Eileen Mihalko was born a month after her cousin, Patricia Jane Wagner, vanished after leaving her New Jersey home to go on a coffee date.
But Eileen told Dateline she has always felt a strong connection to the family member affectionately known as “Patty,” that prompted her to devote her life to searching for Patty and others.
“We just missed each other by a month,” Eileen said. “But I feel like she’s always been in my life. And since she doesn’t have a voice, I feel like I need to give her one.”
Patty was a 26-year-old single mother of two boys when she disappeared on October 20, 1972. They lived in a two-family home in Jersey City, New Jersey with Patty’s mother, Marie.
That evening, Patty asked her mother to watch the boys and told her she was going on a coffee date with a man named Dennis. Eileen, who spoke to Dateline on behalf of the family, said Patty’s son, Kenny, who was five years old at the time, recalls begging his mother not to leave.
“She had promised to take him to McDonald’s the next day,” Eileen explained. “It was their thing. But he told me that he had a gut feeling that night. He said he knew she wasn’t coming home.”
He was right. When Patty didn’t return home the next morning, her mother became worried and called the police. Eileen added that Patty’s date, Dennis, had also been reported missing by his family at that time.
“From what I understand, the police initially thought she had just run off with this Dennis guy,” Eileen said. “But the family knew better.”
Eileen explained that Patty was a stay-at-home mom and while she did some housekeeping work, she didn’t have the money or resources to run off.
“Most importantly, she would have never left her kids,” Eileen said. “From all the stories I heard throughout the years, that was always the same – she loved her boys and would have never run off.”
Eileen told Dateline that Kenny has vivid memories of his mother taking them to the park and to the Jersey Shore where they’d play until the sun went down. He remembers her collection of record albums and her love of music – a love passed down to him.
“Her disappearance wrecked them,” Eileen said. “It wrecked our entire family.”
She told Dateline that the boys were raised by Patty’s mother Marie until she died in the early 1980s, just months after Patty’s grandmother died.
“If she wasn’t raising those boys, I think she would’ve died sooner,” Eileen said. “Losing her daughter — and not knowing what happened to her — killed her.”
After years of sneaking around the house late at night to listen to her family members discuss the details of Patty’s disappearance, Eileen took action.
While working as a full-time caregiver in New Jersey, Eileen also devoted much of her time to web sleuthing, in an effort to help solve her cousin’s case.
With the help of Patty’s sons, she obtained Patty’s birth certificate and added her to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). She added that CODIS also now has both her and Kenny’s DNA.
In early 2020, Eileen said that through her web sleuthing, she located a man she believes to be the Dennis Patty was going to meet the day she disappeared. She told Dateline that Dennis had been living in Florida, and that he refused to discuss Patty’s disappearance with her family. She said she passed the information to investigators with the New Jersey State Police. Attempts by Dateline to reach Dennis at the number Eileen provided were unsuccessful.
Patty’s disappearance is considered an open missing persons investigation that is being handled jointly by the New Jersey State Police and the Jersey City Police Department.
New Jersey State Police Spokesperson Sergeant Lawrence Peele would not confirm if the man last seen with Patty was located or if there are any persons of interest in Patty’s disappearance.
“We cannot release further details in her case due to it being an open investigation,” Sgt. Peele told Dateline. “But we urge anyone with information to call the police.”
Eileen believes her cousin was killed back in 1972 and is determined to find out exactly what happened.
“Something really bad happened that night, but I’m sure she put up a fight,” Eileen said. “She was a force to be reckoned with.”
Patty isn’t the only person for whom Eileen advocates. As part of her web sleuthing, she maintains several Facebook groups that shine a light on the missing.
“If we don’t speak up for them, no one else will,” Eileen said. “The least I can do is give them a voice.”
Nearly 50 years have passed and there are still no answers as to where Patty could be or details about what happened that night. But Eileen said she won’t give up until she finds out.
“I don’t think she’s alive,” Eileen told Dateline. “But that doesn’t mean we give up. The answer to what happened to her is out there. And I’m going to find it.”