Possible break in Kristen Modafferi case after 18 years

Kristen Modaferri
Kristen Modaferri Observer file

Family and friends of a Charlotte woman who has been missing for nearly two decades are awaiting results after a possible break in the case came Thursday.

Kristen Modafferi was 18 when she disappeared in San Francisco on June 23, 1997, after finishing her shift at a local coffeehouse. She was never seen again.

But her father, Bob Modafferi, told Observer news partner WBTV that a private investigator using a cadaver dog in Kristen Modaferri’s Oakland, Calif., home, appeared to have picked up the scent of human remains. Oakland police were called in to help with the investigation, WBTV reported.

“It’s 100 percent there are human remains in that basement,” Bob Modaferri told WBTV. “Now, the unknown is how old are those remains. Could be 100 years old, could be 20 years old.”

Kristen’s disappearance has haunted her family for years.

Her parents would go to Mass every year on the anniversary of her disappearance praying that whoever knew what happened to their daughter would step forward.

They’ve made numerous trips to northern California, handed out fliers, put up billboards around San Francisco and even consulted a psychic. There’s also a website about Kristen’s disappearance and a $50,000 reward in the case.

There have been false starts in the case. In March, for instance, Oakland authorities discounted a link between Kristen’s disappearance and murder suspect Robert Durst.

But Joan Scanlon-Petruski, one of the Modafferis’ Charlotte neighbors, who created the Kristin Foundation to help families of missing and endangered adults, said Thursday’s development “is a real lead.”

“We think it’s the best one we’ve ever had, and they need to jump on it,” she said. “…We’re just all very anxious to see what’s going to happen.”

Dog sniffs to basement

Both Petruski and Dennis Mahon, another Modafferi friend who has tried to push for resolution of the case, helped get the dog to the Oakland property Thursday.

Mahon, a former Charlotte resident who now lives in Connecticut, said he met the dog’s owner, Paul Dostie, a private investigator and retired police officer in California, through contacts in another missing person case. Mahon, who also maintains a website about Kristen Modafferi, said Dostie offered the free services of his three-legged Labrador retriever, Buster, but only with permission from the home’s owner.

Mahon said the owners of Kristen Modafferi’s former rental house and the house next door both agreed. At the time of her disappearance, the neighboring house was a halfway house for parole violators, Mahon said. “But we never knew that until like a year later.”

Petruski said Kristen’s residence should have been investigated more thoroughly from the start. “The (Oakland) police never…went in the house and took samples,” she said. “They never had a dog in there. …It wasn’t done the way we do it now.”

On Thursday, Dostie brought Buster, who lost one leg to cancer, to search the area around the houses. Petruski said the dog began sniffing a pipe at the curb and “followed that pipe to the back of the house to the basement door.”

‘You never forget’

In June 1997, Kristen was a Providence High graduate who had recently completed her first year at N.C. State, where she was a Park Scholar.

She was an industrial design major and planned to take a photography class that summer at the University of California at Berkeley.

Co-workers at a coffee shop in San Francisco said Kristen Modaferri had mentioned that she wanted to see a nearby beach after work. No one ever saw her again.

When she went out west, she moved in with some roommates in Oakland and landed a job at a museum and at a San Francisco coffee shop.

Co-workers at the shop said Kristen had mentioned that she wanted to see a nearby beach after work. No one ever saw her again.

Police eventually said they suspected foul play in her disappearance. A man was identified as a person of interest in the case but he was never charged.

In 2012, as her parents marked another anniversary of Kristen’s disappearance, Bob Modaferri told the Observer, “You never forget, never stop searching for an answer.”

Now the couple, who have moved to Florida, is waiting again. Through another daughter, Allison Brewster of Charlotte, they declined to speak to the Observer Friday.

Mahon said he and Petruski are raising money to have the Oakland soil samples tested by Arpad Vass, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Tennessee. Vass testified in the high-profile 2011 Florida capital murder trial of Casey Anthony, who was later acquitted in the 2008 death of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee.

Mahon said he’s not “jumping over the moon” about the latest lead, but he’s confident Vass can narrow down the age of the human decomposition. “If it’s a 20-year-old sample, then it’s probably Kristen,” Mahon said.

“We have a lot of hope now,” said Petruski, who talked to Bob Modafferi Thursday. “You never give up hope. You can’t. When I got involved in this, I said, ‘We're going to bring her home.’”

Garloch: 704-358-5078; Bell: 704-358-5696; Twitter: @abell