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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Pennsylvania woman who disappeared in 1992 is found alive in Puerto Rico

A family photo of Patricia Kopta, who was found after she shared tidbits about her past with employees at an island nursing home that had been taking care of her for years.

By Eduardo Medina

A Pennsylvania woman who went missing more than 30 years ago and whose family believed she was dead has been found alive in Puerto Rico, solving a decadeslong mystery, authorities said late last week.

The woman, Patricia Kopta, now 83, was found on the island after she shared tidbits about her past to nursing home employees who had been taking care of her for years, Chief Brian Kohlhepp of the Ross Township Police Department said at a news conference.

The nursing home contacted the department last year, telling investigators that they had perhaps been taking care of a woman with dementia who might have disappeared from the Pennsylvania township near Pittsburgh in 1992. It was not clear what details Kopta shared that prompted the nursing home to contact authorities, or how she had gotten there in the first place.

Kopta’s younger sister, Gloria Smith, who attended the news conference last Friday, summed up how she felt when the police determined through DNA evidence last week that her sister was indeed in Puerto Rico: “Shock. I didn’t believe it. It was total shock.”

Bob Kopta, 86, of Pittsburgh, had been married to Patricia Kopta for 20 years when she went missing. At the news conference, he also expressed disbelief.

“Thirty-one years,” he said, “and it’s been bad.”

Neither Bob Kopta nor the Ross Township Police Department immediately responded to requests for comment Saturday. Smith also could not be reached for comment.

Back home, Patricia Kopta, who was nicknamed “the sparrow,” was known to wander the streets of downtown Pittsburgh as a street preacher. She also had a history of mental health struggles before she disappeared at the age of 52, her family and the police chief said.

“She had made statements to other family individuals that she was leaving, that she was concerned that she was going to be placed into a care facility here,” Kohlhepp said.

For years, based on sparse tips and leads, local officials believed that Kopta had left on her own volition.

In 1999, seven years after she went missing, nursing home employees found Kopta wandering the streets of Puerto Rico. She refused to discuss her private life or background with the nursing home staff, Kohlhepp said, so they crafted a sparse narrative on her origins: A cruise ship from Europe had dropped her off on one of the beaches.

At the time, her husband and relatives were beginning to believe she might be dead.

“It was hard on all of us because we — my mother, my sister and myself — we worried about her constantly,” Smith said.

Last year, likely because of her dementia, Kopta “leaked enough details about her identity that they were able to connect enough dots to contact us,” Kohlhepp said.

Workers at the nursing home, the name of which was not shared by authorities, took a DNA swab of the woman in their care and sent it to investigators. DNA samples were then collected from Smith and Kopta’s nephew.

The samples were sent to a lab, where a familial test concluded that the woman in Puerto Rico was indeed Kopta, police said. Even before the results came back, investigators had believed for months that the older woman in a photo from Puerto Rico was Kopta, her long brown hair from the ’90s now trimmed and graying.

Smith said she was planning to visit her sister in Puerto Rico soon, even if the dementia means Kopta won’t remember her.

Bob Kopta told The Associated Press that he was content just knowing what had happened to his wife.

“After 30 years, you try to forget about it,” he said. “Now, I can forget about it. We know what happened, and she is taken care of now.”

At the news conference Friday, Kopta listened intently as the police shared news about his wife.

Later, when he spoke in front of a throng of reporters and television cameras, he recalled his efforts to find her, such as the time he paid for an advertisement in a Puerto Rican paper that alerted readers to his missing wife.

He had long known she liked the island, and he guessed that perhaps she was there.

“She could have come home any time,” Kopta said. “But she — that’s what she wanted. She always said she wanted to go to a warm climate.”

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