January 15, 2007

01/15/07: Joseph Zahornacky, 22, Purchase, NY

Joseph Zahornacky, 22, disappeared on Monday, January 15, 2007 night during a thirty minute drive from LaGuardia International Airport in Long Island, NY to Manhattanville College campus in Purchase, where he was a student. On the way home from the airport, he made a stop for gas and toiletries just 15 minutes from his residence at the college. Then, inexplicably, he turned up in a lake over an hour's drive away.

Joseph's Story
On January 15, 2007, Joseph Zahornacky returned from a trip to Los Angeles where he visited friends and a girlfriend he met while studying abroad in Spain. After leaving the airport, he called his mother at 8:30 p.m. to say he was on the road back to school at Manhattanville College, in Purchase, New York. Records show he then made two stops in Greenwich, Connecticut, something that was not unusual for him. (Greenwich is about 15 minutes west of Purchase.) There, Zahornacky purchased gasoline and then purchased a few items at a nearby Walgreen's convenience store off Interstate 95 at 10:45 p.m. Surveillance video from the store showed Zahornacky alone, buying soap and toiletries. (Early reports that he was seen talking with a petite white woman in her 30s with close-cut red hair proved inaccurate.) Shortly after the stop, Zahornacky's mother, worried about reports of fog, called him. He said he was on the road and within 20 minutes of arriving at college. Around this same time, Zahornacky called friend Logan Osberg to discuss plans to hang out and watch movies. But then, inexplicably, he ended up near Brookfield, Connecticut, more than an hour north of the gas station.

Search and Recovery
By late the following day, Zahornacky's 2000 Jeep Cherokee was sighted by police sinking into Lake Lillinonah, in Brookfield, Connecticut. On January 17, 2007, two days after he had disappeared, divers found Joseph Zahornacky's body in the frigid water. Family members identified him at the scene and his body was taken to the chief state medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.

At the time his body was found, State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance said authorities had labeled his death suspicious but did not release any details about how he died. The investigation was later closed after it was determined that Zahornacky had drowned himself and foul play was not involved. His death was ruled a suicide.

Unanswered Questions
Friends say Zahornacky had a wonderful time in Los Angeles and left ended his trip in very good spirits. The previous week, he had told his best friend he was looking forward to returning to campus and, according to school officials, he was enjoying his classes. He talked to his mother about possibly switching his major to sociology, and he had plans to talk to an adviser on the day following his return  (Tuesday). He stopped at a gas station, bought toiletries, had plans to watch a movie with a friend and even told his mother he was on the way home. Yet officials say, he drove an hour away and committed suicide.

About Joseph Zahornacky
"Joseph Zahornacky was studying sociology, management and communication and could have majored in any of them. He said Zahornacky had a zest for life and a gift for writing and music. He volunteered as a mentor, played guitar, studied abroad, and took time off from school to travel across the country with his cousin."
"Manhattanville College President Richard Berman said, that as a freshman, Zahornacky spent a few days at Grand Central Terminal, then wrote a powerful piece for class about what it must be like to be homeless. 'He's the type of kid that added that something special and he'll be missed,' Berman said."

"My brother was a great man, a great boy and I don't want anyone to ever forget that," Michael Zahornacky said. "To lose anyone in your family is bad. To lose a younger brother is just the worst thing I could ever think of in my life."

Facts of Interest
Name/age: Joseph "Joey" Zahornacky, 22
Hometown: Shelton, CT
Residence: Purchase, NY
College: Manhattanville College, Purchase, NY (junior)
Physical Description: 6'0", 190 pounds, blond hair, blue eyes
Last Seen: 1/5/07, Greenwich, CT
Found: 1/17/07, Lake Lillinonah, Brookfield, CT

Published: 1/11/10


BoyintheMachine said...


Umm...I'm sorta speechless on this one. Suicidal people generaly don't buy hygeine items if they know they are going to kill themselves. However, it's possible it was a spur of the moment thing, an act out of desperation.

What I'm confused on is if he was found in the vehicle or not? It sounds as if witnesses saw his vehicle in the process of sinking. This would imply that it went into the water hortly before it was sighted.

Could it have been an accident?

I know recently they discovered the body of a 21 year-old female college student in my area. Her car was found in a ditch. It's clear she had an accident and died but there are people saying it was murder even though there's not one single hint of evidence for such.

This case is different. This doesn't make sense. There needs to be a detailed investigation in this case. Could he have been driving to see someone, a significant other, possibly even a secret significant other that people might not know about? Was there a park nearby?

Lisa said...

It sounds like he was not in the car. It wasn't clear in the accounts, but after the police spotted the sinking car, they began searching the lake, so he must not have been inside the car when they found it.

Perhaps he had an accident and tried to get out of the sinking vehicle but became disoriented by cold water and drowned. Or perhaps the pressure in the car equalized enough so that the door opened and he drifted out of the car. Or perhaps he was placed in the water by someone who had dumped the car there.

But it's hard for me to see how they came up with suicide. I don't think a person planning to commit suicide would make plans to meet with their student advisor, watch movies, or buy soap and toiletries. And by all accounts he was in a good mood and had a great weekend. In one account, he told his friend he was 10 minutes away. If that report was accurate, he was on his way to watch a movie and fully intending to go.

But even if he had a history of depression or was suicidal (and I don't know that he did), why would he drive into a lake an hour away? Suicide victims don't normally take measure to hide the discovery of their remains. Why, too, would your last act be to lie to your mother and best friend and about being headed back to campus? And why is it that no one reported that he was acting oddly on the phone? So to me, suicide doesn't make sense.

It's possible he changed his mind about watching a movie and then drove out to Brookfield where he met with an accident. But it's odd that he talked to his friend and then promptly stood him him. Why not decline or just meet up in a few hours?

It looks like there is a park at the lake. I don't think he was there for fishing or recreation as it was January and it was dark out.
So perhaps he was meeting someone. But then why hasn't this person come forward?

I keep coming back to the idea that he got into trouble with someone after he left the gas station. Perhaps a hitchhicker or car jacker who confronted him in the parking lot.

This one just strikes me as different too, so I put it under the "other cases of interest" section.

Monique777 said...

Suicide doesn't make sense at all.

I am wondering about the fog that evening-how thick was it? Was it dense enough for Joseph to take a wrong turn and get lost? It would be interesting to know what the visibility was in that area that night.

Devin said...

Thanks again for your hard work Lisa-and I enjoy the intelligent comments here also.
I don't buy the "suicide" explanation for one moment.
This case needs to be checked into again.
I am also speechless at the finding on this case.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the victim-as they do with all of the people talked about on your blog.
best to you as always!!

Lisa said...


I wondered about the fog too.
The drive from the airport to Purchase normally takes about a half hour (50 minutes in bad traffic) according to Google Maps, but it took him about 2 hours. It is not clear whether this was due to the fog or traffic or what.

At first I assumed it was fog related, but now I'm not so sure. It seems like fog would have captured the attention of the newspapers and this would have been mentioned (man goes missing in heavy fog), which I haven't seen. (If anyone can find this, let me know.)

But what I find telling is that when he talked to his mom at roughly 10:30 and he told her he would arrive back at school in about 20 minutes, which was the truth; he was about 15 minutes away at one of the stores in Greenwich. And if he was driving through pea soup, he probably would have given himself more time. Or if he didn't want her to worry, maybe he would have lied and said he was practically there.

So I'm thinking that if there was fog, it was light or he had driven out of it by the time of her call.

Fog or no fog, I have a hard time with him ending up in Brookfield. Brookfield is actually a straight shot north of Purchase down Hwy. 287. (Greenwich is just to the east of Purchase.) It looks like he left the gas station and got onto 287 then just kept going right past the college.

This does support the idea of him taking a wrong turn in the fog, but I think he would have realized his error sooner. He was familiar with the area and how long it took to get places, and it sounds like he was an experienced traveler (studying abroad, flying to L.A., etc.). So I would expect him to turn around before Brookfield or call someone to say he was going to be late.

So I keep going back to the idea that he either went to Brookfield intentionally for some unknown reason or he was forced to go.

Lisa said...


Thanks as always for your positive comments! I love that we can have intelligent conversations about our thoughts on these cases. It really helps to hear the input of others!

Monique777 said...

This story has me stumped. The police are not revealing the details of how he died.

"State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance said he knows why Zahornacky drove to this area, but would not divulge the reason. Police said they conducted numerous interviews and recovered physical evidence in connection with his death."

I'm wondering what this physical evidence was that led them to call this a suicide.

Why did a cop, from a neighboring county, go to this rural and remote location at early dawn and just so happen to find a jeep that was still in the process of sinking. What a coincidence!

BoyintheMachine said...


When I read the story my intuition went *bonkers*. I kept getting that he met somebody at the park and I'm really thinking that person was in the car with him. This doesn't make sense. The only thing I can think of is that the cops know more than they are saying, possibly out of a desire to protect the family from such knowledge.

BoyintheMachine said...

@ Monique777:


This definitely needs to go into the bin with the other cases that involve strange police activity.

I can't believe this stuff, so the cops admit they know more than they are revealing. Weird.

Monique777 said...


I get what you mean when you say your intuition is going bonkers. Mine too.

I think the police are not reavealing information "in deference to his family, whenever it's a suicide, we don't discuss facts of the case, ever,.." Vance said.(The state police lt.)

And I understand this but it still has me wondering what they found as far as physical evidence that led them to rule it a suicide.

There is nothing to indicate this man was about to take his life yet only one person on Joseph's Facebook page argues that it was not a suicide. In fact, his sister advertises for people to take part in a depression/suicide walk to remove the negative stigma associated.It appears his friends and family accepted Joseph commited suicide, at least back in 2007. If they were convinced, I wonder what the physical evidence is that can't be revealed to us.

I just find it quite a coincidence a cop shows up just in time before the car sinks under the water. And it could be simple coincidence.

I am truely baffeled by this one.

BoyintheMachine said...


How much you wanna bet that it's something like his wallet or cell phone left on the bank near where his car was found, or something like that? -Because that is considered by many to be a sign of suicide, yet it is something that could be faked and of course it something that seems to be repeated in these strange deaths.

BoyintheMachine said...

I just read at comment number 55 at the below link that he supposedly parked his car on the ramp then drowned himself. Later the car supposedly slipped into the water when the emergency brake "failed". -That doesn't make a lick of sense.


Friends and family are supposed to have doubted that he knew the area.

That police officer who discovered the car seems mighty suspicious to me.

Basically, if the information above is correct, then it means that Joseph wasn't in the car when he died.

I suspect that the information the police might not be revealing would be along the lines of his hands being bound. They would need to be in a fashion that he could have done to himself, yet be secure enought the he couldn't easily wiggle out of. I would even sugges that ducttape might have been used.

If I am correct, then I would scrutinize the evidence multiple times unti I am 100% positive that no foul play was involved.

This is one of those cases that is going to stick with me for a long time. It just doesn't add up.

Monique777 said...

I know what you mean. It's hard to go in any direction with this one.

Previously, I was thinking he may have purchased meds at Walgreens or even picked up an Rx for an anti-depressant. I thought maybe this is what the police found,an empty pill container, that would have them call it suicide.Whatever they found had to be convincing enough that the family and friends didn't even question his suicide. The only people that are really questioning the suicide are people who are not privy to the information of what physical evidence was found.

And to us, not knowing what the police found, it would seem so unlikely he'd commit suidide. He had a great trip, he bought toiletries, he was driving towards his college, he had plans for the evening and all sounded well in his phone conversations. So, did he just snap or what?

I think the truck rolling into the water is based on the idea that Joseph was very intrigued by a story about a guy who disappeared for 3 years only to show up on his Mother's door step.He told this story to people and thought it was so cool. His friends, knowing this, may have thought Joseph was trying to make himself disappear but accidentally ended up in the water with the truck-like maybe he was going to make himself disappear and things went wrong.But this doesn't seem to fit with who he was either-the type to do this to his family.

If the physical evidence for suicide is not very strong, then maybe someone went in the jeep with him, asked for a ride and took control. That is all I can think of...because I just don't have a feel for anything that may have happened to him.

I am lost with this case but would sure like to know the evidence that led to a ruling of suicide. I can't imagine he would be the type to duct tape himself up and then go to a remote area where he probably wouldn't have been found had it not been for the cop. Why go through all the trouble of doing this if he didn't plan on being found.

Monique777 said...

And I'm kind of wondering how long it takes for a jeep to sink in water. Tried looking it up. Is it 1hour or 5 hours or 7 hours?? If it is a short amount of time, what was Joseph doing all night because the jeep wasn't found until dawn as it was sinking?

And if it's a short amount of time for the jeep to sink, it then makes it pretty odd a cop, from a neighboring county, would drive through there just in time to see it.

I'm wondering if it takes many hours for a jeep to sink-anyone know?

BoyintheMachine said...

This might be a silly question, but where the items he bought recovered from the vehicle?

Lisa said...

Monique and BITM,

You make excellent points. What he purchased at Walgreen's and whether it was found in his car would be important to know. If he bought over-the-counter sleeping pills or duct tape, it would change our interpretation of things.

So I can't help but wonder what it is that makes the police feel it is suicide. And I saw that walk listed on Facebook too, giving me the impression that the family does agree that is was a suicide.

But I did also see one report that he bought soap, and I just can't make sense of that.

Monique777 said...

Here's a long shot about the soap purchase if he did infact buy pills or rope/duct tape. Say he went to Walgreens to purchase his "suicide kit" of sleeping pills and/or duct tape/rope. Maybe he threw in other items as soap and other toiletries to make his purchase look less suspicious and less memorable. Maybe in his own mind,knowing what he was going to do, he was disguising his purchase because he thought it might stand out to the cashier who would also later identify what he purchased.

Still, this guy does not come across as suicidal from what's written about him on Facebook and in the papers.Yet his friends and family buy he was depressed enough to commit suicide.

Either this is true, or the cops have made up a very convincing story to tell family and friends and the physical evidence is either really weak or non-existant.And if this were the case, then why not just rule it an accident.

Still, I am stumped by all of this. Also, why did his 50 minute drive turn into over 120 minutes plus the additional 15-20 minutes to get back to his college from Walgreens? So many questions, so few answers. I'm at a loss.

Anonymous said...

I'm with all of you. This case makes no sense the way it has been reported. Suicide is a really strict ruling from LE, I can't believe they didn't explain a bit more about the circumstances that lead them to believe this was the case here.


Zahornacky had been on a lacrosse team. http://www.wmacademy.org/uploaded/TheAcademy/Spring07/ClsNtsPGSAWrld32707.pdf

osu11 said...

This case seems very strange to me. For him to stop at a store and purchase items (unless those items were pills, rope, tape...) and then to travel way out of his way and end up at Lake Lillinonah, seems very unlikely. He would have had to get off the highway in order to end up at this location and would seem deliberate rather than a wrong turn. Again, if he made a wrong turn, he most likely would not have continued for an hour before he realized it.
Had he been to this lake before? Was it an area that held a special meaning for him? From the information available to the public, seems very odd. Looks more like a car jacking or robbery than a suicide.
Since his parents, family and friends accept the determination of suicide, there must be a great deal of information that perhaps the parents know about but don't want available to the public.

Ruby Zee said...

I agree with the idea that this was definitely not suicide. Three thoughts:

1.)He picked up someone hitchiking-someone who looked like a student and that person was, perhaps, a killer.

2.)Is it possible that the friend whom he spoke with asked him to pick up drugs of some type? Maybe some pot, and the friend gave him directions to the pickup? Perhaps the 'deal' went wrong? Long shot, I know.

3.)Finally, for some reason I had a sense of someone following him when I first read this. If someone saw him stop, and was intent on hurting him, it would have been quite easy for them to make a small hole in his tire, or mess with the tire stem so he developed a slow leak--followed him and when his tire went flat offered him a ride. Then, after killing him, returned to his car, repaired or changed the tire and then took it and the car to the lake and dumped them.

Finally, the whole emergency brake not holding makes NO sense.

Thank you very much for this website.

My nephew is a friend of Jon's and is worried sick about him, so thank you for featuring him--all help is welcome.

Rob said...

BIM writes, "Suicidal people generaly don't buy hygeine items if they know they are going to kill themselves." Where, pray tell, in the news blurb cited, is it even suggested that Mr. Zahornacky killed himself?

What would be a better line of inquiry is the location of JZ's car. Was JZ's body found in his car? Were JZ's lungs full of water? Signs of a struggle? Bruising on his face? Defensive wounds on his hands? Signs of wrist bindings. Hemorages in his eyes? Did he offer a ride to anyone at the gas station he stopped at to refuel and purchase necessities?

Now, perhaps you meant the suicide quip as sarcasm. I don't find the humor in someone's premature death by questionable circumstances. This guy's death is certainly suspicious and has foul play stamped all over it. How in the Hell did JZ get to a lake over an hour away from his destination of record--yeah, I know by car, but at the death scene lake by choice or by coercion?

Interestingly, there is no indication from the news blurb that this man was drinking or under the influence of a drug.

I would like to read the ME's opinion and what the lead investigating detective has to say about this one.

Rob said...

There is no way that any responsible police officer or agent is going to say that someone committed suicide--that police officer may suspect suicide, but it is the medical examiner's call after a post mortem. The police spokesman in this case is full of shit. If he actually made that statement it was calculated to throw off JZ's victimizer.

A suicide might buy duct tape for his mouth and nose and some drug to render himself senseless, but is the victim really going to drive his car into the lake and then leave it? Did he go into the lake with windows down in the middle of a winter cold snap?

That police officer fed the press a shaggy dog story. It's a hairball that no one is really going to swallow. The best information on this victim's death will come from the ME.

osu11 said...

Rob, the information on this site states: The investigation was later closed after it was determined that Zahornacky had drowned himself and foul play was not involved. His death was ruled a suicide. I don't believe that it was a suicide but there was also information that his family accepted this determination. I know that I would fight it if it were my son. Unless of course there is information that the family knows about and LE will not release. The area in which he was found doesn't make sense. Also, since the car was located before it went under, and the body located two days later, that suggests that he wasn't in the car at the time or at least escaped prior to drowning. The area was really off a regular route and I don't think that he "took a wrong turn" and ended up there. Car jack perhaps?

Rob said...


I don't believe this guy committed suicide anymore than you do.

I would also like to know if an ME made a determination or a Coroner's Jury ruled. The ME process is legal-medico; the coroner system is only as good as the political officeholder who does not have to be a surgeon or physician and the questions he asks.

I don't see any family member volunteering that this guy had a history of depression/mental illness or that he had suffered a series emotional stressful events, i.e. poor/failing grades; loss of a girlfriend (breakup); death of a close friend or family member; loss of a scholarship or grant or part-time job.

The cops need to explain why the TREMENDOUS distance between this guy's intended destination and where he was found stone, cold dead.

Once again, this guy's death is suspicious and suicide is an assinine finding.

caring said...

There was no suicide note. He never talked about suicide, gave away things or distanced himself. Had been put on Concerta shortly before this.
Joe went to Ca and spent his vacation with his girlfriend. He surfed and cut his foot. He purchased hydrogen peroxide for his cuts, green tea and a bottle of tylenol.
Somehow he ended up at this lake. Uncertain how his death was determined a suicide. He died of drowning. He had the concerta in his system, caffiene, no drugs or alcohol but did ingest the bottle of aspirin.
Family has somewhat accepted this. Only thing anyone can figure is, it may have been a reaction to the concert and he snapped.
No one saw this coming. Dr. who prescribed the medication saw no signs of depression or suicidal thinking.

Anonymous said...

So, this occurred in the lake behind my house... on my birthday... creeps me out to this day. My mom goes to work early in the morning and passed the boat launch where he was found just before 4am. She said she saw two vehicles at the time with their lights on, Joseph's car was found shortly after 4am at the same spot... she filled out a police report but the cops said not to worry about it it was probably unrelated... there is absolutely no reason for anyone to be in Bridgewater, CT during the day let alone in the middle of the night... i strongly believe that this was not a suicide. even though they claimed to have found a suicide note in the vehicle, the facts of the story don't add up...

KZ said...

Was anything discovered since it happened? I can't find any recent information other than thoughts people have posted.

KZ said...

He was my friend in college.

Lisa said...


I have not heard anything since the police closed the investigation. They determined that no foul play was involved and the death was ruled a suicide. Link:

Someone above mentioned the medication Concerta. Looks like it is does have the potential to cause abnormal thoughts and behavior, but I have not read whether this played a role. Link:

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