“I am a bitter, bitter man,” he says. “I am. And it’s because of this.”
At “this,” he gestures toward the audio recorder sitting on the table between us — the whole mystery surrounding the vanishing of his estranged wife. “You know,” he says, “there’s only one person in the world that knows I didn’t do it, and it’s me.”
He readily acknowledges that people looked at him “like a monster” in the wake of his wife’s disappearance. He confirms that a grand jury convened at least five years ago, interviewing people close to him, but took no action. He says Roselli once told him, “I don’t think you did this. But I think you’re involved in some way.” Roselli, he adds, even called an old roommate of his, maybe a year ago, to try and arrange an interview. But the FBI agent never followed through.
He orders egg whites. I wait till he’s nearly finished, just moving bits of egg around with his fork, before I ask, flat out: You had nothing to do with the disappearance of your wife?
He looks me straight in the eye. “Absolutely not.”
He says he’s decided to talk to me for a couple of reasons. He wants to “get this out there again” in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will come forward with new information. “C’mon,” he told me over the phone before I arrived, “it’s been nine years. Shouldn’t this be solved by now?” But what’s also brought him to the table is the chance, he says, to reminisce — to contribute to a story that will recall Danielle “as a person.”
The “good times” cause a torrent of happy memories: their first meeting at the car dealership, a first date that went on all night and meandered all over Philly and New Jersey. They also bring out his regrets: “Right before we were getting married, I kinda said, ‘You’ve gotta quit the band.’”
He felt they had no weekends together. He realizes now that performing was a big part of her. When I ask him about Danielle’s singing voice, his eyes brim with tears. “I don’t talk about this a lot,” he says. “It’s awful. … The person who suffers the most is my son. He lost a wonderful person in his life.”
He falls silent for a second, whispers, “I apologize,” reaches for a napkin to wipe away the single tear that escapes down his cheek.
His memories of Richard aren’t quite so gauzy. They were rivals. “We exchanged words,” he says — implying that when he called Richard at the bakery, the heat definitely went both ways. And he seems to understand the predicament he faces: Danielle and Richard came together that night by chance, and a motive could be attributed to him for the disappearance of either. Or both.
Until police arrest someone else, he will likely always face suspicion. “At this point in time,” he says, “if you haven’t ruled me out, then you’re not good at your job. You’re just not good at your job. I’m not a mastermind. I have a conscience. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself this long after such a heinous thing, or look my son in the eye.”
I ask him: The affair with the girl he met on the plane to New Orleans?
“I fucked up,” he says.
Listening to Danielle’s voicemail?
“Just being jealous,” he says.
Entering this subject, the story of Danielle Imbo and Richard Petrone, is like entering a field of misery, a pall so unrelenting that the only thing that might counterbalance all this pain is something unworldly, some kind of magic. Sitting across from Imbo, I find myself wishing that he’d suddenly sprout horns, or a halo, and clear the picture. But there is no magic here.
We talk for close to two hours, enough time for the restaurant to get busy. And I catch myself not only trying to observe Imbo, but to look through him. His reminiscences of Danielle are tender, but his affect is flat. He doesn’t cry like the Petrones — passionately and unstoppably. And while talking about Richard and Danielle seems to cast a great weight on their families, Imbo, as we wrap up our conversation, looks lighter. In fact, some 20 minutes after we part, he will call me.
“I want to thank you,” he will say. “Because it was nice to remember the good times.”
But what will stay with me is something he said about his son. He has told little Joe that his mother disappeared. Sometimes, his son asks “random questions” about her. Anyone might wonder if, in time, those questions will grow pointed. Will little Joe one day ask him, straight out, as I did, if he was involved? Will he blame his father for the breakup, see it as the first step in the causal chain that led to his mother’s disappearance?
“It’s one of my biggest fears — that he’s gonna resent me,” he told me, drooping forward like a dying flower at the thought that he might one day find his son’s judgment placed on him.
That such a complicated future awaits an innocent 10-year-old boy seems particularly cruel. But that is the legacy of this case: We have yet to learn why Richard Petrone will never see his grandson, or why Danielle Imbo isn’t alive to care for her son. The people who love them remain stuck inside that vast circle of snow, looking in every direction for a trace, track or footprint they will never find.