‘This was the weirdest case, absolutely crazy!’ | A puzzling South City murder remains unsolved decades later

Denise Wolff
Denise Wolff(KMOV)
Published: Feb. 16, 2022 at 11:29 AM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - On a warm summer day in 1983, Channel 4 was covering a news story at City Hall. While there, a wedding ceremony was taking place. A few wedding pictures would be a nice way to close the evening’s newscast. With that, Larry Wolff kissed his bride Denise. They rushed home to tell all their friends that they got married on television.

That’s just the first twist in the never-ending story.

Denise Wolff had already lived a hectic life before she met Larry. She dropped out of high school, left home, and married her high school sweetheart at 16. By 17, she was a mother of a little girl named Angie and divorced. A second marriage would come, but that marriage too, ended in divorce. And then she married Larry, and they had another child, Jennie. The marriage to Larry didn’t last either, and Denise filed for divorce. But Larry talked her into settling for a legal separation. Denise bought a house in Lindenwood Park in south St. Louis.

And then Larry bought a house right around the corner.

The separated pair were frequently together. Very frequently. This lasted for years, until Denise, pushing 40, made it clear she was moving on with her life. A new job as a dealer at the President Casino meant more money, and her brand-new Chrysler Cirrus LX. Things were looking up for Denise Wolff.

Not to mention a new boyfriend she met at work.

Denise worked the overnight shift. Police records show she clocked out at 4:09 a.m. on July 17, 1997. Denise pulled through the drive-in window at Hardee’s on Hampton and grabbed a breakfast sandwich. She was careful as she drove home. She had to be. The South Side Rapist was on the loose.

His name was Dennis Rabbit, and he had been raping women for 25 years. He claims to have raped more than 100 around the country. And when the rapes intensified in south St. Louis in the late 1990s, Denise installed a motion-activated floodlight system near her driveway. And when she drove home in the middle of the night, she would head straight into the garage.

But not on that morning.

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On that morning, around 4:30 a.m., for some reason, Denise got out of her car, walked down the driveway, and through her front yard. Seconds later, gunfire rang out through the sleepy neighborhood. A neighbor, an off-duty police officer, was awakened and looked at his clock. It was 4:37 a.m. He rushed outside and found Denise lying face down on the sidewalk, shot multiple times. Her house was riddled with bullets fired from a high-powered rifle. Within minutes, lights in the 6800 block of Bancroft Avenue would flicker on. Windows would be looked out of. 911 would be called.

An ambulance arrived within minutes, and EMS workers tried to save Denise. Police quickly arrived and were told Larry Wolff lived just 100 yards away. They knocked on his door, and he answered in a pair of boxer shorts. Unlike other neighbors, he told police he hadn’t heard a thing. Police say he then went and stood in front of the ambulance and watched. When the ambulance took Denise to the hospital, Larry did not go with her. Denise Wolff was pronounced dead within the hour.

By the time the sun rose, nearly 20 police officers would be on the scene at Bancroft. Multiple witnesses told them a gray or silver van with a stripe on the side was seen driving away. Nothing was taken from the scene. Police did not believe this was a random act. They said Denise was targeted in the middle of the night, with a killer waiting for her right in front of her home.

St. Louis Police Captain David Heath quickly sized up the scene.

“This is a very vicious crime. This is a very purposeful, vicious crime,” Heath said. “We’re not looking at this to be a random act under any circumstances. They very well intended on what they were doing.”

As homicide detectives investigated Denise’s past, they looked at her ex-husbands, her still husband, and her new boyfriend. The earlier husbands were not in the picture. Larry Wolff was a St. Louis city plumbing inspector. The new boyfriend from work had a wife. Police quickly began focusing in on the rather odd relationship between Larry and Denise.

Friends and relatives told police they fought a lot. They lived for a while in rural Robertsville, about an hour outside of St. Louis. But with Larry working in the city, he often slept at Denise’s sister Cathy’s house in St. Louis. Finally, Denise had enough and filed for divorce, which led to the separation, and the neighboring houses in Lindenwood Park. And as bizarre as the arrangement seemed, it lasted for seven years.

They had keys to each other’s house. Sometimes Larry slept over. Sometimes he helped with money. Sometimes he cooked dinner. On big events, Larry, Denise, and daughter Jennie were inseparable.

Homicide detectives believed Denise’s relationship with her new boyfriend complicated matters for Larry. But he claimed he didn’t know about the boyfriend. And family members had Larry’s back. Their arrangement was working. They said there was never a hint of violence, and Denise showed no signs of following through with the divorce. But friends painted a different picture. They told police the couple was now arguing more than ever, and Denise suspected that Larry knew about her boyfriend. But as police focused in on Larry, they had problems. No real eyewitnesses, no murder weapon, no silver or gray van. And was there really a motive?

Retired St. Louis homicide detective Chris Pappas looks back on the Wolff homicide in bewilderment. “We really had no idea what happened there, until ... .”

Until Laurie Lynn Chirco turned the case upside down.

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Chirco lived in the area, nearby on Jamieson Avenue. When police first knocked on her door, she insisted she didn’t want to get involved. But Laurie Lynn Chirco would soon meet Chris Pappas. And there, the tale begins.

She said she always walked her dog between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Sure enough, she was out walking her dog on that fateful night. But she said she didn’t see or hear anything. Police found that improbable and asked her to come down to the police department to answer a few questions. And there her tale would turn for the first time. Now, she remembered she did see a man while walking her dog. She suspected the man was the South Side Rapist. She gave police a full description, and said the man walked right toward Denise’s house. This was quite different than Chirco’s earlier statement, and detectives kept pressing. And pressing.

They questioned Chirco for 11 hours. And she was not happy. She says she asked to leave the interview dozens of times, but the officers wouldn’t let her. At one point, when she asked police if she could go to the bathroom, she claims they handcuffed her to a table. She says an investigator threatened to put her child in foster care. At that point, she stopped talking, hired a lawyer, marched into the mayor’s office, and filed a complaint with the internal affairs unit of the St. Louis police department, claiming she was mistreated by the detectives.

Police investigators were in disbelief. The city later ruled her complaint “not sustained.” What nobody knew was, the Laurie Lynn Chirco part of the investigation was just getting started.

Chirco was a hospice care worker. Just before Denise Wolff was murdered, Chirco married Marcello Chirco. But, like the Wolff’s, they lived separately. And Marcello Chirco owned a gray van with a stripe on the side. He also owned a high-powered rifle similar to the one police say was used in the Wolff shooting. Laurie Lynn Chirco would tell detectives that a man was constantly following her in her car. It had a city license plate. Laurie Lynn Chirco said she feared for her life and was going to move out of the area.

As police tried to figure heads from tails on the one witness who was out walking her dog in the middle of the night at the time of the murder, they knew they were up against the clock. And sure enough, the calendar kept turning.

Then, nearly a year after the murder, Laurie Lynn Chirco picked up the phone and called the city homicide department. Pappas answered. She wanted to meet again.

She told them she was having a hard time living with herself. This time, she said, she wanted to tell them what she really saw that night. They met again, and detectives turned on their recorders. In this account, Laurie Lynn Chirco said she was walking her dog on Jamieson. She saw a man wearing blue jeans and wearing a white T-shirt standing by an alley on Bancroft. Then she said she saw a gray van drive around the block a few times before stopping where the man was. The driver of the van and the man talked, and then the man got into the van, and they parked it in front of Denise’s home. And then the shooting started. Detectives asked her if she recognized the man standing in the street who got into the van.

Yes, she said. It was Larry Wolff. And where exactly, police wondered, was Laurie Lynn Chirco when all this happened? Hiding in the bushes, she told them. And now there was more. Laurie Lynn Chirco told police she had discovered who was following her in a car: Larry Wolff.

Pappas still shakes his head when he thinks back to those interviews.

“We didn’t know what her story was. How could we? She kept changing it every time we met. At one point, I remember thinking ‘did you really witness anything?’” Pappas said.

Pappas and the other detectives might not have been sure what to think at this point considering their long dance with Laurie Lynn Chirco, but they still had the only firsthand eyewitness, and arranged for another meeting with Laurie Lynn Chirco. But this time she cancelled and said she would not cooperate any further. But then, she changed her mind again and agreed to meet with police in her attorney’s office.

And that’s where things with Laurie Lynn Chirco really went off the rails.

This time, Laurie Lynn Chirco had complete notes. She walked her dog at exactly 4:07 a.m. And this time, she walked right up to Larry Wolff, who was standing in the street. Her dog began growling at him. Now she said she also saw the driver of the van and gave police a description: a white male in his 30s, unkept hair.

She said she heard 10 shots. She ran to the bushes with her dog. She told them exactly which streets the van took to get away. Police told her they had nearly a dozen other witnesses who described how the van exited, and they were different than Laurie Lynn Chirco’s. She insisted they were all wrong.

And then she dropped another bombshell. She tracked down Larry Wolff, called him in the middle of the night, told him she saw him kill his wife, and that he better turn himself in. She said he threatened to kill her if he ever saw her again. Then she said Larry and other men came to her apartment and threatened to kill her child.

“We were at the point where we didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t,” Pappas remembered.

Laurie Lynn Chirco agreed to sign a formal statement to police. Then she refused. Police didn’t know what they had with their witness, but they thought they had enough. In October of 1998, a grand jury indicted Larry Wolff for the murder of his wife.

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Laurie Lynn Chirco wasn’t the only one whose story kept changing.

Larry Wolff originally told police he slept peacefully through the night and never heard gunshots. When police told him a witness put him at the scene of the shooting, Larry then said yes, he heard dogs barking. But all he did was look outside to see what was happening. He insisted he had a wonderful relationship with Denise, and spoke to KMOV.

“I wasn’t up. They’ve asked me and they’ve badgered me, made me a nervous wreck over this. I think we’ll all feel better if ...” Larry’s eyes teared up. “Once we find out who did it and why.”

When Larry hired prominent defense attorney Richard Sindel, prosecutors knew it had a battle on its hands. And off to court we went in the murder trial of Larry Wolff, but not before the lead prosecutor in the case, Ed Postawko, took a leave of absence.

Meanwhile, Sindel kept looking right at Laurie Lynn Chirco, and smiling.

But the biggest bombshell was about to come. Laurie Lynn Chirco said she had taped her conversations with police. She said the tape was hidden in “a very safe place.” Sindel subpoenaed the tape. Laurie Lynn Chirco refused the subpoena. Sindel then moved to strike her testimony and to strike her as a credible witness. Circuit Judge Philip Heagney agreed. Without Laurie Lynn Chirco, the state had no eyewitness, and no case. The next day, the charges against Larry Wolff were dismissed. He was a free man.

Chris Pappas, who had seen everything in 33 years on the homicide beat, had never seen anything quite like this. “All signs pointed to Larry Wolff in this case,” Pappas said. “He was the only person with a motive. It was really a shame because an awful lot of work was done on that case. But without Chirco’s testimony ... .”

But Laurie Lynn Chirco would be heard from again, this time on the Steve and DC radio show. She called in herself. Listening at home, Denise Wolff’s family lit up the phone lines with questions for her. Laurie Lynn Chirco told listeners she feared for her life, that her phone was tapped, that she gave away custody of her daughter because she feared for her safety, and that she was contemplating divorcing her husband for his safety. The next day, Sindel took time from his busy schedule and called the radio show and told the world that it was Laurie Lynn Chirco’s lack of credibility that ended the case against Larry Wolff.

“I don’t know if they found anything else out,” Larry said at the time. “I wish they would. I don’t know where to go from here.”

But Laurie Lynn Chirco was not done with Sindel. She mailed him a handwritten card that said: “I hear from several people that you didn’t think you could win against me in court. I would have never thought you would quit. I know I would have won against you in court. But just remember you didn’t win. I gave it to you!”

The circus was officially in town.

Sindel remembers the case like it was yesterday.

“This was the weirdest case, absolutely crazy!” he laughed. “Larry might have had a motive. I don’t know if he was guilty or not, but the evidence they had was like throwing jello to a wall. The state has a burden of proof, and they were not going to be able to do that with Laurie Lynn Chirco. Her credibility as a witness was just shot. Yeah, this case stands out. Just very strange.”

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Larry Wolff sat in jail for a year and a half. He always proclaimed his innocence.

Efforts to locate Laurie Lynn Chirco were unsuccessful. Denise Wolff’s family declined to be interviewed for this story, but they insist they know who killed Denise: “In our hearts, we know who did it,” a family member said. “But there is no use now.”

That is because Larry Wolff has passed away.

At the time, the St. Louis police department agreed, saying Larry was their strongest suspect, even after the charges against him were dismissed. But today, the case is in the rear-view mirror for the St. Louis police department.

“This case in 1997 was cleared with warrants issued on her husband Larry Wolf,” a police spokesperson said. “The case was later dropped after the primary witness refused to assist in prosecution due to threats from Larry’s brother. Larry’s brother later died, and Larry also died with the case never moving forward.”

At the end of the day, Laurie Lynn Chirco may have had it right. You just have needed a good GPS system in 1997 to figure it out.