This is the first of two articles about a half-dozen people who disappeared from Clearwater under suspicious circumstances in the past three decades. Next week: Profiles of people who disappeared in 1974, 1978 and 1995.
Law enforcement officers are still looking for, from left, Mark Allen Thompson, Zachary M. Bernhardt and John C. Podniestrzanski
CLEARWATER – The recent discovery of two kidnapped boys, one of whom had been missing for four years, in a Missouri apartment has renewed interest in cold cases of missing persons nationwide.
But six people who have disappeared from Clearwater since the 1970s have been on the minds of law enforcement officers all along.
“We periodically get leads on these people and they’re assigned (to an investigator) and followed up,” Detective Sgt. John Scacca of the Clearwater Police Department said in a Jan. 12 telephone interview. “It’s an ongoing process and we keep hoping that one of these leads will prove to be fruitful.”
Thirty-year-old Mark Allen Thompson was wearing khaki shorts and a blue-striped white shirt when he left the Pro Shop Pub, a popular gay hangout on Cleveland Street, shortly after midnight on Halloween 2001. Five days later, his 1998 Ford Ranger pickup was found in Tampa, bearing no signs of foul play. But Thompson, who has bipolar disorder, didn’t have his medication with him.
It has been speculated that Thompson might have encountered Scott Schweickert and Steven Lorenzo, two Tampa men who allegedly frequented some of the same gay bars he did, although there is no proof of that. Schweickert and Thompson were later accused by police of drugging and torturing gay men they had picked up. Lorenzo was sentenced to 200 years in prison, and Schweickert is currently on trial.
Thompson is a 5-foot 10-inch, 180-pound white male with brown hair and brown eyes. He would now be 35 years old.
Zachary M. Bernhardt was only 8 years old when he disappeared from the Savannah Trace apartment on Drew Street he shared with his mother, Leah Hackett, about 4 a.m. on September 11, 2000. Hackett told police that she left the door unlocked while she went for a 15-minute predawn walk, and her son was gone when she returned.
Sixty local, state and federal law enforcement officers searched nearby Cliff Stephens Park and Alligator Creek, but no trace of him was ever found. Sgt. Scacca said that a credible tip recently placed Bernhardt in the Pacific Northwest, but investigators located the boy in question and determined that he was not Bernhardt.
Bernhardt is a white male with blonde hair, hazel eyes and scars on his nose, chin and lower lip. At the time of his disappearance, he was 4-foot 8-inches tall and weighed 60 pounds. Today, he would be 15 years old.
John C. Podniestrzanski was 32 years old when he went missing in March 1995. The police say he has a history of dealing in stolen auto parts and was better known by his street name, Johnny Pod.
“(F)amily members feel that his criminal activity may have contributed to his disappearance,” according to the Clearwater Police Web site. An anonymous donor is offering a $5,000 reward for information about his disappearance.
The New Jersey native, who lived with a series of friends and girlfriends, was facing trial on a charge of dealing in stolen property when he disappeared, so it is possible that he fled to avoid prosecution, but authorities doubt it.
“It’s not just a missing person case,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent Lee Strope told local newspapers at the time Podniestrzanski disappeared. “It’s very possible that he’s a victim of foul play.”
Podniestrzanski is a white male who would be 44 years old today. Anybody with information about him, Bernhardt or Thompson should call the Clearwater Police hotline at 562-4080.