Where are you, Nicola Sallese?

Despite the number of discounted sightings, the Salleses have not lost hope of finding their cherished family member.

'The mafia up on the hill'
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Each year, more than 38,000 people are reported missing in Australia. Although 95 per cent are found within a week, about 2,000 people remain missing long-term. Nicola Sallese is one of them. His story is part of an SBS series on missing persons from multicultural backgrounds.

Wearing his trademark flat cap, Nicola "Nick" Sallese gazes out from the window of the Don Store grocery in the main street of Sheffield, in north-west Tasmania. Ann Ridgway passes the portrait, drawn by a local artist and encircled with loving words penned by Sallese's younger son, Jason, almost daily.

"It absolutely haunts me at times," she says. "You think, 'If only you could answer us. Where are you, Nick?'"

A long-time family friend, Ridgway was one of the last people to see the 69-year-old before he vanished in November 2008.

She had been close to Nicola's wife, Jill, who died of cancer in 2000. The pair shared a love of lace-making and other crafts.

A talented wood turner, Sallese – an electrician with the Hydro-Electric Commission (now Hydro Tasmania) for 36 years – made Jill's spinning wheel and lace bobbins.

Picturesque Sheffield, 90 kilometres west of Launceston, is surrounded by forests and rolling fields.

The Salleses settled there in 1981 after spells in Gowrie Park and George Town, the moves dictated by Nicola's job.

After renting a "Hydro home" in town, they bought a property on Vinegar Hill, overlooking Sheffield; Sallese did the renovations, installing an Italian tiled fireplace and cross-hatched timber window frames.

Locals joked that Sallese, an Italian migrant who never lost his thick accent, was "the mafia up on the hill", Ridgway recalls, and, "he'd play on that, he'd tell them to 'watch out!'"

She and her husband, Selwyn, were often up at Vinegar Hill, while their house in town was a second home for Nick and Jason. Although often away working, Sallese – a dapper figure with a neat moustache – always made it back for his soccer-mad sons' weekend matches.

On Friday, 14 November, the eve of the anniversary of Jill's death, Sallese visited Ann Ridgway and paid for his daily Meals on Wheels – friends of hers ran the service.

A keen lawn bowls player, on the Saturday he travelled to Turners Beach, on the north-west coast, for a match. On Sunday evening, he phoned Nick, who lives in Devonport. Nick promised to call over after work the following day to fix the timer clock on his father's microwave: something he had been promising to do for a while.

On Monday the 17th, at about 12.30, Meals on Wheels volunteers arrived at Nicola's house. No one was in. As was usual when he was not home, they took the meal to Ridgway's place – Sallese normally collected it later in the day.

Ridgway was surprised to see them, since Sallese had told her he planned to spend the day gardening and doing odd jobs. She rang him at about 2pm; there was no answer.

Nick, meanwhile, had decided to postpone visiting his father until the following day. However, despite repeatedly calling, he could not get hold of him.

Concerned, he drove over to Vinegar Hill that evening, where he found the house locked up, washing hanging on the line and Sallese's dog, Milo, in his kennel. Letting himself in, he noticed his father's toiletry bag half-packed and an open, empty suitcase.

After waiting a couple of hours, Nick called Ridgway. As she tells it: "He rang me and said, 'Dad's still not here, when do we panic?' I said, 'I think we'd better do it now.'"

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The best dressed man you ever met
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On a sunny afternoon in autumn, Sheffield Bowls Club buzzes sedately as a dozen members rehearse their throws on the spotless green. In the past, Nicola Sallese would probably have been among them.

A long-standing member, he rarely missed a match or practice day – or, in the off-season, one of the regular teas or social gatherings.

"He was a very likeable person, very decent and sociable, and he mixed well," remembers fellow member Jean Bailey, perched at a table in the little clubhouse.

"If you saw him in town, he would greet you very politely. He was the smartest dressed man you ever met, always immaculate, often in a collar and tie."

Nicola was "a thorough gentleman, full of humour", agrees Nick Sallese's wife, Dana,  describing her father-in-law as "a very friendly, lively man".

Sallese had his routines. Wednesdays and Saturdays he was at the Bowls Club – and, sometimes, the RSL, for a meal. He shopped in Devonport, always choosing the same spot in the supermarket car park.

He filled up at the Caltex service station in Sheffield, where he knew the mechanic, David Archibald. Driving to Launceston, Devonport and local towns, he always followed the same routes.

In the 12 months before he disappeared, Bailey and her husband, John, noticed him becoming forgetful. He would turn up for a Saturday afternoon home match as early as 9am, when the green was still being mowed.

Once he travelled to an away match in Latrobe without his kit. The Bowls Club's president, Dennis Rockliffe, would phone him to alert him to club meetings, but – uncharacteristically – he did not attend.

The family was also worried. According to Jason, Sallese had to ring Nick almost daily "to ask what day it was and what he was supposed to be doing". Ridgway says he was "really very embarrassed" about his memory problems. The Baileys helped to arrange a mental health assessment; the diagnosis was early dementia.

Sallese began taking dementia medication. Realistic about the future, he put his house on the market and looked into buying a unit in town. Jean Bailey suspects he fretted, needlessly, about becoming "a nuisance" to his family.  

His driving grew increasingly erratic, and he wrote off his silver Toyota Camry while trying to swat a fly. After replacing it with another silver, second-hand Camry, registration FH 2973, he hit a parked car in the Bowls Club car park, damaging his left-hand panel.

He ran a red light and on one occasion drove on the wrong side of the road. There were family discussions; Sallese was desperate to hang on to his licence.

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Waiting for him to come home
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Not far outside Sheffield, on the road leading east, is the turn-off for Vinegar Hill. Between 1pm and 2pm on 17 November, mechanic David Archibald passed Sallese about 500 metres beyond the turn-off. The pair exchanged waves. And that was the last confirmed sighting of Jason's and Nick's father.

That night, waiting in vain for him to come home, Nick called Jason, who had moved to Seven Mile Beach, near Hobart, 18 months earlier. Did his brother have any clue where Sallese could be? Jason was at a loss.

Nick filed a missing persons report. He also contacted police in Launceston, in case the anniversary had prompted Sallese to head to the city's Carr Villa cemetery – Jill's cremated remains are there.

On Tuesday, Jason phoned. "So, where was he?" he asked Nick, who had stayed at Vinegar Hill overnight. Hearing that Sallese was still missing, he packed a bag, took leave from his electrician's job and drove to Sheffield, just over three hours north.

Initially, the family assumed Sallese had broken down – it would just be a matter of finding him by the roadside, they thought. "There were only so many roads he used to travel," explains Jason. However, police searches of the area failed to uncover any trace.

The family threw themselves into the hunt. While Nick remained at the house in case Sallese returned, and to conduct media interviews, Jason spent up to 18 hours a day on the road, ranging as far afield as Smithton, in Tasmania's far north-west, and George Town, way over east.

He would drive, stop somewhere and walk for two kilometres, then drive, stop and walk for another two kilometres, checking every back road, every forest track, down every embankment. Returning to Vinegar Hill at night, he would find a meal waiting for him, dropped off by some thoughtful local.

Although exhausted, Jason could not sleep. "Your brain's going at 100 miles per hour, and every bump you hear, you think, 'Was that the back door?' I didn't even lie down; I just sat on the couch in front of the TV, watching infomercials."

The family's anxiety was heightened by the knowledge that Sallese, who had high blood pressure, was without his hypertension drugs.

At the Bowls Club, and in the wider Sheffield community, people were dismayed by his disappearance. Shops and businesses displayed missing posters and flyers. Many locals, including the Ridgways, joined the search. So did Sallese's elder brother, Guiseppe, who lived in Devonport; he trawled forests and river banks, looked near canyons and dams.

"The place was scoured," says Gerald Davies, the estate agent who was negotiating the sale of Vinegar Hill. Davies, who relays a puzzling story of discovering the house open but no one home when he arrived with prospective buyers a day or two before Sallese went missing, adds: "Some of these roads were searched three and four and five times."

Early on, police were diverted by what proved to be a false sighting of Sallese at Penguin, on the north coast. Another sighting at Southport, in Tasmania's far south, at 7pm on the 17th, seemed more promising.

A tourist from Sydney, Richard Robinson, reported being approached outside some public toilets by an elderly man fitting Sallese's description, down to the Italian accent. He seemed vague and asked for directions to Seven Mile Beach, according to Robinson, who consulted his road atlas and told him it was 100 miles to the north.

After seeing a TV report about the case a few days later, Robinson told police he was "certain that this was the person that I had spoken to at Southport".

Seven Mile Beach is where Jason lives, and Sallese had been looking forward to travelling there the following Saturday with Nick and Dana to celebrate his granddaughter Olivia's first birthday.

Did he mix up the dates, forget the plan and try to drive down by himself? Dana thought it likely, particularly as he had been mortified at forgetting another grandchild's birthday and determined not to repeat the lapse.

Police searched the Southport area – eventually. Jason and Nick were exasperated by the sluggish pace, as they saw it, of the official operation. They organised their own two helicopter sweeps of the north-west, including Cradle Mountain. But Sallese was nowhere to be seen, nor, bafflingly, was his car.

After nearly three weeks, the brothers wound down their intensive efforts. "There comes a point," says Jason, "where you just go, 'Well, where have you gone? How have we not found him?'

"I was almost at breaking-point. I was so tired, it was like I was drunk. The worst thing was letting go, because that's the last thing you want to do. But it just took over everything, and I had to step away."

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Hydro in his blood
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The grounds of the house where Nick and Jason grew up are overgrown and neglected now, the property having been rented out for nearly a decade. Wandering through, Ann Ridgway recalls when they were lovingly cared for, when there was a rose garden, and grapevines, and a lemon tree.

Jill Sallese's chook shed is still there. She kept sheep and goats in the paddocks. Once a year, Sallese sheared the sheep; she spun the wool and knitted jumpers.

They were "an ideal couple, devoted to each other", relates Jason. "She was dad's priority, and that never changed, his whole life." When she became ill, he quit the Hydro to look after her.

The second of six children, Nicola was born on 10 October, 1939, in Vasto, a hilltop town on Italy's Adriatic coast. The family moved twice, settling in the western port of Livorno.

During Nicola's wartime childhood, he was struck by an Italian Army truck while playing by a roadside and knocked unconscious into a ditch.

After being apprenticed to a cobbler, in 1960 Sallese migrated to Australia, where, following a brief stint in Fremantle, he followed Giuseppe to Tasmania and joined the Hydro as a trades assistant.

 

He met Jill Pitman, as she then was, at a dance in Launceston, and the couple married in 1967. Nick was born the following year, Jason in 1969.

The family relocated to Italy when the boys were small, but returned to Tasmania after six months. Sallese became a troubleshooter for the Hydro, travelling all over the state.

"If there was anything wrong, he was the first man they sent for," says Jason. "Pretty much every dam, every power station, every sub-station, if he wasn't in the crew that built it, he'd worked on it or done maintenance."

Jason remembers backyard footy games with Sallese. He remembers his father cheering him and Nick on at the soccer and cricket, taking them on fishing trips and tending his vegetable garden.

The family holidayed at St Helen's, on Tasmania's east coast, and piled into an old station wagon one summer for a camping adventure on the mainland. Nicola and Jill "went without a lot just so that Nick and I could progress", Jason thinks.

Despite working away, Nicola was heavily involved in his sons' lives, always ready to lend a hand or offer advice. A "strict but fair" father, he passed on good manners and a piercing sense of right and wrong.

"Whenever we needed him, like when we got our first cars and they broke down, he was very generous with his time," stresses Jason.

"He was always interested in what we were doing, and that pretty much carried on when we had our own kids." 

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He wouldn't leave the dog by himself
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When Jill died, Sallese was bereft. Yet Dana was struck by how her father-in-law found "positive ways to fill his life" – including his beloved bowls, and gardening, with his "best buddy" Milo at his side.

He enjoyed weekly  dinners with friends, and in 2007 took a TAFE English course, writing that he was "really enjoying his life" and hoped to "get even more time on this earth".

Above all, he doted on his grandchildren. Nick and Dana had two sons, Ben and Zachary; Jason had Olivia.

"He just loved them and spoiled them rotten," smiles Jason. At least once a week, Sallese would call over to play with the boys, staying for a cup of tea or a meal. Occasionally he babysat. To Dana, he was a "very involved grandfather".

Jason was close to his father. "We had a lot in common, and we were always bouncing ideas off each other," he says.

"He was my dad, but he was a mate as well." They kept in regular phone contact after Jason moved south.

As the dementia took hold, Sallese became frustrated by his own forgetfulness. The drugs did not seem to help. The family had to remind him to keep medical appointments.

In November 2008, two weeks before he disappeared, Sallese dropped in on Guiseppe; however, he stayed for only five minutes and declined a coffee – which was "very strange behaviour for him", his brother, who died a few years ago, told police. Nicola also acted oddly towards family members visiting from Italy.

On 9 November, he forgot to show up for Sunday lunch at Nick's house. The following Thursday, he visited the grandsons on his way home from Burnie, where he had been supposed to see his specialist – he hadn't been able find him, he told Dana. Otherwise, he seemed fine, departing with his customary, "Well, I'd better get home, that dog will be wondering where I am!"

On Saturday the 15th, at Turners Beach, Sallese appeared "in good spirits", according to the Bowls Club's Dennis Rockliffe, and he joined fellow team members for dinner back at the club that evening.

When he failed to return home on the Monday, his sons knew something was wrong.

"Put it this way," explains Jason, "we knew dad wouldn't leave the dog at home by himself. If he was capable of getting home, he'd get home."

'He's still out there somewhere'
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In January 2009, police used sonar equipment to try to locate Sallese's car in Lake Barrington, west of Sheffield.

In May, and again in September, they searched the Southport area once more. In February 2010, search and rescue officers scoured the Dasher River Gorge, outside Sheffield.

Detective Inspector David Wright, who reviewed the investigation in December 2008, termed it "remarkable" that the Camry had not been found.

In April 2012, the Tasmanian Coroner concluded that Sallese died on or about the day he went missing, and that there were no suspicious circumstances. (Police had ruled out foul play after combing his house and grounds.)

Sergeant Anthea Maingay, now in charge of the case, believes it "quite possible" that the car went over an embankment in a remote spot, out of sight of searchers and the public, and that vegetation has since grown up over it.

Alternatively, she notes, it could be submerged in water. "But with the significant floods here last year, you'd think that had the car gone into one of the rivers, it would have washed up. We've had a lot of water through and nothing has come up."

The last reported sighting of Sallese was in southern Tasmania last December; like numerous others, it was investigated and discounted.

Since his father vanished, Jason has married Leah and had another daughter, Phoebe. Nick has had a daughter, Gabi. Recently, the family erected a plaque in the Carr Villa cemetery, next to Jill's ashes. "Nicola (Nick) Sallese, dearly loved and missed," it reads.

Those who cherish him have not given up hope. Whenever Jason sees a silver Camry, "I'll always glance at the number plate, even now," he says. Ann Ridgway does the same, looking out for the brown nodding dog on Sallese's rear parcel shelf. At the Bowls Club, members stage an annual competition in memory of Jill and Nicola.

Last January, the family parked a mobile billboard plastered with large photographs of Sallese and his car in a prominent spot in Sheffield. In March, a local drone pilot recorded footage of inaccessible bushland outside the town.

Jason runs a Facebook page, 'Help Find Nicola Sallese'. "You just hope the next person to like your page might be the person that goes, 'Hang on a minute, I know something about this,'" he observes.

Jason's biggest worry is that responsibility for finding Sallese will eventually fall to his daughters. "You hope there's never a day when they've got to say, 'Right, now it's our turn.'"

He reflects: "He's still out there somewhere, which does your head in a bit. I remember meeting a lady whose dad is over 90 and missing. She said the thing she didn't like was, every time it rained, knowing he was out in it somewhere.

"There's not much you can say to that except, 'Yep, I understand where you're at.'"

If you have any information regarding a missing person, please contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.