Without a Trace

In February 2005, Danielle Imbo and Richard Petrone walked out of a South Street bar and disappeared. No bloodstains. No evidence. No clues. As the trail grows colder, the question grows larger: What really happened that night?

Investigators monitored the couple’s bank accounts, credit cards and cell phones, looked for evidence that either had a secret life. But Danielle Imbo and Richard Petrone didn’t fit the profile. They were single parents: Danielle had her 18-month-old son; Petrone, a 14-year-old daughter. At ages 34 and 35, they both had lives that appeared to be angled up — good jobs, loving families, wide circles of friends.

A detective embarks on a missing-persons case with every possible end in sight. But the evidence, or lack of it, suggested a very particular kind of crime. “Making two people and a truck disappear, with no witnesses and no evidence of any kind for nine years, suggests methodical planning,” says FBI special agent Vito Roselli, the investigator in charge of the case. In 2008, the FBI would issue a press release to this effect, suggesting that Imbo and Petrone were victims of a “murder for hire” scheme. “It’s possible a perpetrator could just get lucky,” Roselli says today, “but it’s more likely just what it looks like: Someone behind this knew what they were doing.”

JOHN OTTOBRE’S FATHER, John Sr., a former boxer and doo-wop singer, died in 1999, at age 62. So when Danielle disappeared, “I felt like I was the man of the family,” the younger Ottobre says. “Like maybe it was even up to me to find my sister.”

The family received lots of calls from psychics. About six weeks in, one got hold of John. “Your sister,” she told him, “is being held in the boxcar of a train in Philadelphia. You have to act. Now. Or your sister will be gone forever.”

John immediately called Mount Laurel detective Ed Pincus, who was still working on the case.

“That’s crazy,” Pincus told him bluntly.

But Ottobre was already driving toward the city.

Pincus, fearing a second tragedy, ordered a search. Ottobre drove to the scene, and as the police scoured the train, moving from car to car, he felt flush — first with the adrenaline of the moment, then with embarrassment.

“You’ve got to stop this,” Pincus warned him. “You’ve gone crazy!”

Ottobre stopped paying attention to the psychics.

But behind the scenes, his mother insisted he stay on message: Until some evidence directly indicated that Danielle and Richard were dead, there was no reason to think they weren’t alive. Even four months later, at a concert to benefit Danielle’s son, John told reporters the family still hoped she would turn up alive. “I know I must have looked really stupid,” he says now. “Really naive. But I felt like I had to do it for my mother.”

Just a few miles away, in Cherry Hill, the Petrones had gone a different kind of crazy.

That first Sunday Richard Jr. went missing, Marge Petrone felt her son’s death lodge, as a certainty, in her gut, even as Richard Sr. sat down and called every hospital and police station in the region. “At that point,” he says, “I was hoping they’d been arrested or in some kind of accident, but somehow they’d come back to us. That they’d be all right.”

By Tuesday, he, too, was sure his son was dead. Before long, they told Richard’s daughter, Angela, that her father wasn’t coming home. But the different outlooks between the two families — the Ottobres pressing hope, the Petrones, acceptance — confused the girl, and tensions arose. With no arrests and no one officially declared a suspect, friends and family on both sides began to speculate. And neither wanted to hear that their dearest had been the target.

Danielle Imbo’s loved ones wondered about Richard Petrone, claiming he was “rough around the edges” and suggesting he perhaps bore some gambling debt or Mob tie that could have gotten him and Danielle killed. “Believe me, we looked,” says Roselli, “and we continue to look, but nothing has emerged that there was anything in his background that would suggest him as a target for murder.”

Richard’s camp pointed to Danielle’s estranged husband, Joe Imbo, and their rough divorce. At an early press conference after the couple went missing, Marge Petrone even tried to confront Imbo — the short Italian mom stepping right into the lean, raven-haired man’s face? — until John Ottobre intervened. Joe Imbo has never been declared a suspect in the case.

Today, John Ottobre refuses to guess at a culprit, in hopes the families might reconcile. “The speculation doesn’t do any good,” he says. “It only causes more problems.”

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  • karbase

    He did it the ex he had the only motive and had some kind of connections that’s why there is no evidence and no trace of either of them. Very sad

  • Rob

    when the ex has an alibi of hanging out with law enforcement the night his ex
    wife goes missing you gotta wonder

    • Meed

      Kind of agree, but how would he have known she was with Richard? She broke it off, and it was by chance that they wound up at that bar. Nothing was planned. So even if he was listening to her voicemail, he would have thought she was hanging out with her friend (Richard’s sister) somewhere else.

  • MS

    I wanted to add the thing about the lie detector test … but forgot. While not fool proof. Why wouldn’t the FBI release the results – at least to clear the guy.

  • MS

    Meed – very very true. Also have to agree with some others too the ex looks like the only suspect.

  • Francesca

    My gut tells me some how some way, the x husband is the one who had this done, by people who are experts , they took them and the truck, killed them and did what ever to the truck, the x is the only one with a motive,

  • Paula

    This is actually the first time I’ve heard that the “date” at Abilene’s was a “spur of the moment” decision by Danielle. While it appears that the ex could not be the doer, he still could be behind the deed. He could have been having Danielle followed, with the order to kill them if she met up with Richie. The fact that the truck has never been found says to me that it and they were put through a compacter. Who would have had such hatred for either one of them to do such a thing? After all these years, it still seems to be only one man.

  • Dave

    This article is written very well. Thank you to the author for turning Richard and Danielle back into people who lived good lives for us all to learn about. Such a sad tragedy, for them and for the families. How do people, no monsters, who do this to others live with themselves?