Four Missing Men and the Urge to Know
The power of story quickly shapes our ideas about ongoing police investigations.
Posted Jul 17, 2017
On July 5, Jimi Taro Patrick, 19, vanished. Only his close circle of family and friends paid attention until three more young men, Mark Sturgis, Tom Meo, and Dean Finocchiaro, went missing two days later. Reports to police launched an investigation. The oddity of four missing men from the same geographic area soon became international news, and people who followed the daily updates looked for clues. They also formed hypotheses.
Updates couldn’t come fast enough. Once a story gets rolling, it gains psychological momentum that corresponds to how humans are wired for closure. If we don’t get the full narrative in short order, we start to fill in the holes.
NOTE: The speculations below are presented only to illustrate my argument, and I do not endorse any ot them.
A mobile reader captured an image of Meo’s license plate on a road in Solebury Township, Pennsylvania, a wealthy area of Bucks County. A few minutes earlier, it had snapped the plates of a pick-up truck driven by Cosmo DiNardo, a 20-year-old, whose parents owned a 90-acre property there. Police inquiries turned up a man who said that DiNardo had offered to sell him Meo’s car for $500. The car was found on the property, with Meo’s diabetes medications inside and a title that Meo had not signed over. Not far away, police found Sturgis’ car.
They arrested Cosmo DiNardo, the chief person of interest, on a former firearms charge that had not been fully processed. His father, owner of a construction company, posted bail. Cosmo was quickly rearrested on charges of receiving stolen property.
By this time, the ball was rolling on social media with an array of theories about what had happened, and why. Several people cited bullying as a motive, since reports suggested that Cosmo was mentally ill. They figured (erroneously) that he had known these guys at his Catholic prep school, and this was payback.
I posted updates on social media and multiple people weighed in. One sent me a screen shot from Reddit to the effect that the missing men had witnessed the brutal beating in May of a person at Temple University by someone named “Billy.” The offender supposedly wanted them dead before his trial. Cosmo owed him money for drugs, so Billy had offered to forgive the debt in return for the hits.
It made some sense, but there was no proof.
Snapchat images of Cosmo holding weapons were posted, along with reports that he’d been barred from Arcadia University for harassment. Allegedly, he’d claimed to have killed someone over an $800 drug deal.
There was no proof that he had made the claim or done the deed.
Soon, police reported the discovery of remains. They gave the identity of one body found buried on the property, but several people affirmed that all four had been located. That news was still two days away. Phrases such as “human remains,” "body parts,” and “common grave” inspired speculation of a serial killer with other victims. There was talk about a group of people using the expansive wooded property as a Mafia body farm. When the DA affirmed that “this is a homicide,” and “we just don’t know how many homicides,” his vague statement was spun as confirmation.
Fact or fiction? At this time, no one knew.
Based on true crime TV, several people insisted that these four men could not be the killer’s first victims. They suggested links to other missing people. The possible toll increased.
Finally came word from DiNardo’s attorney of a confession. DiNardo admitted that he'd killed the four missing men and buried them on his parents’ property. He gave up the location of a grave not yet found in exchange for no death penalty. The other three, already discovered, had been burned and dumped in a 12-foot grave.
Some people suggested that because a backhoe was used, Cosmo’s father had assisted in some way. One posting, with no source, cited the father’s alleged legal troubles in the 1990s: “I've seen comments on some news articles that say he was investigated in the death of an employee.”
This item remains to be supported with documentation.
Then DiNardo’s cousin, Sean Kratz, was arrested and charged as an accomplice in three of the murders. Allegedly, he had helped to set them up. He also had the murder weapons, which he turned over.
On July 16, a posting from “breakingnews247” that made the rounds on Facebook, allegedly from Fox News (but not on Fox News or any other legitimate site), was that “an unidentified source inside the investigation was recorded via a concealed smartphone stating that the father is the leader of a suspected drug ring.”
The report looked official. It wasn’t. But it was passed around as yet one more piece of the puzzle. Ah ha!
Such collections of facts, fakes, and speculation have always accompanied ongoing investigations of incidents that intrigue us. From the moment we had an unusual missing persons case, to the shocking confession and beyond, crime watchers offered ideas. Although the DA says we might never know the motive, this won’t stop us from devising one.
In part, these guesses and unsupported claims derive from the remaining mysteries. Why did Cosmo decide to kill these four in such a tight time-frame that it would inevitably raise an intense investigation? If he were merely intent on robbery or payback, why wouldn’t he space them out? Perhaps they had witnessed his illegal activity (another theory offered) and he was afraid they would tell.
During ongoing investigations, cases will inevitably have narrative holes, things officials hold back or haven’t discovered. They need to be painstaking and use proper methods. They will provide only the details they deem necessary. Their priority is making a case for court. But investigative caution conflicts with our mental frames.
Researchers in the field of narratology have discovered that we tend to process information through story frames. As a natural cognitive unit, they keep us engaged and help us to remember better. We seek the typical arch of beginning, middle, and end, with a satisfying sense that “this is the way it happened.”
We are told stories as children and we tell them as we grow up. Stories prepare us for evaluating plausibility and coherence; they organize information and help us to anticipate an ending. If key items are missing from a narrative arch, research shows that we mentally supply them from our own knowledge and experience.
This tragic tale of drug deals and mass murder is not over. Cosmo might have given “reasons,” but inconsistencies and other holes remain. Can we believe this disturbed, aggressive young man has been as “honest and truthful” as his attorney states? What were the issues that got him involuntarily committed? What has he confessed that we don’t yet know? What is he holding back?
To get the truth without the mix of unfounded rumors, fake news, and unproven claims (especially those that falsely accuse someone), we should be patient. But we’re not wired for this. Our urge for closure makes its own demands.
Ramsland, K. (2016). "I-Contact: The psychology of investigations," in Forensic Investigation: Methods from Experts. Kendall Hunt.
Cron, L. (2012). Wired for story: The writer's guide for using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence. Ten Speed Press.
Sarbin, T. R. (1999) “The poetic construction of reality,” in J. de Rivera & T. R. Sarbin (Eds.), Believed-in imaginings: The narrative construction of reality, (pp. 297-308). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.