John Wolfenbarger got paroled from prison in mid-2002 after serving eight years on an armed robbery conviction. Far from rehabilitated, he had no intention of going straight. In fact, it wasn’t long before Wolfenbarger, at the time 31 and an associate of some of Detroit’s most ruthless biker gangs, was calling up his old cell mate from Boyer Correctional Facility in Carson City, Michigan, Dennis Lincoln and telling him about some jobs he was planning on pulling off around the holiday season. Lincoln, then 27 and residing in Flint, was known as a safecracking specialist and Wolfenbarger requested his services down in metro Detroit.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas 2002, Wolfenbarger, sometimes referred to by the nickname “Solo”, and Lincoln scouted numerous locations, mostly jewelry stores, in Wayne County, before deciding to focus on spots in the city of Livonia. They made their way to the Livonia Mall at the corner of Middlebelt and 7 Mile Road and followed one jewelry store owner out of the mall parking lot with the intent of robbing him at his home, but lost their intended victim in the late-afternoon rush hour .
Later that same week, Wolfenbarger and Lincoln returned to the intersection and found a nearby strip mall to stake out. Within minutes, they locked their eyes on Marco Pesce, a successful 38 year old businessman who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Pesce owned Italia Jewelers, located in a strip mall down the street from the mall where they sat parked one day, casing potential victims. Waiting for him to close up shop for the day, Wolfenbarger and Lincoln followed Pesce back to his home on the 37500 block St. Martins Street – still in the city of Livonia – to see where he lived. Wolfenbarger phoned Lincoln the next morning, December 21, and told him that he wanted to “do the Italia Jewelry thing.” At that point, there was no turning back and fate would be extremely unkind to some very innocent people.
The plan was for the pair to force their way into the Pesce home posing as deliverymen and then make one of the residents call Marco home, where he could give them access to his personal safe. They borrowed a truck and on their way to the Pesce residence, Wolfenbarger and Lincoln stopped at a local Hallmark store to purchase a teddy bear, which they planned to use as a purported Christmas gift, and Kmart to buy clip boards, fake deliverymen uniforms, and ski masks.
When they arrived at the home, Pesce’s mother, Maria Vegrati, visiting her son and his family from Italy, was cleaning up around garage, which door was open facing the street. Approaching Vegrati in disguise, Wolfenbarger and Lincoln fooled the elderly 68-year old woman who spoke and understood little English into the house through the door in the garage. The moment they set foot inside the residence, Wolfenbarger pulled a gun and Vergati became confused and disoriented. Taking her into the living room, Wolfenbarger dispersed Lincoln back to the strip mall where Marco’s jewelry store was located and told him to monitor activities there.
With Wolfenbarger holding Vergati hostage in the living room, Marco dropped off his three children, Carlo, 12, Sabrina, 9, and Melissa 6, in his driveway after an afternoon with their mother in Ann Arbor to go spend time with their grandmother and then drove back to his store. Once the children were inside the house, Wolfenbarger contacted Lincoln and told him, “Dad, just dropped off the kids.”
When Marco returned to the jewelry store, Wolfenbarger had his 12 year old son, Carlo, phone the store and tell his dad he was needed back at the house because his younger sister, Melissa, had fallen and chipped her tooth. Just like when they conned their way into the house by fooling Vergati, the story about Melissa was a ruse. And just like with Vergati, her son, Marco, was hoodwinked and returned to his residence, having no clue of the coldhearted treachery in store for him and his entire family in the coming minutes.
Trailing Marco back to the house was Lincoln, who sat in his car on the side of the street waiting for Wolfenbarger to come out with further instructions, presumably to aid him with opening up a safe inside the home. Such a request never came. Instead, Wolfenbarger exited the house, jumped in the car with stolen cash and jewelry in tow, and remarked bluntly, “Five dead.”