North Carolina

Danielle Imbo Missing for 10 Years: ‘This is Not an Anniversary'

"I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a snow covered field with no footprints and I can go in any direction."

But John was standing inside an office at a South Jersey car dealership where he has worked for the past five years.

"To us, this is not an anniversary," John said a few weeks before Feb. 19 – the day his 34-year-old sister, Danielle Imbo, went missing 10 years ago.

"This is a surreal recurrence we go through every day."

Just before midnight on Feb. 19, 2005, Danielle and Richard Petrone Jr. left a South Street bar, telling friends they were heading towards her South Jersey home. That was the last time anyone saw them. Petrone's 2001 Dodge Dakota truck disappeared with them. The FBI continues to investigate the case, although they still have no strong leads and few clues to guide them.

The role of family spokesman fell to John since their father passed in 1999. With Danielle missing, that left John and his mother, Felice.

"We try to celebrate her life and not her disappearance," John said.

Felice cries every day, John said. "A mother that has lost her child and doesn’t have answers," he describes. "She has her morning cry. … She hunkers down and goes on with her day."

"You never get over this feeling. You just get used to feeling this way."

Danielle, like her late father John "Johnny October" Ottobre, had a passion for music. The Cherry Hill High School grad wrote her own songs and performed in a rock band in her 20s and 30s, her Janis Joplin covers drawing the attention of the room. Strands of her dark bob would fall in front of her hazel eyes as she performed.

Music’s role in her life faded when her son was born, as she turned all her attention to being a mother. Already close with her family, the bond grew stronger as Danielle and John became new parents around the same time. The siblings spent Sundays together watching the Eagles. Danielle’s family described her as optimistic, saying she was excited about her future and raising her son.

"After her son was born, I remember she told my wife, I think the exact words were," John recalled, "'Now I know what it is like to truly be in love with someone.'"

John says his wife, Jodi, and Danielle -- "the girls" -- wanted to get pregnant at the same time. "They kind of planned it so the kids could grow up together."

Joe Imbo III was nearly 2 when his mom disappeared. Today he lives with his father in North Carolina.

Despite the distance between 11-year-old Joe and his cousins, they are still growing up together in a way.

"My kids FaceTime him every night," John said. "They talk on Xbox every night."

Danielle’s son joins John’s family at least twice a year – a visit during the holidays and a second vacation at the Shore in the summer.

"We’ll be walking on the boardwalk with Joe and He’ll trip over his own feet," John described. "Jodi and I look at each other and laugh."

"His clumsiness, Danielle was so clumsy," continues John, thinking of the similarities between his nephew and his sister.

"His interest in his music," he mentions. "He has a keyboard. Actually it’s my sister’s keyboard that he has."

John is unsure how much his nephew knows. "At this age, and with technology, I wouldn’t be surprised. He is a very smart kid. He could Google something and figure this out on his own."

He tells his own kids, 11-year-old twin boys: "Aunt Danielle is in heaven. She is an angel. She is looking down on us."

Her disappearance -- like Danielle’s son, the twins were nearly 2 at the time -- was likely clear to them by their 4th birthday, John said.

"Everybody is on my front lawn, cameras are coming in the house," he explained. "You see it on TV and read about it in newspapers. … There was always media at the house or I was always on the phone coordinating some type of search."

But his involvement led to other ordeals.

"My one son had a very difficult time with this," he said. "He started to get separation anxiety that this would happen to me and my wife. My wife couldn’t get out of the car. By the time, she opened the door and got to the back door, he was in a full-blown panic attack."

"I had to stop," he continued. "You have to. It’ll make you crazy if you don’t."

"You have to make a decision: is it going to consume your life?"

But trying to move on with life after your sister disappears comes with its own guilt.

"If the roles were reversed what would she do? That’s what gives me the motivation and drive to never give up," John said. "She would never give in."

He says the burden and internal battle he experiences is nothing compared to that of his mom or Richard’s parents.

"That’s my mother’s daughter. That’s Mr. and Mrs. Petrone’s son," he said. "I put myself in my mother’s shoes and it makes me sick to think one of my children went missing with no answers. I literally have to stop myself from thinking about it. It makes me sick."

"I believe Mr. and Mrs. Petrone, and my mother are literally the strongest people to push forward after this."

Like the Petrone family, John says he wants justice and implores anyone with information on their disappearance to come forward.

Though both families have concluded Danielle and Richard are dead, finding out how and why they disappeared would provide a much-needed resolution to a decade of torment.

"Am I afraid to know the truth and details of it? Yeah. I want to know, but I don’t want to know," he explained.

A proper burial and service would also relieve some of the agony, he said.

“Closure is a funny word,” he said. “We know she is not coming home, so isn’t that closure enough?”

“I just want to be able to bring her home and say goodbye the right way.”

Contact Alison Burdo at 610.668.5635, or follow @NewsBurd on Twitter.

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