Episode 008: Monika Rizzo

September 6, 2021

A woman leaves her office and seemingly vanishes into thin air. Her husband claims she just walked away, but the backyard tells a different story…

Episode Media
Monika and Leonard Rizzo (KSAT)
Rizzo family grave (FindaGrave.com)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime! This week’s case is a tale of a missing woman with many unexpected twists and turns. This episode includes graphic descriptions, so listener discretion is advised.

In the 1990s, Leonard and Monika Rizzo were living a typical suburban life in San Antonio, Texas. They lived on a quiet cul-de-sac in a middle-class neighborhood. They had two grown sons, 22-year-old Leonard Jr. and 19-year-old Vincent. Leonard Sr. worked for the Department of Labor and had a custom computer business that he ran out of a utility building on the back of their property. Monika worked at the San Antonio Department of Human Resources. The couple enjoyed riding Leonard’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle and often spent time together at local biker bars.

On Monday, May 5th, 1997, Monika checked in for her scheduled shift at work. For the most part, it was an average work day. But then Monika did something that was completely out of character: she left the office without saying goodbye to her co-workers, and she left her purse behind. She did not show up for work the next day, or the day after. She also had not called the office to let anyone know she would be out. This was very unlike Monika, and her colleagues were concerned. After a week with no sign of Monika, the office manager was finally able to reach her by phone. Monika told him that she was not feeling well, but she would be back at work the following week and not to worry. 

But Monday came and Monika did not show up for work as she had promised. In fact, it would be weeks before her colleagues heard anything more about her.

On June 5th, San Antonio police received an anonymous phone call. The caller claimed that Monika Rizzo had been murdered by her husband Leonard and that her bones were buried in the backyard. Investigators were at the Rizzo house within the hour. But when they entered the home, they found Leonard in the middle of an apparent seizure. He was immediately rushed to the hospital.

Investigators spoke to the Rizzos’ eldest son, Leonard Jr., who was at the house at the time. He said he lived across town and hadn’t seen his mother in over a week. He gave detectives permission to search the house and yard for any traces of Monika. Monika’s clothes were still in her closet and her car was in the driveway, indicating that she hadn’t just walked away. All of her personal effects, including her drivers license and passport, were in the house. When investigators searched the backyard, they only found animal bones – certainly not what the anonymous caller had indicated would be there.

The Rizzos’ youngest son Vincent told detectives that he had last seen his mother on the night of May 27th. He had been in the shower when Monika spoke to him through the door. That was the last time anyone in the family had heard from her. 

Leonard Sr., who had recovered from his seizure, claimed that he had woken up one morning and Monika was gone. He said that he didn’t think anything was wrong, so he hadn’t reported her missing. “My wife and I were very close. There was no reason for me to believe she wouldn’t be coming back, wherever she’d gone… I just chose to wait.”

But Monika’s parents were not so nonchalant about their daughter’s disappearance. Bill and Monika McKinney had last seen their daughter in January for a birthday celebration they said was tense and strained. According to Bill, Leonard had lost his job at the Department of Labor the year before and was living off unemployment at the time. Monika had asked her parents not to mention any of this at dinner so as not to upset Leonard. In early June, when Vincent told his grandparents that he hadn’t seen his mother in over a week, the McKinneys knew something was wrong. They called the police and reported her missing, right around the same time as that anonymous phone call about the bones.

Even with a missing persons report and the tipster’s claims of murder, investigators had little to go on. There were no obvious signs of foul play at the house, and only animal bones in the yard; it seemed that Monika had just vanished.

But the anonymous caller was not giving up that easily. A month after the initial report, the tipster called again with more specific instructions. He said that Monika’s bones were buried in the Rizzos’ yard under a pile of tires.

Investigators once again searched the backyard. This time, they found a skull, several bone fragments, and what they described as plastic bags of human flesh. 

When he was informed of this shocking discovery, Leonard claimed he had no idea how the bones had ended up in his yard and that someone must be trying to frame him for his wife’s murder. “These bone fragments that are in my yard are an absolute mystery to me… as big a mystery as my wife’s disappearance… To me, someone is trying to draw attention from themselves. Someone is doing this to me.”

On July 4th, Leonard agreed to go down to the police station for an interview. In a sworn affidavit, San Antonio Police Detective J. Holguin stated that when he informed Leonard that it appeared Monika was dead but the evidence didn’t seem to constitute capital murder, Leonard replied, “Maybe I ought to go kill somebody else.”

A few days later, detectives obtained a search warrant for the Rizzo home. Inside, they found what seemed to be evidence of a violent struggle. There were several spots of drywall that appeared to have been bashed in, and investigators collected what they believed to be blood samples from multiple areas of the house. Leonard claimed that the damage was a result of his emotional response to Monika’s disappearance. He had been so upset when police questioned him about the bones in his yard, that he had “beat up the house”. 

Investigators began to dig into Monika and Leonard’s relationship. On the surface, they appeared to be a normal, happy couple. But there had been multiple reports of domestic abuse over the past few years. In the months before Monika’s disappearance, her coworkers had noticed that she was rapidly losing weight and that she frequently showed up to work with bruises on her arms. At one point, she had dropped down to nearly 85 pounds. On April 8th, a colleague had contacted the police and asked them to perform a welfare check on Monika. When an officer spoke with Monika at her home, he noticed that she had bruising on her face, but Monika claimed she had fallen and that she was fine. Of course, Leonard insisted that there was no abuse in their home. He and Monika were “deeply in love”.

But the fact remained that there were body parts in Leonard’s backyard, and investigators needed to figure out who they belonged to. DNA testing was being done on the skull and bone fragments found under the pile of tires. Lab technicians performed reverse DNA tests in order to determine the identity of the bones. They took DNA samples from Leonard and the Rizzos’ sons to build a profile of Monika’s DNA. Because Monika was adopted as a baby, they could not use her parents’ DNA to make a match.

In late July, a microbiologist at the GeneScreen Lab in Dallas found that the skull and bag of flesh found in the Rizzos’ yard contained human DNA that did not match Monika Rizzo. This was surprising to detectives, but not as surprising as her other findings: The blood found in the Rizzos’ home and one of plastic bags contained DNA from one victim; the other bag contained DNA from another victim. And the skull belonged to a third victim.

On August 1st, 1997, investigators descended on the Rizzo property with search warrant in hand and a team of archaeologists from the University of Texas. Over the next 8 days, they carefully excavated the yard. Cadaver dogs searched the entire property for human remains. Every time a bone fragment was found, a small orange flag was stuck in the ground to mark the location. By the end of the week, hundreds of flags dotted the yard. More than 200 bone fragments had been uncovered.

One of the archaeologists, Dr. Robert Hard, described the state of the fragments. “When you find bone in an old archaeological site, the bone is very dry. This bone still had a greasy feel to it. So we knew it had not been there very long, but at the same time, it had been there more than a week or a couple weeks. There was no soft tissue still attached to it.”

Most of the pieces of bone were small, less than 3 inches long. Some were so tiny that it was clear why detectives had missed them during earlier searches. Dr. Hard theorized that the bones had been placed into some sort of machine like a wood chipper, something that would be strong enough to create that many fragments.

Some charred pieces were found in the family’s barbecue pit. Deputy Police Chief Albert Ortiz said that the grill had most likely been used to destroy or conceal parts of the bodies. “Some very hot fires have been burned in there.”

While the archaeologists dug, detectives began to put together the puzzle of Monika’s disappearance. Neighbors had reported a strange smell back in early June that they thought could be a dead animal; investigators now believed it was the human remains in the Rizzos’ yard. They also looked into Leonard’s rental history, searching through the files of several local businesses to determine if Leonard had had access to any sort of heavy machinery. When questioned, Leonard said, “I’ve never even operated a wood chipper. I’ve never rented… anything in a rental store other than a car dolly… maybe a trailer.” He also continued to insist that he did not know anything about the bone fragments. Investigators found it hard to believe that he wouldn’t have noticed the remains of three people in his backyard.

Detectives also searched the utility building that Leonard used for his computer business. Leonard claimed that he and Monika often stayed in that building instead of in the main house. Police collected a mattress and carpeting during their search and sent them to a lab for further testing. They also did one last sweep of the main house, using luminol to search for blood stains they may have missed.

The media frenzy surrounding the “backyard bone investigation” was reaching a fever pitch. Reporters were constantly hounding the Rizzo and McKinney families for interviews. Neighbors were setting up lawn chairs to watch investigators work. Leonard expressed his frustration to local news outlets, saying, “I feel like O.J. Simpson. I feel like all of a sudden there is a nightmare all around me and it’s completely beyond my control.”

Police were frustrated for a different reason: they didn’t have any more answers now than they did when they started. If anything, they had more questions. 

Deputy Police Chief Ortiz told reporters, “Whether it’s a serial killer or maybe that’s just where bodies got dumped, we don’t know. We don’t even know that these people were killed by somebody else. We just know that we have remains.”

On August 28th, Ortiz announced that some of the bone fragments found in the Rizzos’ yard did indeed belong to Monika Rizzo. Her family was devastated by the news, but at least they had a small measure of closure and could finally say goodbye. Although Monika’s remains would not be released to the family for several months, the McKinneys planned a memorial service for their daughter. Leonard said he would plan his own service.

Police continued to investigate. There were three other victims that needed to be identified. The Texas Department of Public Safety released a sketch of the woman they believed to be connected to the skull found in the Rizzos’ yard. The forensic lab ran more tests on the DNA found at the scene. Four separate strands of DNA were found, but without anything to compare them to, it seemed to be a dead end.

On September 9th, police searched the Rizzo home once again. This time, they collected anything that could have been used in the crime, including a bench grinder, garbage disposal, pruning shears, and a set of knives. They also collected items that may have been overlooked earlier, such as a family Bible, computer disks, jewelry, and baby pictures. Nothing was too insignificant this time around.

As the months and years passed, investigators explored every lead. Leonard remained their top suspect. Rumors had been circulating that Leonard may have been connected to the Bandidos motorcycle gang. The gang had a sordid history of violence and drug trafficking. Deputy Police Chief Ortiz said that the gang’s leaders had rejected Leonard’s request to join their ranks. Leonard admitted that he and Monika had frequently socialized with motorcycle clubs in the area, but he resented the implication that he was rejected from the Bandidos. He insisted that his and Monika’s connection to motorcycles had nothing to do with her disappearance and death. 

Detectives also looked into the anonymous caller, who was eventually identified as Robert Hakala, a friend of the Rizzos. Hakala told detectives that he had visited the Rizzos at the end of May and had spoken to both Leonard and Monika. When he returned a few days later, he smelled a strong odor that reminded him of a dead animal. He then saw a dog in the yard playing with what he thought was a human jawbone. He told detectives, “[I] knew that Lenny had killed Monika because I remember seeing Monika’s front lower teeth and they were overlapping just like the teeth on the jawbone.” Hakala returned to the Rizzos’ house the next day and looked around the yard. He claimed to have seen a body under a blanket with tires stacked on top of it. That’s when he made his first call to police. Detectives questioned Hakala at length, but eventually determined that he was not a suspect.

Ultimately, detectives did not feel they had enough evidence to arrest Leonard for the death of his wife. They could not determine how or why Monika had died, and there was no explanation for the rest of the unidentified remains. As the leads dried up, the case went cold.

Sadly, the family would experience more hard times in the years to come. In June of 1998, Leonard Jr. passed away from leukemia at the age of 23. Leonard Sr. began falling behind on mortgage payments, and was fined by the city for letting the family home fall into disrepair.

In the midst of this, there was a shocking twist in the case. In February of 1999, investigators announced that new DNA testing had revealed that the bones found in the Rizzos’ backyard belonged to one person, not four. They were now sending the bones to the Air Force Institute of Pathology in Maryland for further testing. They hoped it would reveal the true identity of the remains.

Leonard’s situation continued to deteriorate. By May of 1999, he had been evicted from his home and arrested for failure to pay the city’s fine. Right as he was about to be released, a bag of methamphetamines fell from his pant leg. He was charged with possession of a controlled substance, a third-degree felony in Texas, and released on bond.

But a week later, Leonard was in hot water again. On May 28th, Leonard and his girlfriend, Susan McDaniel, got into a violent argument that culminated in Susan running down the street covered in her own blood. Neighbors called police, and Leonard was arrested and charged with assault. He was released on bond a few hours later. 

The next morning, Susan walked to a nearby convenience store to call the police. She asked that officers accompany her so she could retrieve her belongings from the home. She told police that Leonard had stabbed her and beaten her with a hammer, then threatened to kill her, chop her up, and put her in a garbage bag. 

When police arrived at Leonard’s home, he answered the door with a gun in his hand. What happened next was a four-hour standoff with a SWAT team. It came to an end when Leonard pointed his gun at a SWAT officer, who then shot him in the abdomen. Leonard was taken to the hospital and charged with aggravated assault on a police officer. He denied that he had threatened Susan, saying that she had stabbed herself. He also claimed that Susan knew what happened to Monika and had taunted him on Friday night, saying that she had buried Susan’s body. Leonard was sentenced to two years in prison for assault and kidnapping.

On June 23, 1999, two years after Monika’s disappearance, San Antonio Police Captain Jeff Page announced that the DNA test results from the Air Force Institute of Pathology were complete. The skull, jawbone, and hundreds of bone fragments all belonged to Monika Rizzo. An FBI analysis indicated that the bones had been shattered by a blunt object. 

Unfortunately, to this day no one has ever been charged in the disappearance and murder of Monika Rizzo. Leonard remains a suspect, but authorities maintain that there is not enough evidence to convict him in court. 

Monika’s remains were buried in the family plot next to her son Leonard Jr. Her father, Bill McKinney, wrote a book about Monika’s life and death and detailed the investigation through the family’s eyes. Even though Monika has not yet received the justice she deserves, her family will always remember her and will continue to fight for the truth.