BY TANYA BRICKING
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Anthony Proviano's family and friends never believed the University of Cincinnati medical student committed suicide.
Sketch of man last seen with Mr. Proviano
Now, nearly a year after his body was found outside a motel in eastern Ohio, officials acknowledge that he could have been murdered.
The Belmont County Sheriff's Office announced Fridaythat the coroner has changed the cause of death from "suicide" to "undetermined."
"It makes our lives a little bit easier," said Teresa Stovall, Mr. Proviano's sister in Savannah, Ga. "The investigation can continue. I hope this gives us the opportunity to find out what really happened with my brother."
His parents are offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who killed their son. Crime Stoppers also offers a reward of up to $1,000. Anyone with information can call the local Crime Stoppers hot line at 352-3040 or Belmont County investigators at (740) 695-7993.
"We're hoping this will bring renewed interest to the case," said Maryann Proviano, Mr. Proviano's mother. "It's been a terrible 10 months."
Her son was a promising second-year medical student. The 29-year-old had just finished exams last December when he loaded his Chevy Camaro with Christmas gifts and headed to his family's home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin Borough.
He was expected home for the family's Christmas Eve fish dinner. But he never showed.
Instead, he paid $39 cash Dec. 23 for a room at a Days Inn in St. Clairsville, Ohio, just west of the West Virgina border from Wheeling and about an hour's drive from his parents' home.
Police said he died that night of a gunshot wound to the chest. Belmont County Coroner Manuel Villaverde immediately ruled it a suicide without performing an autopsy.
But certain things didn't make sense.
"None of us have ever believed it was a suicide," said Dr. Connie Ragiel, director of the Health Resource Center in Over-the-Rhine, where Mr. Proviano worked the summer before his death. "The circumstances were just too bizarre."
There was a near-empty whiskey bottle in Mr. Proviano's room, but autopsy results indicated he died sober.
Cigarette butts were scattered near his body, but friends said he didn't smoke.
The .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol was found about 100 feet from his body, and no gunpowder residue was found on his hands.
A hat found nearby contained hairs that were not his.
And employees at an Italian restaurant in Elm Grove, W.Va. - about 15 miles from the motel - reported they saw Mr. Proviano and another man dining Dec. 23 or 26, possibly after police first thought he died.
Mr. Proviano's body was found Dec. 28 outside the motel. Restaurant workers came up with a composite of a man who has not yet been identified.
Mr. Proviano's family hired Dr. Cyril Wecht, the same pathologist consulted in the deaths of JonBenet Ramsey and cult leader David Koresh, to investigate. His findings were inconclusive. He said he could not rule out homicide.
The coroner's ruling was changed because of the evidence and also because of political pressure, Mrs. Proviano said. U.S. Reps. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and Mike Doyle, D-Pa., wrote Dr. Villaverde earlier this year, urging him to change the death certificate to allow the investigation to continue.
Mr. Proviano's family and friends are hoping the new attention will lead to a break in the case.
"It's not that I'm pleased," said Helen Kollus, his former lab partner. "It's just that when nothing pointed to any indication of suicide, this is supportive of that feeling."