A New Jersey woman adopted at birth and seeking to find her biological mother stumbled onto a Long Island missing person mystery dating back to 1983.
When Lisa Rizzi started out on her mission, she had no clue she’d end up playing detective, searching for her real mom, Janice Donohue.
“It’s a terrible story really,” said Rizzi. “It’s terrible.”
Rizzi’s search lead her to one dead end after another. A common result in the nearly 40-year search for Donohue.
“It’s never been solved. She’s been missing for over 30 years,” said Rizzi.
Rizzi was given up for adoption after Janice Sancomb became pregnant at age 19. Years later, Sancomb married and got divorced. Eventually she married a different man, Richard Donohue, and took the name Janice Donohue.
“In the beginning, it was nice because he kind of wooed her and stuff,” Rizzi said of her mother’s last marriage to Donohue. “But later on, it wasn't so nice. He would beat or he would hit or just… he wasn’t a nice guy."
Rizzi found half-brothers from her mother’s first marriage and learned that her mom, Richard Donohue, and yet another new sibling, a 4-year-old boy named Chad, all lived in a home on Wicks Road in Brentwood, Long Island.
Then, Janice Donohue suddenly disappeared on December 16, 1983.
There weren’t any cell phones and few, if any, surveillance cameras in Brentwood back then. Suffolk County Police officials tell NBC 4 that if Janice wanted to vanish from an abusive marriage, it was possible.
“In the unlikely chance that Janice is still alive, we'd like to hear from her,” Detective Lt. Kevin Beyrer told the NBC 4 I-Team. “That's an unlikely chance, but we don't know."
Rizzi doubts that her mother willingly vanished.
“We feel that, that he had, you know, gotten rid of her,” said Rizzi.
NBC 4 obtained copies of the decades-old police reports from the Suffolk County Police Department.
They show Janice Donohue disappeared sometime after 9 p.m. the night of December 16, 1983. Her husband Richard reported her missing three weeks later, on January 5, 1984.
”We would be naive or foolish not to suspect and not to look at Richard Donohue as the lead suspect," Beyrer said.
Beyrer says detectives always suspected foul play, starting with the fact that it took Richard Donohue three weeks to call police and report his wife missing.
“That, in and of itself, could be considered suspicious,” said Beyrer.
Plus, when Janice Donohue disappeared, she didn’t call her children from the previous marriage that Christmas season. She also missed a job interview she was excited about.
But Beyrer says, above all, she left behind the 4-year-old boy, Chad.
“She would never leave the house without her 4-year-old,” Beyrer told the I-Team. “That was very uncharacteristic of her.”
Beyrer says detectives at the time even dug up the basement of the house on Wicks Road. They questioned friends and family across Brentwood.
“Unfortunately in this case, it has been all dead ends,” he said.
Then in 1998, 15 years after Janice Donohue disappeared, Richard’s brother Edward took his own life. Edward Donohue hanged himself off a wooden deck in the backyard of the house on Wicks Road.
NBC 4 tracked down that 4-year-old boy, Chad Donohue. Now forty and living in Georgia, Chad thinks he knows why his uncle Edward committed suicide.
“My uncle might have had something to do with it. That’s why he took his own life,” he said. “He (Edward) was like, scared to death of my father. But he was flirting with the idea that he was going to expose him completely to me.”
Chad says there were times his uncle came close.
“He begged me not to say some of the things he was telling me about my father, but never truly told me everything,” said Chad “He took stories all the way to — you know, like ‘What else?’"
But Chad says his uncle never did.
NBC 4 met Rizzi at a restaurant in Woodside, New Jersey, near her home and revealed the police reports to her.
A detective noted in one of the reports that Janice Donohue had left behind a handwritten note with a friend — just in case. The note is transcribed and NBC was not able to obtain a copy of the actual note. It reads:
“I, Janice Donohue, being of sound mind, am taking a trip to Berne, NY, to pick up my son, James. Ruth Mikosovski and my son, John, are with me. If anything happens to me because of a malfunction due to my car, it will be the fault of my husband, Richard, who has threatened me several times on sabotaging my car and killing me.”
“That’s crazy. I just, it’s sad,” said Rizzi. “It’s a sad thing.”
As part of the investigation, detectives also went to JFK airport where Richard Donohue worked. One co-worker suggested Richard had access to a large incinerator. However, detectives at the time felt it would be hard to sneak a body into that area unnoticed.
“They felt at the time that was also a dead end and it would be impossible for someone to go in there unsupervised,” said Beyrer.
One more clue. One more dead end.
Richard Donohue died in the year 2000. Cancer took his life. Whatever he knew, if anything, he took to the grave. Detectives never found solid answers in Brentwood or that house on Wicks Road.
But when Richard was on his deathbed, Chad Donohue says one of his half-brothers, from one of his father’s other marriages, asked Richard one last vital question.
"'Did you kill Chad's mother?' He didn't answer,” said Chad. “When you're on your death bed and somebody asks you a question like that, you're prompted to answer, you know, honestly at that point.” Chad added, “He was coherent.”
Since NBC’s inquiry into the missing person case of Janice Donohue, Suffolk County police have reopened the case. Beyrer says they want to help Janice’s children get answers. Especially Rizzi, who never had the chance to ever meet her.
Beyrer says that since Richard Donohue died, the fear of retribution is gone. He hopes that perhaps someone will feel more free to call Suffolk County Police with information that can finally help solve this case.
“If anyone has any information, if Richard or anyone else was involved, we would like to know about it.”
Earlier this month, Rizzi submitted a DNA sample to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System at the New York City Medical Examiner’s office. If remains of a body are found anywhere in the United States, the system might make the match and identify Janice Donohue.
As for Chad, who was only four years old and in the home the night Janice disappeared, he has his own theory about what happened to his and Rizzi’s mom.
“Everything that lives and breathes inside of me tells me that my mother was murdered in that house,” he said. “That's where she is. Somewhere in that house mixed in with the cement."
To contact Suffolk County Police Crime Stoppers with information phone 1800-220-TIPS.