Mystery: Trashed

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

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 …