2012-09-21 / Top Stories

Rockaway Remains ID’d As NJ Woman

By Howard Schwach

Patricia and Jim Viola in an undated photo. Patricia and Jim Viola in an undated photo. For Rockaway, the mystery story that graced newspapers and television screens began at about 9 p.m. on July 27, 2002, when a local resident walking on the beach at Beach 123 Street found the remains of a human foot, stuck into a sock and a white sneaker.

He called police and the remains were turned over to the city’s medical examiner for study.

At the time, The Wave reported a large overnight search, including NYPD helicopters shining bright spotlights on the beach, police officers with flashlights combing a ten-block area of the beachfront and two harbor unit launches searching the waters off the shore.

For a Bogota, New Jersey family, how ever, the story started much earlier, on February 13, 2001, when Patricia Viola came home from her stint at volunteering at a local school, visited the library, came home and picked up a voicemail message from her mother and then left her home and disappeared.

In the interim, Viola’s family had been searching for her, hiring a private investigator and appearing on television and in local newspapers, pleading for information,

Family members said that Viola had been wearing white sneakers when she disappeared.

It wasn’t until three years after that bone fragment from her left foot had washed up in Rockaway that DNA was extracted. And it took four more years until it was sent to a national laboratory for DNA analysis.

And, it was not until last Tuesday, September 11, that the laboratory matched the DNA in the foot to that of the missing New Jersey woman.

Although the DNA identified Viola, it did nothing to identify a cause of death, a medical examiner spokesperson told The Wave this week.

That office could not comment on why it took more than ten years to identify the missing woman.

And, although her grieving family is happy they finally have an answer to the question of whether she was still alive somewhere, the situation still leaves them with unresolved questions.

Viola’s husband, James, who has spent 11 years tirelessly searching for his wife and appearing on shows like “America’s Most Wanted,” was still trying to process the information Wednesday afternoon.

“Put it this way,” he said, “we have some answers. I don’t like the word ‘closure,’ because it’s not the end,” Viola told a North Jersey newspaper.

In 2005, after the medical examiner’s office extracted DNA from the bone, the fragments were buried in a potter’s field on Hart Island in Long Island Sound, said Capt. James Sepp of the Bogota police, who has investigated the case for more than half his career and who spoke to local newspapers. The DNA from the bone was sent to the University of North Texas for testing in 2009, he said. Sepp said he did not know the reason for the delay.

Sources said that the key to identifying Patricia Viola came in April 2011, when a forensic expert suggested that Viola’s husband update family DNA samples that are put into a national database to match it up with unidentified remains.

DNA samples were taken from Viola’s son and daughter and sent to the University of North Texas’ Center for Human Identification, where law enforcement agencies from all over the U.S. send human remains for DNA samples to be extracted and possibly identified.

Once the DNA was extracted, it was then put into the Combined DNA Index System, a nationwide database run by the FBI to compare forensic DNA evidence. No match was immediately made because the DNA in Viola’s remains had not been entered into the database by the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office, said Dixie Peters, technical leader for the center’s Missing Persons Unit

“I don’t know why [Patricia Viola’s remains] weren’t tested earlier,” Peters said.

A match was made recently and was verified by scientists at the center, who then informed the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office.

“This hit would have never been possible if the family did not come forward and been given the opportunity to donate their DNA,” Peters said.

Sepp told New Jersey reporters that he received a call on Monday from CODIS, the nationwide database, informing him that there was a match for Viola and that match had come from the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office.

He called the medical examiner’s office that same day and asked officials there to verify the results. The final confirmation came back with a 99.9 percent match at about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, he said.

Police said there was little to support the theory that Viola may have been abducted and murdered, but they are not ruling out anything.

“This is an open homicide, this is an open suicide, and this is an open missing person investigation,” Sepp said. “Until we have proof that we can close out one of those aspects, we have to consider everything.”

One local paper, the Cliffview Pilot, conjectured that Viola had committed suicide by jumping into the Hudson River, floating under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and then to the shore of Rockaway, but officials sources say that they are not ready to make any guesses on a case that is already more than ten years cold.

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