Diana Santacroce paced in circles, stunned, she said, by the words she heard.
Twenty-one years after the strangled and beaten body of her kid sister Rita Tangredi was found in an abandoned East Patchogue housing development, Santacroce at first didn't believe that police cracked the cold case.
But the words from her nephew -- one of Tangredi's three children -- were clear: "They caught my mom's killer," she recalled him saying, his voice cracking with emotion.
Santacroce said this week that she has felt a range of emotions -- anger, sadness, relief -- since Suffolk police on July 21 arrested and charged John Bittrolff, 48, a carpenter and married Manorville father of two, with the 1993 murder of Tangredi and another woman, Colleen McNamee.
"I can't believe this day came -- 21 years later," she said. "I prayed every day. But some days I thought, 'They're never going to catch him and if they do, I'm never going to live to see it.' "
Case based on DNA
While Bittrolff's attorney disputes the evidence, prosecutors say semen found in both women's bodies was linked to Bittrolff through DNA from his brother, and later from a sample directly from Bittrolff, who has been ordered jailed without bond. Thursday, Bittrolff pleaded not guilty to two counts of second-degree murder.
Both Tangredi, 31, of East Patchogue, and McNamee, 20, of Holbrook, who were killed a few months apart and were found positioned similarly, were known sex workers, authorities have said.
Speaking outside her Shirley home, Santacroce, 55, tearfully recalled the two-decade-long wait to get justice for her sister, a woman she described as a skilled athlete and a loyal friend.
"My sister was a somebody," said Santacroce, who was joined by her husband, Frank Santacroce, 53. "She was a mother, a sister, a daughter. . . . She wasn't just somebody to be thrown away."
Tangredi's life had spiraled downward in the years preceding her death, Santacroce said, pushed by a drug addiction that relatives desperately tried to break. "There were quite a lot of interventions," Santacroce said. "Everyone tried to help her. It's a difficult thing."
But Santacroce takes solace in the happy memories of her sister -- the youngest of six kids who grew up in Bay Shore. Tangredi excelled at soccer, kick ball -- really any sport she played, Santacroce said. When their brother got a unicycle for Christmas, Tangredi, who was about 7 or 8 at the time, mastered it quickly.
"Boom, she was riding it," Santacroce said. "She was amazing. She was fearless."
Tangredi attended Brentwood Junior High until ninth grade, Santacroce said, but after that, "she was out doing what she wanted to do."
At Santacroce's first wedding in 1978, Tangredi was her maid of honor, beautiful in a rust-colored dress. "The bride is supposed to be the beautiful one," Santacroce said. "She was absolutely gorgeous."
When the elder sister gave birth to her first child, Tangredi brought her a cross. "She said, 'No one thinks about buying something for the mom.' She did," Santacroce said.
The sisters "lost touch" as addiction overtook Tangredi and Santacroce moved to Florida in 1989 and focused on her growing family.
After Tangredi's death, her eldest son, Anthony, who was about 11 at the time, lived with his maternal grandmother. Her other son and daughter were raised by their father's family, Santacroce said.
Anthony Tangredi, she said, who lives out of state, is a chef and is married with two children. Santacroce said he's not ready to speak publicly about his mother, but said she would have been proud of him.
The Tangredi family has been touched by other tragedy, Santacroce said. Including Tangredi, three of the six siblings are dead. Another sister died of emphysema in 2004 and a brother died in 1988 of a drug overdose. Tangredi's mother and father both died -- he in 1996, she in 2006 -- without knowing who killed their daughter.
Preparing for trial
As she processes her grief and prepares for a trial, Santacroce said she's thought of Bittrolff's family. "My heart goes out to his family. . . . I pray they find peace. . . . I'm sure they're going through their own hell."
But, she said, "I want to see him get life. . . . People say, 'He changed, he created a life.' . . . Maybe so, but he has to be held accountable."
Last Saturday, days after Bittrolff's arrest, Santacroce made the trek to Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Center Moriches with her brother and other family members to visit her sister's grave.
"I kissed her headstone and let her know he's finally caught and she can rest in peace."