews New Jersey 101.5 reporter Martin DiCaro via satellite from outside Fiocco’s dorm:
DICARO: … [Investigators] have no reason to believe at this point he met foul play. They can’t rule it out, they can’t rule it in. But no one knows anything. …
GRACE: Well, Martin, Martin, Martin! The dumpster, the trash chute from which we believe he went down, was only two-by-two. … This guy was a muscular young man, and I just don’t see him diving voluntarily down a trash chute multiple floors up and landing in this trash dumpster. I don’t see it, Martin! … [solemnly] Hold on. Hold on, Martin. We’re showing the viewers this young man. Look, this is a kid scrubbed in sunshine. Look at that smile — not a delinquent … The mystery would prove irresistible to storytellers of all stripes, including the renowned Princeton writer Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’s short story “Landfill,” published in the New Yorker six months after Fiocco disappeared, featured an unsophisticated 19-year-old college student named Hector Jr. who, after a night of heavy drinking — March 25th, the same night Fiocco disappeared — is called “asshole, dickhead, fuckhead” by a group of racist meatheads who throw him down their frat house’s trash chute. Oates opens her story with a lingering description of Hector’s body once it’s been found in a landfill, “his mouth filled with trash,” his teeth “broken at the roots.” She then sends her narrator inside the dumpster with him:
Immediately he’s bleeding, dazed; his neck has been twisted, his spine, his legs are buckled weirdly beneath him. He’s too dazed to be panicked, not knowing what has happened or where he is. Feebly, he pleads “Hey, guys? Help me?” amid a confusion of rich, ripe, rotting smells, something rancid. … Like a gasping fish he opens his mouth, but he can’t make a sound.
Oates was taken aback by the condemnation her story drew from professors and students at TCNJ. Initially she struck a defiant tone, saying any connection to the Fiocco case was incidental, comparing the criticism to that heaped upon Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses. When the controversy refused to go away — registering notice by the New York Times — Oates had a change of heart. “In the matter of fiction and ‘reality,’ we must honor the emotions, raw and anguished at times, of ‘reality,’” she said in a written statement. “A literary principle is not a justification for upsetting anyone, even unintentionally.”
What Oates couldn’t — or didn’t — realize was that in the absence of any formal conclusion by the authorities, the scenario posited in her fiction had transmogrified into a sort of perceived fact. In the wake of the rampant, frequently erroneous speculation offered first by Nancy Grace and her ilk, it became impossible for anyone to approach Oates’s story as anything less than an explanation.
And for two years, Oates’s seemed likely to be the strange, unintentional last word.
Two years later, it turns out, there is more to the story.
BY NOON, THEY'D begun worrying.
Matt Owen and John Fiocco shared a cinder-blocked room on the fourth floor of Wolfe Hall, a 10-story, monolithic 1970s dormitory at the edge of the College of New Jersey’s otherwise stately, red-brick campus. On the walls hung movie posters from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Requiem for a Dream; John, an art major, contributed Batman and Spider-Man paraphernalia, including drawings of his own. Matt awoke on the morning of Saturday, March 25th, turned over in his bed, and realized John wasn’t there.
The night before, John and some friends had drunk beer at the dorm before heading out to a party at the “Track House,” a ramshackle domicile where several members of the track team lived. The house was a destination for underage freshmen but wasn’t known for being particularly rowdy, and Friday night was no different. John and his friends drank liberally, perhaps indulged in a game of beer pong. Sometime after midnight, they headed back to campus. Back on the fourth floor, they drank some more. Those with John would later recall that he was definitely drunk, but not dangerously so. Around 2 a.m., he made his way a few doors down to the empty room of a girl we’ll call Jessie. Jessie and John’s relationship was tricky. He had feelings for her; how deeply hers went were complicated by the fact that she already had a boyfriend. It was par for the course for John, who counted myriad girls as friends but, to his continual frustration, none as girlfriend. Still, it wasn’t unusual for John to sleep in Jessie’s bed. With the door ajar, he kicked off his sneakers and climbed under the covers. Between 2:45 and 3 a.m., a friend looked in, saw him sleeping, and shut the door.
It wasn’t like John to disappear. A scholar-athlete at Clearview Regional High School in Mullica Hill, he’d earned a reputation for being hardworking — nothing came easy for him, his father told me. Though he rode the bench during every football game of his senior year, he never complained. He chose TCNJ, one of the most competitive schools in the state, for its idyllic setting, graphic-arts program, relatively affordable tuition, and proximity to home. He was somewhat shy and close to his three younger siblings and his parents, especially his mom, Susan.
Around 10:45 a.m., Jessie’s roommate returned home and discovered Jessie’s bed partially unmade but empty; John’s New Balance sneakers were still on the floor. Friends were calling John’s cell phone — Hi, this is John ... — which went directly to voicemail. As the morning progressed, students began heading downstairs to the cafeteria. All around the dorm, people asked: Has anyone seen John?
Day turned to night. After 9:30 p.m., one of John’s friends dialed John’s parents’ handsome, stone-faced house in Sewell, Gloucester County. John Sr., a physical therapist, answered. Fear in her voice, the friend told him John hadn’t been seen since 3 a.m. They’d called campus police, she said, but were told nothing could be done until 24 hours had passed. John Sr., concerned and upset, spoke again with the friend at 3 a.m. His wife Susan was in a hotel in Cherry Hill for a beauty pageant in which John’s little sister was competing on Sunday. John Sr. debated calling her, but decided not to. It was all a misunderstanding, he was sure. He tried to fall back asleep. By 9 a.m. on the 26th, John still hadn’t returned. His father called campus police, who said a parent needed to come sign paperwork. He called his wife Susan, who was closer to Ewing, and told her what was happening. Hysterical, she made her way up I-95 to campus. Trying to reassure her, campus cops noted it wasn’t all that unusual for a college student to temporarily disappear, but nevertheless began a search. Susan drove back to Cherry Hill for her daughter’s pageant, shaken. But the Fioccos received some reassurance when another friend called, swearing he’d seen John from a distance in the cafeteria. Though no one else could confirm that, the Fioccos heaped all their hope onto it. Later, together, they applauded as their daughter was crowned Miss New Jersey Star.
Back on campus, police made little headway. By 3 a.m. Monday, 48 hours after John had last been seen, there was still no official sign of him.
Around nine that morning, in the rear of Wolfe Hall, a Building Services worker opened the double black exterior doors that lead to the compactor room and disconnected the green rectangular container, about as big as a medium-size SUV, that attached to both the dorm’s trash chute and its compactor. As he wheeled it outside to be emptied, his co-worker, Carl Walker, noticed red liquid leaking out. “Don’t step on that blood,” he joked.
IN THE AFTERNOON, the campus police called the state police, who apparently had informally offered assistance earlier that weekend but were refused, and handed off the case. Officers fanned out, interviewing Fiocco’s dormmates, exploring the nearby woods, climbing onto rooftops.
The next day, on Tuesday, around 1 p.m., they discovered what appeared to be a significant volume of blood inside and beneath the emptied trash container. They also found something else inside: a necklace that belonged to John. While the blood was analyzed, William Scull, a 42-year-old detective sergeant and 20-year veteran of the state police — a calm, plainspoken, compact man with blond hair, a red face and exceedingly blue eyes — commenced a massive investigation.
Officers sealed John’s room, evacuating Wolfe Hall and an adjoining dorm, displacing virtually the entire freshman class. Cadaver-sniffing dogs roamed the grounds; boats plowed the campus’s lakes. Police began interviewing more than 1,000 students, plus Jessie’s boyfriend, a student at Montclair State University whose alibi quickly disqualified him as a potential suspect. Indeed, despite repeated questioning of John’s acquaintances — authorities conducted interviews even at his funeral — police at no point identified a single person of interest.
On Thursday, investigators focused on Wolfe’s trash-chute system. They inspected the 13-inch-by-13-inch spring-loaded doors on every floor. They threaded fiber-optic cameras through the chute, searching for any evidence — torn clothing, dried blood, skin, tissue. The dimensions themselves seemed impossible — Fiocco was five-foot-seven, 175 pounds and muscular. What’s more, students told police the trash chute was notoriously noisy, yet no one had heard anything Friday night. In spite of media reports to the contrary, it appeared to investigators that Fiocco’s body had never been inside the chute.
On Friday, the blood found in the container was confirmed to be John’s. Investigators headed to Tullytown.
The investigation had begun with three possibilities: John Fiocco had taken his own life; he had been killed, either by mistake — in a prank gone horribly wrong — or by malevolence, and his body disposed of in the compactor; or he’d succumbed to something as ordinary as an accident. Police could disqualify none. The pieces of evidence could be assembled to create many different puzzles. All the authorities knew was that around 3 a.m., John Fiocco was sleeping in a dorm room. Within the next three hours, police suspect, he was not. He was seen neither coming nor going. He was, simply, gone.
More than a year passed. ON OCTOBER 18, 2007, Detective William Scull drove over the Ben Franklin Bridge and into Center City, at the invitation of the Vidocq Society.
The Vidocq (“vee-DOCK”) Society was founded 18 years ago by three men: a retired federal agent, a psychological profiler, and a world-renowned facial reconstruction sculptor. Originally a social club for criminologists, forensic experts and other law-enforcement types, the society, named after 19th-century French criminal-turned-legendary-detective Éugène-François Vidocq, has matured into an esteemed think tank of 115 members (among them Lynne Abraham) who meet monthly at the Downtown Club near Independence Mall.
Scull, who agreed to present the Fiocco case to the society at the request of John’s family and their lawyer, arrived at the Public Ledger Building before noon, smartly dressed in a dark suit and tie. He took the elevator to the top floor. The shades, as usual, were drawn. The room is cherrywood-paneled, with thick, patterned rugs and brass chandeliers. The members, also dressed formally, sat four or five to a table. There is no press, no lawyers, no note- or picture-taking.
At a reserved table near the front of the room, Scull ate lunch — garden salad, rosemary chicken, wild rice and a vegetable, and a dessert of chocolate cake with coffee. Once the plates were collected, he began.
Standing at a lectern for almost two hours, a large screen projecting his PowerPoint presentation, Scull methodically outlined his investigation. He showed 260 slides — photos of the dormitory, Fiocco’s room, Jessie’s, the basement, the chute, the trash compactor, the container, Fiocco’s blood, the landfill, the remains. He shared the most substantive contents of the hundreds of interviews he’d conducted.
The Vidocq members began to debate. Quickly, they, too, dismissed the possibility that Fiocco’s body had ever been in the chute. His relationship with Jessie, though, was a source of intrigue. They asked questions, talked about suicide. There was apparently evidence that John may have been depressed. Unrequited love? The majority was dubious; there was no note, not to mention the choice of trash compactor as instrument.
They moved on to foul play. What if Fiocco had gone to the basement compactor room for some reason and interrupted something? Some of the workers in the building’s cafeteria were convicted criminals, complete with ankle bracelets. Did Fiocco walk in on a drug deal? A sexual situation? But there was no indication in the compactor room of any struggle. Murder seemed unlikely, given it would have to have occurred upstairs in the dorm — noisy — and required carrying a body to the basement or outside unnoticed. Again, no physical evidence.
Which begged the question: Why was John Fiocco in the basement?
A theory emerged:
It’s between 4 and 7 a.m. The dorm is quiet. Asleep on the fourth floor, John wakes up, realizes he’s alone, pulls the covers back, leaves Jessie’s bed.
He opens the door. Walks out into the dimmed hallway. Perhaps he first heads to the bathroom. But something’s on his mind. On his way back to bed, he opens the door to the floor’s trash room. It’s a small space, the size of a closet. He reaches for the cumbersome spring-loaded door, pulls it open, tosses in an object, which he watches briefly tumble into the dark. Or perhaps he’s done this hours earlier, thrown out this object, and is only just recalling the fact. In either case, he’s now regretful. In his socks, a pair of blue jeans and a white t-shirt, he rides the elevator alone down from the fourth floor to the lobby. The doors whisper open; the lobby is empty, the security desk manned by fellow students long closed. He walks to a stairwell door, heads down to the basement.
The basement’s labyrinthine corridors are lit by fluorescents. During the day, the area is typically overrun by maintenance workers. But many students in Wolfe are familiar with it via the exterior double doors of the compactor room, which residents often prop open with a brick, to avoid the main entrance and security. John reaches for the knob:
DOOR 21 COMPACTOR ROOM
He flips on the lights. There’s a hanging fluorescent fixture; two naked light bulbs jut from a wall. The room is 20 feet by 20 feet, with a high ceiling and a stained concrete floor. The chute is its centerpiece, rising through the ceiling like a chimney, its terminus behind a 36-inch-by-28-inch unlocked door. Inside it, an electric eye activates when falling trash breaks its plane, initiating the moving ram on the left. The ram, just 29 inches tall, sweeps slowly across the bottom of the chute, with the power of 2,000 pounds, compacting the trash into a container to the right.
John eyes the container, a pink cloud of old chewing gum stuck to it. It’s six feet across, 40 inches wide, and five feet tall, though because it’s on wheels, it’s elevated a foot higher. The smell is overwhelmingly sour. There are two possibilities. In the first, he opens the door to the compactor, wrenches his body up, and climbs in, either head-first or feet-first. The motion breaks the eye, setting off the compactor, trapping him.
Or: The container’s steel lid is comprised of two large, exceedingly heavy sides. John climbs up onto the ledge to get a better reach. He struggles, pushing one side of the lid up, either holding it open above him as he climbs inside the container or letting it rest on the brick wall behind it, at an angle precariously close to 90 degrees.
Disaster strikes. Once he’s inside, the lid slams down on his head, rendering him unconscious, or even dead.
Eventually, an unsuspecting student sends a load of trash tumbling down the chute, activating the compactor. John’s body is crushed.
But why? For what?
Whatever he was after, Vidocq members theorized, it had to have been important enough to lead him down to the basement in the middle of the night. The necklace — the one authorities found in the trash container after it had been emptied. It may or may not have had some special resonance with Jessie. Members wondered: Could John have thrown it out in a fit of pique? Could it have been the object he so desperately wanted back? IN MARCH, JUST shy of the two-year anniversary of their son’s death, Susan and John Fiocco Sr. filed a wrongful-death suit against the College of New Jersey and the state. They claim the school failed to protect their son, and that the campus police’s delay damaged the investigation.
The suit seems odd, given that investigators still can’t say for certain how Fiocco died. But the motives behind it are more complicated than just assigning blame. It’s also an attempt by the Fioccos to wrest possession of their son’s story from all those who’ve appropriated it (including me), and in so doing to reclaim the narrative not just of John Fiocco Jr.’s death, but also of his life. For the one completely knowable thing about how he died may very well be that it is forever unknowable — that despite what CSI and Law & Order suggest, even in the face of a thorough investigation and ample evidence, suspicious deaths often make no sense.
In the days immediately after John went missing, his family received a call from another friend claiming to have seen him, this time in a Manhattan restaurant. As Nancy Grace was broadcasting the breaking news that the blood from the container had come back as John’s, the Fiocco family and 20 friends and volunteers were scouring Manhattan, taping missing posters with John’s face on telephone poles and store windows, believing that at any minute he might turn up.
Recently, John Fiocco Sr. wrote me a long letter; it was addressed “Dear Friend.” He said he knew intuitively, in his heart, from the moment he received the first phone call, that John was gone. But he still believes that John’s friend did see him in the cafeteria that day at school after he’d gone missing, that he was in that New York City restaurant that night. John’s parents believe he was there spiritually if not physically, offering them one last bit of hope to hold onto.
Two years later, Susan “cries every day, sometimes all day.” “As for me,” John Sr. wrote, “I cry in church and when I hear a Green Day song on the radio. John’s favorite band.”
He described a precocious son who took his first steps on the day of his first birthday, who at six got kicked in the face playing soccer but refused to cry and continued playing, who graduated in the top 10 of his high-school class. The kid who busted out of his shell during a hysterical performance in a contest for Mr. Clearview Regional High School for which he dressed as Britney Spears, and whose truck his father now drives, still with John’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stuck to the windows, and the Batman steering-wheel wrap.