Gary Zerkle told The Associated Press on Tuesday that 21-year-old Jessica Sacco's mother arrived at Sacco's Urbana home last Thursday, concerned she had not heard from her daughter in days.
Zerkle found Sacco's remains the next morning. Police say Sacco's on-again, off-again boyfriend, Matthew Puccio, had stabbed her, placed a bag over her head and suffocated her. They say Sacco was then dismembered, with some body parts found miles away in Kentucky.
Puccio was arraigned Tuesday and was being held on $100,000 bond. Four other defendants, accused of watching the attack on Sacco, also were arraigned and were being held on bonds of $50,000 each. Telephone messages seeking comment were left for their attorneys on Tuesday.
Zerkle said Sacco's mother found nothing amiss Thursday night in the one-bedroom apartment but a locked bathroom door.
Zerkle, who lives next door to the duplex Sacco rented, decided to check it out the following morning, largely because Sacco's mother had looked so concerned.
"I didn't think that was right," he said of the locked door. "Sometimes you get a gut feeling."
Standing by the locked door, he removed the doorknob screws and peeked inside the bathroom. He could see only a shower curtain. He pried open the door and looked behind the shower curtain.
"I pulled it back, and that was it," he said. "And I zoomed out the front door. ... I was trying to gasp for air."
Shuddering, he said he can't describe what he found.
"All I could think about was the sadness for her mother," he said.
Zerkle said Sacco, who police say moved to the area from California about a year ago, paid $360 per month to stay in the duplex. He said he never heard much from her or Puccio, who moved into the apartment in the fall. Shortly thereafter, Andrew and Kandis Forney, of Fenton, Mich., began staying with them.
Puccio, 25, has been charged with murder and other counts in Sacco's slaying and dismemberment. The Forneys and another couple, Christopher Wright and Sharon Cook, of Urbana, 40 miles northwest of Columbus, also are charged. Police say the couples watched as Puccio stabbed Sacco, then placed a bag over her head and suffocated her. One of the men is accused of helping with the dismemberment.
None of the suspects has a criminal record in Champaign County, where Urbana is located, except Puccio, who was convicted of a first-degree misdemeanor in custody interference in February. Police say Puccio housed a 14-year-old girl from Texas at the apartment for a week.
Urbana police Chief Matt Lingrell has said that Puccio and Sacco recently met the Forneys online and that the members of the group were "loose friends." He wouldn't specify how some of the couples may have met online.
Zerkle said he believes the Forneys were living with Puccio and Sacco for months, since their car was in the driveway on several occasions after Thanksgiving.
Investigators haven't commented on a motive for the killing, believed to have happened around March 22, a week before Sacco's mother showed up.
Sacco's mother went to the home after failing to reach her via cellphone for several days, Zerkle said.
He was having the house emptied on Tuesday by a crew that wore white protective gear and facemasks and placed items in a large refuse container. He said he plans to have the bathroom gutted.
"I can't go in there thinking about what happened," he said.
Crews were disposing of almost everything but salvaged Sacco's birth certificate and a baby book. Zerkle said he plans to return them to her mother.