A Pennsylvania woman who went missing from her husband more than 30 years earlier and was even legally declared dead has been found alive in Puerto Rico, according to authorities.
Cases where people mysteriously disappear don’t often result in the missing being found alive decades later. But 82-year-old Patricia Kopta has proven to be an exception, now being treated for a dementia diagnosis at an adult care home about 1,700 miles (2,700km) away from where she went missing.
“You wouldn’t believe what we’ve been through,” the man to whom she was married for 20 years, Bob Kopta, said at a news conference on Thursday. “It’s such a relief to know she’s alive.”
Patricia Kopta used to live in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, suburb of Ross Township, commuted to various jobs including one operating an elevator, and was a devout Roman Catholic who regularly attended Sunday mass, the city’s Post-Gazette newspaper reported.
She began gradually showing unusual behavior, and her piety gave way to irrational rants such as claims that God’s mother had shown herself to Patricia Kopta and warned her of looming nuclear armageddon.
After she lost her job, she began frequenting downtown streets, admonishing baseball game spectators and concertgoers to go home because the world was about to end, Bob Kopta recalled, according to the Post-Gazette.
People who encountered her nicknamed her “the Sparrow”, a moniker inspired by her slight physique and erratic walk. Once, a group mugged her and stole her wedding and engagement rings. She was arrested another time, with doctors describing how she was having “delusions of grandeur”, according to the Post-Gazette.
Then, one day in 1992, Bob Kopta went home to Ross Township, found that Patricia Kopta had left, and filed a missing person report with the local police.
There was no sign of her for years, though once she sent her husband a letter recounting how someone was pursuing her, which echoed claims she had made multiple times earlier.
A Post-Gazette columnist later wrote how even those in downtown Pittsburgh noted that they hadn’t “seen the Sparrow for a long time”. Though, the columnist Dennis Roddy added, “mostly they let it pass”.
In their desperation to find her, investigators at one point spoke with a psychic who suggested Patricia Kopta had died and that her body was near water.
Bob Kopta eventually obtained a legal declaration saying that his wife was considered dead.
But authorities would later learn that Patricia Kopta had been admitted to an adult care home in Puerto Rico while in need of help in June 1999. Patricia Kopta withheld most of her life’s details but led her carers to believe that she had gone to the island on a cruise ship from Europe.
She told the home’s staff more about her life as time passed. And that set the stage for a Puerto Rican social worker as well as an agent with Interpol, the international law enforcement agency, to contact Ross Township’s deputy police chief, Brian Kohlhepp, last year.
Kohlhepp released a statement on Thursday describing how Patricia Kopta had wandered the Puerto Rican towns of Naranjito, Corozal and Toa Alta before the social worker and Interpol agent began to suspect who she might be, the Post-Gazette reported.
After Kohlhepp notified Patricia Kopta’s family, his department sent kits to Puerto Rican authorities for them to swab her DNA. Then, they compared that sample to DNA provided by a sister and nephew of Patricia Kopta.
At the end of a nine-month process that also involved her dental records, investigators confirmed that Patricia Kopta was the woman who had checked into the adult care home in 1999 after saying she’d arrived in Puerto Rico on a cruise ship from Europe.
“Patricia Kopta [is] alive and well for her advanced age and condition,” Kohlhepp said at Thursday’s news conference.
Bob Kopta never remarried. He and Kopta’s sister, Gloria Smith, told reporters on Thursday that they would love to bring her back to Pennsylvania and reunite their family.
Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether Kopta ever returns to Pennsylvania. She’s struggling with both her mental and physical health, and she told the care home staff that she would prefer to remain in Puerto Rico, the Post-Gazette reported.
“We’re very thankful to know that Patty is alive and well,” Smith said, according to the local news outlet WMTW. “She’s being well taken care of. We really thought she was dead all those years. It was a very big shock to know that she’s still alive – I hope I can get down to see her.”
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