When Danielle Imbo and Richard Petrone left a South Street bar 10 years ago Thursday, they left no trace. Not a fingerprint or a hair, not a sighting on a surveillance camera, not even Petrone’s Dodge pickup. The Cherry Hill, N.J. couple just… vanished.
Now, investigators with the FBI tell Billy Penn they’re redoubling their efforts on the 10-year-old case as the anniversary draws near. But where do you start when there’s so little to go on?
“We’re just looking to make sure nothing was missed,” said JJ Klaver, an agent with the Philadelphia arm of the FBI. “Are there new avenues or investigative leads? There has been information that we have followed up on, but unfortunately we’re not at the point where we have a suspect identified. That’s the challenge.”
South Street was a different place on Feb. 19, 2005 when Petrone, 35, and Imbo, 34, were having a drink with another couple at Abilene’s. That bar, once near 4th and South streets closer to Society Hill, has closed.
Maybe the biggest difference is how much more common video surveillance is today — think about Carlesha Freeland-Gaither’s abduction, and how the video of the incident went viral.
“Today it’s probably more likely that at least part of that would have been captured on video,
Klaver said, “and we would have something to go on.”
All investigators know is that the couple left the bar just before midnight to make their way toward Petrone’s 2001 black Dodge Dakota, parked close by. Police know the couple was headed home to New Jersey, but there’s no way to tell that they got there — because tolls aren’t paid, no video camera tracks license plates from Pennsylvania into Jersey.
In fact, investigators haven’t even released evidence that foul play occurred here; With that said, the FBI said in 2008 that it was treating the case as a murder-for-hire. Where that might lead? Hard to say. At the time, according to reports, police questioned Danielle Imbo’s estranged husband Richard Imbo, but he was never charged with a crime.
Now, the FBI agent who’s been on this case since the beginning and the police forces who are assisting are in many ways reliant on a stroke of luck: A deathbed confession, a jailhouse conversation about someone knowing something, a person who’s easily swayed by the standing $50,000 reward.
Retired NYPD investigator Joe Giacalone wrote a textbook called “The Criminal Investigative Function,” used to teach budding detectives about cold cases, homicides and missing persons. Giacalone said of course it’s unlikely there will be a break in a case 10 years after it happened with little to no physical evidence to go off of — a break in the case would be “sheer luck.”
“You actually like to think the case is murder-for-hire because that’s an extra link out there,” he said. “Any time anyone brings someone else into their crime, it creates another opportunity to solve it. We’ve had family members 30 years come forward and they said, ‘I knew something and I didn’t do anything with it.’”
It does happen, Giacalone said. In September, a 31-year-old cold case in Washington was solved after a jailed father confessed he’d killed his son, and that the boy hadn’t disappeared while out on a fishing trip. In the same month, a 15-year-old homicide case was solved after a man drove from North Carolina to Arizona to confess to police that he’d killed a woman there.
Klaver couldn’t remember a specific case like that in Philly — one where someone came out of the woodwork to confess to a killing — but he said the 10-year anniversary provides a unique opportunity to remind the public about the missing couple who vanished from South Street.
“We’re trying to get renewed public interest,” he said. “We have always felt that there have got to be people out there who have information, because 10 years out, it becomes more difficult. Memories fade. People move away. People die. Things change.
“Certainly the further out you go, the harder it becomes.”