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‘We really thought she was dead’: Long-missing Pennsylvania woman discovered alive in Puerto Rico after 30 years

Patricia Kopta appears in two photos

Patricia Kopta appears in two photos, spaced some 31 years apart, after being discovered alive in Puerto Rico after being declared dead. (Ross Township Police Department)

A Pittsburgh-area woman missing for over 30 years – and declared legally dead several years ago – has been found alive in Puerto Rico, authorities in Pennsylvania said on Thursday.

“I come home one night, and she’s just gone, and nobody knows where she’s at,” Bob Kopta, husband of Patricia Kopta, said at a press conference reported by Pittsburgh-based NBC affiliate WPXI.

The woman’s disappearance became a missing person case with the Ross Township Police Department that sat on the shelf, lacking progress, for decades. Bob Kopta said that his wife had mental health issues and had spoken of going to the warm climate of the island.

“It’s been going on for almost 31 years,” the distraught man explained. “And it’s been bad. It cost me a lot of money, I even put advertisements in the paper down in Puerto Rico looking for her.”

According to the Charley Project, a missing persons database named after Charles Brewster “Charley” Ross, one of the first Americans kidnapped for a ransom in the nation’s history, Patricia Kopta went missing in June 1992 and was reported missing in November 1992.

The woman’s whereabouts were relayed to law enforcement in Ross Township last year, Deputy Chief Brian Kohlhepp said.

“We were contacted by some individuals – an agent from Interpol, as well as a social worker from Puerto Rico, that believed that they had her in an adult care home there in Puerto Rico,” the deputy said during the press conference. “What they reported to us is that she came into their care in 1999 where she was found in need, in the streets in Puerto Rico, where she had been wandering around. When she was there, she refused to discuss her private life or where she came from.”

Patricia Kopta eventually developed dementia, police said. In recent years, she began to share key details about her past life in Pittsburgh to nursing home staff that led them to investigate. Then international law enforcement was contacted. Roughly nine months ago, Interpol contacted the police department that kept her file open.

According to Kohlhepp, the RTPD obtained Patricia Kopta’s DNA sample, then obtained one from her sister and a nephew.

Through that testing, the elderly patient was confirmed to be the same woman – locally known in Pittsburgh as a street preacher called “The Sparrow” – who vanished and left her family flummoxed.

“Shock,” Gloria Smith, the sister of the lost-and-found woman, said at the press conference. “I didn’t believe it. It was total shock. We really thought she was dead all those years. We didn’t expect it. It was a very big shock to see – to know that she was still alive. And she’s – we’re so happy. And I hope I can get down to see her.”

“We’re very thankful to know that Patty is alive and well,” Smith added. “She’s being well taken care of.”

The Charley Project offers details of the woman’s life before she went missing:

She walked throughout the city, approaching strangers and telling them she’d had a vision of the Virgin Mary and the world was about to end. Her sister stated she’d had a “religious obsession” since she was a child.

She led a normal life, with a job as an elevator operator at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, until 1984, when her religious vision occurred. Soon after, Kopta lost her job because she was “seeing things” and her behavior was disruptive, and then she began to walk the streets to spread her message. She believed she was chosen as one of God’s 144,000 “bond servants” on earth, and gave up all her other hobbies, such as dancing, to devote her life to spreading the word of God.

Unlike most people who stayed on the streets all day, she maintained a neat, attractive appearance, wearing makeup and a dress or skirt each day. She had had numerous run-ins with the police and, each time, would tell them to be ready because the end of the world was coming.

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