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Family says dive team found missing Delco man’s remains in Darby Creek after 18 years

Adventures with a Purpose, an independent dive team, says it has helped solve 19 missing-persons cases.

A truck from the Delaware County Medical Examiners Office leaves the Ridley Twp. Municipal Marina on March 19, 2022.
A truck from the Delaware County Medical Examiners Office leaves the Ridley Twp. Municipal Marina on March 19, 2022.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Stephen Amabile stood by a dock along Darby Creek on Saturday morning, keeping optimism in check as he waited for an independent dive team to surface from the murky water.

Amabile, 63, had heard lots of theories since his brother James disappeared Dec. 4, 2003, but discounted most of them for one reason: James was a family man, he said, devoted to his two daughters. On the day he disappeared, James, 38 at the time, called the babysitter to tell her he was running late. He never arrived and was never seen again.

So when Amabile saw the diver’s hand emerge from the water holding the blue-and-white Pennsylvania license plate — FLA 4785 — they’d pried off the Ford Explorer, he believed the closure he wasn’t expecting was placed gently in his hands.

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“It’s my brother,” Amabile told The Inquirer hours later. “They found him.”

Ridley Township Police Capt. James Dougherty confirmed late Saturday night that human remains were found in the vehicle. He said the plate number matched a “missing person entry from December of 2003.” He said police were not releasing the person’s name, and that the Delaware County Medical Examiner’s Office was examining the remains for “positive identification.”

Amabile said the divers told him human remains were in the driver’s seat, still buckled in with a seat belt. For Amabile, the location of the Ford Explorer in Darby Creek, just blocks from that babysitter’s home, confirms his theory. He believes his brother, who was diabetic, had a hectic day, slipped into diabetic shock, and drove straight into the creek after making a wrong turn.

“He drove right into the water,” Amabile said.

Adventures With a Purpose, the dive team that found the vehicle and remains, has a reputation for breaking missing-persons cases involving bodies of water. According to the group’s website, it has recovered over 100 vehicles and helped solve 19 missing-persons cases since 2019. Amabile said a family member reached out to the group, and a representative told them they’d come out Saturday. They asked if a family member could be there.

“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything. I’ve gotten used to not expecting anything, and I tuned a lot of things out,” Amabile said. “But it didn’t take them very long to figure out there was an SUV down there.”

Amabile said the family didn’t pay the dive team.

“They did’t ask for anything,” he said.

Diver Anthony Giampetro confirmed that human remains were found in the SUV, but he said Saturday night it wasn’t certain that they were those of James Amabile, since the driver’s identity had not yet been ascertained.

“At this particular moment, we’re just happy that we provided closure,” Giampetro said.

Amabile said family members converged on the scene as news of the diving operation spread. James’ daughters were overcome with emotion, their uncle said.

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“No matter what anyone ever says, you’re not at peace until you get more answers,” Amabile said.

According to Inquirer accounts at the time of the disappearance, James Amabile wore an implanted insulin pump and could become confused and lose sense of where he was due to low blood sugar.

A Cardinal O’ Hara graduate, he worked at the United Parcel Service center on Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia. In the aftermath of his disappearance, police helicopters searched the wetlands of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum.

Stephen Amabile and his now-deceased brother, Michal, also walked the creeks in the area, he said. Mary Amabile, their mother, died less than a year after her son disappeared.

Amabile said it was too soon to say what type of services might be held for James.

Staff writer Vinny Vella contributed to this article.