NJ woman’s murder investigation turns to suspected killers’ parents
In the year since her daughter Stephanie was killed by an abusive boyfriend, Sharlene Parze has been haunted by the close bond they shared.
“We did everything together — holidays, vacations, day trips, just going out to dinner, movies,” said the mother, who finds reminders of her daughter everywhere, never knowing when one will trigger despair.
“Now we just have a hole,” Sharlene Parze, 53, said through tears in an interview from her Freehold, NJ, home Thursday.
“It’s all you ever think about, your mind never shuts off — reliving what she was thinking when it was happening, trying to see her face, not being able to hold her, kiss her or hug her ever again.”
As the first anniversary of the disappearance and death of the 25-year-old New Jersey makeup artist approaches, her distraught parents hold on to one final hope for securing answers about what happened to their daughter on the night of Oct. 30, 2019.
Robbed of closure by the suicide of Parze’s suspected killer, John Ozbilgen, Parze’s family — and Monmouth County prosecutors — are now honing in on what Ozbilgen told his parents before he died.
“We want the truth to come out,” Sharlene Parze said.
Her husband, Ed Parze, 55, added, “How can they defend their son when they know he committed this crime? Man up, do the right thing.
“No matter what they find, it will not bring Stephanie back. It will give us more of an understanding, if they do know anything. I hate to think this happened, and they covered it up.”
The Parzes never heard from their daughter again after she left their house on Halloween eve, following a night out with her mother and sisters to visit a New Brunswick psychic. She sent her mom a Snapchat message while driving back to her own home nearby, but calls and texts the next morning went unanswered.
The family immediately suspected Parze’s on-and-off-again boyfriend, Ozbilgen, a 29-year-old stockbroker who had recently moved from Staten Island to suburban Freehold Township. He had been charged with attacking Parze and a second woman between June and October, 2019.
“The minute we couldn’t find her, I said, ‘Where is he?’” Ed Parze recalled. “Those were the first words out of my mouth.”
Ozbilgen admitted he spent the night at Parze’s on Oct. 30, and claimed she was alive when he left the next morning.
But he remained the principal person of interest as thousands of volunteers scoured woodlands from Freehold Township to Staten Island in the next few months searching for Stephanie’s body. In November, cops arrested Ozbilgen on child porn charges, after finding images in his phone, while continuing to try to squeeze him for a confession.
But Ozbilgen never copped to the murder. And as investigators circled, their prime suspect hanged himself his parent’s garage on Nov. 22.
He left behind at least two notes, which hinted at homicide but never disclosed the whereabouts of Stephanie’s body.
“I dug myself in a deep hole. This is the only choice,” he wrote.
Her remains were finally discovered three months later, in the weeds just off the shoulder of Highway 9 about 10 miles north of Freehold in Old Bridge, NJ. They were too decomposed for authorities to determine how she was killed, her parents said.
While the Ozbilgens have maintained their son’s innocence, and their own, authorities insist he didn’t take all of his secrets to the grave.
Prosecutors “believe there were texts between them [Ozbilgen and his parents] after he killed her. They believe he confessed to his parents early on,” said a law enforcement source.
Hakan and Cynthia Ozbilgen are now the subject of an evidence-tampering investigation, the source said. Prosecutors have also discussed hindering prosecution and obstruction of justice charges.
Authorities suspect the two may have deleted messages exchanged with their son — possibly crucial evidence — shortly after Parze was reported missing, the source said. Authorities also believe they withheld one of the suicide notes their son wrote, according to the source, and they refuse to turn over their cellphone passwords so their devices can be searched.
Hakan Ozbilgen, 55, admitted withholding the passwords in an interview with The Post Friday. He blames law enforcement for his son’s death and is not in a cooperative mood.
“The reason why my son took his life is not because he did something to this poor girl, it’s because he was charged with child pornography. He couldn’t handle it,” Hakan Ozbilgen seethed. “I’m so angry at them, that’s why I’m talking like this.”
Prosecutors say they made the disturbing discovery of 10 images of young girls and babies being abused on Ozbilgen’s cellphone while they were scanning the device for clues on Parze. They arrested him Nov. 8, 2019, on the charge of possession of child pornography, and he spent the next 11 days in jail. He killed himself three days after his release on bail.
Hakan Ozbilgen believes the charges were false and meant to pressure his son.
“This is why I can’t stand the prosecutor. They would leave him in the [cell], nine days by himself, and then every morning they would have a female guard go in and she would say, ‘John, do you see how many charges they got against you today?’ They were using this female officer, and what they really wanted him to do was they wanted him to go like insane on her . . . so they could say he has some kind of bias against women, and it’s not true. It’s not true,” the father said.
“You guys are the murderers,” Ozbilgen said, referring to prosecutors. “My son had nothing to do with her disappearance. Prosecutors lied through their teeth.”
Ozbilgen’s father even explains away some of the most incriminating clues linking his son to Parze’s disappearance — his suicide notes and 10 expletive-laden text messages he sent to Parze, including one calling her a “f–king c–t, the night before she died.
He claims his son had reason to be upset because Parze “was involved with five or six other guys.” He then quickly added, “There are a couple things I know that I won’t say, because I don’t want to make her look bad. She’s not here, my son is not here.”
The father said his son was a gentleman, not the raging misogynist he is made out to be.
“My son dated a lot of girls. … There would be a lot more girls out there saying something about him. My son was 6’ 4, he was gorgeous, he had brown hair, green eyes, when I walked in the mall with him, girls would turn around and stare at him. He was a beautiful kid.”
But one ex did complain — telling the Asbury Park Press that Ozbilgen would choke her during sex and arguments, sometimes until she passed out.
Prosecutors believe Stephanie may have died during “rough sex” with Ozbilgen, the law enforcement source said.
“His parents were well aware of his battering of women and his need for rough sex, and so when he got himself in trouble, he would just go to his parents to get him out of jail,” the source said. “It would make sense if he killed her in the middle of rough sex. It would make sense he called his father and said he killed her.”
Meanwhile prosecutors’ stalemate with the Ozbilgens continues.
“There is an open investigation into [the Ozbilgens] own actions, into hindering and obstruction in the aftermath during the investigation by the state,” Monmouth County assistant prosecutor Caitlin Sidley said last month, the Asbury Park Press reported.
Prosecutors declined to answer questions about the investigation from The Post, citing an ongoing investigation.
The Parzes are well-known in their Freehold community through their four daughters, Ed’s work as a volunteer EMT and limo-company owner, and their over-the-top Christmas light display on their home along Route 33.
“We always had people at our house, that was our thing,” Sharlene recalled about their girls, who range in age from 14 to 23, seemingly always having friends over.
Cynthia Ozbilgen, a cosmetologist, and husband Hakan, an MTA bus driver, both originally from Brooklyn, moved to Freehold Township in 2018 after raising their sons in Rossville, Staten Island.
Just three months after Stephanie and John met, Parze accused Ozbilgen of assaulting her. But Ozbilgen always seemed to find a way to lure Parze — who “always looked for the best in everybody,” according to her father — back in.
Eventually, Parze, who was just 4-foot-11 and 115 pounds, grew to fear her hulking boyfriend, Ed Parze said, and became withdrawn from her family.
“Two days before, I said to her, ‘I really feel like you’re going MIA on us, you’re not coming over, you’re not calling,” Sharlene Parze said.
The tragedy — and all they’ve learned about domestic violence since — has inspired the Parzes to start a nonprofit they hope to use to help other victims of abuse and their families, the Stephanie Nicole Parze Foundation.
“We just don’t want anyone to forget her,” Sharlene Parze said.
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