WCAX Investigates: Getting Away with Murder

NEW YORK CITY (WCAX) Exclusive details in a nearly 50-year-old cold case as Vermont investigators piece together a murder mystery. Our Darren Perron has been working on bringing you this story for the last seven months.

Vincent Palmieri had movie-star good looks. He loved art, music, food, sports and his big family. Then suddenly he vanished. Where did he go and what happened to him? His family is now finally getting some answers.

Nobody leaves Angela Medugno's house hungry, especially her big Italian family. She grew up with eight siblings in New York City. They're tight and they break bread often.

"We all took care of each other," Angela said.

But there's been an empty chair at the dinner table for more than 45 years.

"He was my heart," Angela said.

May 2, 1972: A typical morning at their Staten Island home. Angela's dad, Vincent Palmieri, left for work, a printing job in Manhattan 22 miles away.

"I said, 'I love you, Daddy.' And he said, 'I love you, too, Angel,'" Angela recalled.

Those would be their last words to each other.

"We didn't know what happened," Angela said. "It was always a mystery to us."

Vincent's car was found at the airport, but no sign of him. Days turned into weeks turned into years. New York City Police stopped searching. The family never did.

"I didn't want to believe it," said Sal Palmieri, Vincent's son.

Sal spent his teen years looking everywhere and anywhere.

"I would look in dumpsters, I would look in crazy places thinking maybe I'll find him," he said.

"He wasn't the kind of guy to leave his family," said Patrick Palmieri, Vincent's son.

Patrick said his dad's disappearance forced the three oldest kids to get jobs. His mom, Annette, fell into a deep depression. She never got over it. Annette and Vincent were childhood sweethearts.

"I went from being a kid to trying to be a man," Patrick said. "We never forgot him. Never, ever, ever forgot him."

What the family didn't know was that the mystery surrounding their dad's disappearance had also become a mystery for law enforcement more than 300 miles away in Barnet, Vermont.

June 1, 1972: A fisherman made a gruesome discovery in the Passumpsic River. The body of a man who'd been shot several times in the head.

"This is the point where they recovered him from the river," Vermont State Police Capt. J.P. Sinclair said, pointing at the river.

But who was he?

"He had no personal possessions on him, no identification, no wallet," Sinclair said.

Investigators had little to go on. No one recognized him. There were no missing people matching his description in all of Vermont and all of New England. What they did have were fingerprints-- a miracle really since he'd been in the water for about a month.

"It's a forensic challenge. It is in 2018; it was much more so in 1972," Sinclair said.

There was no digital database then. That meant investigators could only do side by side fingerprint comparisons by hand. And with no idea where the mystery man was from or how he ended up here, it was like a needle in a haystack. His body was buried in an unmarked grave at Lakeview Cemetery in Burlington. His fingerprints were filed away along with photographs of his two tattoos.

"They knew even in an era, it wasn't a computerized era, how important it could be that this could be the only thing to lead to his identity and they were right," Sinclair said.

But that would take 35 years. Vermont's Major Crime Unit reopened the cold case in 2006. Investigators pored over what little evidence they had, and in 2007, finally, a big break. New technology led to a fingerprint match! They identified the victim as Vincent Palmieri. But then another roadblock.

"Unfortunately, we found that the records related to this had been lost in a fire," Sinclair said.

So, tracking down Palmieri's family would not be easy. In fact, it took another seven years and a little bit of luck. A worker at the Vermont Crime Information Center got an idea to search on Ancestry.com and bam! A hit! A recently uploaded family tree.

"This was the family we had been looking for a long time," Sinclair said.

"Forty-five years ago he leaves and 45 years later you wake up from this dream and you're told he's buried in Vermont," son Patrick said.

But who killed Vincent Palmieri and why?

"There was possibly some connection to other homicides being investigated in Massachusetts," Sinclair said.

Some evidence points to a mob-style killing: the several shots to the back of the head and his body dumped in a river in rural Vermont, so far from home. But there's nothing linking Palmieri to any organized crime in the '70s.

"Sometimes people are in the wrong place at the wrong time," Sinclair said.

Sinclair says solving this 1972 murder poses major challenges. It's possible Palmieri's killer and any witnesses are dead, too. Was he even killed in Vermont? Police just don't know.

"I know I'll never get these answers and it hurts. It hurts bad," son Sal said. "And it's something I have to live with the rest of my life."

"He wasn't alive but we were going to have him with us again," son Vincent Palmieri Jr. said.

The family exhumed Vincent's body from the Burlington grave and brought their dad home to New York City late last year.

"I know you're happy to have Daddy with you now, Ma," Vincent Jr. said at his parents' grave.

Laid to rest by his sweetheart's side.

"That's the good out of all of this. We have a place to go and come and pay our respects," Vincent Jr. said.

"People say, 'Well, now you have closure.' People who don't understand. I say, 'No, I don't have closure. What I have is the beginning of some healing,'" Patrick said. "It's the beginning of the healing."

The original detective on this case still lives in Vermont. He helped the Major Crime Unit with the case after it was reopened. Now in his 80s, I'm told it was one that haunted him for years and that he's relieved Vincent was finally identified and is finally back home.