PLOYS IN THE ATTIC

A CON ARTIST IS ACCUSED OF STEALING RETIREE'S STRONGBOX, $250,000 CASH

For decades, as a truck driver and safety engineer, Joseph Onofrio worked hard for his money, and you can't blame him for wanting to hold onto it. What with the savings-and-loan crisis and an unstable economy, he felt a need to take money matters into his own hands. That's the short answer to why he had a quarter of a million dollars in $100 bills in his attic; he wanted to protect himself. It ought to be safe there, right?

Well, obviously not. Maybe Onofrio got ripped off. He hasn't given up on getting at least some of the money back. When New Times interviewed him, he said he'd tell a little bit--but not everything. He's saving the really juicy stuff for the movie. "It's a heckuva story," the Peoria resident says with as much verve as a 77-year-old man who's lost his life savings can muster. "I'm glad to see somebody's interested in it. It makes me think that there's some possibilities here."

So Onofrio isn't telling everything--like about the lawsuit that was filed against him in California that might have given him additional incentive to stash his money in the attic.

At any rate, what Onofrio will say is fascinating enough.
In early 1991, Onofrio began to transfer money from his four separate bank accounts into a fireproof metal strongbox he'd bought at Wal-Mart. He would withdraw the money in neat $100 denominations, pack them into envelopes and place them in the strongbox, which he kept in his attic beneath a big cardboard crate labeled "Big Check Washington Apples." He then piled other boxes atop the apple box. Only Onofrio's daughter Patricia knew the strongbox was there, and she had to know. It weighed 60 or 70 pounds; it took both of them and a rope and pulley to get it up there.

Between February and July of last year, Onofrio deposited about $249,000 in his attic. He pulled the money out of his bank accounts gradually, less than $10,000 at a time, so he wouldn't have to fill out pesky Internal Revenue Service documents. Eventually, Onofrio says, he cleaned out all his accounts except for a $60,000 checking account from which his wife, Rosario, paid the bills. Then he didn't think about it--his money was safe.

At least he didn't think about it until January 24, 1992. That was the day his daughter Patricia called him from California. Patricia told him, uh, Dad, there might be a problem with the box. Onofrio hung up immediately and climbed into the attic. No box. Later, Patricia would admit she had mentioned the strongbox to her boyfriend, Jim Edwards, in the presence of her boyfriend's son--a 33-year-old, erstwhile con man named Michael Valentine Rosi.

Rosi's in jail now. Earlier this year, a federal court in Phoenix sentenced him to two years in prison for transporting Onofrio's money across state lines. Later this month, he'll face state charges of burglary and theft in connection with the Onofrio heist. Despite his conviction, Rosi maintains his innocence.

"If I had fingerprints at the house, or I had a safe with the money, then you'd say that guy's guilty," he says from the Madison Street Jail. "It sure doesn't add up to a smoking gun."
The FBI says Rosi is a California resident who dabbled in the exotic-car and auto-detailing businesses when he wasn't copping pleas to grand theft auto charges or, subsequently, serving as a drug snitch. Rosi's own father, Jim Edwards, described him as "the worst kid on Earth."

Rosi has a couple of theories about what happened. He thinks perhaps Patricia and his father ripped off Onofrio and framed him, Rosi. Or, he suggests, Onofrio might be running his own scam.

"He's a really crotchety, smart-ass old man," Rosi says. He claims Onofrio is always up to something, that he's "always suing someone" or being sued.

"It wasn't like a sweet old man sitting at home doing his crochet," Rosi says. "They're trying to have a legit way to hide the money. But they ended up hanging me for it. That was the only uncool thing about it."
The facts of the case just might make a decent movie plot.
Onofrio and the authorities believe Rosi stole the money on January 22, 1992. That was the day a man called Rosario to say the Onofrios might be due some money in a class-action lawsuit against the manufacturer of their car. She told the caller that he would have to talk with her husband, who wasn't home. But the caller said he needed the Onofrios' address so he could mail them some information. The Onofrios never heard anything about the class-action lawsuit again, but later that day, a "repairman" showed up to install some kind of "circuit breaker" in the Onofrios' attic. Rosario says the repairman told her the device would protect the Onofrios' appliances and was needed because the power was scheduled to be disconnected the next day.

"I didn't know," says Rosario Onofrio, who's 75 and needs a knee-replacement operation. "I told him to come back when my husband got home, that my husband was strange about the attic."
But the repairman was persistent, and the story seemed plausible. The Onofrios' power had been interrupted the week before. The Onofrios' second daughter, Janet, followed the repairman to the garage and watched as he climbed into the attic. Janet heard him rummaging around in the attic and told him her father didn't like people messing around up there. Just then Joseph Onofrio pulled into the driveway.

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