The house where Cindy Wozneski died bears no trace of the tragedy that unfolded there – or of a mystery that lingers after 28 years.
Behind a wrought-iron fence that surrounds a corner lot on Heard Avenue, new timbers and fresh paint rise from neatly kept gardens.
It was a vastly different scene Dec. 20, 1984, when firefighters arrived just after 3 a.m. and found a first-floor apartment in flames.
The inferno kept two dozen firemen and four trucks busy until daylight, when officials entered the soggy, charred ruins and made a gruesome discovery.
Wozneski’s body was sprawled, naked and face-up, on what remained of her bed. Her arms, upturned over her head, were reduced to stubs, and one leg was burned off at the thigh.
It was five days before Christmas, and initial indications were that the petite, 29-year-old Florida native had succumbed to smoke and flames.
But things weren’t as they seemed.
During a routine autopsy at University Hospital, a pathologist measured the carbon monoxide in her body at 0.2 percent – a fraction of what it would have been if she had died in the fire.
Moreover, traces of soot or smoke in her throat – another characteristic of fire deaths – were also conspicuously absent.
Most significantly, the position of her body was suspicious because fire victims typically curl into a fetal position.
Wozneski, it turned out, was dead before fire consumed her body. Police confided to family members that they believed she was slain.
Evidence and answers, however, were sparse.
The official death certificate and fire department report listed the cause of death as “fire.” The medical examiner’s report labeled the death “accidental.”
Her body was cremated within 48 hours of the fire, and family members scattered her ashes in Florida’s Biscayne Bay, near where she grew up.
It was five months later when ash samples from the fire were tested at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab, which found no trace of accelerants that might have fueled the blaze.
The lab’s director, Larry Howard, wrote a letter to Coroner Marvin Woodward that there was “insufficient information” to determine how Wozneski died.
“I doubt we can lay this case to rest,” he wrote, “but perhaps we can get it off our back.”
Her family, however, did not want to give up. They hired, among others, Joseph L. Burton, a forensics expert who had investigated hundreds of fire deaths.
This one, he concluded, “should be investigated and handled as a homicide” because killers often use arson to cover up a slaying.
She could have been strangled, or killed by a blow to the head. An examination of her brain during autopsy might have shed more light, but no such exam was conducted.
The case, at that point, was at a standstill. Her family and friends grieved and wondered.
As questions persisted, the matter was taken before a coroner’s inquest in June 1985. By that time the family had retained Augusta lawyer Stephen E. Curry to investigate her death.
During the inquest, experts exchanged details of what was known – and what wasn’t.
In the end, the 12 jurors failed to determine exactly how Wozneski died, but they did make a ruling: the cause of death, first labeled as accidental and by fire, was changed to “undetermined.”
To this day, the case haunts Curry and others who tried to help the Wozneski family find closure through the truth about the young woman’s fate.
“In practicing law for 37 years, this is one of the most troubling and mystifying cases I’ve ever been involved in,” Curry said last week. “This is one of the ones you remember, that you always remember.”
Wozneski spent her high school years as a cheerleader and graduated as a “senior of distinction,” earning pageant titles that included Miss Coral Gables Country Club. At the University of Florida, she was a majorette, an Alpha Tau Omega Sweetheart and a part-time model who made television commercials for a fitness center where she worked out regularly.
Her interest in fitness led her to Augusta, where she accepted a job with the Veterans Administration as a recreational therapist – and where her beauty attracted many suitors, including patients from the hospital.
The day she died, she had returned from a three-day trip to Atlanta, where she spent time with a patient she had been dating who was attending a truck driver school as part of a job training program.
In a 1986 interview with The Augusta Chronicle, the man said Wozneski called him at 3 p.m. that day to let him know she had arrived home in Augusta safely. He told her he would call her after 11 that night, when his classes were over.
Although he called at the designated time, there was no answer – and, he said, her answering machine did not pick up.
That same evening, Wozneski was in the company of another man she was dating – a 30-year-old computer student at Augusta College.
She and a girlfriend with whom she went shopping had returned to her Heard Avenue apartment and found the man there waiting for them. When the girlfriend left at 10:30 p.m., the two of them were there alone.
During a 1986 interview, the second boyfriend – now deceased – said he left Wozneski’s apartment about 11 p.m. About 30 minutes later, she called to talk to the female friend she had shopped with earlier in the day, who recalled her discussing the patient she stayed with in Atlanta.
“I don’t think she would have done that if (he) was still there,” she later told The Chronicle.
A final wrinkle in the case emerged many months after Wozneski’s death.
On the night she died, shortly before 3 a.m., when the fire was reported, Augusta police detectives were conducting a stakeout at Surrey Center as part of a drug investigation.
They were suspicious of a car left unattended in the parking lot and ran a license check. It was registered to Wozneski at her Heard Avenue address.
It remains a mystery who might have driven the car that night. Wozneski’s shopping companion, and the boyfriend who was the last known person to see her alive, were certain her car was at the Heard Avenue apartment that night – not at Surrey Center.
After the fire, someone returned it where it was supposed to be: on Heard Avenue.
The Wozneski family appealed to then-Mayor Charles A. DeVaney to devote new resources to the case. A new detective, then-Sgt. Don Lewis, was directed to re-examine the evidence.
Within a few weeks, Lewis concluded that there was no way to solve the case with any degree of certainty.
He also introduced a new explanation for her death: electrocution.
He theorized that Wozneski, naked and perhaps wet from a shower, must have sat on an electric blanket that covered her bed.
An electrical short-circuit, he concluded, caused her death by electrocution before setting the apartment on fire.
“I cannot find any evidence to indicate the death of Cynthia Jo Wozneski was caused by anything other than accidental causes,” he wrote in his final report.
Although his inquiry did not uncover evidence of a homicide, it was the first official acknowledgement that Wozneski was dead before fire consumed her body.
Later, however, several fire and electrocution experts – including a former New York City fire marshal who at the time was an arson investigator for Aetna Corp. – said the electrocution theory was impossible.
It also emerged, through studies of the position of the body and the extent to which one leg that hung over the floor was burned, that the fire likely began on the apartment’s hardwood floor – and not on the bed. That, experts said, hinted at an accelerant.
The Augusta Chronicle, for a 1986 story, sought a professional opinion from Homer Pringle, the head of the legal department for Underwriters Laboratories, now known as UL.
“I’ve never heard of an electrocution by an electric blanket,” he said.
The family’s consultant, Joe Burton, said the initial, hasty conclusions of an accidental fire death likely prevented the collection and preservation of evidence that could have provided important answers.
“This case might serve as a lesson to everyone that there is no such thing as a simple fire death, and that a very thorough and complete investigation by all agencies is required before certifying a death in such circumstances,” he concluded.
Today, the case is cold and unsolved, and likely will remain that way.
Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he vaguely recalls the Wozneski death, which was handled by Augusta police before the city and county consolidated.
“It was something that never really came up with anything,” he said, adding, however, that authorities are always interested in any new evidence that could surface.
Since Wozneski’s death, the Victorian house on Heard Avenue, first built in 1891, has undergone a series of transformations. Once divided into apartments, it was renovated to become a single-family home again, according to Richmond County property records.