Was it suicide or murder? A mother of 2 disappears on Valentine's Day amid troubling behavior.
Holidays, especially Valentine's Day, are bittersweet for the Viola family. That's because they keenly miss the presence of Patricia Marie Viola, a stay-at-home wife, and mother living in the charming suburban town of Bogota, New Jersey. 42-year-old Pat was the type of wife and mom who made every day special for her husband Jim, daughter Christine and son Michael, but it was on special occasions where she really shone. No cake was too difficult, time-consuming, or complicated to bake, and she searched far and wide to find the absolute perfect presents for her husband and children on their birthdays, Christmas, and other holidays. Even minor holidays, such as Valentine's Day, deserved special presents, food, and decorations as far as Pat was concerned. She delighted in taking care of her family and her generosity expanded to include extended family members, such as Jim's mom who was ill, and his sister Donna who was living in the Viola household.
Pat and Jim met in 1982 on the day Jim went for an interview at Honeywell, in Morristown NJ, where he worked at the time of Pat's disappearance. It was after that successful interview he met a pretty, vivacious Pat in the personnel office, and felt an immediate spark. Pat must have felt it as well, because the couple married in 1986, and quickly had two children - Christine and Michael. They settled into a comfortable life in Bogota New Jersey, just a couple of miles away from the George Washington Bridge, which is right across the river from Manhattan.
The months and weeks leading up to her disappearance
Pat's home and family life, while wonderful, was not without their challenges and stressors. Diagnosed at the age of 12, Pat suffered from epilepsy. While it was largely controlled by medication - which Pat was religious about taking - the November before she went missing, she had experienced a rare grand mal seizure that left her unable to drive. At her doctor's recommendation, her driver's license had been suspended for 3 months in November 2000, and the situation would not be revisited until February of 2001. This was a huge blow to Pat, who was looking forward to driving to the mall to shop for Christmas presents for her family.
On February 6, one week before she disappeared, Pat got the devastating news that her doctor recommended 3 more months of suspension before she could regain driving privileges. In addition to this setback, Pat was also caring for her husband Jim's mom who was ill, running back and forth to the hospital on public transportation and had invited Jim's sister Donna to move in with the family after a difficult breakup with her boyfriend. That's just who Pat was - caring, considerate, and loving of others, even in the face of her own troubles and disappointments. And as if she didn't already have enough on her plate, Pat was also a volunteer librarian at her son's school, the E. Roy Bixby Elementary School, where she was confirmed to be on the last day anyone ever saw Pat alive.
The night before Patricia vanished
Two days before Valentine's Day 2001 was a seemingly ordinary Tuesday, and Pat was up early and followed her typical routine to get her family out the door on time for work and school. Her husband Jim noticed that Pat seemed a bit down, but nothing extreme or overly concerning. A couple of things had occurred the day before that could have contributed to Pat's sour mood. In addition to the extended suspension of her license, she discovered while cleaning the guest room on February 12 that Jim's sister Donna had burned a hole in the guest bedspread. While Pat did not approve of Donna's smoking in the house, up until now she had tolerated it and mitigated the effects by vacuuming and freshening on a daily basis. But this was a bridge too far - Donna could have caused a fire that would have put the entire family in jeopardy! She and Jim discussed and they agreed Pat would wait until the next day to confront Donna, because they were due at a party in Brooklyn that night, at the home of Pat's friend Toinette Fazio-Markowitz. Pat and Fazio-Markowitz had met on a double date with their husbands years ago, and immediately became best friends who were more like sisters.
As soon as she had arrived at the party, Fazio-Markowitz knew something was seriously wrong with Pat. While she appeared beautifully dressed and made-up to perfection, she was clearly distraught. She pulled Fazio-Markowitz into an empty room, and by now sobbing uncontrollably, told her something was terribly wrong that she urgently needed to discuss with her best friend. When Fazio-Markowitz pressed her for details, she said it was too complicated to go into at the moment, but instead begged her to cancel her upcoming vacation so the two friends could get away for a few days together. She then said something that rattled Fazio-Markowitz to her core. She asked Fazio-Markowitz to "take care of her kids, no matter what". Worried sick and good friend that she is, Markowitz canceled her upcoming trip that very night and called Pat the next morning to discuss.
The day of her disappearance
February 13, 2001, seemed totally normal; Jim was out of the house at 6:30 am as was his custom, and the kids went off to school at 8:15 am as usual. At some point that day, Fazio-Markowitz had called Pat to discuss the incident of the night before, but to her shock, Pat brushed it off and changed the subject to Valentine's Day presents. She mentioned that she wanted to buy a particular gag gift for Jim - a singing monkey in a cage, just like one Fazio-Markowitz had bought for her husband. Fazio-Markowitz noted Pat sounded tired and somewhat in a hurry to get off the phone. After she hung up, Pat suddenly stormed downstairs to confront Jim's sister Donna about her smoking and the burned bedspread in the guest room. Jim later remarked that her approach to this was extraordinarily out of character for Pat; she was irate and screaming at Donna over the incident, like a "raving maniac", which was not at all typical behavior for Pat.
After seeing Jim and the kids off, Pat apparently left the house at 8:38 am and walked the two blocks to her job at the library of the Bixby Elementary School, located on the corner of Fischer and Chestnut Avenues. She remained there shelving and checking out books for a couple of hours, leaving the building at approximately 11:30 am. At 11:35 am-11:40 am, she was last seen by the crossing guard on Palisade Avenue, as well as the mailman to whom she waved as she walked home from the library. She arrived home to a message left on her answering machine that the security alarm had been tripped earlier.
Earlier that morning, a security alarm company got a report of an alarm going off at a home on Chestnut Avenue, Bogota NJ - Pat and Jim's address. In accordance with their protocol, they first attempted to contact Pat but were unable to reach her. It was later noted that while Pat had a cell phone, she rarely had it turned on. The company then tried to contact Jim, who was at work and not reachable, and finally, they successfully contacted Pat's mother, who immediately called Pat's home phone to check on her. When she got only the answering machine, she left Pat a message. At the same time, the alarm triggered contact with the local Bogota Police Department, who performed a check by driving by the house, checking in windows and walking the perimeter of the property. They concluded there had been no break-in and everything looked normal. They assumed that perhaps Pat didn't fully close the door when she left for work that morning, which may have triggered the alarm. Pat's mother also later confirmed that when Pat arrived home from school, she listened to her messages and called her mom to assure her everything was fine at the house.
Even though she had no means of transportation or told anyone of her plans about going anywhere that day, Pat apparently left the house again. The control panel of the security alarm shows that Pat performed a reset of the home security alarm at 1:11 pm, so it can be assumed she left sometime between 1:11 pm and 4:00 pm, re-arming the alarm as she left. (A reset would be required prior to re-arming the alarm following a previous alarm trigger.) No one knows if Pat left voluntarily, or if she was forced to leave.
When her husband Jim arrived home at 4:30 pm that afternoon, the alarm was beeping but Pat was nowhere to be found. Her coat was missing but her personal items - including a purse, keys, identification, cell phone, and most concerning, her epilepsy medication - were all left behind. The Viola family only set the security alarm before leaving the house or going to bed, so Jim knew instantly that Pat was not there. He was concerned since he knew that Pat was due to take her twice-daily medication very soon, and she never would have risked skipping it and possibly inducing another grand mal seizure. A key the family used to lock the back door was lying on the kitchen table, instead of being inserted into the deadbolt as usual. Knowing that Pat could have only left the house on foot, Jim called everyone he could think of and even checked bus schedules, confident that Pat would not be driving anywhere. At 11:58 pm that night, Jim contacted the Bogota Police Department to report his wife missing. The police took the report and it ended up on the desk of Captain James Sepp.
Police went door-to-door and spoke with neighbors, stopped buses along the main route in town, and checked the logs of all taxi cabs and car services in town. They called the Port Authority Police to check flight manifests at nearby airports. There was no trace of Pat. On February 16, they acquired a police dog to assist in searches and broadened the investigation to conduct aerial searches to cover more ground, but again, no sign of Pat. After two weeks had passed, Jim and Toinette Fazio-Markowitz teamed up to do their own investigation. Fazio-Markowitz checked out local drugstores and gift shops within walking distance and found a Rite-Aid Pharmacy that sold the singing monkey gift Pat had wanted for Jim. Amazingly, after being shown Pat's picture the clerk remembered her but had no idea where Pat went after leaving the store. Meanwhile, Jim investigated local hospitals, thinking that Pat may have had another seizure and gotten hurt, perhaps even developed amnesia, which can indeed be a side effect of an epileptic seizure. But his efforts were to no avail, which didn't surprise Captain Sepp, since he knew that when a "living Jane Doe" was checked into a hospital, law enforcement was always notified.
Over the next weeks and months, police continue to actively search for Pat. They had previously been operating under one of two theories: 1) that Pat had left on her own; and 2) that Pat met with foul play. After learning about the strange conversation with Fazio-Markowitz as well as the uncharacteristic blow-up with Donna, they considered the idea that Pat may have been having thoughts of suicide and somehow made her way to the nearby George Washington Bridge or the cliffs of the Palisades, but found no evidence of this having occurred. No deaths by suicide in either location had been reported, and besides, how would Pat have gotten to the bridge or the Palisades without a car? They then began to focus on the second theory of foul play, which meant they first, of course, needed to rule out any involvement on Jim's part. Though he was cooperating fully with the police, they subjected him to grueling interrogation and ultimately administered a polygraph, which he passed. While police cleared him of any involvement fairly quickly, their interrogation gave them helpful background and insight into Pat's life leading up to her disappearance.
On March 14, 2001, a month after Pat had vanished, police received a tip from a man in East Stroudsburg, PA, who claimed he saw Pat while stopped at a light. Both law enforcement and the family were very hopeful that the sighting was legitimate since the Violas had a timeshare in nearby Shawnee, PA, in the Pocono Mountains. Jim went to the area to search but found nothing, despite getting local TV coverage and plastering the town with Pat's missing posters. The next real tip didn't come in until a year later, when a man called Bogota Police and claimed to have killed Pat. His exact words were "I killed the old girl", and he went on to say he had her driver's license. Police immediately suspected a false confession, since Pat didn't have a driver's license at the time she went missing. Still, in an abundance of caution, they followed up on the tip. The man had indicated he was traveling by bus from Florida to Massachusetts with a female companion who he identified, so police arranged to intercept the bus in North Carolina. When they do so they found only the woman, who confirmed the man was an ex-boyfriend of hers who was infuriated that she'd left him for another man. The whole incident was merely a hoax by the jilted ex to make trouble for the woman. After this tip, the case pretty much went cold. Police still worked tips when they got them, but they were few and far between. Jim, however, continued to try to keep the case in the public eye any way he was able, through media, posters, and online presence.
Over a decade after Pat vanished, in January of 2011, a local private investigator named Gary Micco stumbled across a website run by Jim dedicated to finding Pat. He contacted Jim and offered to look into Pat's disappearance. He tracked down the mailman who remembered waving to Pat on the day she vanished. The mailman unexpectedly mentioned another horrific crime that had occurred at the house across the street from the Violas back in 1997 and wondered aloud if there was any connection between the two situations. Micco was intrigued and discovered that on October 23, 1997, a triple homicide had occurred on the very block on which the Violas lived.
The triple homicide uncovered by PI Micco briefly breathed new life into the case. The investigator discovered that on October 23, 1997, a diamond dealer was killed in a house across the street from the Violas in a targeted robbery-homicide. Two other individuals in the house at the time were also killed as collateral damage. Four men were arrested for the triple murder. The speculation was that since the trial for this crime was occurring during the time of Pat's disappearance, the suspects for the 1997 murders may have hired someone to kidnap or kill her, believing her to be a witness. It was later confirmed that this was completely untrue; Pat had no ties to the crime, nor was she on any witness lists. But it could have been a case of mistaken identity, or a killer for hire simply entering the wrong address. Despite rising hope, that lead also turned out to be of no value.
As the years passed, Jim's efforts to find out what happened to Pat never waned. He became an influential figure in NJ legislation regarding missing persons cases. In 2008, he worked with State Senator Loretta Weinberg and then-governor of New Jersey Jon Corzine in passing "Patricia's Law", a law that set new guidelines for police to follow in missing persons cases, including taking every missing person's report regardless of circumstance, offering resources to the families, and collecting DNA material and entering it into a national database. Through all this, Jim and the family never gave up on Pat's safe return.
Patricia's remains are found
In 2012, Pat does return home, but not in a way anyone would have hoped for. Remains that had washed up a decade before in 2002 on Rockaway Beach in Queens, NY were finally identified as belonging to Pat. The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office linked the remains of a left foot to Pat via DNA analysis. A beachgoer had come across the skeletal remains on July 27, 2002, along with a sock and a shoe. DNA samples that had been entered into a pair of national databases - the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System and the Combined DNA Index System - yielded a match to Pat based on DNA submitted a year earlier by her children Christine and Michael. Captain Sepp broke the news to Jim on September 11, 2012, just a few days after Pat had been declared legally dead.
Jim was left with the sad task of breaking the news to his daughter Christine, who was understandably shocked and devastated. He had to delay informing Michael, who was in a medically induced coma battling an infection at the time the DNA match came back. He wanted to wait until the 21 year old emerged from the hospital, so the family could plan services and finally lay Pat to rest. The mystery of where Pat was seemed to be solved, but the mystery of where she had gone and what had happened to her after she left her home on February 13, 2001, was still unanswered.
Even though Pat has been confirmed as deceased, Bogota police said they will continue to use all available resources as they pursue what they are still calling a missing person investigation. As of 2019, police still consider her death an open case.
If you know anything about the death of Patricia Viola, please contact the Bergen County Sheriff's Department of Missing Persons Bureau at (201) 646-2222.