Troubling Clues in Case of Unsolved 1982 Chicago Kidnapping

Jill Kellett Smolios has always had one piece missing from her family’s story: the big sister who vanished without a trace. Phil Rogers reports. (Published Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018)

Jill Kellett Smolios has always had one piece missing from her family’s story: the big sister who vanished without a trace.

“I just have pictures and stories,” she says. “And unfortunately, if those pictures and stories weren’t around, I wouldn’t really know who she was.”

On May 7, 1982, Jill’s half-sister Tricia Kellett was 8 years old, when she went outside after school in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and never came home. No trace. No clues.

No resolution to a mystery which has now spanned 35 years.

“She was always on the go---she couldn’t sit still,” her sister recalls. “She would eat dinner as fast as she could, and go outside and play.”

Tricia was seen playing with puppies on a neighbor’s porch. Publicly, police released details that she was last seen getting into a car with a man, or maybe two men, near the corner of Leland and Malden.

But the case was never solved.

Now, NBC 5 Investigates has obtained the police reports from the troubling case, and they reveal facts which the family says they never knew: there was a suspect; he talked openly about Tricia, and at one point, even offered that “maybe” he was her killer.

That man was Marvin Pontarelli. The CPD reports indicate investigators first focused on him, after getting a description of the car Tricia got into the day she vanished.

“The auto is registered to Pontarelli, Marvin,” investigators wrote the day after Tricia’s disappearance. “Reporting officer checked this name and learned that this man has an extensive background including kidnapping, sexual assault, and rape.”

That officer said he obtained a photo of Pontarelli and showed it around the neighborhood. Many recognized him, including some who recalled seeing Pontarelli entering the nearby Malden Arms hotel with Tricia the day she was reported missing.

The very next day, Pontarelli was at what was then Area 6 headquarters at Belmont and Western.

“Marvin Pontarelli came into Area 6 Youth for questioning and agreed to take a polygraph test,” an officer wrote. “The test was administered with a finding of non-cooperative/guilty.”

On May 10, three days after Tricia vanished, witnesses were brought into the old Area 6 police headquarters to view a line-up.

“Wit#7 positively identified Pontarelli as the person he observed with the missing child,” an officer wrote. “Wit#3 positively identified Pontarelli as the person she observed in the company of the missing child. They then left in a car blue color.”

The officer added, “Wit#1 positively identified Pontarelli as the person he observed with the missing child.”

The reports indicate one of those witnesses said he saw Pontarelli entering the Malden Arms with Tricia and another man.

“He said that as Marvin Pontarelli (who he picked out of the lineup) walked past, Marvin threw a cigarette on his dog,” an officer wrote. “He told him not to do that because the dog started to bark at him.”

Tricia’s sister says today, she never knew there was a suspect.

“I’m shocked!” she said.

The reports reveal that police looked at numerous individuals in the neighborhood who seem to have had troubling pasts with children. They also show that Pontarelli did face charges the day of that lineup --- not for Tricia’s kidnapping, but other offenses relating to other neighborhood children: contributing to the delinquency of a minor, indecent liberties with a child, child pornography, and various weapons charges.

Six months later, without explanation, a separate report says those charges were dismissed. But police weren’t done with Pontarelli. Nearly two years after Tricia’s disappearance, a new lead involving a new name came in, from a new place---Tucson, Arizona.

“As recorded in prior reports, Pontarelli was overheard to want a young blonde white girl to be photographed with Larry Fassler while having sex with him for the purpose of blackmail,” police from Arizona said.

That information is included in a heavily redacted report. But a police source confirmed that Fassler is the name mentioned underneath many of those redactions.

Fassler, who is now deceased, reportedly was a former inmate Pontarelli met during a previous stay in a California prison. And he reportedly was someone who Pontarelli owed a lot of money.

Investigators further stated in the Chicago police report that a search of Fassler’s address book showed an entry for Tricia, with her Chicago address.

“Right under her name, the name of Marvin Pontarelli was listed,” the officers wrote. “The entry in the book was dated October of 1982.”

In July of 1984, the Chicago reports indicate Fassler called Arizona authorities asking to be interviewed. At that time, he indicated that he had written the information into his address book after being interviewed about Tricia by other officers.

“(He) felt that if Pontarelli were a suspect in the case he would be a likely offender due to his history of violent crime and his propensity for young children to satisfy his sexual habits,” the officers wrote in that report.

A year would pass, and Chicago Police were contacted again by their counterparts in Arizona. This time, Phoenix police said they had Pontarelli in custody on an unrelated case.

“Immediately after his arrest, Pontarelli was questioned as to the disappearance,” they wrote. “He began to cry and state, in summary, that he believed she is dead and barried (sic) on some property in Illinois that his family owns.”

“When questioned further he said, in summary, that he believes one Larry Fassler was responsible for the death,” they continued in that document. “Pontarelli then refused to continue with the interview.”

Weeks later, the reports indicate Pontarelli changed his story. This time, he speculated that Fassler had taken Tricia to Mexico.

“He did not elaborate on this theory,” the report states. But one Arizona investigator noted that he had developed information that Pontarelli had a propensity for traveling to Mexico with underaged girls.

Pontarelli was convicted in Maricopa County of Arizona on a variety of felony burglary and drug charges. And his pre-sentence report in that case, the report submitted to the judge, reveals troubling references to Tricia Kellett.

“The defendant made detailed notes describing the physical characteristics of young girls and their school bus arrival times,” a Maricopa County police captain reported. “In reference to the missing Kellett girl (he said), ‘Maybe I have a split personality—the one I’m not aware of is the one that killed her.’”

Most troubling of all, was a reference in the Arizona report’s final pages. A Chicago detective was quoted as saying he wanted to know where Pontarelli had buried Tricia, who he said had been kidnapped for prostitution purposes.

“The defendant was the last person seen with the child,” that Chicago detective reported. “Her three friends, ages 11 and 12, picked the defendant out of a lineup and gave statements leading to his indictment.”

“They reported he took them to his apartment, gave them beer and narcotics, copulated with them, forced them to engage in other sexual acts, and photographed them.”

The Chicago officer stated that a search of Pontarelli’s apartment produced 66 pieces of child pornography on which the girls and other children appeared, as well as firearms and a wide variety of sexual paraphernalia, knives, brass knuckles, tear gas, cattle prods, and handcuffs.

“The girls failed to appear in court,” he said in the report. “Their families… subsequently acquired expensive, late-model automobiles. There were multiple instances of apparent payoffs and tampering with the system. The case was dismissed.”

The report further states that the Chicago officer believed “the Kellett child’s body lies in the foundation of Pontarelli Apartments; the cement was being poured at the time of her disappearance.”

Pontarelli died in prison in 1994. Contacted by NBC 5 Investigates, his half sister Louise Cosmano said she did not want to believe he could have been involved in such a tragic crime.

“If he was involved in any way---or if he was not—I feel terrible that someone had to go without their daughter,” she said. “If it was Marvin, it breaks my heart.”

She added that since NBC 5 first contacted her with information about what was contained in the files, “I’ve been praying for that family.”

Through the reports, there are no references to Tricia’s family ever being advised of a suspect. Speaking now, Jill Kellett Smolios says her father died in 2009 having never known what happened to his daughter.

“He thought he would hear Tricia walking through the house and she wasn’t there,” she said. “If we did bring up her name, you could see it was too painful for him to talk about---he’d just kind of walk away.”

In a statement, Chicago police said it would be imprudent to speculate on why the case ended the way it did.

“However,” the statement continued, “in hope to provide her family members some level of closure, CPD detectives will review the case to potentially generate and explore new leads. We urge anyone who may have information on Ms. Kellett's disappearance to contact Area North Detectives at 312-744-8261 or to contact us anonymously, visit www.CPDTip.com.”

Jill says she hopes the Arizona report causes CPD to fully re-open her sister’s case. Maybe they can find that building. And if they do, maybe, just maybe, they’ll find Tricia.

“At least we’ll have answers and we’ll know something and not always be worried, is she still alive, is she dead,” she says. “She can be put to rest, that her name hasn’t just gone under the radar, under a rug for the last 35 years.”