EXCLUSIVE: “It was time to do it,” Jim Viola of Bogota said of the wake tomorrow and burial Monday burial of his wife, Patricia, more than 12 years after her disappearance ignited a nationwide search and led to a New Jersey DNA profiling law that eventually helped identify her remains.
“It’s good for the kids, especially my daughter, Christine (25). She wants to go to the cemetery, put flowers out,” Viola told CLIFFVIEW PILOT in an exclusive interview this afternoon.
“I’m glad we’re able to do this,” he said, adding that he’s hoping for a large turnout. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Amid the emotional strain of his son Michael’s poor health, Viola got his wife declared legally dead last September.
Four days later, on 9/11, he sat in shock at Bogota Police headquarters as a detective told him that remains that washed up on a Rockaway beach a decade earlier were identified as Pat’s.
Michael is up to attending services, and the family has selected music for the mass that both she and they enjoyed.
The entrance hymn will be “Here I Am, Lord.” Other selections include “Eagles Wings” and the “Ave Maria.”
“It’s going to be moving,” Viola said.
The family tried to schedule visiting hours tomorrow that are convenient for most people, ending at 8 p.m. instead of the usual 9. “We hope a lot of people come by,” Jim Viola said this afternoon.
In lieu of flowers, the Violas asked that donations be made to: the CUE Center for Missing Persons
As it turns out, Jim Viola himself was responsible for making the identification of his wife’s remains possible.
In 2009, the distraught husband convinced New Jersey legislators to adopt a DNA profiling law already enacted in other states.
Sponsored by Bergen County State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, it requires authorities to collect DNA profiles from missing people and enter them into a national database so that they can be matched with unidentified corpses, hospital patients and body parts.
It’s called “Patricia’s Law.”
Now, “if anything beyond what they found turns up, they’ll be able to test it and do a further match, which will help them try and figure out what happened to Pat,” Viola told CLIFFVIEW PILOT.
Indeed, if remains are in other coroners’ offices in New York, New Jersey or even Connecticut, they can be tested against the DNA samples that Bogota Detective James Sepp collected years ago from Viola family members.
“I’m hoping it helps other people make identifications, as well,” Viola told CLIFFVIEW PILOT.
A retired Washington Township police officer who is now a private investigator helped produce the match after DNA swabs were taken from Christine and Michael.
Since the day before Valentine’s Day 2001, when Pat left their house never to return, Viola has told his heartbreaking story to anyone who would listen.
Jim had already gone to work and the then-kids to school.
Pat spent a few hours that morning, as she always did, volunteering at the Bixby Elementary School library. She called her mother after she came home, set the house alarm at 1:11 p.m. — and left everything behind.
That included epilepsy medication, her purse, wallet and identification, her credit and debit cards, her cellphone — and her keys.
Stories were published in local newspapers and aired on television stations the next day, as Viola displayed the still-wrapped Valentine’s Day presents he said he bought for his wife.
Web sites popped up, as well.
“Did she met up with trouble or have a seizure as a result of her epilepsy?” Viola asked on one of them. “Did she end up a hospital or similar facility around that time? Did she get into a car in front of our home in Bogota, NJ? Was she picked up by a taxi or board a bus? Remember, Pat did not have access to a car that day. If someone gave Pat a ride that day, we would like to talk to you. We have lot of questions, but still no answers.”
He never quit.
Viola, an engineer for Honeywell in Teterboro, reasoned that Pat maybe had a seizure and suffered amnesia, or was unable to communicate to staff if she’d ended up in a hospital.
He and Sepp called several medical centers in North Jersey. They checked Hudson County, where Pat still had family.
Viola offered a $10,000 reward “for confirmed Information leading to Pat’s safe return” and sent flyers to police station, shelters, crisis center and hospitals. More than 10,000 video CDs and DVDs were circulated nationwide.
He convinced “America’s Most Wanted” to do a segment, regularly issued press releases and made countless phone calls to the media.
As each Valentine’s Day of the 2000s approached, reporters and editors at a large area daily newspaper discussed whether to re-tell Viola’s story, in the hopes it might reach someone who knew where she was.
As it turned out, she’d been dead all that time.
On July 27, 2002, seventeen months after she vanished, a 58-year-old local man who took regular walks on the Rockaway beach found Pat Viola’s sock with bones in it, as well as one of her shoes, on the beach just off 123rd Street around 8:30 at night.
He immediately called police.
DNA samples were taken and the bones remained in the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office until 2005, when they were buried on Hart Island, the largest taxpayer-funded potter’s field in the world.
Four years later, New York sent the DNA sample from the remains to the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) lab in in West Texas.
Just five months ago, the match was made.
Days earlier, Viola got his wife’s death certificate from the state.
Patricia’s mother died at a nursing home three years ago, and Jim needed to pay off the outstanding balance. However, his wife’s name was on the account. So he applied in Surrogate Court to have her declared legally dead.
“The bank and the lawyer said I needed a death certificate” to access the account, Viola told CLIFFVIEW PILOT. “Before that, I wasn’t even thinking about it.”
Viola still lives in the Bogota family home. Until he spoke with Jimmy Sepp last September, he said, he held fast to the belief that Pat would miraculously reappear.
“He wasn’t relieved,” Sepp told CLIFFVIEW PILOT at the time, “but you could almost hear him let it out. He just slouched in the chair. You could see the confusion come over his face.
“I feel bad for his family. But they don’t have to wonder anymore.”
But it’s not over: Bogota Police Chief John C. Burke told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that the case remains open. Meanwhile, Viola’s private eye continues to work whatever leads he can find.
“I wouldn’t call it closure,” Viola told CLIFFVIEW PILOT this afternoon.
“We have some answers. We’re still looking for the rest of them.”