During Collingdale Police Chief Bob Adams’ ride home after work he can’t ignore the feeling he gets when driving by Melissa Ortiz-Rodriguez’s house on Lafayette Ave. On April 19, 2013, the mother of two, walked out of her Collingdale home to catch a train to visit her best friend in Newark. She never arrived. It took her husband, Jose Rodriguez, four days to report her missing.
On the familiar street his mother was born and raised, the frustration hits Adams when he pulls up to the stop sign. The children playing ball or riding scooters in front of homes still adorned with Christmas decorations are common sights on the street. Mothers keep watch from the porch steps. A woman vanishing, the ensuing surge of law enforcement and news vans, or even the once-a-year-vigil set up in front of the house by Rodriguez’s family are strange happenings.
Charmain Powell, who lives across the street, did not know Rodriguez, and describes the street as one with a lot of kids.
“It’s horrible. I wouldn’t want to see anyone in that situation,” Powell said of Rodriguez’s disappearance.
“In the summertime, I thought we were going to get new neighbors because I saw someone going in and out of the house,” said Powell, who also mentioned leaving for work between 5-6 a.m. and seeing a man in a white pickup truck go in the house on various occasions.
Another neighbor, who wished to be identified only as “Leah,” commented, “This is a safe, family-oriented neighborhood.
Adams can’t ignore thoughts of Rodriguez because he isn’t a transplant or a new-guy-on-the-scene. He began his career in law enforcement in 1980 as a part-time Collingdale police officer and is heavily involved in the community, calling Collingdale a “phenomenal town.”
“It’s unheard of,” said Adams when asked if similar events have transpired in the area. “It’s frustrating. You feel bad. She’s a missing person and you can’t find her and suspect foul play. We’ve had missing people, but they usually come back after a couple days. Something like this drives you crazy.”
“It’s hard to say but it’s certainly significant,” said District Attorney Jack Whelan on whether this was his longest running missing persons case. “We are constantly searching for missing people and review cold cases, but this is disturbing because there has been no trace of this poor woman over three years. We are not overly optimistic about her safety but we are certainly still looking to bring closure to the case.”
Collingdale police were unable to get into the house until a bank foreclosure was finalized. Last week, they went to the home in the 400 block of Lafayette Ave. and searched the premises. Cadaver dogs indicated a positive hit and officers dug up the basement floor and searched the back wall but found nothing. They returned Wednesday afternoon joined by Whelan.
“There are a lot factors to take into consideration when a dog hits and what can influence the results of the positive hit,” said Whelan.
According to Mark Hopkins, chief of Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue (GSPAR), a positive hit means a dog reacted in the way it was trained to if it got the smell of a cadaver.
“Success is a difficult thing to measure with this. I measure it as the absence of failure. If you are looking for a missing person and I assign you to search an area and you clear the area and the person is not there and was never there, did you fail? No, you had no chance of success,” explained Hopkins.
GPSAR’s dogs have not been brought to the Rodriguez home.
“At this time, they are going in another direction but we are not against bringing dogs to the house should it be needed,” said Hopkins.
Last Wednesday, officials mentioned future use of technology like ground penetrating radar that uses technology to provide non-destructive testing, underground locating and subsurface imaging. There are many applications for GPR mapping services including finding evidence and locating buried bodies for police forensics investigations.
The thoughts of Melissa Rodriguez don’t end when the home disappears in Adams’ rearview mirror. He thinks about her two children and how close his own two daughters are to their mother. He can still picture Jose Rodriguez’ cold stare during the interview after he reported her missing.
“Something is there. He won’t talk to us. There are two little kids out there who have no mother and a father, who I believe, know what happened, if in fact he did something,” said Adams.
Despite the lack of further progress, Adams does not feel the investigation has hit a wall.
“A wet wall,” he offered. “There is still somewhere to go. It isn’t a dead issue. That’s why we want to pursue some other technology.”