Thomas J. Mixon was reported missing in May 1998. His body has never been found. But that is not stopping Buffalo homicide investigators from pressing a murder case.
The detectives have obtained a second-degree murder warrant for the arrest of Mixon's former roommate, 21-year-old Vladimir L. Sokolov, who has disappeared.
"It's among the rarest of occurrences where you proceed without a body. The best evidence of the fact of a murder is a dead body, and we have no body," Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said Wednesday.
Just how unusual is this type of prosecution?
"Back in 1984, we had a murder case without a body, but there was some brain tissue that was recovered and used," Clark said, referring to the slaying of West Seneca resident Mark A. Seifert.
In this latest case, none of Mixon's remains are available.
Assistant District Attorney Joseph Mordino, the prosecutor in the case, said he will rely on other evidence to prove a killing occurred.
Homicide Chief Joseph Riga has declined to reveal what types of proof his detectives have gathered to make a case against Sokolov, but he is confident that it will end in a murder conviction.
Riga would say only that the detectives assigned to the case, James F. Giardina and Anthony Scinta, "painstakingly developed a prosecutable case, despite the fact that a body was not recovered."
Nancy White, the missing man's mother, provided clues to what investigators might have discovered to make a case for a charge of murder in the death of her 26-year-old son.
By his own words and actions, Sokolov may have incriminated himself, White said.
He allegedly bragged to acquaintances that he killed Mixon.
After she heard of the claims, White, a Cheektowaga resident, said she visited the East Side home her son owned but had deeded over to Sokolov in order to prevent his estranged wife from obtaining it.
"I asked him, 'Why are people saying you cut Tom's head off?' and Vladimir swallowed so hard I could hear him. He hung his head," said White, who went to Riga and informed him of the stories she was hearing about her son's demise.
She is the first to admit her son was no angel.
"Tom sold drugs, and we'd go around and around on that," White said. "I wouldn't take anything from him because I didn't want him to supplement his income with drug money. When he tried to put his house on Bryson Street in my name, I wouldn't do it."
But there was one thing she would take from her son -- his love.
"Tom would call me all the time to see how I was doing. He had a young son who would visit me, and Tom was always checking on him. So I knew when he stopped calling, something was wrong," White said.
The last time she saw her son was on May 3, 1998. Two days later, he left a distressing message on her answering machine: "Mom, I really need to talk to you. Page me."
She did. "The message on his pager said he had gone turkey hunting and if people needed him, they should contact Vladimir."
She called Sokolov.
"He told me, 'You don't know what came down?' He said he'd tell me in a few weeks. He said they were in a lot of trouble.Vladimir was nervous and said he wanted to leave the country," said White, who feared that her son and Sokolov had been involved in a drug deal that went awry.
Sokolov, who has relatives in Bulgaria, also informed the worried mother that her son would contact him soon, White said.
Days passed and there was no word. On May 11, White went to police and reported her son missing. Her intuition, however, told her he was dead.
Without a body, homicide investigators had to work in reverse, according to Giardina, one of the detectives on the case.
"You usually start with a body, but here we started with a suspect and worked our way back. We interviewed and took statements from dozens of people," he said.
He and Scinta found that a number of people from the suburbs and other sections of the city often stayed at the Bryson Street house.
"Some of them who had trouble would live there for months at a time," Giardina said.
The day after Mixon vanished, police determined, Sokolov had placed his roommate's belongings out on the street. "He just threw the belongings out of the apartment they had shared," Giardina said.
Even more disturbing, White said, was that "Vladimir started wearing my son's clothes."
When detectives tried to interview Sokolov, "he was very uncooperative," Riga said.
Sokolov left the area this May to join the Army. After completing boot camp, he was discharged "at his own request," Riga said.
Since then, he has not been seen.
White says she has found some comfort in her ordeal.
"I feel the homicide bureau has been exceptional. Riga talks to me any time I need to speak, and Detective Scinta looks like he could cry with me," she said.
She also credited Broadway Station Police Officer John Molenda with "doing a lot of work" to keep her son's case active over the past 20 months.