Four Months Later, an Unsolved Murder at a N.J. Water Plant

TOTOWA, N.J. (AP) - Something wasn't quite right at the Passaic Valley Water Commission's plant on the evening of Feb. 8. Geetha Angara, a talented chemist who monitored the quality of drinking water in massive tanks, was not at her work station, but her personal belongings were.

Her car was where she left it in the parking lot, and she was several hours overdue to return home, or at least call her husband and three children to say she'd be working late. Most significantly, a heavy metal grate covering a million-gallon water tank was slightly askew; screws that had secured it were either gone or broken.

It was only after searches with helicopters, cadaver-sniffing dogs and scuba divers that authorities were able to confirm what they had started to fear hours earlier: The learned scientist and devoted mother was dead at the bottom of one of the tanks.

What came next was an even greater shocker. Authorities soon classified her death as a murder, and said they think a co-worker was her killer.

But nearly four months later, authorities have yet to close in on a suspect, and are frustrated at the lack of progress in the case, a murder mystery as deep and dark as the tank in Angara met her untimely end.

"You watch the TV shows and there's a motive and a confession," said Passaic County Prosecutor James Avigliano. "Here, we have no obvious motive, no confession and no physical evidence."

This much is known: Angara, 43, was last seen working Feb. 8 in the laboratory, where her duties included calibrating water clarity sensors. At some point, she was attacked and rendered unconscious; prosecutors won't say whether she was struck with fists or a blunt object, or whether she was choked. That is information only the killer would know for sure, and it has been withheld from Angara's family as well as the public.

She was alive when her body hit the frigid water. An autopsy listed the cause of death as drowning, but authorities would not say if there were any signs of trauma to the body.

Whoever attacked her then dumped her body into the water tank through a four-foot opening that is usually covered by a 50-pound metal panel, secured by about a dozen screws. Those screws were either broken off or missing.

Her family in Holmdel, 42 miles to the south, began calling her cell phone when she hadn't checked in.

'We called our parents in India and tried to explain what was happening," said her sister, Saranya Rao. "They said, 'What do you mean, you can't find Geetha?' "

Hours later, Angara's body was found in a different tank, having floated through pipes from the tank into which she was dumped. She was discovered about 24 hours after being reported missing.

From there, the trail has gone cold, even though authorities say it's a virtual certainty that Angara was killed by a co-worker. There's only one way into and out of the plant, through a 10-foot-high gate monitored by a video camera, past a security guard.

Investigators have reviewed videotapes from the plant that show everyone who came or went. Each of the 50 people who were at work that day has been interviewed, along with 30 others.

"We've narrowed it down to eight people we're still looking at," Avigilano said. "We're still trying to end it. It's very frustrating, especially for the detectives working the case. They can't stand it when somebody gets over on them."

Angara was born in Madras, India, earning her master's degree at Loyola College in India, where she was the first female student. She graduated with the gold medal, given to the top student in her class, and came to the United States in 1984, settling in Clifton. She, her husband Jaya, and their three children, ranging in age from 9 to 20, moved to Holmdel in 2000, in search of better schools, Rao said.

An avid reader, Angara loved to decorate the house and cook tomato or lentil chutney, and vegetarian pizza.

Angara recently got a promotion to senior chemist. Investigators discount jealousy among co-workers as a potential motive.

Many of Angara's co-workers refused to discuss the case, citing the ongoing investigation. Left unsaid was the knowledge that - at least, according to prosecutors - the killer could be someone at the next desk.

"She was a nice lady, very friendly to everybody," said Indrakumar Patel, one of Angara's co-workers. "That's all I can say."

Angara's death has left a painful void in her family.

"My 9-year-old niece asked, 'What should I do for Mother's Day? I don't have a mother anymore,' " Rao said. "I had no answer for her. Then when I cry, she ask me why I'm crying. I tell her something got in my eye, but she knows I'm lying. She keeps saying, 'Why were they so unfriendly?' "

Avigliano said investigators are still working the case, re-examining evidence and seeing if they missed anything. He said the best chance for a break in the case will be "if someone gets an attack of conscience and confesses, or if someone who knows something comes forward. So far, neither of those things has happened."