In the spring of 1982, a missing persons case rocked the area of New Port Richey, Florida — ultimately exposing a cold-blooded murder-for-hire scheme.
Single mom Patricia Rhiner was working at a real estate firm owned by a married couple, Roman and Jackie Stangherlin. Although the Stangherlins seemed a normal couple at first glance, the reality was their marriage was on the rocks and they were divorcing. Roman had already started to move on, and was spending time with Patricia outside of work.
Then on the evening on April 1, he was supposed to have dinner with Patricia but never showed up. This behavior was unlike Roman, so the next day, when Patricia was still unable to reach her boyfriend, she contacted the police instead, only to learn Roman’s divorce attorney had already filed a missing person report. Police began their hunt to find Roman.
Patricia also kept looking — and found his car parked in a motel parking lot. Authorities searched the motel, but there was no sign of Roman anywhere.
“Was Roman still alive? Maybe he’d just been hiding himself for several days. No one really knew,” Detective William Scott Phillips with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office told Oxygen’s “Buried in the Backyard,” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
Detectives interviewed Patricia, and when her story checked out, it was clear that they would need to dig deeper into Roman’s life if they were going to find out where he could have gone — or who could have reason to want to hurt him.
Roman, who grew up in northern Italy, was encouraged by family members to join the priesthood. But although he loved the Catholic Church, he wasn’t quite ready to give up a secular life. He left on a sabbatical and went to California, where he met Jackie, a single mother, and the two fell in love. Roman abandoned priesthood in order to start a new life as a husband and father. They soon had a child together, Ann Marie, and the family later moved to Florida to get in on a flourishing real estate market.
But 10 years later, in the midst of running a successful real estate business together, it was clear to Roman that the spark between the couple had gone out.
“He knew in his heart that whatever they had was lost, it was gone. Where, how, why, it almost didn’t matter anymore,” Betty Mocik Motter, a friend of the Stangherlins, told producers. “He wanted to be happy.”
Investigators called in Jackie for questioning. She was cooperative and told police she didn't know where her husband was. There was one problem, however: Jackie still loved Roman and wanted the marriage to work — and because of that, she didn’t get along with Patricia. Roman had no interest in saving the marriage, though, and had already filed for divorce, according to his attorney.
It was certainly enough to make police suspicious, but Jackie had a solid alibi: On the day that her husband disappeared, Jackie had been at a real estate conference in Orlando.
They got to work retracing Roman’s steps the day he disappeared. His stepson said he’d left the real estate office at around 3 p.m. the day he went missing, and that was the last time anyone had seen him.
“We had nothing further to go on,” Detective Thomas Blackman with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office told producers.
Soon, tips from the public started to roll in, and while most were dead ends, a call from a neighboring county finally gave investigators a break they needed. A realtor in a neighboring county, a man named Charles Hope, had also gone missing under suspicious circumstances around the time Roman vanished. Even more suspicious was the fact that Roman and Hope had known each other, as most realtors in the area did.
On the night Hope had disappeared, he’d gone to a local bar called the Red Fish for drinks. He left just after midnight on April 1, and he hadn’t been seen since. Detectives were now facing a troubling question: Was someone targeting real estate agents?
Then, on April 24, 1982, investigators received a letter from a woman named Rosa who claimed her boyfriend had been involved in a murder that took place around the same time Hope and Roman had gone missing. During the subsequent interview with authorities, Rosa expanded on her claims: Her boyfriend had asked her to pick him up to help him move furniture, but when she saw him, he had blood on his clothes. Her boyfriend, Anthony Colandro, had killed someone in a furniture store — but he’d been paid to do it, she said.
Detectives began looking into Colandro and learned he was a short-order cook at a restaurant in New Port Richey. They also identified the owner of the furniture store as a man named William Powlowski.
Powlowski claimed he had no idea what they were talking about when speaking to police, but as authorities surveyed his store they found clues suggesting otherwise: Carpet was missing from odd places on the floor and there were bloodstains on the walls and floor.
Colandro, meanwhile, denied any wrongdoing and claimed that Rosa was crazy when first questioned, but he eventually came clean: He said that he’d been hired on April 1 to move furniture at a furniture store, but on the day in question, he’d walked in and found a man covered in blood and lying on cardboard. The owner of the store then told Colandro to help clean up the crime scene and help him get rid of the body. He would be paid not only for his help, but to keep quiet.
The body in the store was Roman, Colandro said.
Colandro told police while he was cleaning up the scene Powlowski had been making phone calls, and so they were able to obtain his phone records and find he’d twice called a man named Stanley Modzelewski, who lived in a rural area in Hudson. There was a farm there, and Colandro said that was where Roman’s body had been buried.
When authorities got to the farm, they were met by Modzelewski, who denied any involvement in Roman’s murder. Police had to again talk to Colandro. This time, he revealed it was Jackie Stangherlin, Roman’s wife, who’d paid him to clean up the murder scene. He also claimed she’d been present at the furniture store.
Detectives double-checked Jackie’s alibi and realized there would have been enough time for her to attend the conference and also be present during the murder — but now they were left figuring out how to prove it. They tried to press Modzelewski for answers, but got nowhere. However, everything changed on the morning of May 24, when investigators received a phone call from an attorney who said that his client, Stanley Modzelewski, was interested in talking.
They worked out a deal: Modzelewski would not be prosecuted, and in exchange he would testify against the others involved in Roman’s murder and lead investigators to the body.
Modzelewski kept his word: He told investigators that on April 1, Powlowski had called him and said he needed help cleaning the store because a man had been killed there. He was given a deal that if he helped bury Roman on his property, Jackie would buy the land, which appealed to Modzelewski because he and his family were interested in relocating. Modzelewski and his son helped Powlowski clean the store and one of them drove Roman’s car to the motel parking lot and left it there.
Modzelewski and his son then took Roman’s body to their home, put him in a sleeping bag, and buried him.
Investigators found the body buried on Modzelewski's farm, and an autopsy confirmed it: The body in the sleeping bag was Roman, and he’d sustained trauma to the head and died from strangulation.
They were faced with another issue: Colandro had told investigators Powlowski said Roman’s body wasn’t the only one buried on Modzelewski's land.
“The first thing that came to mind was the possibly of Charlie Hope being buried out there,” Blackman said.
However, Modzelewski denied having any knowledge of Hope’s disappearance, and investigators were unable to find another body on the farm.
When police talked to Colandro again, he finally admitted he’d been hired to kill Roman and described what had happened that fateful day: He and Jackie had been inside the store when Roman came in. He hit Roman multiple times with a tire iron, causing him to fall to the floor, but when Roman failed to lose consciousness and tried to get up, Colandro lost his nerve.
That’s when Jackie took over, he said. She took an electrical cord from a nearby radio and strangled Roman. She then allegedly said, with blood on her hands, “That’s it, the bastard is dead. He’s finally dead.”
Police arrested Jackie Stangherlin and William Powlowski, and both were charged with first-degree murder. Nine months later, they stood trial, with Colandro testifying against them. Both were found guilty, and Jackie was sentenced to 300 years behind bars, while Powlowski received a life sentence.
Colandro was handed a 15-year sentence for second-degree murder. All three have since been released on parole.
Hope's body has never been found. He is presumed dead.
Today, Roman’s loved ones remember him fondly.
“He was a special guy,” Mocik Motter said, adding later, “So many people are missing a really good friend. He had his flaws and sins, but I think, after all is said and done, what the world is missing is a guy who loved life, and loved all the people in it.”
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