Answers, closure, call it what you will, but it's what Tony Scrocca is looking for on this late October night just outside the University of Maryland football stadium. The compact man from Branchburg, N.J. -- in red polo shirt and blue shorts, oblivious to the nippy air -- stands at the student entrance and hands out fliers as fast as he can. He's desperately searching for anyone who knows anything about what happened early one rainy morning last spring, the day his son died in a fire.
"REWARD UP TO $50,000," the flier reads in somber black ink on plain white paper. "Please Help the Scrocca family get closure."
Tony works silently, methodically, wondering if any of the countless kids in the crowd can answer his questions: Who put a gas can on the porch? Who struck the match? And why in God's name did it happen?
Who and why, Tony wants to know as beer-fueled students laugh, whoop, wobble past. They wear "Fear the Turtle" shirts or no shirts or carry silly signs or have faces painted like warriors. Now and again the sweet-pungent scent of alcohol wafts through the merriment. It's a big game. The Terrapins are playing Virginia Tech on national television and students yell at one another and scream obscenities. "Hokies suck!"
Students -- even some of the wild ones -- pause and read the handout: "Michael Scrocca died in a house fire on April 30, 2005 at 7507 Princeton Avenue, . . . just off the campus of The University of Maryland. His family would like to know how the fire started so they can start the healing process."
Some of the young people say they are sorry. Some are visibly bummed out. Others toss the sheets into trash cans and walk into the stadium.
Tony is the only member of the Scrocca family who made the four-hour trip down to College Park. "This is a tough time," he says. "My younger son, Brian, is having a tough time. As is my wife, Mary."
As is Tony. By reputation, he has always been a gregarious man and fun-loving father. But tonight he goes about his business solemnly, doing what he has to do, all that he can do. There is no spring in his step, no light in his face. He hardly speaks as he passes out leaflet after leaflet and hopes that the words will trigger somebody's memory of an episode that grows increasingly distant.
"I'm just trying," he says, choking up, "to do what I can do to piece my family back together again."
'A Sweet Kid'
Susan Scullin sees the toll the tragedy has taken on Tony. "In the back of his eyes," she says, faltering. "He's dying inside."
A secretary at Somerville High School -- where Michael graduated -- Scullin is a close friend of the Scroccas.
Somerville High, Home of the Pioneers. A traffic sign near the entrance cautions drivers to go slow: "We Have Many Children. But None to Spare."
Somerville is a lovely little screen-saver of a town in the rolling landscape of New Jersey, not far from Newark and Manhattan. The tri-corner world of Michael Scrocca was bounded by the high school there, the family home in Branchburg and St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church in nearby Bridgewater, where he is now buried. The grave is near a tree. It is decorated with flags of the Baltimore Orioles and San Francisco Giants -- and flowers and Ziploc bags of bereavement cards and a long orange bong-style beer mug.
He was a dark-haired, dark-eyed athlete. He played third base on the high school baseball team and, for a few years, trumpet in the band.
His brother, Brian, is a senior at Wagner College in Staten Island. Eleven months apart, the Scrocca boys were extremely supportive of each other, the parents say. Brian played wide receiver on the high school football team; Michael was tight end.
"He understood things quickly," recalls English teacher Cheryl Oram, "so he often distracted other students around him."
As a junior, Oram says, one of his American literature assignments was to read Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice." Some say the world will end in fire. . . .
Michael told his parents he wanted to go to the University of Maryland. "He didn't apply anywhere else," Mary Scrocca says. "He never regretted it."
He majored in finance, but his main pursuit, according to friends, was having fun.
Rob Tilley, one of Michael's pals at Maryland, remembers Michael as "a crazy guy. He was full of life. He would show up at your room and say, 'Get on your costumes, we're going to a Halloween party!' "
Michael "was definitely the driving force behind a lot of good times."
He spent a semester in Spain and on one of his breaks, he traveled to Rome. For two summers during college he worked as an intern for Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J. He had lined up a post-college job with the company. He died three weeks before graduation. He was 22.
Michael's idea of a good day, Rob says, was spending the afternoon at the University of Maryland pool playing water basketball, then going to Santa Fe Cafe -- a College Park bar -- and hanging out. "He was the kind of kid who would say the thing that everybody else was thinking but nobody was saying," Rob says. "That honesty made people like him. He was so candid."
Michael was a good athlete, but thought he was stellar at every sport, Rob recalls. "He would be by far the least talented player on the basketball court, but that didn't keep him from jacking up threes and trying to play point guard."
He is, Rob says, "100 percent irreplaceable."
Another college friend, Dan Caulfield, says that Michael would go to class "because we begged him to go to class."
Michael threw together impromptu road trips to Atlantic City and other fun spots. One weekend his parents were going to be out of town so he invited Dan and a few friends to drive north to the empty house in Branchburg where they partied heartily, then cleaned up quickly and dashed back to College Park. Tony and Mary didn't even know the kids had been home.
When Michael and Dan would get mired in Thanksgiving weekend traffic jams on I-95, they played a game to see who could make the most friends by striking up conversations with other travelers.
Dan, a politics and government major, says he was forever going to Michael with harebrained ideas. "Michael would be the catalyst," Dan says. "He would be excited about it right away. He'd figure out ways to do things."
Since Michael died, Dan says, "I've been waiting for somebody to fill that void in my life. Nobody else has come along."
It was raining very hard on April 29, the Friday night that the house caught fire, according to investigators and people who were close to Michael. That's part of the mystery: how a house could burn in such weather.
The Delta Tau guys in the house -- an 80-year-old three-story frame structure with brick underpinning and vinyl siding -- were having one hellacious party to celebrate the 21st birthday of housemate and Delta Tau member Stephen Aarons of Austin, known to his friends as Tex. There were kegs of beer here and there, several cases of malt liquor and music throbbing on the sound system. Some 60 students or more flowed in and out of the house's many rooms. Cigarette smokers gathered on the front porch where a couple of couches -- arranged in an L -- sat in a corner near a small barbecue grill. Red plastic beer cups littered the rain-soaked soiree.
Though Michael lived in the Princeton Avenue house, he was not one of the hosts. He was a member of Pi Kappa Phi, a once-legitimate fraternity whose charter had been revoked just as Michael was becoming a member because of repeated alcohol violations. On this night Michael was with Rob Tilley -- who did not live in the house -- and several other friends. The group watched sports on TV at someone else's house. At one point Michael called his father, Tony, to ask for his help loading some software for a friend. As Michael was hanging up, he said, "I love you."
Michael and the others joined the Princeton Avenue party for a short time. By all accounts, there was a river of alcohol coursing through the evening.
Hanging over the entire episode is the nagging notion that if it weren't for the fluid lifestyle of some college kids these days, if everything wasn't drenched with and driven by alcohol, the tragedy might never have occurred.
At the house, Michael ran into a Somerville High student and family friend who happened to be visiting the campus. He eventually drove her to the apartment house where she was staying.
Tilley lived nearby, so Michael parked his silver Jeep Liberty in the apartment house parking lot, though he didn't have a permit. He made sure the girl got where she was going, then he ran back to his car to discover that it had been towed.
Since it was still pouring rain, Tilley remembers, "he was going to stay the night at my place."
Sometime after 3 a.m. Michael decided to go back to his place, Tilley says. "We had this really uncomfortable couch."
Tilley said goodbye to his friend. "I smacked him on the ass as he walked out the door," Tilley says. Michael hurried the half-mile home in the storm.
The party was winding down. Michael spoke to a couple of housemates , then went to his room on the second floor.
Here the story gets more murky because there were still a few partygoers coming and going. Steve Kerpelman, a private investigator working for the Scroccas, is not sure how many people were at the house when Michael finally called it a night. "Let's just say there were other people sleeping in several of the rooms," Kerpelman says.
In fact there were eight people in the house.
Michael slept alone in his second-floor room. Several of his housemates apparently were with girls in their rooms.
Just after 4 a.m., a couple of women driving past the house saw a small fire on the front porch. They stopped the car. One woman ran through the rain to wake up the people in the house. The other dialed for help.
The call to the Capitol Heights 911 center came in around 4:15, Kerpelman says. "The fire department was on the scene in six minutes," he says. "The firehouse is a mile from Scrocca's home."
One housemate heard somebody scream, "Fire! Fire!" He snagged his cell phone and headed downstairs. He didn't know that Michael, a sound sleeper, was in his room. Other residents ran out into the rain. Michael's Jeep was not parked out front.
Eyewitnesses told investigators that in an attempt to extinguish the flames someone poured something -- perhaps some form of alcohol -- from a cup onto the fire. The fire grew bigger. Flames climbed the front of the house and smoke rolled into all the rooms.
Others in the house heard smoke alarms. Aarons, who lived on the top floor, jumped from a window. He suffered severe burns and fractured both legs in the fall.
Michael had been drinking beer that evening, Kerpelman says, "but so had the other kids." The autopsy showed that Michael's blood-alcohol level was low, a police official noted.
After firefighters battled the blaze, they entered the house and found Michael in his bed. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was declared dead.
The cause of death was known: smoke inhalation.
The cause of the fire, however, is still unknown.
Red Plastic Gas Can
There were two memorial services. One at St. Bernard and one at the university.
At the New Jersey service, 600 mourners showed up. Music from "Top Gun," one of Michael's favorite movies, was played. Brian told the congregation that his parents spoiled him before he was born by giving him such a wonderful brother.
Just after the College Park service, Mark Brady of the Prince George's County Fire Department pulled Tony and Mary aside to tell them that during the service, he had received a call from the fire department's investigator.
"I thought they were going to come back and tell me that the fire was an accident," Tony says, "caused by cigarettes."
But that's not what Brady said. He told the Scroccas that investigators had found remnants of a red plastic gas can on the front porch, near the couches and the barbecue grill. He said the fire department, charged with determining the origin and cause of the fire, decided it was a case of arson. The medical examiner ruled Michael's death a homicide, so the police department took charge of the investigation.
"We just couldn't explain the presence of that gas can," says Brady. Investigators believe that gasoline from the container was at the heart of the fire's inception. "An accelerant-sniffing dog did make a hit on flammable liquids," Brady says.
Though he's been with the fire department for 27 years, Brady says the Michael Scrocca case "has affected me more than any other case I've been on in my career." He says he is overwhelmed by the senselessness of it.
The gas can, according to Prince George's County police detective Ben Brown, apparently came from a neighboring house. Brown says the owner told him the container had been sitting by a lawn mower, unused, for months.
Brown is the lead detective on the case. A slightly built, straight-arrow sort with eyes that lock into yours, he says this case sticks in his craw too. "I have a son," Brown says.
He recalls that when he went into the house later that Saturday morning. "Michael's bed was still smoldering. His computer was smoldering; his credit cards were melted."
Brown is convinced that the key to the mystery of Michael's death is learning how that red gas can wound up on Michael's front porch. He is not sure he will ever know.
Father Anthony Sirianni, who performed the funeral ceremony at St. Bernard, says that sometimes there are no answers.
In an interview in his rectory, he refers to Harold Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." The answer to the question "why do they happen," he says, is in Tony and Mary's response to Michael's death. They are, he says, a family of much love and strong faith.
"They deserve answers," he says.
He says, "I hate the word closure. You don't bring closure in something like this. It's a fire that never should have happened."
'Sleeping in His Bed'
Tony and Mary Scrocca live in a blue colonial that sits on a small rise overlooking woods and a rushing creek. There is a basketball goal in the driveway and a swimming pool in the back yard.
In a green jacket, yellow blouse and dark pants, Mary looks like a real estate agent, which she is. Michael had her dark hair. Tony is a longtime software specialist at Accenture, the management consulting firm. Michael had Tony's joie de vivre.
You love your children and you give them a nice home, Mary says. You do everything you can to protect them and provide a safe world. But in the end there is no such thing.
They watched Michael live and laugh while the world around him fell apart. She ticks off the dangers Michael survived: 9/11, hurricanes, Washington snipers, the Madrid bombing while he was in Spain.
She sighs. "And all he is doing is sleeping in his bed. It is so stupid. It makes you angry."
She looks around the kitchen. Gray light from an overcast afternoon comes through the window. "He brought a lot of life into our house," she says. "It's very quiet."
Tony says, "There was a lot of loss in this. He never experienced all the wonderful things I did."
Upstairs, Michael's room is as he left it. There's a blue plaid spread on the bed, baseball posters on the wall. Mary sorts through a box of pictures and keepsakes on his dresser. Propped against the dresser is a framed diploma, provided posthumously by the university.
Some of Michael's clothes, salvaged from the house after the fire, hang in his closet. They still smell of smoke.
Mary says he wanted this room because he planned to build a waterslide down to the pool. From his window you can see the pool in the back yard. The cover is drawn. Dry brown leaves sweep past.
The Scroccas do not believe that the arson was targeted at their son. "But we want to know who started it," Tony says. "And ask them: What were your reasons for starting a fire?"
Mary says, "I think the person who did this probably needs some help."
The Scroccas remember the success of prosecutors in the 2000 dormitory fire at nearby Seton Hall University. Three New Jersey students were killed in that blaze. Two other students were eventually charged with arson.
The Scroccas realize that whoever was involved in the fire that killed Michael might be reticent about telling the police. They hired Kerpelman, thinking that people might feel more comfortable opening up to a private eye than to a cop.
And they have offered a substantial reward. If necessary, Tony says he is willing to take out a second mortgage on the house. He will do or spend whatever it takes to find answers. "We are not looking to prosecute anybody," Tony says. "Our intent in hiring Steve is to help us get closure."
The Arson Report
A recently retired Prince George's County cop, Kerpelman now runs his own private investigation business in Gambrills. He and his small staff, which includes his wife, Janene, have been interviewing people who were at the party or who might know what happened that night. He gives Tony and Mary frequent updates.
Michael's death does not appear to be related to drugs or gambling debts, he says. "I have asked everybody who lived in the house and nobody thinks anybody has a grudge, especially against Michael."
Kerpelman is anxious to see the final arson report. He has requested it from the fire department but they have not released it to him. Detective Brown says he has seen the report, but it doesn't really add much to what he already knew. The report is not made public because it is part of a homicide investigation, Brown says.
There is anger in Tony's voice when he says, "I'm really disappointed in the inability of the fire department to provide any information. They have not been helpful whatsoever."
Mark Brady, a fire department spokesman, says, "There are some elements of the reports that we need to keep to ourselves that will assist us in investigating this case. I am confident when this case comes to a conclusion and we finally find out what happened that night, the fire department and the police department will be willing to share the details with the family. But we can't do it until the case is closed."
Kerpelman has called in an independent arson investigator.
Was it a jealous ex of one of Michael's housemates? Kerpelman and Brown say that has not been completely ruled out. Was it somebody who got kicked out of the party? The investigators say they have no reason to believe it was. Was it just an innocent accident or maybe a drunken mistake made by a college kid? Investigators say perhaps. Was it a serial arsonist? "We find that unlikely in this case," Kerpelman says.
But, he says, "Somebody has to know. Even if it's just one person."
A Somber Party
For a while after the blaze, the fire department used the Princeton Avenue house for training. It was condemned and eventually demolished. On the night of the Maryland-Virginia Tech game -- almost six months after the tragedy -- there is still a faint hint of smoke in the air at the site. The yard is enveloped by an orange plastic-mesh police fence. There's a hole in the ground where the house once stood. A set of concrete and brick steps leads to nowhere. In houses all around there are warm lights and movement. Within walking distance, the two football teams are about to kick off.
At Byrd Stadium, Scrocca's 10,000 fliers are packed in two blue cardboard boxes. They sit on a folding table provided by the university.
Tony continues to hand out fliers. As does Ben Brown in a dark suit. And Kerpelman, in a light blue shirt and urban camo pants. "I'm not selling anything," Kerpelman says to passersby. "I'm trying to find out how Michael Scrocca died."
This is the party atmosphere that Michael loved so much. Kids carry red cups of beer, spilling it here and there. There is a powerful sense of immortality all around. A couple of students careen into the street, barely missing passing cars.
And there is a surreality to the scene. Loud music blasts as a DJ spins discs in the back of a nearby truck. A young bearded man in a black coat has set up a tent and, with branches and citron in hand, is trying to get Jewish students to pray with him. Lauren Stanton, a student photographer, walks up to Tony and gives him a hug. She says she didn't know Michael, but has put together a photography exhibit of the house on Princeton Avenue.
She is dedicating the show to Michael.
Near game time, friends of Michael's begin to arrive. Dan Caulfield walks up in a black sweatshirt and yellow headband. He is so overcome with sadness at one point that he sits on the curb and lowers his head.
Rob Tilley is there in a black T-shirt. Another friend shows Tony a new three-letter tattoo on the inside of his arm. MAS: Michael's initials. Tex Aarons arrives. He is a big kid in a green jacket. "I came here to grieve," Aarons tells Tony.
The boys stand with Tony. They tell stories of Michael. They slap him on the back and hug him and remember the time he took a bunch of them to an Orioles game. One of the kids pours the rest of a Natural Light beer into a cup and drops the can on the sidewalk. The wind has picked up. The night is cold.
For the first time, standing with his son's friends, listening to their stories and memories of Michael, Tony seems almost carefree. He laughs and he shakes his head at certain tales. He looks up at the taller guys and claps them on the back now and then with the hand that's not holding the fliers. He stops handing out fliers for a few minutes and basks in the spirit of his lost son. Michael is present, though he is not.
Then Tony takes a deep breath and begins handing out more fliers and looking for more truth.
He believes that "somebody knows something," as he puts it.
Whatever the truth, it cannot help the dead, but Tony and Mary believe, they have to believe, it might help the living.