Note: This is an extended version of the article that ran in the print issue.)
The odyssey that turned Dominic DiPuccio’s life upside down began with a phone call in the middle of the afternoon. On the line was his brother-in-law, Dr. Yazeed Essa, telling him that his sister, Rosie, was in a serious car accident. DiPuccio rushed to the hospital, but he never saw his sister alive again. Within the hour, she was dead.
Five years later, DiPuccio, a 1986 Xavier graduate, and his wife, Julie Hellkamp, a 1988 graduate, are now raising Rosie’s two children, now ages 9 and 8, along with their own four children, ages 14, 11, 9 and 6. The DiPuccios say the merger hasn’t been easy, but they’ve never second-guessed their decision to turn their own lives upside down and raise Rosie’s children as their own.
The hardest part, however, has been telling the children how Rosie really died. It wasn’t the car wreck. And it wasn’t an accident.
Minutes before she lost consciousness and crashed her car, Rosie called her friend Eva and complained that she wasn’t feeling well. Essa had encouraged her to take a calcium capsule right before she left home, she said, and she wondered if that might be what was making her sick.
“Eva said Rosie told her her stomach felt bad, and her husband had given her a calcium tablet, and she was wondering if it made her sick,” DiPuccio says. “If not for the fact that Rosie was talking to Eva on the phone, I don’t know if we ever would have known.”
The family pushed for an autopsy. What eventually became known was that Rosie’s death on Feb. 24, 2005, was that she did not die from the car crash—she was traveling slowly in a school zone at the time—but from acute cyanide intoxication. Her husband, an emergency room physician at Akron General Hospital, had replaced her calcium capsules with cyanide.
When the family became suspicious and the police began asking questions, Essa suddenly disappeared. Three weeks after Rosie’s death, he left for the weekend and didn’t return on Monday to pick up his children. The family called police, and the hunt was on. By the end of the week, Dominic, an attorney with Taft Stettinius & Hollister in Cleveland, and Julie had legal custody of the children, and Essa, they learned later, was hiding with a brother in Lebanon.
Authorities finally caught up with Essa 18 months later in Cyprus, and after a lengthy extradition fight, he was returned to Cleveland in January 2009. A highly publicized jury trial took place in February 2010. Prosecutors claimed Essa killed his wife so he could be with one of his mistresses. The jury found Essa guilty of aggravated murder and on March 9, 2010, he was sentenced to life in prison with no parole for 20 years.
Looking back at the events that led to her death, DiPuccio wonders how he missed the signs that now seem so obvious. While those kinds of qustions can be haunting, DiPuccio says he’ll never forget the feeling of relief that swept over him when the verdict was read.
But there are still the children. Now, with the trial out of the way, Dominic and Julie are focused on picking up the pieces of the young lives wrecked by their father. The DiPuccios already started the healing process by telling the children the truth about what happened to their mother. “We say, ‘This is not the way it’s supposed to be, but you’re here and we love you, and you’re part of this family, and we wish Mommy Rosie was still alive and with you, but she’s not,’ ” DiPuccio says.
It’s been hard, but there are no regrets. “Looking back, it was right, but I didn’t foresee the complications,” he says. “There are lots of emotional issues, but our commitment has not wavered. The reality is we’re doing what anyone would have done. Has it made our lives considerably harder? Yes. Has it affected our marriage? Yes. But these are the cards we were dealt, and we look up in the sky and ask my sister for help and guidance.”
[ Read more about the death of Rosie Essa, the investigation and the DiPuccio family’s efforts to save the children in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 48 Hours Mystery, Dateline NBC, America’s Most Wanted, WKYC-TV and other sites. ]