THEY GATHERED 12 days ago outside a South Jersey funeral home, their hearts long since broken, and none shed a tear for Scott David Ross, whose ashes were inside. Instead they had come to remember a 16-year-old girl, and they stood silently beneath the sun, wearing purple, the high school sophomore's favorite color.
Whenever a mourner looked their way, they turned their backs so that anyone who knew Scott Ross saw the name printed on their shirts: Jennifer L. Persia.
"They knew who we were," said Jennifer's sister, Carol Persia Ross, who is not related to Scott Ross.
On April 4, 1994, Jennifer Persia was bludgeoned, beaten, strangled and stabbed more than 20 times inside her family's home on Jefferson Avenue in the quiet Camden County suburb of Magnolia. She was a track-and-field standout at nearby Sterling Regional High School, and police said she had fought for her life. Blood was everywhere.
No one was arrested, but for some of Jennifer's relatives, suspicion stuck to Scott Ross even after April 28, when he died of an apparent drug overdose at 46 in his bed in Gloucester County.
"This is the guy. This is the one," said Carol Persia Ross. "He was almost always basically the guy."
The Camden County Prosecutor's Office confirmed yesterday that Ross had been a person of interest in the case and that new information had come in about him just days before his death.
"He was among the people looked at very closely in the investigation of Jennifer Persia's death," spokesman Jason Laughlin said in a statement. "His death, however, does not mark the end of this investigation."
And for the first time in 19 years, the prosecutor's office yesterday mentioned a possible accomplice.
"We do believe there was more than one person involved," Laughlin told the Daily News. "This is an active case, open case."
Jennifer Persia's sister said she believes that investigators were close to getting a confession from Ross and possibly identifying an accomplice. Authorities would not comment on those assertions.
"It's, like, bittersweet," Carol Persia Ross said of his death. "I was extremely angry when I heard."
Scott Ross' brother Michael Forbes is angry, too. And tired, he said, of accusations from Jennifer Persia's family. Police, he said, are still "harassing" his family, even after Scott's death.
"My brother didn't do anything," said Forbes, trembling as he spoke about the case at his apartment in Northeast Philadelphia. "He might take your last cigarette. He would take your last dollar off you. But he wasn't a killer."
Forbes, 45, said both he and his brother were "hauled in" and interviewed by investigators numerous times over the years about Jennifer Persia. He said they both gave DNA samples and that they didn't match samples found at the scene. They took polygraph tests, he said, and passed.
Authorities would not confirm nor deny any of Forbes' assertions.
The prosecutor's office has released few details about the case, but has said from the beginning that the murderer apparently knew the family and the home's layout. Jennifer Persia was on the phone with a friend when a man knocked at the door, asking for her mother and stepfather, Georgia and Mickey MacNeir, who have both since died. They weren't home, and Jennifer later told her friend that the same man was walking past the house again.
That man has never been identified, but Jennifer's sister said she thinks it was Scott Ross. She said Ross worked for her stepfather at his auto shop, and she thinks he was looking for money and didn't expect Jennifer to be home. Investigators said four jars of coins were missing from the home.
"He was in and out of our family for a long time," Carol Persia Ross said of Scott Ross.
Jennifer's sister claims that Scott Ross did not visit their family at the home after the murder and had a black eye at the funeral.
Forbes also believes that the murderer could have known Mickey MacNeir, but insists it wasn't his brother.
"People who live in glass houses, shouldn't throw stones," he said.
Jennifer's father, Mark Persia, said he didn't join the gathering at Scott Ross' funeral, but said he believes that Ross increasingly became the "prime suspect" in recent years. Persia said there was not enough proof or a signed confession. Still, he also always believed the murderer had an accomplice.
"I didn't dwell on the fact that I'll never know, because over the last 19 years, I've kind of gotten comfortable with the fact that I won't ever know," he said.
Forbes said police are still investigating his brother, claiming they visited the funeral home in Runnemede while his family was making arrangements. Police wanted to see Scott Ross's computer and cellphone, he said.
"I'm telling you," he said, "I can't take it anymore."
Forbes said he was aware that relatives and friends of Jennifer Persia's had come to his brother's funeral, but said he ignored them.
In many ways, Jennifer Persia's family never left that funeral home. It was the same place everyone last saw Jennifer, laid out in her Easter dress, 19 years ago.
It was sunny out that day, too, her sister said, and everyone cried.
A Citizens Crime Commission reward of up to $15,000 is offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the Persia murder. The reward could be collected anonymously by calling (215) 546-TIPS.