January 24, 1994 12:00 PM

IT WAS 6:53 P.M. ON NOV. 11 WHEN A STATE trooper found the abandoned Toyota Canny in the middle of the Claiborne Pell Bridge in Newport, R.I. The key was in the ignition, the engine was still warm and the parking lights on. Inside, the trooper found the packaging for 80 pounds of strap-on exercise weights, a pile of credit cards, all carefully cut in half, and drivers’ licenses belonging to a local couple, Adam and Elena Emery.

Just three hours earlier, Adam Emery, 31, had been convicted of second-degree murder for stabbing a man in an argument over a dented fender and had been released on $270,000 bail pending sentencing. The abandoned car seemed to suggest that, facing 20 years to life in prison, he and Elena, 32, had committed suicide by strapping on the weights and leaping off the 20-story bridge into the dark chop of Narragansett Bay. “At first it sure looked like they’d jumped,” says slate police captain Robert McQueeny.

But as police investigated, “things just didn’t seem to add up,” says McQueeny. For one thing, the Emerys’ bodies were never found. A team of police divers, dredgers and sonar experts found no trace of Adam or Elena. And, mysteriously, though the car had been left on the bridge during a time of relatively heavy traffic, no witnesses came forward to say they had seen the couple jump. “I don’t see how [two people] could get out of the car, don weights, climb a large rail and jump without someone noticing them,” says McQueeny. “But it’s easy to imagine them quickly abandoning a car and jumping into another wailing car.” In fact, police are now convinced the Emerys staged an elaborate suicide hoax with the help of accomplices. “At this point they could be anywhere,” says McQueeny. “But we are determined to find them.”

To support their theory, investigators have examined the videotape of Emery’s trial. A piece of local news footage shows the Emerys huddling in the courtroom moments after a jury pronounced Adam guilty. According to a lip-reader hired by police, Elena turned to Adam and whispered, “We will do what we originally said. We should have done this before. You promised me.”

Relatives of the Emerys dismiss such evidence and say they have no doubts that the suicide was real. They describe Adam and Elena as a devoted couple, married since 1987, who couldn’t bear to be apart. “They were just right for each other,” says Elena’s eldest sister, Melinda Apollonio, 37. “Elena used to say, ‘I could never live without my honey.’ ” A bodybuilder and martial-arts enthusiast, Adam had worked his way through Rhode Island College and was a customer-service representative for a boating company. Elena, a controller for a construction company, was reportedly the dominant partner in the marriage, and family members say she blamed her-self for egging Adam on during the incident that led to his arrest. It happened at the Rocky Point amusement park in Warwick, R.I., on the night of Aug. 31, 1990. The Emerys were parked, eating clam cakes and chowder, when someone sideswiped their 1985 Ford Thunderbird, smashing a taillight, then sped away. Elena urged Adam to give chase. “That’s the car! That’s the car!” she shrieked, pointing to a red 1975 Ford LTD that was leaving the park.

But Elena had pointed out the wrong car—a mistake later confirmed by paint-chip analysis. The real hit-and-run driver took off, never to be found. Meanwhile, Jason Bass, 20, who had worked at a Rocky Point concession stand, and his cousin, Joshua Post, 17, suddenly found themselves being tailed by Emery, who kept flashing his high beams. “We were scared s—tless,” says Post. “I said to Jay, ‘What is this guy doing? He must be drunk or something. Jay, speed up!’ ”

After a two-mile chase, Emery swerved in front of Bass’s car. As her husband opened his door, Elena yelled at him to lake along a double-edged survival knife he’d insisted she keep for her protection when she drove at night.

Bass and Post were terrified when they saw Emery approaching their car. “He was screaming, ‘I’m gonna kill you!’ ” says Post. As Emery leaned into the driver-side window, Bass threw the car into reverse. While hanging onto the window, Emery managed to stab Bass in the arm and heart before the car crashed into a planter.

At his trial, Emery claimed he had been acting in self-defense. “I told them, ‘Stop the car or I’m going to stab you,’ ” he testified. “They didn’t heed my warning.” Relatives of the Emerys even argued Jason was to blame for his own death. “He was trying to have fun with Adam,” says Elena’s brother, Domenic DiRocco, 26, a nightclub bouncer. “Adam was the real victim.”

For the grieving Bass family, the trauma is only deepened by such attacks. “It hurls so bad,” says Jason’s brother, Ray Bass, 34, a former security guard who was hospitalized for nervous exhaustion for a month after the murder. “Nobody ever came to our family and said they were sorry. They’ve never shown any remorse. I am convinced Adam and Elena are not under that bridge. And I believe that family knows where they are.”

Authorities share this suspicion, even though they have yet to uncover any hard evidence to support it. Hoping to flush the Emerys out of hiding, they have started court proceedings to seize several family properties that had been put up as collateral for Adam’s bail. But Adam and Elena’s relatives still insist the only place the couple will be found is in a watery grave. “It’s hard to believe that we’ll never see them again,” says DiRocco. On that point, at least, nearly everyone seems to agree.

DAVID GROGAN

CORY JOHNSON in Warwick

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