Without a Trace
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.