A 2-year-old Long Island boy and the father suspected of abducting him during a bitter custody fight are believed to be dead in Virginia, each with a gunshot wound in an apparent murder-suicide, police said Wednesday. It was a tragic development in a case where authorities declined to issue an Amber Alert and waited more than six hours to ask the public for help.
Rockbridge County sheriff's deputies tentatively identified the bodies, found in a Jeep Grand Cherokee that had been set on fire in the backyard of a home, as Jovani Ligurgo and his father, John Ligurgo. The Jeep matched the description and license plate of Ligurgo's vehicle. Police in Suffolk County, Long Island said they were still awaiting positive identifications.
Ligurgo, 43, fled with Jovani on Tuesday after setting fire to the bedroom of his condominium, police said. Jovani's mother, Maria Busone, called police when he failed to return the boy to her home at 3:30 p.m., as required by a visitation order. His Jeep was recorded crossing the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey about four hours later.
The bodies were found in Raphine, in central Virginia, about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday. Sheriff's deputies ran the license plate after firefighters were alerted to the Jeep fire and matched it to an advisory sent to law enforcement, police said. Ligurgo did not appear to have any connection to the area.
"It's like a nightmare. It's heartbreaking,'' Jovani's aunt, Jackie Pulizzi, told The Associated Press. "This poor baby hasn't even gotten a chance to live.''
Jovani was just starting to talk, Pulizzi said. He enjoyed the cartoons "PJ Masks'' and "Wallykazam'' and playing with his cousins and his 26-year-old half-brother, who cried profusely at hearing that the bodies were found.
Pulizzi, who is Busone's sister, said Busone was petitioning for full custody and wanted Ligurgo to undergo drug testing and a psychological examination as a condition of his visitation. A hearing was scheduled for Thursday, she said.
Pulizzi said her sister filed the petition when she decided to end the "toxic'' three-year relationship and moved out in April.
Around the same time, she said, Ligurgo was fired from his courier job for smoking marijuana at work. They were never married. Pulizzi said that Ligurgo was selfish and controlling and psychologically abused Busone, frequently calling her terrible names. Her family feared he would do something far worse.
"He was not interested in working anything out,'' Pulizzi said. "His thought process was, 'If I can't have him, nobody can.' No man of rational thinking does that.''
Telephone numbers listed for Ligurgo's parents were disconnected.
Suffolk police asked New York State Police to issue an Amber Alert, but state police said information they provided did not meet the criteria for one.
Amber Alerts are issued only when an abducted child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death and Ligurgo did not have a criminal record or history of violence and had never harmed Jovani, state police said.
Suffolk police said Ligurgo may have been armed with a hunting rifle, but that they had no indication that he would harm his son.
Jovani's family, which had spread photos and updates on Facebook, said Ligurgo's unstable behavior should have justified an Amber Alert.
Instead, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said, the department issued a "be on the lookout'' advisory and sent descriptions of Jovani, Ligurgo and the Jeep to a national law enforcement alert system.
Police started investigating the matter as a missing person case around 6 p.m. -once they connected Jovani's disappearance to the fire - but waited until 12:30 a.m. Wednesday to send a press release seeking the public's help.
"We were gathering the facts of the case, we were reaching out to our law enforcement partners and then the determination was made to reach out to the media,'' Hart said.
Busone dropped Jovani off at Ligurgo's condominium about 7 a.m. Tuesday, as part of their existing visitation agreement. Pulizzi said Busone grew concerned when Ligurgo wouldn't answer her calls. She called the condominium complex and learned of the fire.
Neighbors said they heard a bang and saw Ligurgo running from his home. No one was there when firefighters arrived.
"The totality of the circumstances indicated this could be serious,'' Suffolk County Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante said. "He could have turned up in a hotel room and drove back today, but unfortunately that wasn't the case.''