Security Ends at Front Gate of Water Plant in New Jersey

Each morning, workers arriving at the Passaic Valley Water Commission plant drive between 10-foot-high gates, past a uniformed guard and into the gaze of a surveillance camera.

Security inside the water treatment complex in Totowa, where a missing chemist was found drowned earlier this month, is a different story. All employees have access to all buildings, with no doors requiring pass cards and no indoor video capturing their movements, workers and borough officials said.

"There are no secure doors. There's no card access. Even if you come in from the outside you can go anywhere," said Allen Del Vecchio, Totowa's fire marshal and emergency management coordinator and one of the first to respond to the missing persons call. "We walked that entire site without any problem at all."

That freedom of movement and lack of surveillance have complicated the work of detectives seeking to explain how senior chemist Geetha Angara wound up dead in an underground water tank - apparently at the hands of one of her co-workers.

The question of why continued this week to bedevil Angara's relatives and friends, including a lab technician who was among the last to speak with the Holmdel woman and saw no signs that she was in trouble.

On the morning of Feb. 8, Harshad Naik found Angara in a staff break room, chatting with another colleague about favorite movie actors. "She was just the same cheerful Geetha I always knew," Naik said.

Authorities say the mother of three was last seen after 10 a.m. that day. A plant manager and Angara's husband, Jaya, called police late that night, sparking a search that ended with the discovery of her body the following evening.

Authorities believe a co-worker forced Angara through an opening that leads to the 35-foot-deep clearwell tank. About 60 of the plant's 85 workers have been interviewed, but detectives remain confounded by the crime.

"We have no apparent motive. We have no witnesses. Physical evidence is sparse to non-existent. Where do you go?" Passaic County Prosecutor James F. Avigliano said.

Commission officials declined to say if security changes are planned for the site. A spokesman said PVWC, which directly supplies water for 17 North Jersey communities, has invested $70 million in recent years "to ensure the safety and security of our water supply."

Naik said few workers would have any reason to walk through the purification building where Angara was last seen. Authorities say she was on her way to check water quality monitors that line a corridor above the tank where her body was found.

Normally, a 50-pound, aluminum plate covers the tank opening. The plate is kept in place with about a dozen screws, Del Vecchio said. But he and several officers who went to search for Angara found the screws either broken off or missing, he said.

"There's no way that thing was screwed down," Del Vecchio said.

Among conflicting points in the investigation is whether the panel was found in place or dislodged when workers first began searching for Angara.

None of the workers interviewed this week by The Record said they had ever come across an uncovered tank opening.

Family members declined to address the issue of internal security at the plant, but they have questioned why Angara's disappearance went unnoticed for more than 10 hours.

Their attorney, Greg Shaffer, said the family "just wants to make sure that if there are any deficiencies in the security that they be corrected."

Several workers said they still have trouble accepting that someone among them killed the 43-year-old chemist. "Whoever thought that in your own workplace there might be a murderer in your midst?" one supervisor said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We have a hard time believing what happened," Naik said, but added: "I have seen people in the past who I've never thought could do something and they've gone to jail."

Angara's death has shattered her family's lives, her older sister, Saranya Rao, said Tuesday.

Angara's husband, Jaya, who lives with their two younger children in Holmdel, finds himself crying when they ask why anyone would want to harm their mother. The couple's 13-year-old son suddenly has turned quiet, while their older daughter struggles to focus on her course work at Boston University. The couple's 9-year-old girl, their youngest child, has taken to carrying around her mother's lipstick to remind herself of her kisses.

"She's just trying to cope with this in her own way," Rao said. "It's hard not to get emotional when you see those things."

A devoted researcher who often worked late, Angara made a point of attending many of her children's basketball games, and often picked them up from piano lessons, family members said. On weekends, she took them to traditional Indian dance classes, and stoked in each a passion for education.

Nothing about Angara's life has suggested any reason why someone would want her dead, investigators say. There is no evidence that she had any enemies or a secret relationship. As senior chemist, she had no hiring or firing privileges, co-workers said, so workplace grudges seem unlikely. And with no signs of drug use at the crime scene, detectives consider it unlikely she came across a wayward addict.

Other than saying that Angara drowned and was not sexually abused, authorities have refused to disclose autopsy results. Co-workers say she was hard-working, friendly and never boasted about her credentials.

"She didn't even want to be called 'doctor,' " one plant supervisor said. "She didn't bring it up that she had a Ph.D. She just wanted to be 'Geetha.'"

Article published with special permission from The Record.

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