SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A Pennsylvania woman who went missing more than 30 years ago in a case that stumped authorities who later declared her legally dead has been found living in a nursing home in Puerto Rico.
Patricia Kopta left behind a husband and siblings and meandered through northern Puerto Rico for a while before she was taken as a person “in need” to the adult care home in 1999, according to details announced at a news conference this week in Ross Township, where she once lived.
Kopta, once known as a street preacher in her home town, initially kept her past secret while in Puerto Rico. But she began to divulge details as she suffered progressively from dementia, Ross Township Deputy Police Chief Brian Kohlhepp said.
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.
Her husband, Bob Kopta, and her surviving sister, 78-year-old Gloria Smith. filled in details of Kopta’s life at the news conference and in telephone interviews Friday with The Associated Press.
Patricia Kopta had been nicknamed “The Sparrow” because of her slight build, and often frequented parking lots and busy roads in the largely residential community of about 31,000 north of Pittsburgh, where she would caution passersby and motorists about the end of the world.
But before she began preaching, Kopta was a straight-A student who became a model and dance instructor. After graduating high school, she worked in finance at a Pittsburgh plate glass company and would attend ballroom dancing events weekly, according to her family.
She would vacation often in Puerto Rico with her friends before she got married, Smith recalled.
“She just loved the ocean, the beach, the warm sunshine,” Smith told the AP.
Smith said her sister quit her job at the glass company after 10 years because of migraines that doctors blamed on stress. She then got a job as an elevator operator at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
That’s when family members noticed a change in her.
“She said something about seeing an angel there,” Smith recalled.
Shortly afterward, Kopta began preaching and was briefly institutionalized after doctors diagnosed her with “delusions of grandeur” and said she had signs of schizophrenia. Upon her release, she kept preaching until she vanished in 1992.
“I come home one night, and she’s just gone,” Bob Kopta told the AP.
They had been married for 20 years.
Kopta, now 86, recalled how they met near a river in Pittsburgh where he had a boat. He gave her and her friends a ride and fell in love. In 1972, they married.
The disappearance stumped authorities and family alike. Police went as far as to consult a psychic, while Kopta recalled his wife once mentioned she would like to go to Puerto Rico because of its balmy weather. So he published ads in Puerto Rican newspapers, but never got a response.
Years went by with no sign of her. He 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 Kopta apparently was 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 Kopta.
“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 Kopta, 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. A twin sister of Patricia Kopta 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.”
___ AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York.