‘You stole her life’: Woman remembers mom who died in Moore County blackout

MOORE COUNTY, N.C. — On Dec. 3 2022, the lights went out in Moore County. Everyone thought the problem would last a few hours at most. Instead, a community was left in the dark for five days.

Nothing is more essential to modern life than power, but many of us don’t give it a thought until it’s taken away. That’s what happened to one family on that night a little more than a year ago.

Barbara Vitarelli’s parents, Bruno and Karin Zoanelli, retired in Pinehurst more than a decade ago. Their love story began almost 60 years ago.

“They were inseparable,” she said. “Like literally, they did not do anything without the other.”

Karin Zoanelli was born in Germany before the war and remembered the Allied bombing raids as a child.

“Didn’t talk much about the war,” Vitarelli said. “Lost her dad in an air raid, and so it was just my grandmother and three kids. My mom was the oldest.”

After the war, Zoanelli became something of an athlete. She was a competitive figure skater and worked as a journalist for United Press International.

“Life started when she met my dad,” Vitarelli said. “That’s when her life started.”

Their love-at-first-sight story began on the beaches of Italy.

“My dad comes from a small town called Imperia, and she was there on vacation and she was introduced to him,” Vitarelli said. “It went very quickly. They got married and moved to Bermuda.”

Eventually, the couple moved to the states. They lived and worked in the Washington D.C. area, where they became parents and then grandparents. When it became time to retire, they settled in Pinehurst. They were an active couple, despite Karin’s health challenges.

“As my mom got COPD and her condition worsened, the roles kind of flipped,” Vitarelli said. “My mom was always the one that took care of everything in the house.”

Zoanelli was dependent on a breathing machine that put oxygen in her body as she slept.

“I think it was crucial for her to have that equipment at night to be able to recover from the day,” Vitarelli said. “And I do know that her breathing treatments were more frequent.”

Dec. 3, 2022

Zoanelli’s oxygen concentrator runs on electricity, but during the December 2022 blackout, there wasn’t any. As a result, she struggled to breathe.

As we now know, the blackout was no accident. Someone used a high-powered rifle to take out two substations. Investigators think that person knew exactly how to do that.

“Whatever time she had left doesn’t matter,” Vitarelli said. “She had a life.”

Bruno Zoanelli found his wife on the bedroom floor and left a message for his daughter.

“So I called -- and this is like 5:30 in the morning -- and he just said, ‘hey she’s gone,’ and I’m like, ‘what do you mean she’s gone?’ I’m thinking she fell or hurt her hip or whatever,” she said. “He said, ‘yeah she couldn’t breathe.’ She tried to get up and she collapsed and she died.”

Authorities don’t know who shot the substations or why.

“Do you feel like she was murdered?” Channel 9′s Glenn Counts asked Vitarelli.

“I do, I absolutely do,” she said. “It was murder. But for that power outage, she might still be here, so I feel like, even if you took one hour away from her, you stole her life. You stole my dad’s life.”

The state medical examiner’s office agrees. In the summary of its report on Zoanelli, it says the failure of her oxygen concentrator as a result of the power outage led her demise, and the manner of death is best classified as a homicide.

“I just feel like you committed a crime,” Vitarelli said. “Whether you intended to cause somebody to lose their life is irrelevant to me. That happened in the course of the crime you committed. You should be held accountable for it.”

What’s next?

While Vitarelli wants justice, she worries about her father. For 59 years, he shared everything with one person. Now, that voice is no longer with him.

“I think he’s just going through the motions. I don’t think he’s really living,” she said. “I don’t think his zest for life is there anymore, he’s just on some level waiting for when it’s his turn.”

Zoanelli also shared her frustration with Duke Energy. She said the company should have done more to protect substations from this type of attack.

“Where the hell were your cameras? Why didn’t you secure the perimeter? Why weren’t your redundancies in place?” she asked.

Duke Energy has said it’s learned a lot of lessons and is spending $500 million on security upgrades for all of its thousands of substations. The North Carolina legislature has signed a law that increases punishment for intentionally damaging utility equipment.

Investigators have asked for the public’s help finding a minivan seen the night of the substation shootings. They shared a photo of a similar van in hopes someone could find it.

Anyone who saw that van on Dec. 3, 2022 between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. is asked to call the FBI at 1-800-CALL F-B-I. There’s a reward of up to $100,000 for information leading to an arrest.

(WATCH BELOW: North Carolina legislature increases penalty for utility damage after substation shootings)