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?

THE DEATH OF A SIBLING or child felled short of a natural lifespan is always tragic. But the bereaved confronted by a more conventional death, even a homicide, can mourn beside a grave, a crypt, an urn. The Ottobres and Petrones occupy a rarer hell: Their loved ones vanished without a trace. With no bodies to bury and no agreed-upon story to frame and help them understand their loss, they can only stare into empty space, sentenced to always wonder what happened.

“It’s like we’re standing at the center of a circle,” John Ottobre says, creating a picture of a vast, snowy field. No matter in what direction he looks, he only sees more snow, pure and undisturbed. “That’s what the investigation is like. We can go in any direction at all, because there are no tracks or markers. Nothing has ever been found to guide us.” The fear among these families is that the mystery draws so much attention that Danielle and Richard get lost as people.

Danielle Imbo loved Chinese food, her mom’s meatballs, and a particular Wawa coffee she called “Christmas in a cup.” She loved one pair of pajamas in her favorite color, baby blue, covered in penguins. She spent a lot of time in bars, performing or listening to bands, but wasn’t a big drinker. She smoked a pack of Marlboro Lights a day. And when she sang “Me and Bobby McGee,” all that smoke erupted; she could slay any room with her Janis Joplin wail.

She worked in car sales, and then the financial industry, supervising mortgages. She could tear through three books in a week, especially murder mysteries. She’d met her husband, Joe, when he needed a new car, after his clunker broke down. He walked into a dealership and saw a pretty girl — sleek, sporting a bob haircut that accented her high cheekbones and deep dimples — from the financial department. They started dating almost immediately, and married a couple of years later, in 2002. Two years after that, their son, “little Joe,” grounded her. “Now I know what real love is,” she told friends.

Her husband proved less enamored of their new life. As John Ottobre tells it, Joe left Danielle with a sick infant and a cold of her own to attend the 2004 Super Bowl, only to return and announce that he’d met someone else on the plane to New Orleans. He moved out, relocating to Georgia, but the new relationship didn’t last; months later, in the middle of their divorce proceedings, Joe asked Danielle for another chance.

Danielle was stymied. She’d started dating another man, Richard Petrone. She wasn’t all that serious about him, but he treated her well.

Joe kept pressing, into the winter of 2005, when he came over; they argued. Danielle later told family members that Joe had bounced the baby’s high chair off the wall, though Joe has said he doesn’t think that ever happened.

Afterward, John Ottobre changed Danielle’s locks — and held a sit-down with Joe. “The message was that he needed to be civil,” says Ottobre.

Joe called Richard at his parents’ bakery, where he worked, warning him to stay away from his wife.

After Danielle disappeared, police informed her family that Joe had his wife’s cell-phone passcode, and that he’d listened to her voicemail. But since their separation, Danielle Imbo had discovered a new confidence as a single mom. By early 2005, she’d told both Joe and Richard that she wasn’t interested in seeing either of them anymore. Then, a couple of weeks later, shortly after Valentine’s Day, she received that impromptu invitation from Richard: Come out for a drink?

It’s easy to see why the couple might have been a good match. Richard loved music, and never missed a Springsteen show. He preferred his Crown Royal straight, his beer Yuengling, and his clothes casual — sweatpants and t-shirts. At 23, he had a daughter out of wedlock, raising her in an apartment above his parents’ pastry shop. He put on dad weight, clocking in at five-foot-nine and 200 pounds. He learned how to dress a little girl. He even learned how to do her hair.

He went to his parents’ for dinner once a week for his favorite meal, chicken cutlets, which his mother breaded and fried, wrapping extras in foil for him to take home. And he worked alongside his father at Viking Pastries in Ardmore, attending culinary school to learn how to build towering wedding cakes. His life only shifted in 2004, when Angela, then 13 and developing a woman’s interests, decided she wanted to live with her mother. He still saw her several days a week, still served as her chief chauffeur. But Richard suddenly found himself with vast amounts of free time.

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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?