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.”