True Crime Scranton

Where is Joanne Williams?

In 1978, Joanne Williams simply disappeared. She never made it to her dance class and was never heard from again. Did she run way? Or was she a victim of serial killer?

On the night of Thursday, December 7, 1978, twenty-two-year-old Joanne Williams vanished. She left her job as a button sewer at Mallard Sportswear at 123 North Main Ave in the city’s West Side at about 4:00pm. From there, she drove her sporty red 1977 Datsun 200SX to Enrico Bonifanti’s gas station at 802 N Washington Ave to fill up. This was reported to be between 4:30pm-5:00pm.

1977 Datsun 200SX – similar to Joanne’s

Afterward, she parked in front of her home at 513 E Gibson St where she lived with her parents.

There, she ate dinner and told her parents she was heading out to her “slimnastic” dance class in Chinchilla. She left the house between 7:00pm-7:30pm wearing a black leotard under her blue jeans, a beige jacket, flat shoes, and brown gloves.

Joanne Williams

Her father said she was supposed to pick up her friend who lived on Dorothy St in Tripp’s Park. The two would always attend the same dance class in the basement of a home on Layton Rd. But that didn’t happen.

It was learned that Joanne called her friend at about 7:40pm and said that she wasn’t going to pick her up. This was well before cell phones, so where she called from is unknown. Joanne said she had a date with her boyfriend at 10pm later that night. He was going to pick her up at her parent’s home and they were going to go to Old Forge for pizza. Why she didn’t pick up her friend even though the date wasn’t scheduled for 10pm is also a mystery.

Shortly before 10:00pm, Joanne’s boyfriend showed up at Joanne’s house. He waited there with her parents for her to come home – but she never did. It was also determined that she didn’t show up for dance class either. At midnight, William Williams called the police to report his daughter missing.

Over a week later, Joanne’s car was found, unlocked, and on the wrong side of the road near the corner of Everett and Lafayette St in West Side. At the time, some described the area as “sketchy” or “rough.” Police instructed her father to drive the car home. William used a spare set of keys since none were found in or around the vehicle. When he arrived back at his home, he found Joanne’s purse behind the driver’s seat. Inside, there was $25, an uncashed paycheck, her glasses, and a spare set of contact lenses. It was reported that her brown gloves were also left inside the vehicle.

Detectives William Walsh and Bernie Quinn were assigned to the case. They had the gas measured and estimated that the car had been driven no more than 20-30 miles since filling up at Bonifanti’s. Mr. Williams believed that the car had been driven much less – only the few miles it took to get from his home to the area where the car had been found. They noted that the driver’s seat had still been positioned towards the front of the car – indicating that Joanne might have been the only driver since her height was listed as 5’2″ and her weight only 95 pounds – either that or someone of a similar height and weight might have driven the car.

The vehicle was found not far from the Cathedral Cemetery – and also not far from a wooded area known to host parties for the area’s youth. Detectives searched the snow-covered area and found no evidence of Joanne.

Red Pin where Joanne’s car was found

Joanne’s father told investigators that there was no reason he could imagine that she would run away – that they gave their daughter just about everything she ever wanted. He added that he was pretty certain that she did not run away on her own and could barely see without her glasses or contacts.

Detectives interviewed the owner of Mallard Sportswear, Rocco Ciullo. He said she was a “very dependable, honest, quiet, reliable worker. She never objected to working overtime. She didn’t have an enemy in the place. Everybody liked her.”

The search continued into the following year. William Williams reiterated, “She didn’t have to run away… she had complete freedom. If she wanted to move out, I’d have helped her.”

Police brought in a search dog from Wilkes-Barre to assist in the hunt. Their first target was a scrap yard off of Washburn St in Keyser Valley, but the cold weather, frozen conditions and elapsed time would negatively impact the canine’s ability to detect a scent.

X = Joanne’s Car

Mr. Williams was undeterred. He told reporters that he and his brother-in-law, Andrew Santarsiero, had a map of the city and every weekend they were going block by block and crossing them out as they searched. He remained hopeful that she ran away from home and would come back soon – despite his insistence that she had no reason to run away.

Since finding her car in West Side, the police, Williams, along with some friends, family, and co-workers had combed the area – checking Washburn St Cemetery and Cathedral Cemetery, as well as several mine stripping sites in the area to no avail.

In late January 1979, the Civil Air Patrol cadets were brought in to aid in the ground search for Joanne. CAP is a volunteer organization affiliated with the US Air Force and is comprised of aviation-minded members. The Scranton Squadron 201 volunteered to assist in the search.

Their initial area would cover Keyser Valley, along North South Rd from the Morgan Highway to the Cathedral Cemetery, and a section of West Mountain that was heavily covered by thick trees, ravines, and ponds.

Yet again, the fifty volunteers from CAP and a similar-sized group of Boy Scouts were unsuccessful. The search was supposed to last two days but poor weather forced them to cut the search short.

Major William Mathias of the Civil Air Patrol suggested they bring in specially trained “sniffer dogs” to assist. Unlike the previous German Shepherd that was brought in to track specifically Joanne, “sniffer” dogs are taught to locate ANY human. Captain Frank Roche of the Scranton Police Department was now in charge of the search. He said he would contact Dunmore Police about the dogs since they had four dogs brought in last year when a woman had disappeared while out to pick mushrooms. After only four hours in the woods, the dogs located the woman’s body.

The dogs are privately owned but have a tight connection with the CAP. The owners would fly them to the local airport and hand them over to local authorities to manage the search. There was no cost to bring in the dogs, but donations were accepted – in fact, the Dunmore Police officers tapped their relief association funds to make a contribution on behalf of their case.

While there’s no direct report that the “sniffer dogs” were used or outcome from their use, several mentions occur later stating that they were in fact brought in.

It’s common that the loss or death of a child often ends in divorce – and this case was no different. The added stress on a relationship is often too much to bear. William and Christine divorced in April 1979 and William remarried less than four months later.

Still undeterred and leaving no stone unturned, Mr. Williams brought in psychics to assist. At the same time, he claimed to have searched every square block in the city of Scranton – on foot, by car, and by bike – crossing off each section as he went.

The psychics also proved unsuccessful. Although Williams was not a believer, he admitted that some knew of details about the case, but no one could pinpoint her whereabouts. Each of the psychics offered their services free of charge so Williams was willing to try anything.

Months pass with no movement. In October 1979, police were flabbergasted. They admitted they had “absolutely zero” to go on, but they had not given up hope.

Although not all cases of disappearance warrant a criminal investigation, Police Superintendent Paul Durkin stated “This case is a strange one for a number of reasons, and this investigation is going to remain active.”

Detectives Walsh and Quinn remained on the case. Every once in a while, they would visit the Waldorf Hotel, located at 1201 Capouse Avenue. Several coworkers from Mallard usually met up there for drinks. Her coworkers described Joanne as “an intensely private person”, but a bartender said he noticed a change in Joanne over a couple of months prior to her disappearance. He described her as “coming out of her shell” and that she “just started talking a lot more and kidding around. She was more outgoing.”

A local TV news station later reported that a body found in Silver Spring, MD might be that of Joanne Williams.

October 16, 1979
Scranton Tribune

Detectives swiftly shut it down and said that the station acted on “sketchy information” from a city patrolman that was not even working on the case. The woman in MD was said to be 5’9″ compared to the petite Williams at just 5’2″.

Joanne’s mother, Christine Williams, told reporters through tears, “I’m very shaken up. I’m too nervous to talk. I just hope the TV people retract the ‘false information.'”

Almost a year later and police were still baffled. No one had come forward with any additional information in spite of the family offering up a $500 reward – partly funded by donations from Joanne’s coworkers.

November 24, 1979
Scranton Times-Tribune

In a strange coincidence, in 1980, a horse named “Hello Joanne” was driven by a jockey named “Williams.” It looks like an eery shoutout to find the missing woman.

Meanwhile, Detective Walsh said that leads continued to come in, but they are now mostly of dead women found around the country. When one is found, they compare notes to see if it might be Joanne.

He has also reached out to another psychic in Georgia to see if that person is willing to assist, but there were no follow-up reports to determine if a conversation took place.

In November 1979, another birthday comes and goes without celebration. Instead, the family is still left wondering what happened to their daughter.

Joanne’s cousin, Audrey Sleyo, who was reported to be inseparable from her cousin, fought back tears as she talked about Joanne. “It’s going to be two birthdays and three Christmases. That’s a long time to be without knowing if she’s alive. It’s just too much to bear without knowing.” She continued “We want to make sure that she’s alive in our thoughts. We think of her all the time.”

Sleyo added that she felt there was something wrong the night Joanne disappeared. They lived near each other and Audrey claimed to have seen Joanne at about 5:30 on the night she disappeared – between the time she got home and the time she was last seen. Joanne would normally tell her cousin everything. This night was different. For some reason, Joanne “didn’t want to talk about it” said Sleyo. She added that if she pressed, Joanne would stop talking.

On the 2nd anniversary of her disappearance, December 7, 1980, William Williams appeared to change his strategy. He believed that Joanne is alive and that if she were murdered, her body would have shown up by now – citing two hunting seasons that had come and gone.

Joanne Williams
Senior Photo 1974
Scranton Tech High School

He turned his focus to areas that Joanne might have gone to had she wanted to change her identity. He checked with the Social Security Administration, the Bureau of Vital Statistics, and others. An attorney friend of the family explored the idea that she may have joined a religious cult. Yet again, all roads lead to a dead end.

At the same time, he still couldn’t believe she would run away. He claimed they had a great relationship and would go to sporting events together “just for company.” He wants her to know that if she is out there and listening, she’s welcome to come home whenever she’s ready.

In January 1981, William Williams died of complications from open heart surgery. Those that knew him said he died with the hope that his daughter was still alive.

William’s second wife, Susan Castellani Williams says her husband “never gave up hope.” His first wife, Christine, said the search took its toll on William and that he suffered a “small heart attack” after her disappearance due to the “terrible strain and pressure from it all.”

It was said that the family received a call on Christmas Eve one year. The caller told the family that Joanne’s body could be found at Nay Aug Falls. William and his brother-in-law set out and searched the area only to come back empty handed believing the call was a hoax. This was the kind of stress that pushed William to the edge.

William’s brother, Robert Williams, felt discouraged that news of his brother’s death didn’t result in Joanne reaching out. He felt that if she were still alive, she would have called the family. Even so, Robert, like many in the family, remained optimistic.

By the summer of 1982, Detective Walsh had come up with a new idea. What if Joanne were buried in one of the freshly dug grave sites in the Cathedral Cemetery – the area that remained a focal point of the search.

After getting approval and funding from Mayor McNulty’s office, Walsh approached the families of the two that were buried during that timeframe. All were very supportive of the efforts and cemetery workers dug up the graves. Their search extended two feet below where the vaults were laying in case the suspect dug deeper to bury Joanne below the soon-to-be-covered grave.

Unfortunately, this too was fruitless. Still, Police Chief Robert Williams was quoted as saying “this is not the end of our investigation by any means.”

Years later, Detective Walsh sat at his desk alongside a constant reminder – a missing person picture of Joanne Williams hanging on his wall.

Scranton Times-Tribune
March 10, 1985

Walsh called this case the most baffling of his 15-year career. He was known to be a successful detective, having prosecuted murderers, rapists, and other criminals – yet, here he was, over six years later, still struggling to find any trace of Joanne Williams.

The detective said that any time a missing person showed up around the country that is close to Joanne’s description, he would send off her dental records to see if they match. If he got them back, it was not a match. He got them back every single time.

He checked with the Social Security Administration to see if any money had been paid into her account. There hadn’t. Checked with her bank to see if money had been withdrawn. There hadn’t. It seemed that Walsh is overturning every rock imaginable to locate Joanne.

His gut told him that she was murdered the night she left her home – but that wouldn’t stop him from finding her – or the person responsible for her death.

Walsh even reached out to the renowned psychic from New Jersey, Dorothy Allison. Allison was credited with assisting law enforcement in some high-profile cases including the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and the Son of Sam murders in NY. While many believed in her powers (she claimed to receive 80-90 requests per day) there were also detractors. Some said she was a fraud – like two detectives who said she offered them money to say that she helped solve the case. For what it was worth, Allison believed that Joanne was not alive and suggested looking in the mines.

Based on that, Walsh’s next move was to team with the US Bureau of Mines to lower cameras into the abandoned shafts to search for any bodies. There’s no report of the activity or the outcome.

Again, years pass with no resolution.

By 1989, Joanne’s name was back in the news. Over the course of three years, three more girls from the Hill Section of Scranton were either murdered or missing.

The first to go missing was 11-year-old Michele Jolene Lakey. She disappeared on August 26, 1986, after visiting her mother in the Mercy Hospital.

Next was University of Scranton student, Laureen Finn, 19. Finn lived in University housing in Bradford House in the 300 block of Madison Ave.

Bradford House

Her burning body was found at 4:30am on the morning of December 11, 1987, between two homes in the 400 block of Monroe Ave

And finally, 9-year-old Renee Jean Waddle’s burning body was found on May 14, 1989, in Roaring Brook Township. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to her head before she was set on fire.

Including Joanne, there were now four females from the Hill Section of Scranton that had either been reported missing or found dead. Police were hesitant to connect all four cases – and eventually found the person responsible for the Waddle murder, but could not connect him to the others.

Frank Osellanie, an auto mechanic who lived in the Hill Section and whose garage was within a couple of blocks of the Waddle home was arrested and ultimately convicted of her death. He spent the rest of his life behind bars – allegedly later suffering from dementia and eventually dying in 2021. There’s no doubt that Osellanie was a deranged man. Circumstantial evidence mounted against him in the Lakey and Finn murders, but charges were never brought against him. He remains a person of interest in all three cases.

Based on the locations of the victim’s homes, the last seen alive locations, and the suspect’s home and business, it would appear that Osellanie could very well be connected to all of the murders.

In 2015, Joanne’s mother, Christine passed away – leaving her to wonder the same as her husband. Is Joanne still alive? Did you run away or was she murdered?

To this day, Joanne Williams, Laureen Finn, and Jolene Lakey’s deaths have gone unsolved. I’m of the opinion that Osellanie was responsible for all of them. Since his conviction, the Hill Section murders stopped. Was it a coincidence? Or was Osellanie a serial killer?

Unfortunately, the families never received closure. And in the Williams and Lakey cases, the bodies are yet to be found. There have been other disappearances since then, but only Williams, Finn, and Old Forge restauranteur, Robert Baron remain notable mysteries.

We are left with so many questions about the disappearance of Joanne Williams, starting with the obvious – is she alive or dead? If the latter, was she a victim of Frank Osellanie? He claimed his innocence in all cases. What about the boyfriend? There was no mention of police investigating him. Could he have killed her earlier in the evening and then gone to her parent’s home for an alibi? Did she meet another guy before her date? Where could she possibly be?

Detective Walsh passed away in 2021 – leaving yet another to wonder whatever happened to Joanne Williams. Detective Quinn retired long ago, but I believe still lives in the area. Wouldn’t it be great to solve this case for Detective Quinn? Somewhere, someone knows something.

What are your thoughts?

Thanks to the Scranton Times, Tribune, and other newspapers for providing content for this article.

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