CUTCHOGUE, N.Y. — Sandy Blampied’s life has been shaped by a question left unanswered for decades.
In 1966, she was 11 when she kissed her mother goodbye before heading to school. When she came home that afternoon, her mother, Louise Pietrewicz, was gone.
As the years passed and the mystery of what happened went unsolved, Blampied felt stymied at every turn: When she was younger, she would mention her mother to relatives who quickly hushed her, urging her to move on — “it’s done already,” she said they told her. She reached out to police detectives, some deeply invested and others seemingly less so, but the investigation moved at a snail’s pace before stalling altogether. She even sought the counsel of psychics. She cried when one told her that her mother’s spirit could not be summoned because she had endured too much pain on Earth.
Then, one day this summer, there was a message on her answering machine: Steve Wick, a reporter from a newspaper covering the North Fork of Long Island, asked her to call him. He did not say anything more. But Blampied said she knew in her gut that he had to be inquiring about her mother.
“I thought I’d have to wait till I’m dead myself to see her, and then I got the phone call,” Blampied, 63, said. “It was like a miracle.”
The disappearance of Pietrewicz is hardly the first case to draw renewed attention years, even decades, later, dusted off by journalists or amateur investigators looking to apply the scrutiny enabled by hindsight and technology to re-examine an old crime. Such productions fill Netflix queues and lists of popular podcasts. But investigations like these are not often undertaken by a community newspaper chain, with reporters juggling months of interviews and poring over typewritten records with the demands of putting out newspapers every week.
The Suffolk Times and The Riverhead News Review recently published a 10,000-word story, filling a 24-page special section, and produced a documentary, spliced into several episodes, that unearthed a haunting case of a woman’s disappearance that had been forgotten by virtually everyone but a tiny and shrinking group, including her only child, Blampied.
For her daughter, the new spotlight has offered a thread of fresh hope. For the newspaper’s readers, the reporting — unspooling the life of a housewife mired in abusive relationships and how law enforcement agencies handled her disappearance — has caused a stir as it also told a larger story about a community and its evolution over five decades.
“The truth has landed here,” said Wick, a journalist who has covered Long Island for decades. “It’s an uncomfortable truth, an unsettling truth.”
Her disappearance, as Wick and his colleague Grant Parpan wrote, “was hidden away behind a wall of indifference, her plight reduced to small-town gossip and whispered rumors.” Pietrewicz had never been added to the national missing persons database, and her disappearance went uncovered by local media. “A smashed mailbox makes the blotter,” Parpan said in an interview, “but not a missing woman.”
But after the article was published and the documentary released online and broadcast on local television, the case has sparked discussions. Martin Flatley, the chief of the local Police Department, said the newspaper was widely read. “As soon as they read it,” he said of the article, “it’s a topic.”
The article assigns blame for Pietrewicz’s disappearance to a married police officer she had a relationship with after she became estranged from her husband. It includes notes from an investigator, now dead, who suspected that the officer killed Pietrewicz and dumped her body. The reporters found that the officer left the area and his own family soon after; he died in New York City and was buried on Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field.
But Wick also saw the article as an indictment of the Southold Police Department of that era, asserting that the department, whose jurisdiction includes Cutchogue, neglected the case. And when the investigation was taken up by the State Police, the reporters contend, the local police helped shield the officer.
Flatley said he could find no records that show Pietrewicz’s disappearance was even reported to the Southold police. But he acknowledged that the agency had shortcomings then, when jobs were often filled by patronage. “It’s kind of hard to compare,” he said. “Different time, different era.”
These days, the North Fork, the peninsula on Long Island’s eastern end, has country roads rambling between strips of shops, homes resting on wide green patches and vast rows of grapevines. When Blampied grew up here, the area was a sprawl of farmland and woods. It was also home to a community of working-class Polish-American farmers in which her father, Albin Pietrewicz, was a well-regarded figure who raised potatoes and strawberries, among other crops.
Blampied worked in the fields and remembered that her mother did so, too, picking strawberries and selling them at a stand. Her wit and impish sense of humor, Blampied said, could be traced directly back to her mother.
But, she said, her childhood was anything but happy: Her parents fought, her father was verbally and physically abusive, and they ultimately split. Louise Pietrewicz worked at a soda fountain, where, her daughter believes, she met the officer she had a relationship with. He was also domineering and abusive, like her father. “She went from the fire pit to the fire,” Blampied said.
After her mother’s disappearance, Blampied bounced between relatives before returning to her father’s house. She left as soon as she finished high school, moving to Middletown, north of New York City in Orange County, to train in nursing. She has lived there since, with her husband and stepchildren. Still, her mother never vanished from her mind.
“It was always open,” Blampied said of her mother’s case. “It was a cross to bear that never ended.”
Wick arrived this summer at Times Review Media, the company that publishes the weekly newspapers covering the eastern end of Long Island, as the executive editor after nearly 40 years as an investigative reporter and editor at Newsday.
He had known about Pietrewicz’s case after years of living in and reporting on the area, even writing a book about farmers on the North Fork. He remembered how a crowd assembled over a decade ago to watch the demolition of a barn on the Pietrewicz farm where she was rumored to have been buried under a Prohibition-era booze cellar. He knew that he wanted to dive into the case.
Blampied was hesitant at first, questioning the journalists’ motives. But soon, she came to trust Wick and Parpan, spending countless hours sharing photographs and opening up about some of the most painful parts of her life. “They know your entire life,” she said of the journalists. “They’re very special to do what they did.”
The case has received new attention from the authorities. The police took a DNA swab from Blampied as well as from Pietrewicz’s last surviving sibling, who is in his 90s. Investigators want to see if there were any matches to unidentified remains. The odds of a resolution remain slim. “It’s definitely challenging,” Flatley said, adding, “There’s not enough to say she was murdered — no body, no witnesses, no confession.”
On a recent evening, a ballroom in a retirement community was filled with a sold-out crowd for the documentary’s premiere. Blampied sat in the front row.
In her view, the mystery has not been solved. She can guess, but she does not know for certain what happened to her mother. Still, she believes she has moved closer toward an answer.
“Before, it was like she never existed,” Blampied said. “I feel more at ease now, because she was recognized. People know: There was a woman by the name of Louise Pietrewicz.”
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