Patricia Kopta was a well-known figure in Ross Township, Pennsylvania. Known around town as “The Sparrow,” the 52-year-old liked to roam the streets of both Ross Township and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, begging people to listen to her messages from God. She believed that she had been visited by the Virgin Mary and she made sure to relay her visions to anyone she passed on the street. Then, one day in the summer of 1992, Patricia was simply gone.

Her husband of 20 years, Robert Kopta, reported her missing to the Ross Township Police on November 27, 1992. He acknowledged that she suffered from some mental health issues and had said she wanted to take off for a warmer climate, but he was worried for her safety. She had been beaten up and robbed while preaching in Pittsburgh a few months earlier; after this incident, she was convinced that people were after her and she was destined to die a martyr’s death.

Robert noted that Patricia had been annoyed with him and other family members before she went missing. “She was angry at her sister and me for trying to get her to go to the hospital to take care of her feet. She did so much walking, her feet were in terrible shape. It was sad.”

Patricia’s twin sister, Elaine Swartzlander, didn’t necessarily agree with her peripatetic lifestyle but did what she could to make sure Patricia was safe and warm. She bought her cozy hats and gloves, replacing them often when Patricia would lose them on the streets. “I thought I’d let her enjoy her world, whatever it may be.”

Patricia had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and it wasn’t entirely out of character for her to disappear for a while, but she always came back. Patricia’s family believed that she had hopped on a flight to Puerto Rico, but there were reported sightings of her at the Pittsburgh airport a couple of weeks later so they assumed she had returned to the area. If she had, however, she never got in touch with any of her loved ones.

Robert kept expecting the phone to ring with the news that Patricia had been spotted at a shopping mall or street corner, once again spreading her message. The phone call never came, however, and months turned into years. Robert went to Puerto Rico and hung up missing person fliers and placed advertisements in local newspapers, but there were no reported sightings of Patricia.

The waiting game was hard on the family. Elaine recalled, “When she first went missing, I would panic every time police found a body in the river. Actually, I still do.”

Five years after Patricia went missing, Ross Township Police Sgt. Frank Zotter admitted that her disappearance was baffling. “Every day, she was out there on the streets, trying to tell people about her vision. Rain, shine, snow — there she was. Then — poof — suddenly she was gone…I just have a bad feeling about it.”

Sgt. Zotter spent years trying to determine what happened to Patricia. He looked into her credit history and would periodically check for activity on her Social Security number, but nothing led him any closer to the missing street preacher. By 1997, he was convinced she was dead. “There has been absolutely no activity in her name, on credit cards, in banks, or anything else since July 1992.” He turned the case over to Allegheny County homicide detectives, but they had little to go on and the case soon stalled.

Patricia’s fate remained a mystery until March 2023, when investigators announced that Patricia had been found living in Puerto Rico. She had apparently lived on her own there until 1999, when it was determined that she was unable to care for herself and she was placed in a nursing home. She has been living there ever since, disclosing little about her past.

Patricia, now 83 years old and suffering from dementia, had dropped a few clues about her true identity over the years and eventually someone realized that she had been reported missing from Pennsylvania decades earlier. According to Ross Township Deputy Police Chief Brian Kohlhepp, “She leaked enough details about her identity that they were able to connect enough dots.” A DNA test confirmed that the woman was indeed Patricia Kopta.

It was something the family never expected to hear, and they were understandably in shock when the news broke. Patricia’s sister, Gloria Smith, had always feared the worst. “It was hard on all of us because my mother, her sister, and myself worried about her constantly…we’re very happy to know that Patty is alive and well.”

Robert never remarried and never forgot about Patricia. “I’m glad they found her and I’m not a suspect anymore. She could have come home at any time, but this is what she wanted.”

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