Patricia Kopta was a Pittsburgh street preacher known as "The Sparrow" who mysteriously vanished in 1992.
In 1992, Patricia Kopta went missing. Her family had no idea what happened to her, and for over three decades, it seemed as if they never would. Then, in a surprising turn of events 31 years later, Patricia Kopta was found — 1,700 miles away in a Puerto Rican nursing home.
A social worker at the adult care home identified the now-83-year-old Kopta after she shared pieces of information about her past. It’s not clear what exactly she said or even how she got to the nursing home in the first place, but the three-decade mystery of what happened to Patrica Kopta has finally come to an end.
“You wouldn’t believe what we’ve been through,” her husband, Bob Kopta, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s such a relief to know she’s alive.”
Kopta described his wife as a typical Roman Catholic suburbanite, at least early on in their marriage. During the week, she commuted to work in Pittsburgh. On weekends, she worshiped at church and attended ballroom dancing events.
But as time went on, Bob Kopta began to notice strange behavior, and she became more zealous in her religious beliefs. Eventually, this turned into nonsensical ranting and claims that the Virgin Mary had appeared to her and warned her of an impending nuclear armageddon.
“Something must have happened. Somebody got to her because she started on this whole ‘the world is going to end’ thing,” Bob Kopta said. “She lost her job and started hanging around downtown. When there was a baseball game going on, when a concert was going on, she’d be telling everybody to go home because the world was going to end in three days.”
Kopta was a short, wiry woman with an erratic gait. Those who saw her downtown called her “The Sparrow.”
As described in a 1998 Post-Gazette piece, “The Sparrow was a fixture at Gateway Center, on the streets of Oakland, outside Three Rivers [Stadium] and sometimes in the middle of McKnight Road, where she’d lean into open car windows at traffic lights and inform startled drivers of God’s impending wrath… Her absence has been noted incrementally in the city.”
Sometime around 1991 or 1992, a group of girls mugged Patricia Kopta and stole her wedding and engagement rings. Kopta herself had numerous encounters with the police, including an arrest in Monroeville that led doctors to describe her as having “delusions of grandeur” and symptoms of schizophrenia.
Then, one day in 1992, Bob Kopta returned home to find that his wife was gone.
“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,” said Ross Township Police Chief Brian Kohlhepp, according to The New York Times.
“It was hard on all of us because we — my mother, my sister, and myself — we worried about her constantly,” said Kopta’s younger sister, Gloria Smith.
Eventually, authorities declared Patricia Kopta legally dead. Her husband never remarried.
Meanwhile, in 1999, nursing home employees found Kopta wandering the streets of Puerto Rico. She wouldn’t tell them anything about her life, just that she had made it to the island via a cruise ship from Europe. That claim could not be confirmed.
Then, as Kopta began aging and developed dementia, she started revealing more about her past. Eventually, she “leaked enough details about her identity that [her caretakers] were able to connect enough dots to contact us,” Kohlhepp said.
Ross police then began a nine-month forensic process to confirm her identity. Puerto Rican authorities sent over a swab of Kopta’s DNA, police located her dental records, and Kopta’s sister and nephew provided cheek swab DNA samples to compare.
“These were processed and revealed that the woman in Puerto Rico is indeed Patricia Kopta, alive and well for her advanced age and condition,” Kohlhepp said.
“After 30 years, you try to forget about it,” Bob Kopta said. “Now, I can forget about it. We know what happened, and she is taken care of now.”
Bob Kopta and Gloria Smith said they would love to bring Patricia Kopta home and reunite the family, but her declining health makes it difficult to do so. Smith also said she is considering traveling to Puerto Rico to visit her sister, even if she wouldn’t be recognized due to Kopta’s dementia.
“She could have come home any time,” Bob Kopta said. “But… that’s what she wanted. She always said she wanted to go to a warm climate.”
After learning about Patricia Kopta, read the story of Jacob Wetterling, the missing boy whose case remained unsolved for 27 years. Or, learn about the Indiana woman who claimed to have DNA evidence that she is Brittany Renee Williams, the girl who went missing in 2000.