A woman from Pennsylvania who went missing more than 30 years ago and was legally declared dead has turned up, very much alive, in a nursing home in Puerto Rico.
Patricia Kopta, 83, was last seen by her family in Pittsburgh in 1992, according to a missing person flyer posted by the Pennsylvania Emergency Response Center. At the time, she was a well-known street preacher known as “The Sparrow” because of her slight build.
Her husband Bob Kopta reported her missing in 1992, noting it wasn’t uncommon for his wife to leave for short periods of time. No doubt he didn’t expect his wife’s disappearance to remain a mystery 31 years later.
“I come home one night and she’s gone, and nobody knew where she was at,” Bob Kopta said at a news conference with Ross Township Police last week.
U.S. police eventually learned the story of what happened to Patricia after being contacted by an agent from the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and a social worker from Puerto Rico who cared for her.
“What they reported to us was that she came into their care in 1999, when she was found in need in the streets of Puerto Rico,” said Ross Township Deputy Chief Brian Kohlhepp.
Through the years that Patricia remained at the care home, she refused to share details about her private life and where she came from. But as her age and dementia progressed, she began to share rare snippets about her past.
By last year, a social worker at the home had enough information to alert authorities back home about the now-83-year-old woman. A DNA test has confirmed her identity, Kohlhepp said.
Before her disappearance, Patricia was at a facility briefly after doctors diagnosed her with “delusions of grandeur” and said she had signs of schizophrenia. She was released and kept preaching until she disappeared, her family said.
“She was concerned she was going to be institutionalized,” Kohlhepp said Friday. “Which is what we believe led her to decide to flee the country.”
Before Patricia was married, she would vacation often in Puerto Rico with her friends, according to her surviving sister, 78-year-old Gloria Smith.
“She just loved the ocean, the beach, the warm sunshine,” Smith told the AP.
When she disappeared, Bob published ads in Puerto Rican newspapers looking for her, to no avail. Police went as far as to consult a psychic.
Years went by with no sign of her. Bob, who had been married to Patricia for 20 years, obtained a death declaration about seven years after her disappearance.
“I went through a lot,” said Bob Kopta, a retired truck driver. “Every time they’d find a body somewhere (I wondered), ‘Is it Patricia? Is it Patricia?’”
Meanwhile, Patricia was apparently wandering the island’s northern towns of Naranjito, Corozal and Toa Alta, located just southwest of the capital of San Juan. When she first was taken in at the adult home, she had hinted that she had arrived in Puerto Rico via a cruise ship from Europe, Kohlhepp said.
After a social worker contacted police in Pennsylvania, it took almost a year for DNA samples to confirm that the woman was indeed Patricia.
“It’s a sad thing, but it’s a relief off my mind,” her husband said. “When your wife goes missing, you’re a suspect.”
Bob, who did not remarry, said he doesn’t plan to visit, and that he’s now trying to forget the past, though he’s glad to know she’s being taken care of.
Smith, on the other hand, wants to go to the island to see her older sister. She says she’s been unable to speak to the elder sibling on the phone because she cannot hold a conversation given her dementia. Patricia’s twin sister died without knowing her fellow twin was still alive.
“Whether she knows me or not, I still want to see her and give her a hug and tell her I love her,” Smith said. “I thought maybe she had died.”
— With files from The Associated Press