To most anyone watching, they were just another couple, out on a Saturday night at Abilene’s on South Street, drinking a few beers and watching a band.
Never much for dressing up, Richard Petrone wore a gray hoodie, jeans and sneakers. But the night no doubt meant something special to him, because she was there.
A few weeks earlier, Danielle Imbo had ended their on-again, off-again relationship. She’d begun dating Richard during a long separation from her husband — a separation she was intending to punctuate with a divorce. She wanted time to focus on the transition from married woman to single mother. Richard said he understood; he’d raised a daughter on his own. But inside, he hurt. Danielle, five-foot-five, trim and pretty, looked like the real thing. She fronted a rock band around New Jersey and boasted a singer’s outgoing personality, and after the trouble she’d had with her estranged husband, she’d responded to Richard’s gentler approach.
They hadn’t spoken since she broke things off, blowing right through Valentine’s Day without even a text message. But tonight, on February 19, 2005, he had been alone, eating in a South Philly bar and working his cell phone, searching for someone to meet up with for a drink. He reached his sister, Christine, and found her enjoying a ladies’ night out with their mother, Marge, and two longtime friends, Felice Ottobre and her daughter.
Richard and Danielle’s relationship always bore this extra wrinkle: Danielle was his sister’s best friend, dating back to high school. Their moms enjoyed a friendship of their own.
“Want to come have a drink?” Richard asked.
Christine said no. But she put the invitation to Danielle. And two hours later, the reunited couple looked happy together. They sat close, smiling and laughing. They kissed. They compared notes on what their ensuing Sundays entailed: Danielle had a hair appointment at 11 a.m.; her ex-husband was scheduled to return their son after that. Richard, a NASCAR fan, planned to watch the Daytona 500. At around 11:45 p.m., they got up to leave.
Richard said he’d drive Danielle home to Mount Laurel before returning to his place in South Philly. And so, on a night when the temperature was about 27 degrees and the crowd at 4th and South was probably a little thinner than usual, Danielle and Richard walked out of Abilene’s toward Richard’s truck.
NOTHING HAS EVER BEEN FOUND — not a bolt, not a screw, not a purse or a hair, no clue at all — to explain what happened that night more than nine years ago. In the early hours and days after Richard Petrone and Danielle Imbo disappeared, their families banded together, frantically phoning each other the next morning when Danielle didn’t turn up for her hair appointment and both her cell phone and Richard’s kicked straight to voicemail.
Danielle’s brother, John Ottobre, had a key to Danielle’s house. He went in and found the place dark, still and undisturbed. But panic didn’t really set in until 3 p.m., when Danielle’s son, little Joe, was due to be dropped back home by his father.
“She wouldn’t have missed that,” John says now. “No way.”
Police often wait as long as 48 hours to consider adults missing. That night, John and Richard Petrone Sr. set out on a nightlong drive, John behind the wheel, rolling slowly along darkened city streets, tracing and retracing every major highway route and side road leading from Philly to Mount Laurel. Richard Sr., in the passenger seat, peered out into the dark, searching for his son’s truck. The pair crossed and recrossed the Walt Whitman, Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross bridges. At dawn, they returned home, exhausted.
Friends also swarmed into the picture. Volunteers fanned out a hundred miles in every direction. They carried pictures of Petrone’s black Dodge Dakota truck, knew its license plate — YFH-2319 — and the image of its NASCAR decal by heart. John paid $1,200 to get a Camden police officer to take him up in a helicopter to search. But in the end, they all found nothing — no truck off the road, no hulking shadow flickering beneath the water. A police officer tried to prepare John: “No one,” he said, “is ever going to find anything.”
“What do you mean?” John replied.
“It’s too clean,” the cop said.
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.”
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