Last year, approximately 6,600 people vanished off the streets of New York. Most were runaways; some were suicides. Whatever the case, police say they can usually close these cases fast.
But both the NYPD and the family of 35-year-old Maria Cruz thought her disappearance one Sunday afternoon seemed ominous.
"Maria Cruz had a very normal life. We knew she was religious. We knew she would work on her day off. And then everything changed. She was here today, vanished tomorrow," recalls Wally Zeins, who was commanding officer of Manhattan Detectives Nightwatch when Maria Cruz disappeared.
When the call first came in, Zeins says detectives were suspicious: "A lot of things led detectives to believe there was foul play somewhere along the line."
"It just left this big gaping hole in my heart," says Maria's older sister, Tess, who was arriving from the Philippines for a visit, when she learned her little sister had vanished. "From the very start, I knew something very wrong had happened to her. It was terrible. I felt like the world had just caved in on me."
Within days, the Cruz family gathered in New York and set up a command post in a relative's apartment. They were determined to find and rescue Maria.
"I cannot say anything. I just cried and cried," recalls Maria's father, Rudolpho, who led the efforts, started a Web site, and pounded the pavement, canvassing hospitals and putting up fliers, asking anyone who would listen if they'd seen Maria.
As days turned to weeks, frustration turned to despair, and Tess confronted it the only way she knew how. She started keeping a diary after her sister disappeared.
"My sister was six years younger than I, but she was like a big sister," says Tess. "My sister was very gutsy. She was a big dreamer. When she told me she wanted to go to the U.S., there was no other way for me but to encourage her to go on and fulfill her dreams."
Like many immigrants, Maria had to fight hard to make her mark when she arrived in New York 10 years earlier, putting herself through Fordham University's business school.
After graduating with honors, Maria landed a financial analyst job at Barclays Capitol, making big money, almost $200,000 a year, and making a big impression on her co-workers.
It was unheard of for Maria to be late for work, let alone absent altogether. So when she didn't show up for work one day, her co-workers went looking for her, hoping to find a clue as to where she might have gone.
Maria's last known whereabouts on April 13, 2003, Palm Sunday, seemed completely in character. She went to church, stopped off at her office and later did some shopping.
"After that, she just up and disappears. As far as I know, there's no credit record, no bank activity, no credit card activity," says NYPD Det. Joe Della Rocca, who was assigned to investigate Maria's disappearance.
Della Rocca quickly realized this case was going to be a tough one, and that the last person who saw Maria alive would become a critical clue. However, his partner, T.J. Maroney, says they learned Maria had planned to see someone the afternoon she disappeared.
As a starry-eyed young girl in the Philippines, Maria had no way of knowing her life would someday cross paths with a young man who also dared to dream big.
Dean Faiello, who was remembered by friends as being driven in academics and sports, grew up in Madison, N.J., a small affluent town close to New York City. He graduated in 1977, and was voted "Most Likely to Succeed." But, as it turned out, the road to success for Faiello would not be a straight one.
Just like Maria, Faiello was lured by the bright lights and promise of New York City. But he dropped out of college after only one year, and began working construction. By the mid '80s, there was another dramatic change in Faiello's life. He was openly gay, and he was determined to make it on his own terms.
Faiello quickly abandoned construction and sought his future in the booming beauty business. He worked out of a day spa, doing body waxing and other hair removal and developed a large and loyal following. But friends said Faiello, who was making a lot of money, had difficulty staying out of trouble.
"He usually went to the high-end club," recalls former friend Mark Ritchie, a hairstylist. "Party boy. Big party boy."
Greg Bach, an event planner, met Faiello at a bar in 1998. He says in the beginning, Faiello seemed like the man of his dreams: "He told me he loved me. I believed it. I could feel it. And I still believe it."
The couple started living together, mostly staying in Faiello's elegant five-bedroom home in Newark, N.J. Faiello had achieved what he wanted, but that picture-perfect life wouldn't last. By the late '90s, Faiello had a serious drug problem.
Bach says Faiello's drug of choice was Stadol, a highly addictive state-of-the-art pharmaceutical. Stadol is a narcotic nasal spray prescribed for migraines. It is virtually impossible to buy the drug illegally on the street, but that didn't stop Faiello.
"An addict will do anything that they have to, and Dean took it as far as forging prescriptions," says Bach.
In 1998, Faiello was busted for stealing a doctor's prescription pads and writing phony prescriptions for himself. His first arrest sent him to mandatory drug rehabilitation, but after that, Faiello, who received three years probation, went back to hair removal. And this time, he began to do new, more complicated procedures with lasers. But he was also doing something else new.
"I got concerned that Dean was possibly telling people in his office that he was a doctor," says Bach. "And I asked him, 'You're not telling people in your office you're a doctor, right?' And he was like, 'No.'"
But that's exactly what Faiello was doing and he was now calling himself Dr. Faiello.
"I had learned of Dean Faiello from other patients who had been treated by him and subsequently injured by him," says Dr. Roy Geronymous, a well-known New York dermatologist who specializes in laser procedures.
"You can't have someone on the street corner opening up a medical practice without training. People are going to get hurt."
Some laser procedures, like tattoo removal, can only be performed by a licensed physician. But Geronymous says Faiello "was removing tattoos, patients would be left with scars."
Geronymous did some digging, and discovered that Faiello was not licensed by the State of New York. So he contacted authorities to let them know that Faiello was practicing medicine without a license.
Authorities began to look into Faiello's practice, but the New York media beat them to the punch. A local TV reporter went undercover and Faiello was exposed as a fraud. In October of 2002, within weeks of that report, Faiello was arrested for practicing medicine without a license, and forging more prescriptions.
He cut a deal. In exchange for a reduced sentence of six to nine months in jail, Faiello promised to tell all he knew about doctors engaged in illegal activities. But even after his second arrest, friends say Faiello was still under the influence and out of control. Amazingly, as he waited to be formally sentenced, Faiello was playing doctor again, this time out of a friend's apartment in Manhattan.
"Dean became this multiple-personality, laser-wielding, mad scientist," says Bach.
Police believe that during this time, Faiello began to see Maria Cruz.
Six months after Maria's disappearance, her family was still determined to find her – and so were police.
"The Cruz family has gone through pure hell," says Zeins, who believes that an unsolved missing persons case can tug at the heart of even the most hardened detective.
By the fall of 2003, Maria's sister, Tess, was back home in the Philippines. But she still insisted that she would be reunited with the sister so close to her heart.
Back in New York, Della Rocca and Maroney were getting frustrated by an investigation that was leading nowhere. It took six months for detectives to get their first big lead in the case, after they were finally able to access Maria's emails. They discovered that Maria was being treated for a chronic mouth infection by a man she assumed was a medical doctor: Dean Faiello.
Della Rocca said the emails showed that Maria had been seeing Faiello for at least once a month from January 2003, until the time she disappeared. She also had an appointment with Faiello the evening she disappeared.
It was clear to the detectives that Faiello was playing doctor again. And in an email to Maria, Faiello said: "I have to pick up lidocaine and syringes. … Could you please pay in cash instead of checks?"
And from Maria's bank records, detectives knew that she had withdrawn $400 just hours before she was scheduled to meet Faiello.
Police were very eager to talk to Faiello about Maria. The only problem was they couldn't find him, so they went to talk to the man who knew him best – his lover, Greg Bach.
"I began to think of him as an absolute monster," says Bach. "He was getting increasingly more out of control."
Bach watched Faiello's life go from bad to worse after his arrest for impersonating a doctor. And he even helped to pay for Faiello's legal defense, lending Faiello additional money time and time again, totaling, he says, $82,000.
A lot of that money was spent on drugs, and by early 2003, Faiello was broke. Bach says the mortgage company was ready to foreclose on his house, so he had to put his property on the market.