SOUTH AMBOY, N.J. — More than two decades after the disappearance of Timothy Wiltsey, a 5-year-old boy with a sweet smile, his mother, was arrested and charged with his murder on Wednesday.
And in South Amboy, the small city where Wiltsey and his mother, Michelle Lodzinski lived in 1991, the news of Lodzinki's arrest was the talk of the town.
That's because the town lived in fear in the days following Timothy's May 1991 disappearance — fear that other children might be in danger. That fear heightened 11 months later, when some of his body parts were found in the Raritan Center industrial complex in Edison, but no one was arrested in connection with his death.
People in South Amboy and Sayreville turned out in great numbers to look for the lost little boy.
But as Lodzinski's story changed over time, suspicion grew among local residents that the mother could have played a role in her son's disappearance.
One resident praised police for making an arrest after so much time has passed.
"That's incredible. I am very impressed, extremely impressed that they stayed with it," said Melanie Brown, a former Woodbridge resident who has lived in South Amboy for the past 14 years. "Just because it's been 20 years doesn't mean a little boy didn't lose his life. That makes me feel better. If something were to happen to my kids, I'd want them to stay on it. It was very personal. People in town still talk about it. It's a small town. Something like that is tragic."
Brown said everyone figured Lodzinski was responsible for her son's disappearance and death.
"It's pretty awesome they were finally able to tie her to it," said Brown, who recalls the fear when Timothy disappeared. "My kids were little back then when it happened. Nobody would let their kids go anywhere. It was pretty wild."
Lodzinski reported her son missing from an South Amboy Elks carnival at John F. Kennedy Memorial Park in neighboring Sayreville on May 25, 1991. She said she was buying a soda for him when he disappeared. The carnival was searched extensively and closed early that evening, but Timothy was not found.
"It was the highest-profile case in the history of the Sayreville Police Department," said Edward Szkodny, a retired Sayreville police chief who was a lieutenant in 1991 working as the supervisor at the carnival.
Timothy's disappearance was featured on "America's Most Wanted," and his picture was plastered on milk cartons.
"For 23 years, it was an ongoing investigation. It always remained open. It was always in the back of our minds the case would be solved," said Szkodny, adding that Lodzinski was always considered a suspect.
"It's satisfying an arrest has been made," he said. "We'll see if there is a conviction."
"In the beginning, it was hectic because we thought we were looking for a missing child from a carnival," said John O'Leary, who served as South Amboy mayor from 1987 to 2010.
He said people from Sayreville and South Amboy searched for Timothy.
"We were taken aback that someone so young from our city could be missing. It was hectic in a community that was very concerned about this boy," said O'Leary, adding that the search was conducted in different parts of Sayreville, South Amboy and Edison.
Octavia Zampella remembers people walking in lines, like dragnets, to look for Timothy along the city's marshy waterfront.
"People looked everywhere," said Zampella, who has lived in South Amboy for 40 years. "Everyone pitched in to try and find him. And the fact that there were so many unanswered questions led people to believe they were looking in the wrong place. I don't know if there were enough questions asked."
Over time, Lodzinski changed her story, and the focus changed from looking from a missing child to whether something happened to Timothy and whether he was alive or dead, O'Leary said.
"It was a difficult time for the city and residents, the children at school and our own Police Department, working with Sayreville, the (Middlesex County) Prosecutor's Office and the FBI," O'Leary said. "Any time a child is abducted or you think abducted, the warning lights go up and anyone who has a young child at that time was afraid that something could happen to their child."
O'Leary said the fear intensified when Timothy's remains were found.
"Now we had a child we felt was abducted and abused and killed. It put a fear among parents with children in our city," he said, adding that Timothy's murder has been talked about over the years.
Lodzinski, 47, a Port St. Lucie, Fla., resident, was arrested about 6 p.m. Wednesday in Jensen Beach, Fla., after a Middlesex County grand jury handed up a one-count indictment charging her with murder. The indictment was made public only after Lodzinski was arrested and made aware of the charge. Bail has been set at $2 million by a state Superior Court judge in New Brunswick, N.J.
The one-page indictment unsealed Thursday doesn't mention the cause of death or specify what evidence led authorities to charge Lodzinski. The grand jury said she "did purposely or knowingly kill" Wiltsey or did "purposely or knowingly inflict serious bodily injury" resulting in his death.
Lodzinski made a 10-second video court appearance from jail Thursday, when a Martin County, Fla., judge ordered that she be held without bail. No mention was made about returning her to New Jersey. Lodzinski did not have an attorney for the court appearance.
Pat Marczak said she knew that at one point evidence was removed from Lodzinski's South Amboy home.
"I think it was a rug," said Marczak, a former South Amboy resident who lives in Matawan, adding that she and a friend had followed the case closely. She said that with current DNA tests, she thinks officials found something.
"It was always on the mind of the police in Sayreville, I know it," said Marczak, who had a gut feeling that Sayreville Police Chief John Zebrowski would pursue the case when he became the borough's top cop.
Zampella said she hopes Timothy's soul finally can rest in peace.
"His life was cut short too soon and he was dumped in a wasteland and God is merciful," Zampella said. "He took care of that little boy and we're just glad it's finally come to some sort of a resolution and there is closure to it."