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.