A week after 22-year-old Nicholas Peter Zizzamia disappeared from his Cherry Hill home May 12, 1979, the body of a young man of similar build and appearance was found 580 miles away in a Richmond, Ind., motel room.
The city's Palladium-Item newspaper reported that the man had apparently slashed his right wrist and bled to death watching TV.
Authorities did not find a driver's license or other identification in the room, for which the deceased had anonymously paid $13.52 in cash the day before.
A few items of clothing and several recent issues of Rolling Stone were recovered from the scene, but all of their labels had been removed.
After an investigation failed to establish the man's identity, he was buried June 25, 1979, under the name John Doe.
Could he have been Nick Zizzamia, the shy, sensitive, somewhat melancholy fellow who once told a Bishop Eustace classmate that he planned to vanish someday without a trace?
Finding the answer is complicated by time, distance, and the dead man's evident desire to cover his tracks. Records are lacking, and there's uncertainty over exactly where in Richmond's King Cemetery John Doe was laid to rest.
But "the physical description . . . wavy brown hair, brown eyes, 5-foot-9 and about 275 to 290 pounds, is a good match," says Paul Hafner, a Cherry Hill police detective who has been investigating the case.
"What also draws our interest is [timing]," says Hafner, adding that the man had apparently arrived in Richmond on May 15, when he registered at a different motel under a phony name.
"We have full dental records on Nicholas," notes Hafner. "We have DNA from his parents."
What the Cherry Hill Police Department doesn't have is access to John Doe. Before a court can issue an order that his remains be exhumed, the location of the grave - the marker is missing - must be ascertained.
"The problem is we're talking about records from back in the '70s," notes Sgt. Scott Jarvis, a supervisor of Indiana State Police detectives for the territory that includes Richmond, a city of 36,000.
The Richmond Police Department "has not retained any of the evidence on a suicide case from that far back," Jarvis adds.
Richmond police did not respond to voice-mail messages Friday.
But Susan Isaacs, an elected trustee of Wayne Township, which includes Richmond, believes some files related to the case recently came to light.
"We've become very interested in this again," she says.
Adds Wayne County Coroner Ron Stevens, who inherited the case upon taking office three years ago: "This is not a forgotten [matter]."
On the day he disappeared, Zizzamia borrowed his father's car and said he would pick up graduation tickets at Villanova University, where he was a senior accounting major.
He never showed up on campus; the car was later found, locked, behind his father's barbershop on Grove Street in Cherry Hill.
"I'm guessing that if this John Doe is Nicholas, he took a bus - to someplace in the middle of the country where people wouldn't look for him," Hafner says.
The Cherry Hill detective learned about the possible lead - in a case he called "as cold as it gets" - from the Doe Network.
The all-volunteer organization assists law enforcement agencies with cold case investigations, says Missy Des Londe, a Doe Network coordinator who lives in Sayreville, Monmouth County.
An Indiana volunteer named Debby Dyer contacted Hafner after reviewing vintage newspaper clippings and reading the June 16, 2014, column I wrote about Zizzamia's disappearance, Des Londe says.
Although several months of email and phone conversations between Cherry Hill and Indiana authorities followed, "we're at a standstill," Hafner says.
"We're this close," he adds. "But we need someone out there in Indiana to get this grave site" confirmed.
Zizzamia was an only child. His parents hired a private detective in hopes of finding him, family members say. His mother, Marie, died in 2003, and father, Nicholas, in 2012.
"They were devastated," says Felicia Safaryn-Turner, of West Cape May, whose brother was Zizzamia's father. "We were all devastated. It just baffled everyone.
"If it is him, how did he end up there, of all places? Who did he meet up with?"
One thing is certain, she says.
If the John Doe in King Cemetery "turns out to be my nephew," Safaryn-Turner says, "we would like to bring him home."