For almost a year now, Connie and Tony Paoletti have been waiting.
Waiting for word – a phone call, a text, an anonymous tip, anything – to help them find their son, Stephen, a private investigator who disappeared without a trace in Edgewater, Fla.
“It’s surreal,” Connie Paoletti said, sitting next to her husband in their home in Cheektowaga where their son grew up. The tick-tick-tick of her antique clock collection fills the airy living room where a photo of her missing son sits framed on the coffee table. “You read about missing children. You have the same feeling when your children are 45."
The Volusia County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office is investigating the case. The Paolettis also hired a private investigator in Florida to search for their son.
The Paolettis shared their story in the hopes that someone might know something about what happened to their son.
Stephen Paoletti grew up in Cheektowaga. He went to West Seneca West High School and graduated from Hilbert College with a degree in criminal justice.
He left Buffalo after college. “He didn’t like the winter,” Tony Paoletti said.
He got a job with the Lake Mary Police Department but quit after six years. His parents said he was disillusioned, particularly after an incident when he chased down a burglar who pulled a gun on him. He wasn’t happy with the amount of pay either, they said.
Stephen Paoletti became a private investigator, specializing in judgment collections. He also worked security. He had been living in Edgewater, Fla., in a camper on a small farm but was in the process of moving out after a tenant dispute with the woman who lived in a house on the farm, said his family and their private investigator, Rick Raymond. He was an avid runner who ran every morning on the beach, his family said.
Last Memorial Day weekend, Stephen Paoletti worked security at the Country 500, a three-day country music festival at the Daytona International Speedway. He called his parents after the festival, telling them he was surprised at how good the bands sounded live, his dad said.
On the following Tuesday, May 30, Stephen Paoletti exchanged texts with his girlfriend Marcia Carroll about plans for that night, the Paolettis and Raymond said. He was supposed to go to her place for a cookout. Carroll had taken some marinated chicken out of the freezer and Stephen Paoletti said he would bring a watermelon. Stephen Paoletti mentioned in a text that he was having car problems but followed up soon afterward to say he had taken care of the issue.
But he never showed up that night. He didn’t call, text or email, which was unusual, both sheriff’s investigators and Raymond said.
After not hearing from him for a couple of days, Carroll called Connie and Tony Paoletti, thinking perhaps he had flown home.
The Paolettis hadn’t seen him. They repeatedly called their son’s two cellphones and both went straight to voicemail.
“That’s when I started to panic,” Tony Paoletti recalled.
A few days later, the Paolettis were on a plane to Florida, joined by one of their son’s childhood friends in Cheektowaga who knew Florida well.
They went to the property where their son lived but weren’t allowed inside, Connie Paoletti said. They spoke with sheriff’s investigators and began making calls to area hospitals.
“We called every hospital we could think of,” Connie Paoletti said.
They offered a $5,000 reward and plastered Edgewater with posters of their missing son. They also hired Raymond.
“It really is a mystery,” Raymond said.
At Stephen Paoletti’s camper, investigators found his car with its hood up and a battery charger attached. Inside the camper, they found his cellphones. There was no sign of a struggle.
“When you have an adult and there’s no evidence of a crime, no struggle, no blood, they think people pack up and leave and wanted a new life,” Raymond said of many missing person cases. “But I didn’t get that sense from speaking with family and friends.”
If someone attacked Paoletti – and there’s no evidence of that – Raymond doesn’t believe it was a random act.
The camper was in an area that isn’t easy to reach, Raymond said. “You wouldn’t just accidentally run across this trailer,” he said. “If someone went there, they were invited. There’s a large gate to get into the property.”
Video was found of Paoletti leaving a nearby 7-Eleven on May 29 after he had purchased chips and deodorant. But beyond that, investigators haven’t found any other surveillance images, Raymond said.
The Paolettis returned to Buffalo after a week of searching and have been waiting ever since.
Raymond has looked into Stephen Paoletti’s past for clues. Paoletti was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as a child and struggled with school. He was involved in a couple of legal issues, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, which wrote about the case last June. In 2015, a man filed an injunction for protection against stalking against Stephen Paoletti, the News-Journal reported. The man said Paoletti threatened him on multiple occasions. In 2012, a court clerk filed a similar injunction against Paoletti. She said she was fearful of him because of his anger regarding a ticket for a seat belt violation, the News-Journal reported.
Raymond said he looked into both of the cases and found no connection to his disappearance.
“He had a very defined sense of right and wrong,” Raymond said of what he discovered. “If he felt he was in the right he would not let it go. It rubbed some people the wrong way.”
Paoletti was in a dispute with his landlord when he vanished, but Raymond said there’s nothing to indicate that played any part.
“She was an older woman in poor health who has been cleared by the sheriff’s office,” Raymond said.
After months of searching, including a forensic investigation of Paoletti’s computer, Raymond has found nothing to indicate what happened.
“Typically, in cases like this, there’s a bit more evidence,” Raymond said.
With no leads, Connie and Tony Paoletti increased the reward to $10,000, and now $15,000. So far they haven’t yielded any good leads.
The waiting has been excruciating.
“The not knowing is ... it’s heartbreaking,” Connie Paoletti said.
A few months ago, the couple got a call from the sheriff’s office.
A body had been found. It was believed to be female, but just in case, they asked the parents to bring their son’s dental records to the Cheektowaga Police Department. They also wanted DNA swabs from the parents.
“It was very alarming,” Tony Paoletti said.
They know the chances of finding their son alive are slim.
“You come to some kind of resignation,” Connie Paoletti said.
But they’d like to find him.
Raymond is preparing to work with a volunteer K-9 unit to search the area where Stephen Paoletti lived. And the reward is still available. The Paolettis asked anyone with information to call Rick Raymond at (386) 310-4812 or the sheriff’s office at (386) 254-1537.
Connie Paoletti can’t bear to think about how she’ll spend this May 30.
“I don’t know how our hearts could break anymore,” she said, tears forming in her eyes.