PLOYS IN THE ATTIC
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.
Later, Janet would tell the FBI she remembered that the repairman grew visibly nervous when she told him her father was coming. Onofrio talked to the repairman, but was unable to see anything but the back of his head as he climbed down the ladder and walked to the power box on the outside of the garage. The repairman asked Onofrio to go inside and unplug his television set and his microwave oven. Onofrio complied--after all, the guy was out of the attic. Once inside, Onofrio spoke for a few moments with Rosario. When he walked back out, the attic door was closed and the repairman was gone. Now he says he remembers seeing the guy "sort of waddling" away from him down the block with his tool chest wedged between his legs, as if he was carrying something heavy in his arms.
Rosi says this story sounds suspicious. Why didn't Onofrio recognize him if he was the repairman? After all, Onofrio and Rosi had met once at Patricia's house in California.
"He was standing one foot from me, but he couldn't ID me?" Rosi says. "He's got a quarter of a million dollars. What does he do? He goes back inside and doesn't call the cops, even after he saw him shuffling down the street. . . . Why did this guy not check the money?"
Onofrio admits he doesn't see very well anymore--he lost one eye to a cataract and may need surgery on the other. And he says he only saw the side of Rosi's face and the back of his head the day he met him at Patricia's. And the repairman was wearing dark glasses.
(Later, both Rosario and her daughter Janet would identify a photograph of Rosi as the repairman. Rosi says he's being set up, or, alternately, that perhaps his father, Jim Edwards, bilked the Onofrios. Rosi says he looks exactly like his dad.)
Patricia Onofrio told the FBI she called her father two days after the repairman's visit, because she had heard that Rosi had left California. She was worried about what he might be up to. She regretted having mentioned the strongbox in the presence of Rosi. She felt even worse when Edwards told her his son had mentioned that it would be easy for someone to steal Onofrio's money.
Because Rosi is a California resident, and the strongbox was stolen in Arizona, the FBI got involved. In the weeks after Onofrio's money disappeared, Rosi went on a spending spree.
"That scum bought Rolex watches, $7,000 each, with our money," Rosario Onofrio says. "He doesn't care about anyone; he has no feeling for anyone he hurts."
Rosi also bought several cars--a 1979 Porsche for $27,000, an old Lincoln stretch limousine for $16,500, a brand-new Chevy Blazer and a former girlfriend's used Honda. Until March 1, he rented an apartment in San Francisco. Then he dropped out of sight.
Or, as Rosi puts it, he went back to work. He says he went back to Los Angeles, then to Hawaii, where he says he had 400 cars to sell. He says it isn't unusual for him to live large--he makes a lot of money legitimately. While he grants that his auto-detailing and limousine services in Hawaii and Los Angeles have closed within the past few years, he says his San Diego location is still thriving. (If it is, it isn't listed. A San Diego operator could find no listing for any business with that name--or anything close to that name.)
"I buy and sell used cars," he says. "I owned a big house . . . and a successful business for 15 years."
Rosi's father, however, told the FBI his son was broke in January.
On March 27, Rosi surfaced in Denver, where he says he went to ski. The FBI arrested him there. He was extradited to Phoenix, and earlier this year was convicted on federal charges of transporting stolen property across state lines. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
When he was arrested in Colorado, the FBI confiscated more than $76,000. And Pete Reinstein, an assistant Maricopa County attorney, believes there may be even more money out there to recover. He isn't looking to cut a deal unless Rosi forks it over.
"There is still probably $70,000 to $100,000 that is unaccounted for," Reinstein says. "He says no, he spent it. We'll see. Unless the man comes up with the money, we're going to trial."
Rosario Onofrio says Rosi took more than money. "He just broke us up," she says, tearfully. "I hope he gets what's coming to him, because he's just ruined my whole family. . . . My husband is very upset with my daughter. She didn't do it to hurt us. You don't know how heartbreaking that is for me. She's been a good daughter. That scum [Rosi] destroyed us. Money don't mean nothing to me; I want my husband, too."
Joseph Onofrio is more pragmatic: "I think there'll be some people interested in this story. You know any screenwriters?