He last spoke to Joe Imbo a few months after his sister vanished. But twice a year, his mom or his wife calls Joe, and they arrange to pick up little Joe, now 10, in South Carolina, taking him for one week around Christmas and again in summer for a trip down the Shore. The visits, he says, are both “amazing and awful,” because the boy sings like his mother, and his face is so much like hers that he seems to project her — like a hologram — back out into the world.
“When he asks about his mom, we tell him she is an angel in heaven,” says John. “We don’t say anything about her being missing. But he’s getting older, and I don’t know how long that can last.”
VITO ROSELLI, THE FBI AGENT charged with ending all of this, doesn’t try to hide his feelings. “Every detective, every agent, has their case, the one that haunts them,” he says. “And this is mine.”
He relates to Ottobre’s feeling of being stuck in the center of that big white circle of trackless snow. But he has a different view. He can see shadows out there, flickering across the empty field. He sees numerous possible culprits, motives and scenarios. He just can’t find the trail leading from the crime back to its perpetrators.
The murder-for-hire scenario, he admits, was only one possibility among many. The feds, he says, put out that release to “shake the tree.” They got nothing. But there remain other leads.
Danielle’s ex-husband, Joe Imbo, had a rock-solid alibi for February 19th, one that placed him 50 miles away at a kids’ party with his stepfather, an ex-NYPD officer, and multiple active police. Imbo took a lie-detector test, but Roselli won’t discuss the results. “I don’t have evidence to arrest Joe” is all he says. “I also have not ruled him out.”
In 2010, Robert Carey, the alleged leader of a Kensington-area prescription pill ring, killed himself in prison; rumors abounded for years that he had been the hit man. But people who knew him say he was more of a bruiser, lumping enemies up rather than killing them. Also, he didn’t need to incur a capital murder charge when drug dealing provided so much of what he dearly wanted: money. Still, there were whispers that the suicide note he left behind — after hanging himself with a shoelace — contained a confession. But two people who read the note told me that rumor is false.
That said, Roselli hasn’t closed the book on Carey’s involvement, positing a scenario of some sort of beat-down that escalated into a double homicide, or a robbery gone haywire. A murder-for-hire scenario also remains in play. Roselli looked hard, after a tip, at Anthony Rodesky, a thick-bodied killer with a swastika tattoo on his bald head. Rodesky was convicted of murdering two men in the course of separate robberies, and Roselli marshaled federal resources to search his house, dig up his basement, even pore through his septic tank. Nothing.
After the Petrones reached out to him, Roselli consulted with Richard Walter, a renowned criminal profiler and member of the Vidocq Society, a group of retired criminal investigators who gather in private in Philadelphia once a month to review cold cases.
“I wish I had more to say,” says Roselli. “But the truth is, we don’t know what happened.”
THE LOST DOG CAFE sits on a side road amidst a grove of palm trees on Folly Beach, a little resort town (population 2,600) near Charleston, South Carolina. The restaurant is popular among locals, who have jammed the walls with pictures of their dogs. But today, the wind off the beach bears a frosty little snap, and the place is mostly empty when Joe Imbo enters, a few minutes early for our 10 a.m. breakfast.
There is a saying in law enforcement circles: “It’s always the ex-husband.” So sitting down with Imbo is portentous — a journey to the one man who might possibly hold an answer.
He’s dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt and a black baseball cap. His hair was once coal-black, but he’s 42 now, and big patches of gray sprout at the sides of his head. He appears worn down — the dark good looks he bore when he met Danielle beginning to whiten and wrinkle.
Joe Imbo has dealt with a lot of pressure in the past nine years. A single dad, he moved from Jersey to North and then South Carolina, and also from car to condo sales. Five years ago, at the relatively young age of 37, he suffered a heart attack.