John Petrazzuoli Jr. was burned to death in his car in a deserted parking lot in Garden City, South Carolina. His death was ruled a suicide, a conclusion the Petrazzuoli family disagrees with.
Prior to his death, John was upbeat and excited about expanding his landscaping business. He had just changed the name of his business and ordered new business cards. For extra income he worked a second job at the Golden Image, a 24-hour video gambling parlor. He was eagerly looking forward to a deep-sea fishing trip, and to defending his title in the upcoming National Weight Lifting Competition.
On the night he died, John left the home he shared with his parents in Surfside at about 9:30 p.m., to meet a former girlfriend, Nicole, who had called and invited him to have a drink with her and her friend Amber at Cowboy’s Bar & Grill. The two women later stated that upon their arrival at Cowboy’s, John was sitting with two females and one male, whose identities were unknown to them.
Later, John, Nicole and Amber, moved to another table they shared with four strangers. Although they didn’t know each other, everyone got along well and enjoyed themselves.
John left Cowboy’s at around 11 p.m., and arrived back home at 11:30. He went up to his room and then came back down and left again, telling his mother that he was going to drop off a job estimate and would be right back.
Reportedly, John then made a brief stop at the Golden Image gambling parlor. A source subsequently told the Petrazzuoli family’s investigator that when John left the Golden Image, two black men followed him.
At 12:38, John used his cell phone to call Nicole’s house, but the call was intercepted by her answering machine. Traffic noises could be heard in the background. According to Pam, John sounded angry in the message and said “who knows, I might be dead by morning.”
At 12:52, a call was made to John’s cell phone from Cowboy’s Bar. Nicole denies making that call. However, as far as is known, she was the only one at the tavern who knew his cell phone number.
According to Pam, a person would have to ask the bartender for the bar phone in order to use it. No one, including the police ever asked the bartender who it was that used the bar phone that night
At 12:53, one minute after the call from Cowboy’s, John used his cell phone to check his voice mail. To Pam, it doesn’t make sense that her son would have been concerned about his phone messages if he had been in the process of committing suicide.
To the Petrazzuoli family, it seems far more likely that John was surprised by someone while he was on the cell phone. The assailant killed him, and then set the car on fire to destroy the evidence. They believe the killer obtained the information to get into John’s voice mail, because the account was accessed for four days following his death.
The fire department was notified of the fire at 1:13 a.m. and arrived at the scene at 1:17. The fire was so intense that it took 500 gallons of water to put it out. By the time it was extinguished, John’s body was burned beyond recognition.
After a three-week investigation by the Horry County Police and Fire Departments, the case was closed out as a suicide/accident.
John’s family later found a handwritten note in the coroner’s file from the Fire Investigator George Jones. The note said, “John Petrazzuoli Jr. was transported by EMS 2-4 days prior to the fire for depression related illness. Transported to Grand Strand Hospital.”
According to the family, that is false information. John was never treated for depression, was not treated in any hospital for any reason in the year of 1999, and was never transported by EMS in his entire life.
According to the family, the investigation by Fire Investigator Jones was a series of blunders, omissions, and false statements. Not only did he not thoroughly investigate the vehicle, he lied about and/or concealed evidence, and filed a false report. Jones was fired as a result of his actions. Nevertheless, the Horry County Police and Fire Departments continue to defend their investigation.
In October 1999, the family submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for John’s case file. In order to obtain that file -to which they had a legal right- they were forced to sue the county. When they received the case file, numerous taped interviews and handwritten notes were not included. The lead police investigator stated in a sworn affidavit that he did not tape witness interviews. However, each of the five people interviewed stated the sessions were tape recorded.
The family also hired a forensic expert on vehicle fires. From photographs, the burn pattern, damage, etc., this expert said he could not understand how anyone could say the fire was an accident or suicide, without knowing the source of ignition or if an accelerant was used. He concluded this was a fire incident and not an explosion. Ignition occurred very quickly, and the fire appeared to have started at seat level and burned upward. It also seems to have started in the front seat area and burned toward the rear of the vehicle. It may have been helped along by an accelerant, and set by a second person.
The expert also discovered the existence of a bullet hole. This hole was not found at the time of the initial scene examination by the Horry County authorities. He also located the remains of a wrist watch, the ignition keys, and the bottom of an aerosol can, none of which had been located by county investigators.
The authorities were immediately notified of the discovery of the bullet hole and other items. But they weren’t overly interested, and initially refused to have their ballistics department examine the potentially important evidence.
The family hired their own ballistics expert to examine the evidence. Both he and the forensic expert believe there was a struggle inside the car and a shot was fired. After that the car was set on fire.
Pam says it’s possible that her son’s death may have been drug related. Illegal drugs are rampant in that particular area, and the family has since discovered that some of his associates were involved in the drug trade. They found a note in his briefcase that read: If you fuck me over you’re Dead. The police have shown no interest in the note, however.
Police were contacted by a man who claimed he drove past the scene when John’s car was on fire. He said he saw two other vehicles there, and a man walking away from the burning car. The police dismissed him as a scam artist and refused to take his statement. Since then, the witness has refused to take Pam’s phone calls.
The Petrazzuolis remain convinced that John was a victim of homicide. But will they ever know for sure?