Without a Trace

without-trace-imbo-petrone-940

Richard and Danielle six months before they vanished.

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.

Danielle.

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.

And vanished.

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.”

To read the full story, please pick up the April 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine at your local newsstand. If you would like to become a subscriber, please click here.

Penn Dean Reveals Third Student Suicide Since End of Last Semester

In the wake of the high-profile suicides of Penn students Madison Holleran and Elvis Hatcher, Philadelphia magazine has learned that a third university student had committed suicide since the end of last semester. Dean Richard James Gelles of the university’s School of Social Policy and Practice said he made no announcement through the university because he believes in the “privacy concerns of the family … and the possibility of contagion.”

While Gelles would not reveal the name of the student, he says he is revealing the suicide out of concern for student welfare.

The unnamed social policy graduate student, who committed suicide off campus over semester break, can now be added to the list of Penn students who recently committed suicide, including Holleran, a freshman who took her life on Jan. 17, and Hatcher, a sophomore who killed himself just weeks later.

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Dad Files: Why Every Philly Parent Should Check Out Nest

Parents and kids play at Nest / Photo via Facebook

Parents and kids play at Nest / Photo via Facebook

Our boys ran in circles at first, so overwhelmed by their options they couldn’t settle in and play with any single toy till they inventoried them all. The place was almost empty, with just a couple of other children inside, so we could hear Jack and Eli babbling and cooing as they toddled, fast as they could go, from one side of the room to the other.

My wife and I have not been shy about getting our boys, 18-month-old fraternal twins, out into the world. We’ve fed them in highchairs on the beach and in Rittenhouse Square and on the sidewalk in front of Shake Shack. We take them to the neighborhood playgrounds, around the Graduate Hospital area, and, weather permitting, to the merry go round at Franklin Square. We’ve taken them to the Please Touch Museum so many times that they smile contentedly and wait to be strapped into their car seats as soon as we tell them we’re going. But this last weekend we took our first and second trips to Nest, an indoor play space at 13th and Locust.

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The Fight for the Future of Philadelphia’s Newspapers

CRASH OF THE TITANS Clockwise from upper left, Lexie Norcross, Bob Hall, Bill Marimow, Nancy Phillips, Lewis Katz and George Norcross.  Illustration by Britt Spencer

CRASH OF THE TITANS
Clockwise from upper left, Lexie Norcross, Bob Hall, Bill Marimow, Nancy Phillips,
Lewis Katz and George Norcross.
Illustration by Britt Spencer

The meeting is lore, now: a story about a table for two that likely caused all South Jersey to wobble, ever so slightly, on its axis. The setting: Lamberti’s, aflutter with white tablecloths, occupied by the swellegant, an Italian seafood restaurant that serves as something of a home field for one of the men at the table, George Norcross III.

His name means different things to different people. Norcross earned millions in the insurance business, as executive chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew. He earned a scary reputation as the grinding stone of the Democratic Party in South Jersey, choosing who ran for what political office till he accumulated so much wealth and power that he became downright kingly.

Critics plaster Norcross with uncomplimentary terms, like “the Jersey Devil.” Admirers cite his more recent run of philanthropy, thanking him for building a better South Jersey. Friends and enemies often see his avalanche of thick white hair at Lamberti’s, in Cherry Hill, but the 57-year-old Norcross added this March 2012 stop to his calendar upon request, and reluctantly. He would maybe order a bowl of linguine or something.

Across from him sat Lewis Katz. His name also means different things to different people: An entrepreneur of many trades, Katz has worked, successfully, as an attorney, a political power broker to governors Jim Florio and Ed Rendell, a shareholder in the New York Yankees and New Jersey Nets and Devils. But he made his biggest bundles of loot in comparatively schlubby businesses like parking lots and billboards. Tall and trim, with thinning hair he combs over a wide bald spot, Katz was the one who called and asked for this meeting.

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Dad Files: How to Stay Happy in Marriage—Even When You Have Kids

Shutterstock

Shutterstock

On an average day, I wake up a little after 6 a.m., make myself a cup of coffee and prepare breakfast—oatmeal with bananas, or maybe eggs (followed by bananas)—for my 18-month-old boys. I sing to them, usually beginning my set list with “Seven Nation Army,” thumping out the beat on the trays of their highchairs.

By 8 a.m., I probably have sung four or five songs, danced for several minutes, and tickled both boys till they are red in the face. The tickling, these days, occurs in the circus tent we erected in our living room. And no, I am not kidding. There is a circus tent in our living room.

Given that my mornings revolve around silly games, open displays of affection and music, I was a little surprised to see a controversy erupt last week over a new set of studies, one of which concludes that childless couples are happier than parents.

Really? I asked, unable to wipe the smile from my face.

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Newspaper Guild Jumps Into Inquirer / Daily News Ownership Fray

The-inquirer-building-with-sunset-reflecting

The Philadelphia Newspaper Guild, which represents more than 500 employees at the company, filed a petition to intervene today in their parent company’s ongoing ownership dispute.

A status hearing took place this morning at which attorney Lisa Lori appeared, representing the Guild. “The Guild has seen nothing but pay cuts [in recent years]” she said afterward. “Unpaid furloughs. … They want an equity stake.”

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Inquirer Ownership Battle: “Darling … Eliminate the Daily News

Lewis Katz (center) walks to court in November. Photo | AP / Matt Rourke.

Lewis Katz (center) walks to court in November. Photo | AP / Matt Rourke.

According to an email leaked to Philadelphia magazine, Nancy Phillips, as her long-time companion Lewis Katz was contemplating purchasing a controlling interest in the city’s biggest media company, made sweeping recommendations about strategies for turning around the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, including specific executive firings and the possible elimination of the Daily News.

“Darling,” the March 17, 2012 email, from Phillips to Katz, begins.

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Did Bill Marimow Ask for $1 Million to Leave the Inquirer?

Bill Marimow. Photo | AP / Joseph Kaczmarek

Bill Marimow. Photo | AP / Joseph Kaczmarek

The two sides in the dispute among owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com got hung up on one issue in last-ditch settlement talks: the fate of Inquirer editor Bill Marimow.

According to a person with knowledge of the negotiations, Marimow requested four years salary, equal to about $1 million, to vacate his editor’s position.

Attorney William Chadwick, who represented Marimow, rejects this account.

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George Norcross Now the Majority Owner of Inquirer, Daily News, Philly.com

George Norcross III

In a move that has deep ramifications for Philadelphia’s entire media ecosystem, George Norcross III has become the majority owner of the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com.

Norcross is expected to announce his purchase of tech industry titan Kris Singh‘s shares in Philadelphia’s largest news organization later this afternoon. The move, which doubles Norcross’s holdings, figures to have massive implications for the ongoing battle for control of the papers between Norcross and Lewis Katz.

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Dad Files: Hey, Wait—The “How to Fight a Baby” Guy Totally Has a Point

The “How to Fight a Baby” video, above, which went viral last week, divided parents into camps: the rough housers, and the genteel; jokesters and the humorless. You might guess where I fall: I think the video comedian Gavin McInnes shot for Vice is funny. The love he clearly feels for his baby—and his baby for him—is apparent in every frame.

But that doesn’t mean the video didn’t choke off my breath a time or two: McInnes tosses his baby through the air (and on to a set of fluffy blankets). He wraps his fingers around the baby’s neck as if to strangle (his fingers encircle, but never actually grip). Each time, it took a moment for me to register that what looked dangerous was actually quite safe. Then I laughed like hell.

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