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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM TOTOWA, N.J.

Drowning at Water Plant Reeks of Foul Play

A chemist died a frigid death in a tank. Police are sure of one thing: A co-worker pushed her.

June 12, 2005|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

TOTOWA, N.J. — A woman of impeccable habit, Geetha Angara left her lunch on her desk Feb. 8, planning to eat after her daily ritual of collecting water samples at the Passaic Valley water plant here.

But the 43-year-old chemist never made it back for her midday meal.

Authorities found her body -- along with her clipboard and hand-held radio -- at the bottom of a tank filled with more than a million gallons of water. They say Angara was pushed into the bitter-cold tank by one of 85 colleagues. They say they have narrowed the list of probable perpetrators to eight co-workers, all male.

Beyond that, they are baffled.

Four months after Angara's drowning, "we're right where we were, which is nowhere," said Passaic County Prosecutor James Avigliano.

Angara was alive when forced into the tank, Avigliano said. Her killer surprised her, and an autopsy showed that she had been subdued. Avigliano withheld specifics of how police believed Angara was attacked because it is information otherwise known only to her assailant.

But he said he hoped Angara was unconscious when she hit the water.

"The water level was five feet below the opening to the tank. It was pitch dark, ice cold, 36-degree water. There were no ladders," he said.

"If you were conscious, you would know there was no way out of this," Avigliano said. "It was just a horrible way to die."

Investigators quickly ruled out suicide or accidental death because the metal plate securing the opening to the 35-foot-deep tank had been replaced. But Avigliano said the 50-pound lid was slightly askew, and the screws were not fully reattached. He said shards from a broken glass beaker Angara used to collect water samples were found near the tank's opening on the concrete floor of the plant's lower level.

There were no surveillance cameras and no witnesses. Avigliano said investigators also have not determined a motive.

But the prosecutor said, "There is no doubt in our minds that this is homicide. It would be difficult to remove the plate, accidentally fall in, and then put the plate back in place."

He said security records show that no unauthorized persons were present at the plant when Angara was killed. Every employee has been interviewed, Avigliano said, and all 50 who were present when she died have voluntarily provided DNA samples. But he noted that the water Angara drowned in was heavily chlorinated.

"Chlorine is a corrosive agent," he said, explaining that the chemical could destroy DNA evidence. He said Angara was not sexually assaulted.

Avigliano said investigators were focusing on her male colleagues in part because it would have required strength to shove her into the water tank. She stood 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed 175 pounds.

Avigliano has clamped tight controls on the inquiry. He has barred anyone connected to the case from discussing what he describes as an active homicide investigation.

Even groundskeepers at the sprawling facility behind rusty cyclone fences shook their heads and moved away when asked if they had heard anything. A watchman at the plant's guard station trained his eyes on an outsider who ventured close to the 10-foot-high gates. A county official tersely declared that no visitors were permitted, despite a sign posted to the contrary.

A 2004 episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," in which a dead body was found in a water tank, was filmed at the plant. The story line involved the drowning death of a male college student as part of fraternity hazing. Authorities said they saw no connection between the episode and Angara's death.

The water treatment plant where Angara worked for 12 years sits on the outskirts of Totowa, a town of 10,000 that lies 12 miles northwest of Newark. Every day, the facility purifies 83 millions of gallons of county drinking water.

Angara was promoted last year to senior chemist, a position that included extensive laboratory work and calibration of water clarity sensors. Angara was charged with making sure the water at the plant remained within Environmental Protection Agency standards.

In her native India, Angara earned bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry. After moving to the United States in 1984, she earned an additional master's and a doctorate in chemistry at New York University.

Angara's husband, Jaya, is a banker. With their three children, ages 9 to 20, they lived in Holmdel, about 45 minutes south of the plant.

No one answered at the cream-colored house with green shutters, and telephone calls also went unanswered.

A lawyer for the Angara family, Gregory D. Shaffer, said the dead woman's relatives had been advised not to speak about her killing while the investigation was pending. Shaffer, who is preparing a worker's compensation lawsuit on behalf of the family, said Angara's husband, children and sister were "very private people" who continued to grieve deeply.

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