NEW YORK (AP) — 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, police said Wednesday. It was a tragic development in a case where state police declined to issue an Amber Alert and local police 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 in a residential neighborhood, as Jovani Ligurgo and his father, John. The Jeep matched the description and license plate of Ligurgo's vehicle. Police on Long Island said they were still awaiting positive identifications.
John Ligurgo, 43, fled Long Island 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 drop the boy off at her home at 3:30 p.m., as required by a family court visitation order. His Jeep was recorded crossing the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey about four hours later.
The bodies were found in Rockbridge, in central Virginia between Charlottesville and Roanoke, about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday. Sheriff's deputies investigating a suspicious vehicle ran the license plate number and matched it to an advisory sent to law enforcement, police said. They did not say how they were killed.
"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 watching the cartoons "PJ Masks" and "Wallykazam" and playing with his cousins and his 26-year-old half-brother, who cried profusely at the news that the bodies were found.
Pulizzi, who is Busone's sister, said Busone was petitioning for full custody and wanted Ligurgo ordered to undergo drug testing and a psychological examination as a condition of his visitation rights. A hearing was scheduled for Thursday.
Pulizzi said her sister filed the petition when she decided to leave the "toxic" three-year relationship and moved out in April. Around the same time, she said, Ligurgo was fired from his job as a courier for smoking marijuana at work. They were never married. She said that Ligurgo was selfish and controlling and psychologically abused Busone, frequently calling her terrible names. The behavior led her family to fear that 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."
Suffolk police asked the New York State Police to issue an Amber Alert for Jovani, but state police said the information they provided did not meet the criteria for one. Ligurgo did not have a criminal history or history of violence and had never harmed the boy, state police said.
Amber Alerts are issued only when an abducted child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death, according to the criteria. 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 past behavior should have justified an Amber Alert.
Instead, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said, the department issued a "be on the lookout" advisory and added description 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 wanted until 12:30 a.m. Wednesday to send a press release to the media 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.
The boy was to spend the day with his father while she worked, but Pulizzi said Busone grew concerned when Ligurgo wouldn't answer her calls. She called the condominium complex and learned there had been a fire.
Neighbors reported hearing a loud bang and seeing Ligurgo running out of his home, Pulizzi said. Firefighters said no one was there when they 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."