One of my addictions on the internet is a site called Websleuths. It’s a forum where people of all kinds from all around the world read about, discuss and often work very hard to solve real crimes. There are, quite often, people who are retired Law Enforcement, or worked in the criminal justice system in one way or another. Mostly though, it’s arm chair detectives who sometimes become far more than that. I’ve followed many cases on Websleuths, both current and cold. Some I check in on from time to time, cold cases that I hope the great strides made in DNA technology will some day solve.
Many people there have become involved with the Doe Network, an amazing organization devoted to giving the unidentified dead their names and their dignity back in what measure they can. In some cases people at Websleuths have been instrumental in making the connections between missing persons and unidentified bodies. I find this amazing and so inspirational.
I think my husband finds my fascination with all this stuff a little morbid sometimes. I can’t quite explain it, only that I think all of us, to one degree or another, are haunted by people who have simply disappeared. Who can ever forget little Adam Walsh, or Etan Patz, or more recently Kyron Horman or Haleigh Cummings? Or any of the other thousands of people, whether they be children or not, that go missing never to return home to their loved ones.
The case that led me to Websleuths though was one concerning a grown man, not a child. His name is Brian Schaffer and he went missing April 1st, 2006. Brian’s case was so odd, a case of someone who seemingly did disappear into thin air. I was haunted by him for weeks. Here was a young, healthy fit man in med school who walked into a bar one night, with friends I might add, and never walked out, though the friends did, claiming to have no knowledge of what happened to Brian. Brian’s mother had died only three weeks before, and many thought Brian disappeared because of stress, that he simply wanted to ‘opt out’ for a bit. It never felt that way to me- he seemed like a kind, smart man on his way to big things in his life, he had a girlfriend he was planning to propose to, etc. Two years after Brian disappeared his father was killed in a freak accident when a branch fell from a tree in his own back yard and killed him. It was mind-boggling that so much tragedy had befallen one family. Mostly though, I couldn’t fathom how someone, living a world of CCTV, could disappear as though he had vanished into the ether. I have never believed he disappeared of his own volition. Brian haunts me to this day. I can only imagine how the one remaining member of his family, his brother, must feel.
Another case I have followed for a long time is that of Morgan Harrington- the beautiful girl who disappeared from a Metallica concert, because she couldn’t get back into the arena after going outside. In Morgan’s case her body was found, but the case still remains unsolved. I read her mother Gil’s blog, which often consists of letters to her daughter. It’s heartbreaking beyond imagining what her parents have gone through. I think Morgan’s case hit me especially hard because I have a daughter roughly the same age, who had just gone off to university a month before Morgan’s disappearance. I have great admiration for all the Harringtons have done in Morgan’s memory, choosing to turn their pain into positive forward movement, so that others might not have to suffer the same tragedy they have. Brian Schaffer’s dad did the same, before his tragic accident.
I had a close call as a child once or twice, maybe most of us did and didn’t even know it at the time. I was ten, and riding my bike home from a friend’s house, it was getting late, twilight had set in and I was racing to get home before the street lights came on. I had to be home by the time those lights came on, that was my curfew. About halfway home I realized that a young man was following me, was actually running to try to keep up with me. He didn’t say anything to me and at first I thought maybe he was just going in the same direction. But when I got home and pulled my bike up the little hill into my yard, he came up the hill, he was in my yard. And that was when, as I tugged on the basement door to get in the house, I realized my parents were not home and I was locked out. I can’t adequately convey how panicked I was, I somehow knew he meant me harm and he kept coming toward me. He was probably five feet away from me when my dog came barreling around the corner and went at him. My parents had been out for a walk, and got home in the nick of time. My dad asked him what the hell he was doing, and he had nothing to say just turned around and ran. To this day I wonder what might have happened had they not arrived home when they did. Could I have become a face on a milk carton?
I had another incidence in college. I lived out of the main part of the city with my grandmother, in an area that was somewhat more rural. I had to take a bus into the college each morning. I had a man approach me one morning to tell me that he and his father watched me each morning as I waited for the bus, and had decided I would make a good girlfriend for the son. I laughed it off at the time, but I shudder in retrospect. Needless to say I changed bus stops. But it gives you pause, thinking how life sometimes turns on a dime, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was lucky at least once, maybe more than that. I was also stalked for five years, a subject I may blog about some day, or may not, it’s still a rough topic for me. I used to joke that if I ever disappeared my friends should direct the police to this man’s back yard.
Maybe this is why I feel I owe the missing the minute it takes to stop, to read the fliers, to take in the details of their disappearance, to just stand for a minute and acknowledge what has happened to them. Because just in case, just once, I might know something, might have seen something that actually was meaningful but didn’t seem to be in the moment. So the next time you see a Missing poster, please stop and take the time to read it and really look at the face in the photo. Take the time to acknowledge that we all lose something when one of us disappears.
Because one day you could be anchored securely in the world with home and friends and family, anchored by love and tradition and familiar roads and pathways both literal and figurative, and then the next day, without warning to either yourself or those who loved you, you could vanish like smoke upon the air, leaving no trace in your wake. It wasn’t as though this was a thing peculiar to one land, for every country, every town, every lonely forest road had that same ability to swallow people whole, telling no tale on its unmarked ground, in its silent buildings. –Fr. Flights of Angels