The spotlight intensified Wednesday on a Bensalem man declared a "person of interest" in the disappearance last week of four young men, as investigators appeared to inch closer to solving the mystery of what happened to the men.
After a flurry of late-night activity, the Bucks County District Attorney's Office planned a midnight news conference to discuss what it promised was "a major development" in the case. The announcement, in a tweet, contained no details.
Less than an hour before the planned news conference, a large Red Cross van, escorted by two or three police cars, arrived at the sprawling Solebury Township property where investigators had spent three days scouring for clues in the case.
Earlier, prosecutors had charged Cosmo DiNardo, 20, the son of the property owners, with stealing a car belonging to one of the missing men, and a judge set his bail at $5 million. That was less than 24 hours after DiNardo had been released after being jailed on a firearms charge from February.
At an afternoon arraignment in Doylestown on the felony theft charge, District Justice Maggie Snow justified his high bail, calling the young man "a grave risk… given the gravity of what's going on here right now." DiNardo, wearing a blue tank top and eyeglasses, appeared by live video from the Bensalem Police Department.
DiNardo is charged with stealing — and trying, on Sunday, to sell for $500 — a car owned by Thomas C. Meo, 21, of Plumstead, one of the missing men. Meo's car was spotted following a DiNardo family vehicle on Friday night, court records indicated. While prosecutors have not accused DiNardo of any violent acts in the case, they have said he is "a dangerous person," has schizophrenia, and is a flight risk; his lawyers claimed he was being shamed for his mental health struggles.
Police and state investigators — with FBI agents and U.S. marshals — worked a grueling third day Wednesday at the DiNardo farm in intense July heat, using brooms, shovels, metal detectors, and a backhoe to dig, sift, and collect potential evidence in black buckets. Some wore protective clothing and foot coverings at what appeared in aerial photographs to be a key search site, where several portable tent canopies had been erected.
"The search at the scene right up the road is really intensifying," District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. "We are going to find something, I have no doubt."
Weintraub also said he was "very encouraged … that we are going to get some finality to this prolonged ordeal."
Search warrants have been filed for properties across the county, but the District Attorney's Office said they remain under seal.
Missing with Meo are Mark R. Sturgis, 22, of Pennsburg; Dean A. Finocchiaro, 18, of Middletown; and Jimi Tar Patrick, 19, of Newtown. Sturgis and Finocchiaro, like Meo, disappeared on Friday; Patrick was last seen on July 5.
Police tips have indicated the four men knew each other. Some links connecting the men had emerged by midweek: A Bensalem friend of Meo's, Eric Beitz, said DiNardo aggressively sought new customers for his marijuana and firearms dealings. Beitz, Meo, and Sturgis reportedly first met DiNardo when he was looking to sell marijuana. Sturgis and Meo were good friends and worked together. DiNardo and Patrick both attended Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem. DiNardo and Finocchiaro appeared to share an interest in ATVs, and were both in at least one public Facebook page for buying and selling quad bikes.
The four men's families have been keeping a grim vigil all week from where they are positioned, close to the road on the DiNardo property. Prosecutors could be seen coming out to give them periodic updates.
"This is just really, really rough on everybody involved because of the heat, the magnitude, the scope, and the stakes are incredibly high – life and death," Weintraub said.
Data from a mobile license plate reader showed a truck belonging to DiNardo's father — which DiNardo told police he had been driving — pass just before 8 p.m. Friday on Street Road in Solebury, less than a mile from the DiNardo property. Seconds later, Meo's car followed, according to court filings.
A Bensalem man told police that DiNardo tried to sell the 1996 Nissan Maxima for $500 on Saturday, according to court filings. Early the next morning, it was found at a different DiNardo property on nearby Aquetong Road, and Sturgis' Nissan was found less than two miles away, near Peddlers Village.
Meo's diabetic kit, which his family said he was never without, was found in the car. Relatives told the district attorney that Meo would go into diabetic shock without his medication and couldn't survive without the kit.
"They had this information days ago. They didn't charge him. They now charge him because he made bail," said Michael Parlow, one of DiNardo's lawyers.
Earlier Wednesday, Weintraub said the investigation was wide open and not centered on any one person. DiNardo "remains a person of interest, but if others arise and we can name them, we will," he said.
A man who did not want to be named and lives near the property that is the focus of the search said he gave surveillance footage to police. He also said he heard gunshots at the property Friday evening. He said he did not report the gunshots to police at the time because it was not unusual to hear gunfire coming from that property. But he "very rarely" sees people coming and going from the driveway, he said, and when he does it is usually heavy equipment.
Weintraub would not comment on the neighbor's report. He also could not say whether a grand jury investigation had been opened into the case.
"I am prohibited by law from even telling you there is a grand jury impaneled here in Bucks County. But I want to assure you we are utilizing every resource at our disposal to try to find these four missing young men and to solve this case," Weintraub said.
Weintraub also declined to comment on whether firearms have been recovered as part of the investigation, or on whether cellphone pings had been used or if they had led investigators to the DiNardo property.
DiNardo's parents have not been named as persons of interest in the case. They own multiple businesses in the area, including a trucking and a concrete business, along with large swaths of property in Solebury and Bensalem. They have previously owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state and federal governments in unpaid taxes, court records show, but have settled most of the debts.
"As parents, Mr. and Mrs. DiNardo sympathize with the parents and families of the missing young men and they are cooperating in every way possible with the investigation being conducted by law enforcement," attorney Fortunato N. Perri Jr. said in a statement. He said he is now also an attorney for Cosmo DiNardo.
Weintraub has said police received tips that the four men knew each other, but he has continued to urge the public to offer more information about their links to each other and their possible association with DiNardo.
"We continue to receive tips hourly and some of them are bearing fruit, so please keep them coming," he said Wednesday.
Staff writers Joseph Slobodzian and Chris Palmer contributed to this report.