Through most of her life Lissa Felzer, 44, had no ties with, or interest in, Kingsport, Tenn.
It was an innocuous city along Interstate 81, road signs passing in a blur as she headed north to visit family in New York.
But over the past 11 years, the Fort Mill, S.C., resident has come to view Kingsport as an enigmatic stop on a heartbreaking search. In June 2002, her father’s pickup was located outside the La Quinta Inn off I-81’s exit 63; Saint Christopher medal still pinned to the gearshift, his baseball cap and eyeglasses inside the cab.
Yet no man fitting his description was reported as checking in. To this day, Joseph P. D’Aquisto has not been found.
When his vehicle was located in Kingsport, D’Aquisto was 60. He had been reported as missing from Asheville, N.C., six months prior.
Investigators with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office tell the Times-News that his disappearance remains an active but cold case, with no charges placed and an investigation continuing.
And while Felzer admits the discovery of her father’s truck ultimately proved to be just a brief, false hope, she refuses to abandon her search.
Case in point: She’s purchased a billboard advertisement along Highway 75, across from Northeast State Community College. It’s approximately 2 miles from where her father’s pickup was found, displaying D’Aquisto’s photo along with phone numbers for tipsters to call with information.
Is she setting herself up for another disappointment, or grasping at straws?
She doesn’t care.
"I know that if I disappeared he wouldn’t stop looking for me," said Felzer, voice cracking as she fights to suppress her tears. "So I’m not going to stop looking for him.
"I want somebody to see his face on the billboard, and at least tell me where he is. Because he doesn’t deserve to be laying on the side of the road or in the woods."
That’s what Felzer believes happened to her father, a professional electrician and avid photographer. Felzer acknowledges he’d been having issues with her mother, and was last seen leaving their home to drive around and cool off after a period of tension.
But he left behind his tools and his camera, and Felzer said there was no subsequent use of his checking account or credit cards. She describes D’Aquisto as quiet and strong with great integrity — quickly adding that he’s "not impulsive, not at all."
And that’s why she refuses to believe that he’d up and abandoned his five children.
"I think that he got in his truck to go for a drive," Felzer said. "And he probably stopped somewhere to help somebody with something, and he’s laying dead somewhere and we can’t find him. I think somebody stole his truck and left it (in Kingsport)."
Felzer previously rented a billboard in the Asheville area, displaying the same information now seen along Highway 75 in Blountville. Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jeff Eaton says the previous advertisement did prompt some calls to police — with leads investigated.
Meanwhile, Felzer struggles with not knowing and the lack of closure. She has four children who have never known their grandfather.
"I’m always looking," Felzer said. "I dream about him, a lot. I dream that I find him, and I’m so angry. I’m always looking for him everywhere."
Anyone with information on the disappearance of D’Aquisto is asked to call (423) 799-0563 or (828) 255-5050. He’s been missing from Asheville since January 2002, with his maroon Toyota pickup found in June of that year at the La Quinta Inn on the Airport Parkway in Kingsport.
"If it was their dad, wouldn’t they like someone to come forward," Felzer asks. "No matter what?"