It was supposed to be a routine drug transaction. Cosmo DiNardo said he had marijuana to sell.
So on July 7, Thomas C. Meo and Mark R. Sturgis climbed into DiNardo's silver pickup truck.
He drove them to a sprawling but unoccupied 90-acre farm DiNardo's parents owned in remote Solebury Township, where he said they would complete the deal, authorities allege. Waiting for them there was DiNardo's cousin Sean Kratz.
Sturgis and Meo got out of the truck, talking about the marijuana sale. When the friends turned their backs, DiNardo pulled a .357 Smith & Wesson handgun and fired at Meo.
Shot, Meo collapsed, screaming. As Sturgis ran, DiNardo shot and killed him. Out of ammunition, DiNardo climbed into a backhoe and headed toward the still-alive Meo, crushing the 19-year-old.
Then he added their bodies to an oil tank that had been converted into a cooker, where he had already dumped another corpse hours earlier. He poured in gasoline and lit it on fire, though the bodies didn't burn.
The next day, the cousins returned and DiNardo used the backhoe to dig a 12½-foot-deep makeshift grave, and buried the tank.
Its discovery by law enforcement teams that spent days scouring the site was announced Wednesday and provided the critical break in solving the disappearance and killings of Meo, Sturgis and two others, Jimi Taro Patrick and Dean A. Finocchiaro. Barely a day later, DiNardo had confessed and identified his cousin, who also admitted his role after being taken into custody, authorities said. The horrifying sequence of events is meticulously detailed in the affidavits charging the men and released by the district attorney on Friday.
It was the peak of the largest Bucks County investigation in recent history, one that drew in local, state and federal agencies, gripped the region, devastated a half-dozen families, and unfolded in a slow, agonizing fashion under a national spotlight.
DiNardo, the 20-year-old Bensalem man now charged in the murders, was a Catholic prep school grad who once talked about getting a degree in biology and studying in Europe. He had dropped out of college, dealt in contraband, and talked of killing people.
Even after the confessions, why four pot deals led to gruesome deaths remains unclear.
"I'm not sure we could ever answer that question," said Bucks County District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub.
Pot deals turned to deaths
From interviews, court records, public statements and online postings, a portrait has emerged of the path that brought the four men and their killers together.
Marijuana seemed to be the lure for each victim. Patrick was the first.
The 19-year-old business major had just finished his freshman year at Loyola University in Maryland, where he was on a full scholarship and friends knew him as "such a people person." He was spending the summer working at a Buckingham restaurant.
Patrick had been an honors student and standout baseball player at Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem. DiNardo graduated one year ahead of him.
Patrick's future had seemed bright — he had made dean's list at Loyola. But DiNardo, whose parents own multiple properties and trucking and concrete businesses in Bensalem and Philadelphia, seemed to move toward a darker path. He had been banned from the campus of Arcadia University, where he had enrolled for one semester. And he had become a familiar name to Bensalem police.
Some who knew DiNardo said his behavior had changed in recent months, with unconfirmed reports blaming it on injuries from an ATV accident. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and his mother, Sandra, once had committed him to a mental-health facility. The only charge on his criminal record was a February arrest for having a firearm.
That charge, a felony, was dismissed in May because of faulty paperwork.
His talk could be menacing, acquaintances said.
"He's told me and my friends, 'Yeah, I've killed people before, I just haven't been caught,' " one acquaintance said. "We literally were just like, 'Yeah, all right, Cosmo, sure you did.' "
He developed a reputation for selling guns — and marijuana.
On July 5, DiNardo picked up Patrick in Newtown, where he lived with his grandparents. According to DiNardo, Patrick was to buy four pounds of marijuana for $8,000. When they got to the Solebury property along Lower York Road, Patrick said he'd brought only $800.
DiNardo offered to sell him a shotgun instead, took him to a remote part of the property, and gave him one. And then, for reasons unexplained, DiNardo raised a .22-caliber rifle and fatally shot Patrick. He retrieved a backhoe, dug a hole no deeper than six feet, and buried the Newtown man.
The next day, Patrick failed to show for work. Around 4:45 p.m., his grandfather reported him missing.
A 'nice kid'
Two days after killing Patrick, DiNardo set his sights on his next victims.
He agreed to sell a quarter-pound of marijuana for $700 to Finocchiaro, a 19-year-old Neshaminy High School graduate who lived in Langhorne with his parents.
"He was just a normal, growing-up, nice kid," said his former attorney, John Fioravanti Jr. The lawyer got to know Finocchiaro when he was charged with minor drug-related offenses.
That Friday night, DiNardo and Kratz decided they'd rob Finocchiaro, they told police.
Kratz, 20, who grew up in the same Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood where he was detained Thursday night, had two open burglary cases in the city's courts. He was known in his ex-girlfriend's Philadelphia neighborhood for committing break-ins.
Mid-evening on July 7, the cousins picked up Finocchiaro at his parents' house on Hampton Drive. Kratz later told investigators DiNardo was armed; DiNardo told them he gave Kratz a Smith & Wesson handgun in the pickup truck.
At the Lower York Road property, DiNardo drove the three around on his ATV. The plan had been to rob Finocchiaro in the woods. Instead, they went into a barn and Finocchiaro was shot.
Kratz said his cousin pulled the trigger. DiNardo said Kratz killed the man and he himself shot only after Finocchiaro was dead.
DiNardo wrapped Finocchiaro's body in a blue tarp and tried to drag the body from the barn, but the tarp got stuck on a nail, so DiNardo used the backhoe to remove the corpse. He dumped it in the metal tank, which he told police was called "the pig roaster."
Then he told Kratz he had "two more kids" coming to the property for a drug deal — Meo and Sturgis.
'No idea what's up'
Besides being best friends, Meo and Sturgis were coworkers at a construction company owned by Sturgis' father, Mark Potash.
When they didn't show Saturday morning for work, Potash hoped they'd arrive late.
"I thought maybe they had a night of drinking and slept somewhere," he said on Monday. "That was my hope."
Saturday afternoon, DiNardo and Kratz went back to the Solebury property. Using the backhoe, DiNardo dug a hole 12 1/2 feet deep and buried the metal tank. He gave the two handguns they had used to Kratz.
As the hours passed, family and friends of the four missing men began to worry.
At one point, some exchanged messages in a group message on Snapchat that included DiNardo. The new string was titled "Tom WYA," and referenced the missing Meo.
"Tom where the … you at?" one message read: "Mark where the … you at? Dean … where the … you at?"
One chat participant asked DiNardo "aren't you worried" about "your buddy Dean," referring to Finocchiaro. DiNardo replied: "I mean I know the kid but yeah I feel bad for his parents. He's a pill-popping junky who had 2 duis … He prob just jumped parole Or probation."
DiNardo also complained over the weekend that people had trespassed on his family's land and said they would be arrested. "I have no clue bro it's weird people keep hitting me up I have no idea what's up," he wrote.
But as news of the men's disappearance spread, DiNardo's missteps were coming into view. Police found Sturgis' unoccupied car at Peddler's Village early Sunday morning. Less than two miles away, on a DiNardo property next to the family's farm, they found Meo's car. In it was his diabetes kit. Without it, his family told police, he couldn't survive.
By Sunday night, officers, police dogs, and a search helicopter had descended on the Solebury site.
Weintraub, the district attorney, spoke publicly about the case for the first time Monday. In a parking lot near the search site, he held up photos of the four men, pleading for tips from the public. Weintraub also warned the search could take days, "like finding needles in a haystack."
That afternoon, they had DiNardo arrested in Bensalem on the firearms charge that had been dismissed in May. Hoping to hold him, prosecutors persuaded a judge to set bail at $1 million.
As the case sparked intense media attention, Weintraub on Tuesday named DiNardo "a person of interest."
The families of the missing men kept vigil in a field on the DiNardo property. News trucks lined the side of Route 202 as cars whizzed by, some slowing to ask if anything had been found, as investigators at the site sifted through dirt for evidence. Tents were erected over a hole that grew deeper and deeper, aerial shots showed.
"In the sweltering heat and the dust and the pouring-down rain," Weintraub later said, responders "worked tirelessly, selflessly, nonstop around the clock."
On Tuesday night, DiNardo posted bail with a $100,000 cashier's check from his father Antonio — and walked free.
It could be perhaps the last day of freedom of his life.
'A dangerous person'
By Wednesday night, police had rearrested DiNardo, this time on charges of stealing of Meo's 1996 Nissan Maxima. They said a man reported DiNardo had tried to sell him the car for $500 on Saturday. Agreeing with prosecutors who said DiNardo was a flight risk and "a dangerous person," District Justice Maggie Snow set his bail at $5 million.
Meanwhile, the search had yielded results: Standing at a midnight news conference before dozens of cameras and a throng of onlookers, Weintraub announced that investigators unearthed a 12 ½-foot grave on the site. Inside were the remains of multiple bodies. But only Finocchiaro had been identified.
"This is a homicide, make no mistake about it," Weintraub declared, vowing to find the other three "lost boys" and bring them home to their families.
DiNardo and his lawyers spent Thursday inside the Bucks County Courthouse complex, talking with prosecutors. Afterward, one of his attorneys made the stunning announcement: DiNardo confessed to the killings, identified Kratz as a coconspirator, and told investigators where the bodies were buried. In return, Weintraub said he would not seek the death penalty.
DiNardo was "honest, forthright, and truthful," said his lawyer, Paul Lang. At a news conference Friday, Weintraub explained the decision behind the deal.
Officials had already found the common grave, but it only held the remains of three of the men — Finocchiaro, Meo and Sturgis. Without his killer's cooperation, Weintraub said, investigators would still be looking for the body of Patrick, who was killed and buried first.
Throughout the search, the families had clung to hope. Patrick's grandparents released a statement Thursday describing him in the present tense, listing his accomplishments as a student and athlete.
His body, DiNardo told investigators, was on top of a mountain on the sprawling Solebury property, nearly a half-mile from the other bodies. Using DiNardo's description, Weintraub rode to the site.
"It was so far away that I started getting sick to my stomach on the ride," Weintraub said.
But the body was there. Weintraub could bring all four families their sons' remains.
Both DiNardo and Kratz are charged with homicide, conspiracy, abuse of corpses and other crimes. DiNardo faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted. Weintraub hasn't said if he will seek the death penalty for Kratz.
As he was led from the Bucks County Courthouse complex in handcuffs and leg shackles after his confession, DiNardo muttered only two words in response to reporters' shouted questions:
Staff writers Colt Shaw, Erin McCarthy, Joseph A. Slobodzian, Jason Nark, William Bender, Jeremy Roebuck, Chris Palmer, Julie Shaw, Mari A. Schaefer, Helen Ubiñas, Adia Robinson, Mark Fazlollah, and Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.