Prosecutor: DNA is key to case of slain stripper John Denofa is charged with throwing Rachel Siani from a bridge. His lawyer said police missed other possible suspects.

Posted: October 25, 2002

MOUNT HOLLY — Slain exotic dancer Rachel Siani will testify against her alleged killer through her DNA, the prosecution said yesterday in opening the murder trial of John Denofa.

But Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi, who is trying the case himself, said the motive remains a mystery.

"Only Rachel Siani could tell us why she was murdered," Bernardi told jurors.

Siani, 21, a dancer at the now-closed Diva's International Gentlemen's Club in Bristol Township, Bucks County, was found dead April 1, 2000, at the foot of the Pennsylvania-New Jersey Turnpike Bridge in Burlington Township.

Denofa, of Newtown, Bucks County, who had been a weekly regular at the topless club, is charged with murder in Siani's death. He remains free on $500,000 bail.

Outlining what he acknowledged was a circumstantial case, Bernardi said Denofa, 37, choked Siani until she was unconscious in a second-floor room of a motel adjoining the strip club and threw her out a small window before 3 a.m. on March 29, 2000.

He then put her in the back of his red Dodge Ram pickup truck with custom chrome details, drove across the nearby Turnpike Bridge and dropped Siani, who was still alive, 112 feet to the ground below, the prosecutor said.

Bernardi said DNA tests showed that blood found below the window of Denofa's room at the EconoLodge adjoining the club on Route 13 and under the liner of his pickup truck belonged to Siani, who was from Bensalem.

"She will speak to us through bodily fluids left behind at the crime," Bernardi said.

Videotapes from toll-plaza cameras on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Turnpikes will show a truck matching Denofa's headed to the bridge with what looks like a body in the back and returning to Bristol empty between 3:13 a.m. and 3:40 a.m. March 29.

A truck driver will testify that she saw a body in the back of a pickup truck at the entrance to the Pennsylvania Turnpike but thought it was a drunk and did not report it.

The motel's night clerk, who also knew Denofa as a regular guest, will testify that she saw him running across the parking lot about 3 a.m. that morning and that he quickly checked out at 4 a.m. without saying a word, Bernardi said.

A dancer who smoked marijuana with Siani in the parking lot - and took the last picture of her that night - will put Denofa and Siani together outside the motel before her death.

Defense attorney Albert Cepparulo said investigators built a case against Denofa without looking at other possible suspects, including drug dealers and men who had told police they were obsessed with the dancer.

"She had a number of lovers, and a number of men wanted to be the only man," he said.

"We're going to ask you to do what the police didn't do . . . look at the evidence in this case."

Cepparulo said Denofa visited Diva's, with his wife's knowledge, every Tuesday after playing pool with friends because "he enjoyed the atmosphere." But, he said, his client also was a heavy drinker who regularly took a room at the motel so he would not drive home intoxicated.

The lawyer said Denofa's keys had been taken away from him a number of times at Diva's and that anyone could have made copies of them.

One of the first prosecution witnesses, William Love, manager and former co-owner of the club, said that he knew of only one instance in which Denofa's keys were taken from him, and that they had been locked in a safe.

Cepparulo said Siani had embarked on an "inherently dangerous" life of heavy drug use that brought her into contact with motorcycle-gang members and others inclined toward violence.

"Why would Jack Denofa take the life of Rachel Siani?" the New Hope-based lawyer said. "They were friends. . . . He was generous to her financially."

Love said Denofa, the owner of a sign company, tipped the dancers well and was not known as a troublemaker. The club, the witness said, often "comped" Denofa with drinks and cigars and provided him discount vouchers for the motel.

"He never, never touched any of those women," Cepparulo said. "He was never unfaithful to his wife."

Denofa's wife, Lisa, sat in the front row of the spectators' section with his parents and other family members, while Siani's relatives and friends sat in several rows on the other side of state Superior Court Judge Thomas S. Smith Jr.'s wood-paneled, circular courtroom.

The case is being heard by a jury of eight men and six women, two of whom will be designated alternates when both sides rest their cases.

The trial, which is being held only three days every week, could run up until Thanksgiving. Testimony is to resume Tuesday.

Contact Joseph Gambardello at 856-779-3868 or jgambardello@phillynews.com.

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