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Cornelius News

Madalina’s mother enters surprise guilty plea, faces deportation

May 20. By Mark Washburn. Diana Cojocari, mother of a missing Cornelius teen, entered a surprise plea Monday, admitting she was guilty of failing to report a missing child and was sentenced to time served.

Conjocari, 39, had been in the Mecklenburg County Jail since December 2022 when it was revealed that her daughter, Madalina, had vanished three weeks earlier on Thanksgiving weekend.

D Cojocari

Neither Cojocari nor her husband, Christopher Palmiter, could explain to Cornelius detectives what had become of the girl, then 11. Her disappearance was discovered when a counselor at Bailey Middle School inquired why the sixth-grader had not been attending classes.

Cojocari did not address her daughter’s whereabouts in the Monday hearing or deviate from a routine plea script.

For more than a year, a nationwide search for Madalina has turned up no solid clue to her whereabouts.


Eligible for release

On Monday, at an unscheduled hearing before Judge J. Thomas Davis, Cojocari entered a guilty plea to the only charge against her – failure to report a missing child, a minor felony under North Carolina law that generally carries about a two-year sentence.

Because Cojocari had no previous convictions, she was eligible under sentencing guidelines for release after 17 months. In all, Cojocari served 17 months and 10 days.

Davis told Cojocari it was likely she would be deported because of the conviction and Cojocari said she understood. She is a native of Moldova in Eastern Europe and in the United States on a green card.

In the short, perfunctory hearing, Cojocari said she was entering the plea without a plea agreement worked out with prosecutors. When asked whether she was in fact guilty, Cojocari answered “Yes.”

Asked how long it had been since she used any kind of narcotics or drugs, Cojocari answered “four years.”

With that, she was sentenced to time served and ordered released from custody. She was represented by Daniel Roberts and Veronika Monteleone.

Her husband, Palmiter, is expected to go on trial later this week in Mecklenburg Superior Court on the same charge. He served eight months in custody before being granted bond.

Missing Madalina: Last independent sighting Nov. 21, 2022 on CMS bus

Case full of twists

Cojocari’s release has shed no light on the investigation into Madalina’s disappearance. Her 13th birthday was recently marked with a public vigil.

Madalina was last seen in public getting off the Bailey Middle School bus about 5 p.m. Nov. 21, 2022, three days before Thanksgiving.

In the 17 months since Madalina’s disappearance, the case has attracted widespread attention and taken bizarre twists as her parents have failed to explain where she went and allegations of trafficking have emerged.

Most of what is known about the probe has come piecemeal through court documents and search warrants.

Mecklenburg prosecutors have argued in court that revealing affidavits and other information specifically from search warrants could adversely affect the investigation. But portions have been made public, providing a view of some of the twists investigators have uncovered and the vast scope of the overall search for clues.

School asked about girl’s absence

Suspicions first arose in mid-December 2022 when a Bailey Middle School sixth-grade guidance counselor contacted Madalina’s mother to say the girl hadn’t been in school since Thanksgiving and asked where she was.

On Dec. 14, Cojocari told the counselor she would bring Madalina to school the following day and explain. But she arrived on Dec. 15 without the girl.

Cojocari told the counselor and school resource officer John Nobles that in fact she had not seen Madalina since Nov. 23, two days after she got off the school bus and the first day of Thanksgiving break.

Cojocari stated that Madalina went to bed that Tuesday night and had vanished when she next looked for her, late on Wednesday morning.

She told authorities that she had quarreled that Tuesday night with her husband, Christopher Palmiter, and he left the next morning to drive to Michigan, where he used to live, to pick up some belongings.

Mother tells of nameless fears

Palmiter, 61, and Cojocari met online and married in 2017. He is 37 years her senior and worked as a mechanical designer at Davidson-based Ingersoll Rand and General Dynamics. Madalina was 6 when they were married.

After the Michigan trip, Palmiter didn’t return to their Cornelius home until the evening of Nov. 26, 2022, two days after Thanksgiving. Cojocari told authorities that she then asked Palmiter if he knew where Madalina was; she said he replied that he didn’t and asked whether she knew.

Nobles, the Bailey School resource officer, said he asked Cojocari why she didn’t report Madalina missing in the weeks after that.

“Diana stated she was worried it might start a ‘conflict’ between her and Christopher,” Nobles wrote in his report.

Detectives were summoned. Det. Gina Patterson—lead detective on this case—took up the questioning.

Gina Patterson

“She explained that she believed her husband put her family in danger, but did not know what happened to Madalina,” Patterson wrote in an arrest affidavit.

“She stated that she contacted her family in Moldova, who advised her to contact police and still hesitated to call.”

Cojocari, 39, is a native of Moldova, a former Soviet republic in Eastern Europe bordered by Ukraine and Romania. She holds a Romanian passport; Madalina holds a passport for Moldova and Romania. Both were later found in a search of Cojocari’s car.

After the interview at the school, police went with Cojocari to her four-bedroom home at 18413 Victoria Bay Drive, a block off Catawba Avenue between I-77 and North Main Street and valued at about $525,000. Police examined Madalina’s bedroom for clues.

Cojocari said Madalina did not have a cellphone but that a backpack and some of the girl’s clothes were missing. “Ms. Cojocari and Mr. Palmiter were adamant,” Patterson said in court documents, “that they did not know where Madalina could be.”

Arrests soon followed

Patterson arrested Cojocari and Palmiter Dec. 17, charging them with failure to report the disappearance of a child to law enforcement, a Class I felony punishable by up to two years of prison. By then, a wide-ranging search had been launched to learn Madalina’s whereabouts.

On March 8, 2023, warrants were unsealed in the case, indicating that investigators had learned Cojocari had asked a family member to smuggle her and Madalina away from Cornelius because she was unhappy and wanted a divorce from Palmiter.

Phone records showed “extensive communication” on Dec. 2, 2022 – between the time Madalina disappeared and the parents were confronted by authorities – with the relative and Cojocari.

Authorities disclosed in the warrant that the relative’s phone had also been used to make “multiple calls to phone numbers belonging to unidentified targets involved in ongoing T3 drug/narcotic trafficking investigations.”

T3 refers to the U.S. statute called Title III, signaling that federal authorities were monitoring the phone with court approval in another investigation. Often, those connected to narcotics trafficking, the warrant said, “are also associated with human smuggling.”

On March 17, Cojocari was charged for possession of drugs in jail when a bag containing white powder was found in her shirt pocket. It tested positive for cocaine and fentanyl, jailers reported.

Cojocari told the judge during arraignment that she just happened to find the baggie while in the shower, and that the drugs weren’t hers. Charges were later dismissed for lack of evidence.

A sighting in the highlands

Madalina Cojocari

Four months later, on July 18, more warrants were unsealed. They noted that a surveillance photo of some type taken on Dec. 16, 2022, on Sugar Mountain in the North Carolina highlands showed Madalina with a man who matched the description of Cojocari’s only known relative in the United States, said to be a former Moldovan customs officer.

There was also a report that the pair were seen at a Lowe’s Foods in Linville, not far from Sugar Mountain. Information in the warrants also said that Cojocari had floated a theory that Madalina was given away for money.

Stepfather’s side of story

On Aug. 16, at a bond hearing, the first defense of Madalina’s stepfather, Palmiter, was heard when attorney Brandon Roseman argued for pretrial release.

Madalina’s home in Victoria Bay

“There’s a lot of backstory in this case,” Roseman said after noting Palmiter had been perceived by the public as a “monster” in the eight months he’d been in custody.

Roseman said that Cojocari had reacted bizarrely after Palmiter invested in a 401-K retirement account that named her as the beneficiary.

“She saw some danger because of these papers,” Roseman said. “Diana fervently believes that Madalina is in danger from some unknown third party, apparently related to him placing money and assigning benefits to her in a 401k account, something that doesn’t make any sense.”

Roseman said that Palmiter believed Cojocari created a plan to hide Madalina. That was why, Roseman said, he didn’t report the girl missing – he thought she must be in the mountains in safe company.

“He believes she is being cared for by someone who the mom assigned,” Roseman said.

Palmiter cooperated in the investigation, Roseman said, and sat for hours in voluntary interviews with detectives.

“Chris, throughout this interaction here, has been portrayed as a monster,” Roseman said, “but Diana has said on multiple times that she is not afraid of Chris and that the danger she is speaking of is not him.”

Palmiter’s bond was reduced to $25,000 from $200,000 and he was released the following day.

Strange declarations

In the hectic scrum of reporters and photographers outside the Mecklenburg County Jail as Palmiter emerged, Madalina’s grandmother dramatically appeared.

“My children were caught up by child traffickers,” Rodica Cojocari declared. “My granddaughter is alive. She was sold along with Diana for $5 million.”

If you have information about the disappearance of Madalina Cojocari, call Cornelius detectives at 704-892-7773.

FBI poster for Madalina