Alexandra Sacchi—Alexa to her friends—was the adopted daughter of Dominic Sacchi, a professional stage magician, and Elia Kukuc, a palmist and tarot card reader whom he had met when the couple worked for a touring sideshow and freak act called The Dani Rose Circus. It was by all accounts a pretty toxic relationship from the start. Dominic, well-groomed and handsome, had been involved with Dani Rose, fifteen years his senior, right up until a week before his marriage to Ms. Kukuc. Witnesses reported it wasn’t long before the couple started arguing, usually over Alexa, who had both Down’s Syndrome and a severe form of autism. Police were called on two occasions—once in Atlanta and once outside Zanesville, Ohio—although none of the officers involved had much to say. Run-of-the-mill “he said/she said” domestic disturbances, I was told, as if two sets of cops from two jurisdictions were reading from the same script.
Then, about seven years ago, on the night of October 24th, Dominic Sacchi called 911 and claimed he’d been attacked by his wife, but when officers arrived—this was in Fresno—he recanted and said there’d been a misunderstanding and that the sliver cuts on his hands and face were the result of an accident with a new act he was developing for his show. He showed the officers a collection of kitchen knives and said his wife wasn’t even home, that she was with their daughter in the city and had been all night, and that Alexa would corroborate his story.
Four weeks later, The Dani Rose Circus was in the middle of a four-night stretch in Brooklyn when both Dominic Sacchi and Elia Kukuc didn’t show up for work. Dani Rose checked their rooms, where she found all of their belongings, including dirty clothes on the floor and a hair dryer still plugged into the wall, but no family.
Dominic was traced by his cell phone to a weekly apartment in Flushing, where he was discovered alone. Neither his wife nor his 15-year-old daughter were anywhere to be found. Clearly distraught, he claimed Elia had left him and took the girl, and the shock and embarrassment drove him to flee the circus. He just couldn’t face his friends and colleagues, he said—especially the domineering and vindictive Ms. Rose, who was “as jealous as a polecat.”
The responding officers weren’t convinced, and the case was remanded to me and my then-partner, Craig Hammond. Thing is, it’s hard to prove a murder when you don’t have a body, or even evidence of one. But when one day turned to two, and two days turned to a week, and a week turned to a month and there was still no sign of either Ms. Kukuc or the girl, everyone suspected the worst.
Certainly, the more Hammond and I dug, the more we got the sense that there was definitely something very wrong. To start, “Elia Kukuc” didn’t exist. She was the stage persona of one Palmer Bell from River City, Iowa. Palmer’s parents hadn’t heard from her in years, ever since she—quite literally—ran away to join the circus. That is, until she miraculously showed up at their house the week before. She was still there, they said, although she predictably contradicted her husband, whom she claimed was the one who had left, taking Alexa with him.
“She wasn’t even mine,” she said.
I’d say I was surprised by Palmer Bell’s apparent lack of concern for the missing girl, but I’ve had to deal with too many people, especially from a certain segment of society.
For his part, Dominic Sacchi—who turned out to have been raised right here on Staten Island—appeared to be a tattooed choir boy. Before his marriage to Ms. Bell, he was actively involved in the Unitarian/Universalist Church and a frequent campaigner for animal rights, which was the ultimate cause of his only prior arrest. Before turning his hobby into a career, at the apparent urging of Dani Rose, with whom he’d maintained a long-term affair, Dominic had been a carpenter and general construction laborer and something of a local Lothario.
The most distinguishing feature of the case, however—the thing I remember most vividly—is how there were no witnesses. To anything. No one would talk to us. They would never say that, of course. They would just say there was nothing to tell. But in my experience, everyone has something to tell. Even when they don’t know anything at all, people will fill your ears with gossip and speculation. But not here. Hammond and I got the distinct impression they’d been intimidated—at first we thought by Dominic. But the more we pressed, the more we realized the person they really feared was Palmer Bell.
I did find one acquaintance, a sword-swallower turned dog groomer named Bea Wimbly, who’d had a falling out with the couple over their treatment of Alexa and who subsequently quit the circus. Bea agreed to talk to us, but only off the record. She wouldn’t testify to anything, she cautioned, and only indirectly hinted that the cuts on Alexa’s arms were indeed self-inflicted, as her doctor had suspected, and that on one occasion young Alexa had mentioned to Bea that the deep scarring that disfigured her skin was a result of her mother rubbing de-icing salt and the girl’s own feces in the wounds as a means of discouraging her from further self-harm. Bea claimed to have confronted Ms. Bell, who first said it was an idiot’s fantasy but eventually declared it was in the girl’s best interests, that she couldn’t understand anything else, and that Alexa’s business was hers and Dominic’s and no one else’s.
Bea said she was given a very vague threat, something about her needing to stop worrying about other people’s families and pay more attention to her own lest anything bad happen. She said she thought it was odd given that she was childless and single. Two days later, Bea’s best friend, an eight-year-old black lab named Betty, who minded her every word, bolted out the door of their apartment as if in fear and was struck by a car and killed.
As if things weren’t complicated enough, birth records indicated that Elia Kukuc, AKA Palmer Bell, wasn’t the only fiction. Alexa Sacchi was also an invention. She’d been born Megan Green and didn’t become Alexandra Sacchi until first spending seven months as Julie Bell, with no indication as to why. All we know is that Dominic—under Palmer’s direction—changed her name. Twice.
Nothing was any clearer after I spoke with the case worker who oversaw the adoption. She said it had been welcome, that institutionalized kids with a severe mental handicap were very hard to place, especially as they got older. Someone like Alexa required plenty of patience and care. The only real oddity was Ms. Bell’s insistence that her name be left off all the documents and that Dominic should be listed as the girl’s sole legal guardian.
When I asked the case worker why she would approve the transition without digging into that, I got a defensive, roundabout reply and that same feeling that she’d been another victim of intimidation. Whatever her initial reservations, it seems the woman justified it to herself after the fact on the grounds that no couple was perfect and that the alternative for Megan (as she knew her) was life in an institution as a ward of the state.
“Megan wanted it,” I was told. “She wanted a home, same as any other child. I didn’t want to be the one to take that away from her.”
Everyone knew the girl was the key to the case. But she’d vanished without a trace.
Detective Hammond and I instructed Dominic Sacchi not to leave the state. When he did anyway, a warrant was issued, which was executed several days later by a Maine state trooper. Dominic was brought back to New York, along with his now-ex-wife, and both were charged with the second-degree murder of Alexandra Sacchi. But without any physical evidence and nothing but the scant testimony of some of the circus performers—especially the leather-clad Dani Rose, whom the defense easily painted as a jilted lover—both Dominic Sacchi and Palmer Bell were found not guilty and released.
Dominic fled immediately. Eighteen months later, he was found stabbed to death in a motel in South Bend, Indiana.
It was around then that Palmer Bell was arrested on a second charge—felony child endangerment. But without the testimony of Bea Wimbly, who staunchly refused every request, Palmer was acquitted a second time. I think it helped her case, however indirectly, that she was never Alexa’s legal guardian. And that she was a woman. Juries still tend to think of us as the weaker sex. It’s easy to paint the husband as the perpetrator, especially when he isn’t around to defend himself. Or show what a pussy he was.
Palmer was so smug through the trial. Like a mafia don. She was sure she’d walk.
The Dani Rose Circus sold Dominic’s props as soon as they were released from the evidence locker, including the only one of any interest: a tall box, like a standing coffin almost, except a bit larger, with a single door. All four walls were mirrors, as well as both the ceiling and the floor. When found, it was lying prone and open in the circus storage. Dominic and Palmer’s fingerprints were all over it, but Alexa’s were only found in one place—her full palm print was on the back mirror, the one that had been smashed, presumably by a blunt object. Cracks radiated out from a single impact point.
Hammond said it was nothing, but that impact point was the exact center of the palm print. I wanted to talk to some people who might know about that kind of thing. Magic was just too prominent in the case, from Dominic’s day job to the strange voices her fellow inmate’s heard emanating from Palmer’s cell in the middle of the night. But Hammond laughed it off. “Buncha crystal-worshiping nut jobs” he said. I got mad, some some things I shouldn’t have.
A few months later, I requested a transfer, which was approved, and I moved downtown. Craig and I still keep in touch, but it’s never been the same. I’ve had a couple new partners since, but none of them lasted very long. And there’s always a long gap between. Like now. I’ve been awaiting reassignment for the better part of the year. In fact, the difficulty of finding someone is what triggered the mandatory psych eval, which is why I’m required to visit the good Dr. More every two weeks.
To this day, the disappearance and presumed death of Alexa Sacchi remains officially unsolved.
rough cut from my forthcoming occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.
cover image by Leilani Bustamente