Philip Varisco

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Hillsdale ex-chief Philip Varisco dies at 89

Philip Varisco, the Hillsdale police chief who investigated the borough's most horrific crime the disappearance and murder of 7-year-old Joan D'Alessandro has died.

Mr. Varisco, of Tarpon Springs, Fla., was 89.

A son of a tailor and a Navy veteran of World War II, Mr. Varisco moved to Hillsdale in 1955 from Manhattan. He commuted to the city for his job as a Transit Authority electrician and applied to the Hillsdale Police Department in 1956 after seeing a help-wanted ad.

He became Badge No. 6 on the tiny force and supplemented his salary which was less than his electrician's pay by stocking grocery shelves.

Mr. Varisco became chief in 1969. He was on a brief Florida vacation on April 19, 1973, when Joan D'Alessandro vanished while delivering Girl Scout cookies to a neighbor, Joseph McGowan, a 26-year-old high school chemistry teacher.

Mr. Varisco returned immediately to lead the investigation, which from the outset focused on McGowan.

Joan's mother, Rosemarie D'Alessandro, recalled meeting Mr. Varisco the day after her daughter's disappearance.

"It was on my front stoop," D'Alessandro said Wednesday. "I was sitting on the steps and he came up the walk. He was calm and didn't make me feel any more anxious than I already was. And that was good, because he was solid.

"He wanted to tell me he was in charge of the investigation and that it was very important that they do everything the right way."

Mr. Varisco asked for a picture of Joan to be given to the newspapers. D'Alessandro said she removed a photo of her daughter wearing her school uniform from a picture frame hanging in the hallway.

D'Alessandro said it was Mr. Varisco who broke the news to her on April 22, 1973 Easter Sunday that Joan's body had been found in Harriman State Park in Rockland County, N.Y.

Mr. Varisco arrived at D'Alessandro's house with a Catholic priest, and the two men sat with her at the kitchen table.

D'Alessandro said she remembered saying, in reference to McGowan, "I want to kill him, I want to kill him!" and that the priest told her not to speak that way. She said Mr. Varisco told the priest, "Leave her alone."

D'Alessandro said Mr. Varisco, through his intelligence and caring, was a comfort to her during the ordeal.

"We were blessed to have him working the case," she said.

McGowan pleaded guilty in 1974 to first-degree felony murder in the abduction, rape and strangulation of Joan D'Alessandro. He is serving life in prison.

Gov. Christine Whitman in 1997 signed Joan's Law, which denies parole to anyone serving a life sentence for molesting and killing a child under 14. The |law does not apply to McGowan, now 66, who will next be eligible for parole in 2027.

The Joan D'Alessandro case was the second homicide Mr. Varisco dealt with in Hillsdale.

"Not that we don't know how," he told The New York Times, describing his department's handling of serious crimes. "But this is a quiet, law-abiding sort of place. That's the reason I moved out here. & I decided it wasn't safe for my kids on the streets of Washington Heights [in upper Manhattan]."

Mr. Varisco's daughter, Fran Powell, said Joan D'Alessandro's murder affected her father "both as a professional and as a human being."

"He was a consummate professional," she said. "He loved his work and went to the FBI Academy to do everything he could to make himself the best chief he could be."

Mr. Varisco retired in 1987 and moved to Florida about 20 years ago. He had Parkinson's disease but enjoyed an active life of golfing, bowling, card playing and other activities until very recently, his daughter said. He died Nov. 3. cq

Mr. Varisco is survived by his daughter, of Lutz, Fla.; his son, Phil Varisco Jr., of Washington Township; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His wife of 60 years, Mary, died in 2010.

Visiting will be Nov. 30 from 4 to 8 p.m. at Becker Funeral Home, Westwood. The funeral liturgy will take place at 9:30 the following morning dec. 1 at St. John the Baptist R.C. Church, Hillsdale.

Email: levin@northjersey.com
Published in The Record on Nov. 23, 2012
Philip J. Varisco
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