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Agonizing over when their dead son will come home ; Parents here struggling with Caracas nightmare

Randolph Anthony "Murph" Piazza was the kind of man who wanted to change the world. While his parents in Williamsville dreamed about the day he might return home to settle down, Piazza was off in other countries struggling to raise the standard of living for those who lived there.

On Dec. 13, he was killed when struck by a train in Venezuela.

Now, a month later, his parents still wonder when their son will finally come home.

"We just want our son home to have a Catholic burial," said his grief-stricken mother, MaryAnn Piazza.

The Piazzas have been immersed for weeks in a bureaucratic nightmare that has prevented their son's body from being released from the morgue in Caracas until recently.

"Right now, we just don't know what's going to happen," said the father, Basil Piazza, a Williamsville village trustee.

Murph Piazza, 36, had spent the last four years in Venezuela, lobbying the oil-rich government to form ties with the Eastern European country of Moldova to finance organic growing methods for the apple farmers there.

While many close to him considered this a futile effort, Piazza was undeterred.

"I even told him he was Don Quixote; he was tilting at windmills," Basil Piazza said. "But he took that as a mark of honor."

His passion, determination and desire to work for social justice put him in touch with friends and academics around the world, as well as locals in need of a helping hand, according to those close to him.

Described as "more of an activist than an academic," he was a source of both frustration and admiration to friends, relatives and professors, who said they had lively memories of a tenacious man "who strongly believed in a better world."

Wherever he went, it seems, he left his mark on those around him. Now, after a four-year separation from their son, his parents say they want him back home to leave his final mark on Earth.

But that has been more difficult than they could have imagined.

The Piazzas were initially shocked to hear that they would need to spend $10,000 to have their son embalmed and shipped home in a steel casket. After the U.S. Embassy vice consul in Caracas took a head-and-shoulders picture of their son's corpse in the morgue, they decided they could have their son cremated and his ashes shipped back, but even this option required prolonged negotiations.

"We don't want to rock the boat; we don't want to prove anything," MaryAnn Piazza said, choking with emotion. "We just want our son back."

She recalled talking with her son the day before he died. He had asked her to send him some homemade cookies, inquired about whether any Christmas money might be coming his way and asked whether she and his father might fly down to Venezuela to meet a woman he hoped to marry.

The mother told her son that if there was going to be a wedding, she and his father would be there.

Murph Piazza had suffered injuries when he was born and survived a traumatic childhood accident at age 6. Each time, his mother said, doctors said the boy would suffer lifelong setbacks. But all of them were wrong.

"I always thought, 'God has a plan for this boy,' " MaryAnn Piazza said.

Murph Piazza attended Fredonia State College, studied abroad in Madrid and graduated from Buffalo State College in 1997 with a degree in Spanish. He served two tours in the Peace Corps, one in Papua New Guinea and one in Bolivia. In between tours, he worked in Madrid and later was awarded a development grant to assist Moldovan apple farmers in organic growing techniques.

He moved to Venezuela in late 2006 and began lobbying for Moldova. To support himself, he gave English lessons.

All the while, his mother and father looked forward to his eventual return. Over the years, MaryAnn Piazza said, she daydreamed that her son would surprise them at their front door on North Long Street.

"I kept thinking, 'One of these days, he'll finish what he's doing,' " she said. "I kept thinking he'd come back, maybe with some girl he'd met in the country where he was staying."

And since Murph Piazza would likely be broke, his parents would renovate the big bedroom over the garage until the newlyweds could get on their feet. They figured he could easily find work as a Spanish teacher.

"That's how I imagined we'd see Murph again," MaryAnn Piazza said.

"But we didn't," Basil Piazza added.

The Piazzas say they don't know whether their son fell onto the train tracks or jumped the day he died, although they find the latter hard to believe.

Police considered the death a suicide, but the investigation was hampered by the fact that the entire government shut down for nearly three weeks, starting three days before Christmas until the Epiphany.

During that time, their son's body remained in the morgue.

Since their son's death, the Piazzas and their children, along with the children's spouses, have been busy translating and faxing documents, talking with a Venezuelan funeral director, doing Internet outreach, coordinating with the embassy's vice consul and working through Murph Piazza's Venezuelan friends to expedite matters.

When morgue officials recently threatened to have his body dumped into a common grave, the parents were panic-stricken and sent pleas for help to the office of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. Matters at the embassy moved a little faster after that, they said.

Friday, the Piazzas got word that the morgue had finally released their son's body to the funeral home with which they had been working. They have informed the director that they will receive his body whatever way will get him back soonest.

If they're lucky, the body of Murph Piazza could be home in days, his father said.

A Mass of Christian Burial has been scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Jan. 29 in SS. Peter & Paul Catholic Church, 5480 Main St., Williamsville. The Piazzas said the service would be held regardless of whether their son's body is there.

Many of Murph Piazza's friends from around the globe also have promised his parents that while they may not be able to attend the service in Williamsville, they will stop to mourn their friend at the time the Mass is being held here.

MaryAnn Piazza said she was touched by the gesture. Her son had his flaws, but he was loved by many, she said, and that's what matters.

"He's our son," she said. "We love him. We want him home. That's it."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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