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, resolving a decades-long mystery, the authorities said on Friday.
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 Ms. Kopta shared that prompted the nursing home to contact the authorities, or how she had gotten there in the first place.
Ms. Kopta’s younger sister, Gloria Smith, who attended the news conference on Friday, summed up how she felt when the police determined through DNA evidence this 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 Ms. Kopta for 20 years when she went missing. At the news conference, he also expressed his disbelief.
“Thirty-one years,” he said, “and it’s been bad.”
Neither Mr. Kopta nor the Ross Township Police Department immediately responded to requests for comment on Saturday. Ms. Smith also could not be reached for comment.
Back home, Ms. 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,” Chief Kohlhepp said.
For years, based on sparse tips and leads, local officials believed that Ms. Kopta had left on her own volition.
In 1999, seven years after she went missing, nursing home employees found Ms. Kopta wandering the streets of Puerto Rico. She refused to discuss her private life or background with the nursing home staff, Chief 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 that maybe she was dead.
“It was hard on all of us because we — my mother, my sister and myself — we worried about her constantly,” Ms. Smith said.
Last year, likely because of her dementia, Ms. Kopta “leaked enough details about her identity that they were able to connect enough dots to contact us,” Chief Kohlhepp said.
Workers at the nursing home, the name of which was not shared by the authorities, took a DNA swab of the woman in their care and sent it to investigators. DNA samples were then collected from Ms. Smith and Ms. Kopta’s nephew.
The samples were sent to a lab, where a familial test concluded that the woman in Puerto Rico was indeed Ms. Kopta, the police said. Even before the results came back, investigators had believed for months that the older woman in a photo from Puerto Rico was Ms. Kopta, her long brown hair from the ’90s now trimmed and graying.
Ms. Smith said she was planning to visit her sister in Puerto Rico soon, even if the dementia means Ms. Kopta won’t remember her.
Mr. 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 on Friday, Mr. 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,” Mr. Kopta said. “But she — that’s what she wanted. She always said she wanted to go to a warm climate.”
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