In the last hours she spent with her mother, Anne Bryan offered a sunny proposal: “Let’s go for a bike ride.” Nancy Winkler hesitated. It was early, she was tired, and as Philadelphia’s city treasurer, she wanted to get to her job. But a glance out the window at the big June sky — and at her beaming daughter, already in her cycling shorts — convinced her. The two pedaled off from their Center City home to Kelly Drive. Some events only seem meaningful in retrospect, but Winkler recognized the beauty in these minutes as they happened. Anne had just finished a successful first year at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and was ready to start hunting for an apartment of her own. Somehow, the ride captured all of this — the sense that spring, and Anne, were both in bloom. The smell of honeysuckle hung in the air, and Anne pedaled briskly, ponytail bouncing, as if chasing the scent.
This past July, Jordan and Joshua Friday confronted one of those endless summer days that teenagers are given. They journeyed by bicycle to an aunt’s house to swim, met up with a friend, and stopped to get pizza. After lunch, the trio went looking for a fourth friend in the Greens of Waynesborough, a small housing development near their Berwyn home. Jordan and Joshua, 15-year-old African-American high-school students, were unfamiliar with this subdivision. They figured they’d reach the fourth kid on his cell phone or find his house. The identical twins, long and thin, both over six feet tall, were dressed in shorts and colorful t-shirts. They wore school backpacks slung over their shoulders, and bicycle helmets strapped tight to their heads. The twins — mom is a lawyer, dad is a doctor — pedaled slowly past wide lawns and big million-dollar houses, feeling right at home. But this development stretched several blocks from the main road.
The fourth boy didn’t answer his cell phone. The Fridays weren’t quite sure where he lived. And at some point, the white friend they’d come with pedaled ahead of them. He was almost a full block away when the Fridays noticed the SUV. Read more »
The stakes are so high, everyone wears funeral smiles — gray grins, barely there before they’re gone. The courtroom falls silent when Nathan Isen walks in, looking a little sheepish. A small group of friends awaits, including Ralph Yaffe of Boyds and Scott Isdaner, whose family co-founded Pep Boys. They shake Isen’s hand, wish him luck, awkward because no one knows if this is hello or goodbye.
The third-generation descendant of a prominent Main Line family, Isen has, for more than 30 years, sold artwork to Philadelphia’s doctors, lawyers, the well-to-do and the purely aspirational. And he is here today, in federal court at 6th and Market, to be sentenced on a money-laundering charge. Read more »
The ducks in the park, the old-timey clock at the town’s heart, the rustic storefronts and occasional horse-drawn carriage suggest time has stopped here. Lititz, Pennsylvania, a small town about nine miles north of Lancaster, recalls the Main Street USA of Norman Rockwell, a place where shopkeepers maintain odd hours and post little hand-drawn signs in the windows when they’re CLOSED FOR THE WINTER. Read more »
Richard DeCoatsworth anticipated another great day. The 21-year-old rookie cop was six months into a new job he loved, and the sun shone bright that morning in 2007, through a cloudless September sky. He left his partner off at the courthouse and drove his patrol car west on Market Street toward the wilds of his district, where street vendors and drug dealers work in the open air.
Around 51st Street, he passed a battered blue Buick going the opposite direction. Everyone inside seemed to stiffen. DeCoatsworth had seen experienced police make arrests — for drugs, illegal guns, stolen cars — by acting on such subtle cues. He pulled a U-turn. The driver accelerated and turned out of sight. DeCoatsworth hunted for maybe a minute till he saw the car, parked on Farson Street. Read more »
Federal investigators opened a new effort this week to find out what happened to Danielle Imbo and Richard Petrone, the couple who went missing 10 years ago after departing a South Street bar. As the February 19th anniversary approaches, a 10-person squad comprised of federal and local police are going back through all the evidence,
“The idea here is to start fresh,” says FBI agent Vito Roselli, who has been pursuing the case almost from its inception. “We’re looking at every tip, every lead, and we’re going to close off some possibilities and see what we’re left with.”
Read more »
John Raines sat in the family station wagon, parked in a dark lot on the Swarthmore campus, waiting to see if his wife would return to him, or if police lights would appear, flashing doom. In years past, he and Bonnie had sat together on this same front seat, three kids lining the back bench, and driven to his parents’ vacation house near Lake Michigan. Even now, back in Germantown, those three children slept soundly. Would they wake to find empty spaces where their parents used to be? Raines passed a couple of hours like this, his mind a crazy haze of worry, till finally a car drew near and he realized that it was Bonnie.
The night of March 8, 1971, had passed so slowly. Now he needed to speed up. Raines flung open his door, popped the trunk, and helped transfer four heavy suitcases from this arriving car to his own — all part of their meticulous getaway plan. Once Bonnie was beside him in the passenger seat, he drove, glancing anxiously in the rearview mirror.
Wolf’s team, the Phillies, faced the St. Louis Cardinals, including Stan Musial, the player who broke Babe Ruth’s extra-base-hits record. The stadium announcer’s voice crackled through the loudspeakers, informing the crowd that anyone from Donora, Pennsylvania, Musial’s hometown, could get the slugger’s autograph when the game ended.
After the last out, Bill Wolf led his son to the visiting locker room.
“What do you think?” his father asked. “You want to go in?”
Fifty-seven years later, Tom Wolf would be the presumptive next governor of Pennsylvania. But that night, he was just an eight-year-old baseball-crazed kid standing mere feet from one of his heroes.
“No,” Tom replied. “We’re not from Donora.”
“They won’t know that,” his father said.
“No,” Tom repeated. “It wouldn’t be right.”
I hear this story from Wolf’s parents, Bill and Cornelia, at their rambling old country house in the borough of Mount Wolf, about eight miles north of York. The couple is in their 90s, dignified-old-money in every way, but the tale feels as though it hails from an even earlier time, reminiscent of apocrypha and legends like the one about George Washington and the cherry tree. There are other family fables about Honest Tom, and the Wolfs eagerly share them, delighted that their son’s virtue outdoes even their own.
The stories also echo Tom Wolf’s campaign narrative. A virtual unknown when the year began, Wolf blitzed the state with ads that declared him “not your ordinary candidate” and defined him in broadly likeable terms: South Central Pennsylvania kid. Highly educated, with a stint in the Peace Corps. Married to the same gal for 38 years. Two daughters. Started off driving a forklift in the family business, then took over, making it America’s largest supplier of kitchen cabinets.
He shared 20 to 30 percent of the profits with his employees, the ads tell us — and yes, that does sound virtuous. In 2006, he and his partners sold their majority stake in the company, and Wolf resigned and accepted a position as secretary of revenue under Governor Ed Rendell. He donated his government salary to charity and refused a state car, driving a dorky Jeep instead. He explored a run for governor in 2009, but he got a call from his old management team telling him the business he’d led for 20 years faced foreclosure. So Wolf tabled his political dream for a time and manned his old post, saving the family business and hundreds of jobs.
“I’m Tom Wolf,” he says, “and I’ll be a different kind of governor.”
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Doors were beginning to open for Madison Holleran. She racked up straight As, ran track, and pushed her Northern Highlands Regional High School soccer team to two New Jersey state championships. As she entered her junior year in 2011, Lehigh University soccer coach Eric Lambinus became a regular at her matches. Lambinus hoped to recruit Holleran as his center-midfielder, the most physically taxing and important position in his system. “What impressed me about Maddy,” he says, “is that she was exceptionally skilled in the fundamentals. She was very good, and she made the players around her better.”
At home, Holleran mothered her siblings. On the field, she led without seeming to try: first downfield to hug a teammate who scored, chattering to keep everyone’s energy up. Lambinus admired Holleran’s easy charisma, watching as even his Lehigh squad — college students — gravitated toward the younger girl when she arrived from Allendale, New Jersey, on visits. He also noticed something else: “You could just see, in social situations, her being very aware of the other girls’ reactions,” he says. “She seemed to need approval. But you figure that’s something to work on.”
Lambinus thought he had a good shot at recruiting Holleran. But during her senior year, competition emerged. Holleran was also a standout middle-distance runner, and Harvard’s track program flew her to Boston, took her to dinner and gave her a tour of the campus.
“What would you think about my playing soccer, too?” she asked.
These were words no track coach longs to hear. Harvard never made an offer. But the University of Pennsylvania called.
Lambinus says Holleran seemed particularly troubled by selecting a school. Though she offered Lambinus a verbal commitment — “I think she was very comfortable with Lehigh,” he says — she still appeared “unsteady” about the choice.
Lehigh offered the small, bucolic environment she enjoyed in high school, and soccer, the sport she loved most. But what kid knows herself so well that she can announce, at 18, to parents, relatives and friends, that she’s choosing personal happiness, the safer option, over a shot at big-time Ivy League success?
“Could you stop with the drama?” Holleran would say every time her little sister acted like the sky was falling. She was always the mature one, the young girl with an adult’s capacity to plan. So whatever pressure she felt along the way, when Holleran pulled out of Lambinus’s program and chose Penn, the moment looked like a triumph. Holleran went Ivy, accepting a reward commensurate with her young life’s achievement.
What shocked everyone is what happened next. On January 17, 2014, just as her second semester got under way, Madison Holleran trekked about a mile and a half from Penn’s campus to Center City and killed herself. Her death was one of five among the Penn student body in six months’ time, including four confirmed suicides. The tragedies cast a sudden pall over Penn’s image as a dream destination for every high-achieving kid and his or her parents. Criticism centered on Penn’s notoriously competitive student culture and understaffed mental health services. But the question raised by the Penn suicides is broader and more fundamental than any campus policy, reaching into every home where parents send their sons and daughters off to college with big dreams and bright futures:
Why would these kids — top of their class, the elite, bound for success — choose to kill themselves?
The search for answers, and potential remedies, suggests a radical shift — a new way of looking at suicide, our children and ourselves; a more honest way of handling a problem we usually treat with silence.
WE SPEAK SO LITTLE OF SUICIDE that the issue might seem esoteric. But according to survey data by suicide experts, about 10 percent of the country’s college students think about killing themselves (what health professionals call “suicidal ideation”) at some point in their college careers. Almost one percent make an attempt. If these numbers sound small, do the math: Penn has about 24,000 students, meaning that roughly 2,400 of them will suffer so profoundly from a sense of pain or depression that they’ll consider killing themselves; within that group, 240 students will make an attempt.
The biggest dangers are neurobiological: The human brain isn’t fully developed until we are about 25 years old, particularly in regions associated with impulsivity and emotional regulation. In this context, even a healthy kid is likely to struggle with transitioning from the childhood home to whatever comes next. Now consider that mental illness often first manifests itself between ages 16 and 25.
The risk is clear. But what happened at Penn recently still surprises:
Last August, the death of 24-year-old Wendy Shung, a popular graduate student and resident adviser whose kids called themselves “Wendy’s Wolf Pack,” was declared a suicide.
Pulkit “Josh” Singh, a 20-year-old engineering and Wharton business-school junior, was found dead on January 12th in an apartment he rented off campus. Speculation over his cause of death continued until a city health department official deemed it an accidental drug overdose in April.
Holleran took her own life five days later. Over Thanksgiving break, she told her parents she had contemplated suicide. Her father told the New York Post that she’d been happy in high school but that after going to Penn she had “worries and stress.”
• Sophomore Elvis Hatcher, 18, hung himself in his fraternity house on February 3rd, and later died in the hospital. He first confessed suicidal thoughts to his parents at age 15, and had been in treatment ever since.
• Almost two months after Hatcher’s suicide, the public learned of a fourth — Alice Wiley, a graduate student in social policy who died over winter break, just before the New Year.
Mental health experts say suicide never results from one fight, one conversation, one lost job. More likely, a person struggles against some preceding, often untreated mental illness, like depression. Then a series of stressors adds weight until the inexplicable happens. In this formula, no one burden — be it college, Ivy League or otherwise; family and relationship problems; drug and alcohol use — is to blame any more than others. “I think one of the things we struggle against in the world of suicide prevention,” says Christine Moutier, chief medical officer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “is that we’re always trying to explain it. We’re always asking, ‘Why? How could someone do this?’ But there’s not one explanation.”
Moutier and other experts maintain, however, that despite suicide’s myriad causes, prevention is possible. Between 1990 and 2010, suicide rates dropped slightly among adolescents, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. And in a sense, academic success is protective — kids who don’t attend college are twice as likely to die by suicide as those who do. Still, the four suicides at Penn in just six months are cause for reflection on the pressure today’s highest achievers are under: to ace the toughest available courses; excel at sports; join extracurricular clubs; and then find time on the weekends to volunteer.
These overscheduled kids strive for perfection, spending their adolescence collecting medals, first-place finishes and congratulatory handshakes. But when they arrive at Locust Walk, they are suddenly surrounded by thousands of peers who were also the smartest and best. They experience failure, perhaps for the first time in their lives. They feel like they are letting down their families. And just as they are beginning to gather power in the world, they might be at their most vulnerable.
MADISON HOLLERAN’S FIRST SEMESTER at Penn was tough, despite her 3.5 GPA. She had a big, close social circle in high school, a support system built from childhood. That chapter of Holleran’s life can still be seen online — playing sports, singing with friends, dancing with her old teammates on a hotel bed.
Those bonds aren’t forged overnight at a new school. But Holleran was probably a lot more popular in college than she believed. The new friends she made remember her stopping, repeatedly, anywhere she walked, to say hello to people she knew. Later, media coverage would fixate on her looks — her thin frame, delicate features and joy-bomb smile. Her track teammates simply thought she was relaxed and confident.
“She was just one of those people who had an effortless glow about her,” says Lauren Murphy, a fellow runner. “She did everything with elegance and grace.”
Holleran did confide in a couple of new friends. She told Ashley Montgomery, another freshman on the track team, that Penn wasn’t what she’d hoped. Running track wore on her. She missed her pals back home. She talked, a lot, about what she wanted from life — a home in California, maybe, and plenty of outdoor time. “It sounds funny to say, but she was very serious about being happy,” says Montgomery. “She’d try to figure out what happiness is, like a formula, and she’d get really analytical.”
Holleran and Montgomery ran together, frequently, through the city. Holleran often paused to take pictures of pretty views. On a fall evening, after track, Holleran hauled Montgomery to the top of Franklin Field. The sunset cascaded before them, swirls of orange and pink decorating the sky. At the time, Montgomery considered the constant picture-taking an eccentricity. Later, Montgomery came to believe that for Holleran, happiness was “more a thought than a feeling” — something she caught sight of, outside herself, and tried to capture before it disappeared.
LIZZY HATCHER REGISTERED the sound, buzzing through her sleep.
She could feel her husband, Kevin, rouse beside her. And as the world around her came into focus — still dark, phone ringing — she could feel fear, like a flatworm, twitch and curl in her stomach.
She remembers only the key words the doctor told her husband: “Son. Elvis. Attempted suicide. Critical.” From there, her every act — sitting up in bed, putting her feet to the floor, standing — felt unreal. The university arranged travel from Florida, but snow in Philadelphia forced an agonizing series of delays at the airport. “It was just an awful, awful day,” she says. “Such a helpless feeling.”
By the time the Hatchers landed, it was after 9 p.m. Someone from Penn — Hatcher doesn’t remember who — picked them up and drove them straight to the hospital. Elvis was already on life support. “The next morning,” says Hatcher, “he passed away.”
Hatcher posts on Facebook regularly, intermixing fond remembrances of Elvis with exhortations on treating depression. She speaks proudly of her son — a multi- instrumentalist and dancer with a furious wave of curly hair who loved wearing bow ties. He’d made friends at Penn and joined a fraternity. But over the course of multiple phone conversations, her voice weakens. “Life is just … so different now,” she says. “We just try to get through the day.”
Two days after Hatcher’s death, Penn acted swiftly, announcing the hiring of three new mental health counselors at Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, and, weeks later, the formation of a Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare. Penn president Amy Gutmann wrote about the changes in a university-wide email, simultaneously touting the expansion of services and denying any connection between the counseling center and the suicides.
“While all evidence indicates that the recent student deaths are unrelated to each other,” she wrote, “and certainly unrelated to the work done at CAPS, we know that the needs of the community are placing greater than ever demand on our valuable student support teams.”
In the same memo, Gutmann noted that in the past eight years, CAPS had grown its senior staff by 10. The message struck some as cold politicking when a tender hand was needed; in one line, Gutmann used the acronym “FTE” to denote the hiring of “Full Time Employees.”
“I think the whole response just reflected a kind of corporate mind-set,” says Toorjo Ghose, a member of Penn’s faculty senate and an assistant professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice. “She wrote as if she was responding to shareholders — not to young people who might be grieving and in pain.”
In terms of mental health, Penn students face a unique challenge. The school culture is notoriously competitive, a battle among valedictorian-level intellects where a Work harder, play harder mentality runs from the Wharton Business School to the humanities and sciences. Last year, 34th Street Magazine published a survey that found 71 percent of Penn students got blackout drunk at least once in college. For close to 25 percent, blacking out was the goal. Some kids also talk about a phenomenon called “Penn Face,” in which students express how stressful their lives are without ever showing any strain.
This culture may not be responsible for Hatcher’s death, or Holleran’s. But should it change in some way so that the next Hatcher or Holleran might be helped?
University spokesman Ron Ozio didn’t make any Penn administrators or professors available for interviews. Late in February, however, Penn’s silence was broken: The dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, Richard Gelles, told me one of his students — later identified as Alice Wiley — had died by suicide over break, prior to Holleran and Hatcher.
Penn can’t exactly be accused of hiding Wiley’s death; the school says it wasn’t aware of it until January. No law requires universities to track or disclose suicides among their student bodies. Experts also present strong data demonstrating that publicizing a suicide can encourage further suicides — a phenomenon known as the “contagion” effect. And out of respect for privacy or liability concerns, universities usually defer to the deceased student’s parents, rendering a campus suicide a secret.
History suggests, however, that a cluster of suicides brings change. Drexel University responded to a pair of suicides last year by forming a task force, which is still making recommendations. Penn’s fellow Ivy League school Cornell suffered a cluster of suicides from 2009 to 2011 and moved swiftly to upgrade its mental health services. And momentum is developing for changes at Penn and beyond.
An online petition promoting “The Madison Holleran Law,” to be presented in the New Jersey state legislature, is gathering thousands of signatures, seeking to force universities to publicly report suicides. CAPS also faces pressure to further increase its staff size. A scoop by Penn’s student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, turned up documents that revealed students often endure three-to-four-week waits for an initial visit — an eternity for someone struggling with the sudden onset of a mental illness. Those documents lent support to similar reports Penn students gave me. CAPS’s 38 full-time staff members are a mix of psychiatrists, social workers and interns. Cornell, in the wake of its own spate of suicides, has roughly 3,000 fewer students than Penn but an equal number of staffers. Even the most progressive aspect of Penn’s response — the mental health task force — seemed inadequate, given that no student representatives were invited to participate.
There are few if any clear lines between the recent deaths and failures in Penn’s mental health services. Little is known about the suicides of Alice Wiley and Wendy Shung. Hatcher fought depression for years, and preferred to see his longtime doctor in Miami Beach via Skype. “Penn had nothing to do with his suicide,” says Lizzy Hatcher. “I think he just got tired of the fight. He enjoyed his classes and friends. He loved Philadelphia.”
Madison Holleran did seek help from CAPS after telling her family over Thanksgiving break that she was stressed and having suicidal thoughts. But Holleran didn’t stay long at CAPS. She attended one or two sessions, with an intern; seeing a senior staff member would have required her to wait several weeks. She ultimately saw a counselor closer to her home in New Jersey.
Holleran’s father doesn’t blame the university for his daughter’s death. But in response to their losses, Penn’s students took to the school paper’s opinion pages, social media and message boards. Wharton sophomore Erica Ligenza wrote of being afraid to confess that she has anxiety issues in such a high-achieving environment. Hilary Barlowe complained that CAPS dismissed her suicidal feelings as a “normal adjustment” to college. Barlowe had been on psychiatric leave.
Sophomore Alexandra Sternlicht wrote an article in the DP, “Left to Grieve Alone, Together,” decrying how Penn, unlike Yale, Brown, Dartmouth and Harvard, does not automatically send student-wide emails after anyone dies. Further, students must notify professors themselves when a friend in the student body passes away.
“Not only is Penn’s neglectful response to death an exception amongst peer institutions,” wrote Sternlicht. “[I]t is also unhealthy. And even Penn knows it. According to Penn’s Behavioral Corporate Services, when the subject of death is ‘avoided, ignored or denied,’ the grieving process is compromised. … Penn is compromising students’ mental health.”
Ghose, probably the most outspoken of Penn’s faculty members on the recent suicides, agrees that more action — and honest reflection — is needed. “It would be irresponsible to blame the university for these deaths,” says Ghose. “But it is also true that this is an occasion for the university to look at itself, and our culture, and improve our mental health services. Because this is an elite university. But our mental health on campus is not elite. … And I think the administration should just acknowledge that.”
One student on a Penn-based mental health website dubbed “Pennsive” wrote that after she survived a second suicide attempt in two years, she received a hospital visit from a Penn administrator.
“Are we going to make this an annual pattern?” the administrator asked.
“No,” the student said.
The administrator left then, handing her a business card.
MADISON HOLLERAN AND INGRID HUNG met on campus, maybe three weeks into the fall semester. The two shared at least one meal together per day, and every so often, Holleran declared a “movie night,” meaning snacks — she had a peanut butter obsession — and romantic comedies.
Dressed in a crew jacket and jeans, her black hair covering her shoulders, Hung sits in a Starbucks near the Penn campus. She recalls their last movie date, watching The Parent Trap the night before Holleran died, and their friendship. “Maddy and I bonded around feeling homesick,” Hung says of their usual conversations. “And we talked a lot about just getting through it. ‘Freshman year!’ We would say to each other, ‘We are going to make it at Penn. We will make friends. We will join a sorority. And we will be happy.’”
Hung says Holleran admitted that she missed her family, friends and soccer. She also feared that turning down Lehigh’s soccer scholarship was a mistake. Hung doesn’t cite the pressure of Penn, specifically, for Holleran’s troubles. She says that leaving home and attending any college would have been tough for Madison. Hung also saw her struggle with the burden particular to their generation — to have a great time, always, and post pictures of her revels on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
“I’m not sure how I’m even going to talk to my friends back home,” Holleran told Hung. “I look at my friends on Facebook, and they all seem so happy. They are all having these great college experiences, and I’m not.”
Today, Hung commiserates.
“On social media, everyone presents a false picture of their life,” she says. “No one ever posts a picture of themselves looking sad. Everyone is at the coolest party. And I think all of us wonder, sometimes, ‘Why isn’t my life like that? Why don’t I feel like smiling like them?’”
The version of herself that Holleran projected to the world online offered no clues to the turmoil she held inside. Her Instagram stream is rife with pretty pictures. And any stress she expressed on Twitter reads like typical schoolgirl patter.
“FREEEEEDiOM!!!!!!!!!!!! Spendin my last day in Philly with my gf before headin home,” she wrote on December 20th.
“VS fashion show is on and I’m in the damn library,” she wrote on December 10th. “Something here is not right.”
There is also a cell-phone video of a November Penn track meet that captures Holleran running a race. She rounds a corner and pulls a muscle, maybe 10 yards from the finish line. She seizes up, then jerks along, fighting, till she can finally throw herself across the finish line.
“That’s my Maddy,” says a family friend. “Tough as ever.”
“I AM VERY LUCKY to be alive,” says Jack Park. He is tall, slim and well-dressed, with dark eyes, a gentle demeanor and a soft speaking voice. A junior at Penn, Park announced in February, through social media, that he had attempted suicide in his dorm room — twice. Park has attained a kind of celebrity in recent months, a fact about which he seems humble, even bemused. “I am very pleased that you are interested in my story,” he says.
Alerting the world to his battle with mental illness was brave enough. But Park also publicly listed his phone number and email address. “My operating hours are 24/7, 365,” he wrote in a Tumblr post, taking what reads like a slap at CAPS, which only added evening hours after the recent suicides. “To make time for these calls, I dropped courses to take only the four minimum credits legally required for international kids to attend Penn. Please, please, do not attempt to kill yourself and call this number if you want to hear me out. Life is so much more beautiful than death. I taught myself this the hard way. … ”
Park took a semester off from school, returned to Penn, and completed his sophomore year before the Holleran and Hatcher suicides convinced him to go public.
“I take medication now,” he says, without a trace of shyness, “for depression and bipolar disorder, and I feel good.”
Traditionally, people who survive suicide attempts keep the topic secret. But these days, Park isn’t alone. Drexel business student Drew Bergman gives lectures about his own suicide attempts. Online, the website Live Through This has gathered more than three dozen testimonials from suicide survivors — teachers, health-care professionals, moms and dads. In April, the New York Times chronicled this new openness among suicide prevention experts in talking about suicide attempts.
In part, these initiatives spring from a growing understanding that mental health should be addressed in the same terms as our physical health. No young adult would hesitate to tell her parents that her knee hurts. But admitting that thoughts of suicide keep popping up, or that feelings of anxiousness and depression are all-consuming, still carries a stigma. The reason is easy to see: A bum knee is just something we have. We believe our thoughts reveal who we are.
Mental health, however, relates to physical workings in our brain. Researchers at Columbia who study suicide have published data showing that abnormalities in brain chemistry and structure are present in the suicidal — including deficiencies in pleasure-dealing serotonin. “These things are treatable,” says Columbia researcher J. John Mann, “with therapy and medication, and that’s what people need to understand.”
Capitalizing on this knowledge requires a bold cultural shift in which parents teach their kids to talk about their mental health as freely as they would a headache. “It’s a new and very hopeful time,” says Christine Moutier, from the AFSP. “All of these people who used to stay in the dark are coming out now, despite the stigma, and putting a face on this issue.”
For now, however, mental illness and suicide remain stigmatized, in part because of advice coming from the very same experts. The “contagion effect” is real: Publicity surrounding suicides can increase the suicide rate, and suicides often occur in geographical clusters, like one from 2000 to 2003 in which six Cherry Hill teenagers took their own lives.
Mental health experts endorse strict guidelines for publicizing suicide: Don’t mention the location or method; avoid depicting the mourning of family members; and resist stories that might make anyone who died by suicide appear attractive or celebrated.
“We struggle with this,” says Alison Malmon, “throughout the community of people working on the issue of suicide prevention.” Malmon was a student at Penn 10 years ago when her brother, a senior at Columbia, killed himself. She founded a nonprofit, Active Minds, to combat mental illness and prevent suicide on college campuses.
“There is already such a huge stigma around suicide and mental illness in general,” she says. “And some of us fear that if we’re too strict about what we should or shouldn’t say, we’re actually adding to that stigma and keeping the subject in the dark.”
People who attempt suicide are usually convinced that all of their distorted thinking is true. They have often spent a long time formulating a plan and display incredible calm, despite the pain they’re in, because they believe they’ve found the only way out. Many are saved, even then, by reaching what could be called a “bend” moment — some unexpected turn of events that makes them rethink the plan they spent so long crafting.
Sometimes a restriction on the means they intend to use is enough: Cornell put barriers around bridges on campus to discourage jumpers, and some hospitals install break-away shower rods to prevent hangings. Penn spokesman Ron Ozio responded to an email asking if the university employs any of these methods by saying, “University buildings are built to existing state and local codes.” But what, exactly, will divert someone from a suicide plan is difficult to calculate.
“Often,” says Moutier, “you’ll hear some story, after the fact, and think, ‘This was the moment’ that might have saved them. But sometimes the person suffering has adopted a kind of tunnel vision. What looks like a rational way out to the rest of us doesn’t look that way to them at all.”
Holleran may have believed that quitting Penn would comprise such a heavy blow that everyone would be better off if she died. In this sense, people like Park and Bergman can be a tremendous resource, not only because they can speak about what they thought and felt while suicidal, but because they’re the figures often missing from stories like this — those who provide, in this dark space, a sense of hope. The fact is, most who suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts survive. Go back to the math: Out of the projected 2,400 Penn kids who will consider suicide, nearly 90 percent will choose to go on.
The answer to reducing suicide — or part of it — might be to simply tell more stories, particularly of people who’ve survived their suicidal thoughts, so that tales like those of Holleran and Hatcher are placed in context. And so we can understand the real depth of the tragedy here: These lives are over when they might yet have been transformed.
OVER THE HOLIDAYS, at Thanksgiving, Madison Holleran told her parents how she was suffering. She felt unhappy at Penn. The academics were demanding. Worse, her track coach required two-a-day practices, even with classes in session. She was overtaxed. She’d thought of suicide.
The Hollerans, in response, took all the expected steps. They got her help — a counselor who told her to call if she ever formulated a suicide plan. When she didn’t feel comfortable at CAPS, they looked for a private psychologist. On the drive from North Jersey to Penn after the semester break, Holleran said, “Dad, I don’t want to go back.”
“I understand,” her father, Jim, replied. “You should look at transferring.”
But she declined. She wanted to make Penn work.
Holleran and her friend, Ingrid Hung, arrived on campus the Saturday before spring classes began. They attended a Penn women’s basketball game. That evening, Holleran told Hung she’d been thinking of transferring.
“Oh, no,” Hung replied. “I knew you were sad, but I had no idea you were this sad. …”
Holleran, seeing her friend’s reaction, stopped the transfer talk right there. “No,” Holleran said, “it’s fine.”
Over the next couple of days, she peppered Hung with text messages: “We’re going to have so much fun,” Holleran wrote. “We’re going to love it here.”
“I don’t think she fully wanted me to know how bad it was for her,” Hung says now.
On Friday, January 17th, Holleran went into Center City. She stopped at various stores and bought gifts for her family. Her dad called around noon. He wanted to visit her. But she told him not to worry. She had sorority rush events, and the Penn track team was scheduled to run at Lehigh that weekend.
She sent pleasant text messages throughout the day. At 5 p.m., she texted a friend who’d been trying to reach her. “I just got back from a run,” she wrote. “Whatcha doing?”
Around 6 p.m., she walked to Rittenhouse Square. The park was still decorated for Christmas. Holleran took a cell phone picture: Big balls of light glow in the trees, capturing an idyll Holleran was unable to preserve or nurture in her own heart.
At 6:27 p.m., she walked south along 15th Street across Locust and felt a hand grasp her arm. She turned and saw Eric Lambinus, the Lehigh soccer coach.
Of course, this was it — the moment when the arc of Holleran’s story might have bent toward life. Symbolically, Lambinus was an ideal candidate to play this role. Decades ago, his sister, a nursing student, died by suicide at roughly the same age as Holleran. “She was unhappy,” he says. “And she was convinced that if she quit school she’d be letting everyone down, and she couldn’t go on.”
That evening, though, he was just glad to see Madison. He wanted her to know he bore no hard feelings over her choosing Penn.
“Madison,” he said, “how are you?”
“Things aren’t going great for me here,” she said. “I’m not so happy, running track.”
Lambinus had to be careful. NCAA regulations prohibit tampering. But he tried to let her know the door was open. “There is a process you have to follow,” he told her. “But talk to your parents. Talk to your coach. … You should be happy.”
Lambinus was in town for an NCAA athletics convention and scheduled to meet friends at Fadó for dinner. He needed to get back to them. But before he left Madison, he gave voice to something that bothered him.
“What are you doing by yourself on a Friday night?” he asked.
In all his time recruiting her, he didn’t think he’d ever seen Madison Holleran alone.
“I was just doing some shopping,” she said. “But I’m meeting some friends for dinner.”
They parted. About 15 minutes later, Holleran reached 15th and Spruce. She climbed the stairs to the fifth floor of a parking garage. She didn’t have to do it. But at the moment, she couldn’t see how to do anything else.
For confidential support if you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Learn about the warning signs of suicide at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Originally published as “The Penn Suicides” in the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
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.”
JOHN OTTOBRE’S FATHER, John Sr., a former boxer and doo-wop singer, died in 1999, at age 62. So when Danielle disappeared, “I felt like I was the man of the family,” the younger Ottobre says. “Like maybe it was even up to me to find my sister.”
The family received lots of calls from psychics. About six weeks in, one got hold of John. “Your sister,” she told him, “is being held in the boxcar of a train in Philadelphia. You have to act. Now. Or your sister will be gone forever.”
John immediately called Mount Laurel detective Ed Pincus, who was still working on the case.
“That’s crazy,” Pincus told him bluntly.
But Ottobre was already driving toward the city.
Pincus, fearing a second tragedy, ordered a search. Ottobre drove to the scene, and as the police scoured the train, moving from car to car, he felt flush — first with the adrenaline of the moment, then with embarrassment.
“You’ve got to stop this,” Pincus warned him. “You’ve gone crazy!”
Ottobre stopped paying attention to the psychics.
But behind the scenes, his mother insisted he stay on message: Until some evidence directly indicated that Danielle and Richard were dead, there was no reason to think they weren’t alive. Even four months later, at a concert to benefit Danielle’s son, John told reporters the family still hoped she would turn up alive. “I know I must have looked really stupid,” he says now. “Really naive. But I felt like I had to do it for my mother.”
Just a few miles away, in Cherry Hill, the Petrones had gone a different kind of crazy.
That first Sunday Richard Jr. went missing, Marge Petrone felt her son’s death lodge, as a certainty, in her gut, even as Richard Sr. sat down and called every hospital and police station in the region. “At that point,” he says, “I was hoping they’d been arrested or in some kind of accident, but somehow they’d come back to us. That they’d be all right.”
By Tuesday, he, too, was sure his son was dead. Before long, they told Richard’s daughter, Angela, that her father wasn’t coming home. But the different outlooks between the two families — the Ottobres pressing hope, the Petrones, acceptance — confused the girl, and tensions arose. With no arrests and no one officially declared a suspect, friends and family on both sides began to speculate. And neither wanted to hear that their dearest had been the target.
Danielle Imbo’s loved ones wondered about Richard Petrone, claiming he was “rough around the edges” and suggesting he perhaps bore some gambling debt or Mob tie that could have gotten him and Danielle killed. “Believe me, we looked,” says Roselli, “and we continue to look, but nothing has emerged that there was anything in his background that would suggest him as a target for murder.”
Richard’s camp pointed to Danielle’s estranged husband, Joe Imbo, and their rough divorce. At an early press conference after the couple went missing, Marge Petrone even tried to confront Imbo — the short Italian mom stepping right into the lean, raven-haired man’s face? — until John Ottobre intervened. Joe Imbo has never been declared a suspect in the case.
Today, John Ottobre refuses to guess at a culprit, in hopes the families might reconcile. “The speculation doesn’t do any good,” he says. “It only causes more problems.”
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.
He never thought Danielle Imbo would be interested. Since she was separated, though, and seeking a divorce, he took his shot. They saw each other sporadically. But he told his parents how he felt.
More importantly, he told her.
After she broke things off, that Valentine’s Day without her was hard. But several days later, he pulled a gray hoodie on against sub-freezing temperatures, walked the two blocks from his apartment to the South Philly Tap Room, and ate dinner alone. He was mulling going to Abiliene’s later to see a band. Then he called his sister, who was with Danielle.
RICHARD PETRONE SR., 64, wakes each night around 2 a.m., dresses quickly, and steps outside to start his workday at the bakery as the bars close. He slides into the driver’s seat of the family car and with a flick of his wrist flips the engine over and the radio on. When a song his son loved floods the vehicle, his loss arrives with every line.
Petrone channels his pain into writing, posting poetry, prose and song lyrics, liberally referencing Springsteen, on the memorial website Richardpetrone.com:
Nothing to say
Even less to feel
There’s no more left
For this sorrow to steal.
He takes detours, sometimes, on the drive from Cherry Hill to Ardmore, still looking for Richard’s truck. Then he drives on to the bakery and registers the silence. When his son lived upstairs, he would hear slow footsteps before Richard Jr. came down to start his own workday. Once, the footsteps came very fast, almost tumbling down the stairs. Richard Jr. had just scored Springsteen tickets and was going to take his dad.
Angela now works in the bakery. At 23, she has moved past the fear, which dogged her as a teenager, that whatever evil took her dad will come back for his family. Her boy, Timothy, the grandson Richard never knew, means everything to the Petrones, whose lives have been mostly blown apart.
They get on the phone with old friends from time to time. But the gulf left by Richard’s passing sits between them and the rest of the world, enormous and untraversable. “I don’t blame people for not wanting to be around us,” says Marge. “We used to be fun, and now we’re always sad. If I was them, I wouldn’t want to be around me either.”
When Richard Sr., the writer, tries to talk about his son, he breaks down, sobbing, hiding his face behind his hands until he can regain his composure. Marge, the talker, keeps going, her eyes always wet with tears that roll slowly down her cheeks, like blood pumping from a wound.
“We’re in so much pain,” she says, “that we could kill ourselves tomorrow. But then I wouldn’t know what happened to my son. And that’s what keeps me going now. To find out what happened, and to see justice done.”
As for the Ottobres, Felice wakes up, and before she gets out of bed, she cries, her grief bubbling up in wracking sobs. She lives her entire day with a sick feeling in her stomach, like something is wrong. And then the next day she does it all over again.
I learn this from John Ottobre, who finds talking about his sister’s disappearance so painful that he often neglects to return my calls. “Everyone loves their sister,” he says, “but we went out together on Saturday nights, and she was close with my wife.”
He is married, the father of 11-year-old twin boys, and describes himself as “bitter.” Before she went missing, during football season he and Danielle would watch the Eagles, and if the team needed a score, he’d hide his face until his sister “gave my head a squeeze so I’d know it was safe to look.” Now, Sunday is just … Sunday. He watches the games alone.
Like Richard’s father, he still speeds up to get a closer view of any black truck. He detours through parking lots when he spots one from the road. “She’s my sister,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll stop till she’s found.”
The police have warned him: Danielle and Richard may have been incinerated, or left inside Petrone’s truck and run through a compactor. But John Ottobre continues to hope, even if his hopes are the smallest. “I know this might sound strange,” he says, “but justice isn’t the important thing to me. What’s really important to me is to know what happened.”
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.
“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.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.