Death in the water tank

An undated photo of the Angara family. From left to right, daughter Priya Angara, mother Geetha Angara, daughter Pavithra Angara and father Jaya K. Angara. Not pictured is the couple's son, Vivek Angara. Geetha Angara, of Holmdel, died on Feb. 8, 2005, at the Passaic Valley Water Commission's treatment plant in Totowa. The case remains unsolved.
An undated photo of the Angara family. From left, daughter Priya Angara, mother Geetha Angara, daughter Pavithra Angara and father Jaya K. Angara. Not pictured is the couple’s son, Vivek.

It was ink-black in the vast underground water tank. And biting cold. The only escape, a panel in the ceiling, loomed 5 feet above the water level, far too high to reach. Worse, there was no ladder.

In that frigid subterranean cavern at the Passaic Valley Water Commission in Totowa, Geetha Angara — scientist, wife and mother of three — met her horrible death 10 years ago today.

Someone — probably a male co-worker — had wrapped his hands around the chemist’s throat in a dank hallway above and squeezed until she passed out, then forced her through the hatch into the murk, authorities said at the time. In 36-degree water, she drowned.

The Feb. 8, 2005, death drew attention far beyond the borders of New Jersey. It wasn’t only that Angara died in nightmarish fashion or that it was a mystery detectives struggled to solve.

Just four years removed from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the incident raised broader concerns among residents and lawmakers about lax security in treatment plants and the safety of the nation’s water supply.

Gradually, press coverage tailed off. So did the investigation, with one detective voicing the opinion that Angara must have died accidentally.

Now, with the 10th anniversary at hand, the Holmdel woman’s family members have called for the case to be re-examined, and they have found an ally in state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, who told NJ Advance Media last week he will ask the state Attorney General’s Office to take a fresh look at evidence, witnesses and suspects.

Read the story at NJ.com (Feb.8, 2015)

PREVIOUS COVERAGE

➽ At plant, a chilling idea: killer still on site (Feb. 20, 2005) 

A 10-foot fence surrounds the Passaic Valley Water Commission’s treatment plant in Totowa. Cameras and motion detectors watch over the perimeter. Guards, sheriff’s officers and police officers patrol the compound’s 35 acres on foot and in vehicles. 

But in the two weeks since the murder of a 43-year-old chemist in the facility’s subterranean reaches, the security measures have done only so much to allay the fears of people who work there.

While fences and guards will keep outside threats from coming in, authorities say the killer was almost certainly inside already. Someone with a water commission ID card and paycheck. Someone trusted. Someone who remains on the job today.

➽ In hunt for killer, police will revisit a 1968 mystery (March 8, 2005) 

Joan Freeman was murdered in 1968.
Joan Freeman, slain in 1968.

No one but the killer witnessed her death. No one heard her cries. Joan Freeman died in a second-floor office in a complex of buildings ringed by chain link and guard shacks. Because of the restricted access, detectives were certain a co-worker committed the crime. But which one? And why? 

Freeman was 22, a former high school cheerleader working as a secretary for Hoffmann-La Roche, the pharmaceutical firm whose New Jersey campus straddles Nutley and Clifton. She had no known enemies, no habits or relationships that might have invited the savage beating and slashing on a Saturday afternoon in 1968. 

Investigators never found a motive, and after 37 years they haven’t found a killer. It is the coldest of cold cases, its voluminous files boxed and gathering dust. 

But sometime in the near future, detectives working under Passaic County Prosecutor James Avigliano will open those files and look to them for guidance in another case, one that, while only a month old, is proving equally frustrating to investigators.

➽ State to take up probe in death of chemist (Feb. 2, 2007)

Nearly two years after a chemist was choked into unconsciousness and left to drown in a Totowa water treatment plant, the state Attorney General’s Office and the State Police are poised to take over the stalled investigation.

The involvement of the two agencies comes as a “great relief” to the family of Geetha Angara, 43, a mother of three from Holmdel. Her husband, Jaya, has waged a yearlong campaign to enlist outside help, contending the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office has not done enough to find the killer, a claim the prosecutor denies.

➽ Accident or murder? Former investigator addresses water tank homicide (Feb. 29, 2008)

For three years, relatives of Geetha Angara have lived with the certainty that the Holmdel woman was a victim of murder, that someone seized her by the throat, choked her until she passed out and heaved her into an underground tank at her workplace, the Passaic Valley Water Commission.

That belief has come to define the relatives’ lives, transforming them into activists who staged rallies demanding an arrest in the unsolved case. They will do so again today, holding a candlelight vigil billed as a “call for action.”

But the former lead investigator on the case says he is convinced Angara’s death, one of the state’s more unusual murder mysteries, wasn’t a murder at all.


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