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Autopsy: Remains belong to Michelle Salerno, 26

BOWLING GREEN - The family of a former Swanton woman who was missing for nearly a year can finally say good-bye to their daughter and sister.

An autopsy conducted yesterday by the Lucas County coroner's office confirmed that the body found on the Bowling Green State University campus Friday is that of Michelle Salerno, 26.

The cause of death was not known, but Wood County Prosecutor Alan Mayberry said there were no obvious marks on her body such as gunshot or stab wounds. Asphyxiation is a possibility, he said. “We're still waiting for the report from the coroner's office,” Mr. Mayberry said.

Mrs. Salerno's parents, Mario and Patricia Rizzi of Swanton, and their two adult children traveled to East Lansing, Mich., yesterday to meet with police who had conducted the missing person investigation. They met with reporters to express their appreciation to the East Lansing community.

Mrs. Salerno, a graduate of BGSU, had been a graduate student at Michigan State University at the time of her disappearance in June.

“They wanted to thank our detectives for all the work and effort they put into it. They also wanted to thank the community, the students that helped, the businesses that allowed them to put posters in their windows,” said Capt. Juli Liebler of the East Lansing police department.

While the case began in East Lansing, it culminated late Friday morning in Bowling Green when investigators unearthed Mrs. Salerno's body in a construction debris dumping area off East Poe Road near the Wood County Airport. Her estranged husband, Dennis Michael Salerno, 30, is believed to have led them to her body.

Salerno, who is in the Wood County jail on separate murder charges, was taken to the search site Thursday night, and his attorney, Adrian Cimerman, was at the scene several times Thursday.

Salerno can receive the death penalty if convicted of aggravated murder stemming from the July 3 stabbing of Larry McClanahan, 50, of Moscow, Ohio, in a shower stall at the Petro Stopping Center off I-280 in Lake Township.

Salerno told East Lansing detectives in the summer that his wife had contacted McClanahan and McClanahan had lured her to Ohio and killed her for Salerno. Salerno claims he then killed McClanahan because his former prison mate wanted to have sex with him.

Mrs. Salerno, who had asked her husband to leave their East Lansing apartment about a month before, was last seen alive June 29. Her father's car, which she had been driving, was found near downtown Toledo on July 6.

Parking tickets on the vehicle indicated it had been there since July 4, a day after the McClanahan murder. Police later found blood in the car's rear window area.

No charges have been filed in Mrs. Salerno's death. Mr. Mayberry said he expects any such charges to be filed in Michigan, even though investigators do not know for sure where or how Mrs. Salerno was killed.

In his mind, though, it was Salerno who killed her.

“I'm pretty comfortable with my opinion of who did it,” Mr. Mayberry said. “I have said it in the past that Salerno is the prime suspect.”

Dr. Douglas Hess, Wood County coroner, said he hopes to know Mrs. Salerno's cause of death by today.

“There are other circumstances which are still open, and we hope to be able to give you an exact positive statement some time later tonight or tomorrow morning,” Dr. Hess said yesterday.

Salerno is to be arraigned Thursday on a charge of escape before Judge Robert Pollex of Wood County Common Pleas Court. Although his aggravated murder case is scheduled for a pretrial hearing at the same time, neither Mr. Cimerman or Mr. Mayberry said they expect any movement on that case Thursday.

Mr. Mayberry said “it's too soon to tell” whether Salerno's case will proceed to trial in July, but added, “I would think the developments that we've seen may make that less likely.”

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