‘Gut feeling’ doesn’t lead to a conviction
BY ERIN L. NISSLEY
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Investigators and city officials peer into a hole opened in the floor of Frank Osellanie’s Walnut Street garage in 1990. TIMES-TRIBUNE FILE
Frank Osellanie gets up at 6 each morning for the first of seven head counts.
The convicted killer shares an 8-by-12-foot cell with another inmate. Two beds, a desk and bench, a sink, toilet and two small lockers.
When he doesn’t have to work in the kitchen, he can go outside and walk the track, play horseshoes, lift weights or sit on the bleachers and soak up the sun.
Mr. Osellanie, 61, has been in prison for the past 18 years. He first came to the attention of police investigating the murder of 9-year-old Renee Waddle, a second-grader at Prescott Elementary School in Scranton.
On May 14, 1989, Dalton resident Dorothy Hayden made a grisly discovery. As she left her parents’ Roaring Brook Township home off Route 307, she saw what appeared to be a garbage fire. When she pointed her headlights at the flames, however, she saw tennis shoes.
The burning body was Renee’s, and an autopsy revealed she’d been brutally raped and tortured before being set on fire.
Police quickly settled on Mr. Osellanie as their prime suspect, charging him with murder, kidnapping, rape and related offenses on May 20, 1989. He was convicted in 1990 and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 to 40 years.
The details of that crime led investigators to believe he was responsible for the disappearances of a 22-year-old woman and an 11-year-old girl from his neighborhood, as well as the murder of a 19-year-old University of Scranton student.
If he knows what happened to any of the three women, Mr. Osellanie isn’t talking.
“There’s evidence that links him to them, enough that you could call him a suspect,” said Lackawanna County District Attorney Andy Jarbola. “But there’s not enough to arrest him or anyone else.”
Mr. Osellanie has never admitted to killing anyone, not even after he was convicted of Renee’s murder. He did not respond to a letter sent by The Times-Tribune requesting an interview.
From the beginning, police drew parallels between Renee’s death and the death of Laureen Finn, a 19-year-old from Englishtown, N.J., found burning between 428 and 430 Monroe Ave. on Dec. 11, 1987.
As the investigation ground on, the disappearances of Joanne Williams on Dec. 7, 1978, and Michelle “Jolene” Lakey on Aug. 26, 1986, also came up. While questioning Mr. Osellanie on May 20, 1989, Trooper Walter “Pete” Carlson, now retired, asked about the three unsolved cases. The mechanic told the trooper he knew Jolene and sometimes gave her rides home when she’d visit him at his former auto shop at 417 Walnut St. He denied knowing Ms. Finn or Ms. Williams.
“You think I did this, don’t you?” Mr. Osellanie asked Trooper Carlson, according to reports filed by investigators.
When Trooper Carlson said he did, Mr. Osellanie responded by saying, “Why would I burn this one and the other one, if I buried the first two?”
The interview ended soon after, when the trooper made a comment about finding Mr. Osellanie’s semen on Renee’s body.
Today, Mr. Carlson is a private investigator. But even though he’s retired from the state police, he still thinks about Mr. Osellanie and the unsolved cases.
“It’s frustrating as an investigator,” he said. “You have a gut feeling, you’re almost 100 percent sure he did it. But you can’t get him into court.”
After noticing the similarities in the murders of Renee and Ms. Finn, Mr. Carlson said investigators handled those and the two disappearances as a group. They discovered that Mr. Osellanie frequented a race track in Englishtown, N.J., where Ms. Finn worked.
There was also a match in some of the substances used to set fire to Renee and Ms. Finn, including Drydene, a cleaner used in auto shops, Mr. Carlson said.
‘They have me’
During the investigation, several people came forward and told police about odd things Mr. Osellanie allegedly said.
A prison inmate who met Mr. Osellanie several years prior to Renee’s murder spoke to police in late May 1989. The inmate said Mr. Osellanie told him, “They have me on the two burnings, but on the others, without the bodies they have nothing.”
The inmate also said Mr. Osellanie talked about police “cutting up the floor in his garage,” saying, “It’s going to be funny when they dig it up and don’t find anything.”
Judge Michael Barrasse, who was the district attorney in the late 1990s, is one of several people close to the Renee Waddle case who believes Mr. Osellanie may have had something to do with Ms. Finn’s death and the disappearances of Jolene and Ms. Williams.
Barely a month after Mr. Osellanie was found guilty in Renee’s murder, Judge Barrasse directed state police to use a radar machine — usually used to test bridge decks and roads — to look for voids in the floors at 417 Walnut St. and 1000 Jefferson Ave., where Mr. Osellanie formerly had a garage.
Reports at the time said Mr. Osellanie may have sealed a pit where a hydraulic lift had been in the Walnut Street garage and poured a layer of concrete over the earth floor of the Jefferson Avenue building.
State police found no remains at either place.
Judge Barrasse also directed a search at Lake Wallenpaupack between the Ironwood and Ledgedale access areas and on an island on the lake in Palmyra Township. Reports showed that Mr. Osellanie docked his boat at the Ironwood access site and frequented the lake. The water and land searches came up empty, too.
“Looking back, it seems foolish to dig up a concrete floor and dredge a lake,” Judge Barrasse said. “There was a number of similarities and connections between Osellanie and the victims. We were just unable to get a sufficient amount (of evidence) to prosecute.”
Mr. Osellanie is not the only suspect in the unsolved crimes.
Investigators identified several suspects in the months following Ms. Finn’s murder. Most were quickly ruled out.
In December 1988, police announced their intention to test semen found on Ms. Finn’s body and compare it to DNA of two University of Scranton students — one of whom was with her the night she died and another who lied to police while being questioned about her death.
The tests came back inconclusive, according to District Attorney Andy Jarbola.
“The two worst things for DNA are heat and water, and we had both in this case,” he said. “It seems like whoever killed her was trying to erase evidence by setting the body on fire.”
A month after Jolene disappeared, police began investigating a Brooklyn, N.Y., man accused of raping a 14-year-old girl from the Scranton area. Police searched the man’s house after receiving tips that Jolene may have been with him in New York, but came up empty. There was no evidence linking him to the 11-year-old’s disappearance.
Police also focused on Jolene’s father, who hadn’t been heard from in years prior to the girl’s disappearance. Jolene’s mother, Lois Lakey, now Lois Dunham, told police she didn’t know where he was, even after attempting to locate him to serve divorce papers. In March 1987, the police issued a warrant charging him with nonpayment of child support. Isaac “Woody” Lakey surfaced soon after, saying he’d only recently heard of Jolene’s disappearance and immediately joined the search.
‘Without a trace’
Until his death in early 1981, Mr. Williams searched the woods and junkyards near where his daughter’s car was found, usually in the company of longtime Scranton Detective William Walsh. Both men were consumed with the case.
Detective Walsh had a hunch that Ms. Williams’ body may have been dumped in one of two Cathedral Cemetery graves that were fresh when she disappeared. He had both graves dug up in July 1982, but nothing out of the ordinary was found.
Detective Walsh, now retired, said he is surprised Ms. Williams’ body was never found and the case never solved.
“I always thought I’d hear something or they’d find something,” he said. “People don’t just vanish without a trace.”
After many years of involvement in the case, Detective Walsh doesn’t believe Mr. Osellanie had anything to do with Ms. Williams’ disappearance.
For him, it just doesn’t fit.
“I just don’t see how he could have been involved,” he said. “Her mom has said the family didn’t know him, that he never worked on her car or any of those stories that were around at the time.”
In 1990, Ms. Williams’ mother, Christine, petitioned the court to have her daughter declared dead.
“I don’t know what to think,” Christine Williams said about her daughter’s case. “We thought someone had abducted her. We thought she’d been killed when it first happened.”
Even though the court declared her daughter presumed dead, Christine Williams said the family has never had a funeral for her. State police have never returned the items found in the car, she said, and she hasn’t heard anything from the police in years.
“I wear her picture around my neck,” Christine Williams said. “I never take it off. I’d just like to know what happened.”
Mrs. Dunham confirmed that Jolene knew Mr. Osellanie, recalling that his garage was on Jolene’s way to school. Jolene liked to stop and pet Mr. Osellanie’s German shepherd.
“I know the state police think he did it,” she said. But she remains skeptical. “Show me some proof. I don’t hold any stock in any theory until there is proof.”
Justine Lakey, Jolene’s sister, also remembers Jolene visiting Mr. Osellanie’s garage to pet his dog. Now living in Massachusetts, she says the brutality of Renee Waddle’s murder still gives her chills.
“I sincerely hope it was not Mr. Osellanie,” she said.
Back when that case was in full swing, Judge Barrasse said he remembers several conversations with Mr. Osellanie’s attorneys about the unsolved cases. He said prosecutors made it clear they would be willing to “make concessions” on charges and sentencings if Mr. Osellanie provided information.
“We wanted the information so families would be able to know what happened,” Judge Barrasse said. “Nothing ever materialized, though.”
Chris Powell, a Scranton attorney who represented Mr. Osellanie in the murder case, said investigators and prosecutors have always thought his client had something to do with the unsolved cases. But despite the deals offered, Mr. Osellanie never admitted to killing anyone. Does Mr. Powell believe him?
“I can’t give you an opinion on that. I don’t have an opinion on that,” the attorney said. “He told me he did not kill anyone. I have to believe Frank.”
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©The Times-Tribune 2007