RICHMOND, Ind. - Nicholas Peter Zizzamia, a Villanova University senior who could not hide his sadness from the world, once told a pal he would someday vanish without a trace.
Nearly four decades after the 22-year-old music fan left his Cherry Hill home and never returned, a diligent township detective came to believe he'd finally tracked Zizzamia down, in the person of a "John Doe" who had slit his wrist in a Richmond motel room a week after the melancholy young man's May 12, 1979, disappearance.
On Monday, two years of intensive investigation and nine intense hours of work by 30 law enforcement and other personnel in a picturesque Indiana cemetery ended in frustration for Cherry Hill Detective Paul Hafner, New Jersey State Police Detective Erin Micciulla, Indiana State Police Sgt. Scott Jarvis, and the others determined to solve the haunting cold case.
The John Doe's body - whose description strongly matched Zizzamia's in height, weight, and hair and eye color - could not be found among the mostly unmarked and in some cases incorrectly marked plots in a 200-year-old graveyard where it had been laid to rest on June 25, 1979.
Officials said it was unlikely such a search would be attempted again, barring new information or evidence.
"It's extremely disappointing," said Hafner, a 22-year Cherry Hill police veteran, who began his quest two years ago after receiving a tip about the possible Indiana connection. The tip came from an official of the Doe Network in Indiana who put together local news accounts of the suicide with a 2014 article by this columnist on Zizzamia's disappearance.
"We still believe he's here somewhere in this cemetery," Hafner said.
Monday morning began sunny and hot in Richmond, a city of 36,000 in eastern Indiana, founded by North Carolina Quakers, that is home to the Indiana Football Hall of Fame and bills itself as an All-America city.
At King Cemetery, it also began with a sense of anticipation, as an excavator scooped up the first clawful of reddish brown earth on a verdant hillside overlooking a busy freight railroad line.
A concrete vault that radar and photographic analysis had suggested would hold John Doe was opened.
Hafner had obtained a full set of dental records on Zizzamia, and a forensic odontologist from Fort Wayne was on hand to make a comparison on the spot.
But the waterlogged vault yielded a jawbone and a skull bereft of teeth, suggesting that they probably were those of a man far older than Zizzamia.
Several hours later, a second vault, a few feet from the first, also did not yield John Doe. Finally, at 4:30, more than nine hours after the day's work had begun, Wayne County Coroner Ron Stevens pronounced an end to the quest to find the John Doe and perhaps, the sad young man from Cherry Hill.
"It is concluded," he said.
An only child whom friends and family described as shy, kindhearted, and lonely - "He was an unhappy young man," his paternal aunt, Felicia Safaryn-Turner, recalled - Zizzamia had told a friend years before he went missing that he intended to disappear.
"He said he would just vanish from the face of the earth," Peter Quarelli-Stratis, 61, said.
"We were having a cigarette outside the cafeteria at Bishop Eustace, and he said he had figured out a way to kill himself," Quarelli-Stratis, an entertainment consultant who now lives in Margate, N.J., added.
"Nick said, 'Don't worry, it's not going to be painful. I'll just disappear. And no one will ever find me.' "
Mike Tarsia, who owns a South Philly recording studio, remembers Zizzamia as a "highly intelligent" and sensitive friend who "would give you the shirt off his back." He has fond memories of hanging out, eating pizza, "smoking a little weed," and reading Rolling Stone with Zizzamia, with whom he often attended rock concerts at the Spectrum.
Like Quarelli-Stratis, Tarsia, 59, wondered if Zizzamia might have been gay.
"He wouldn't have said it to me, even though I wouldn't have cared if he was gay," Tarsia added. "Maybe he wouldn't have shared it with anybody."
The physical similarities between Zizzamia and John Doe, as well as the proximity of the disappearance and the suicide - and the fact that the man found in Indiana had taken great pains to hide his identity - made the graveyard search worth a shot, Hafner said.
He praised the collaboration among New Jersey and Indiana law enforcement agencies.
Micciulla, an 11-year veteran of the state police, agreed.
"We had a phenomenal working relationship," she said. "We made a valiant effort."
Leaving the cemetery, Hafner reflected on a case - and a day - unlike any other in his professional career.
"Nick Zizzamia said he never wanted to be found," the detective said. "It looks like he may get his wish."