Brian Shaffer blended into the pissed-up gaggle that trickled into the bar. He resembled every other student celebrating spring break, another face in the flock, another voice in the honking throng. The Ugly Tuna Saloona, spitting distance from Ohio State’s campus, occupied the second floor of a brick block on Columbus’s North High Street; “Fresh Fish. Ugly Owners,” read the neon sign outside.
Brian was here earlier that Saturday, the first day of April in 2006: it was the start of a bar crawl that weaved through the college pubs on Southern Campus. He and his former dorm mate, William “Clint” Florence, slugged a shot of booze at each stop; Clint’s friend Meredith joined them on the route after midnight. Now, all three waddled through the bar, their throats thick with thirst.
For 27-year-old Brian, spring break was nothing new. He had been at Ohio State since 1999. (He got a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, then started medical school.) But this year signaled a new beginning. Three weeks earlier, his mother, Renee, died of myelodysplasia, a rare form of cancer. Brian hadn’t realized how quickly her cancer would spread, how rapidly the disease would annihilate her body. He wrote on his MySpace:
“My mom was the greatest, most wonderful person in the world.”
Tonight, he looked to the future. On Monday, he was flying to Miami with his girlfriend, Alexis. Brian was going to propose.
As closing time loomed, the rabble grew louder. The thrash of a local rock band, punctuated by drunken song, rumbled through the bar. When the lights came up, Clint and Meredith scanned the room; they shouted Brian’s name over the clink of beer bottles; they slithered between the crowds. They couldn’t find him. Somewhere in the shuffle, the three had separated. Clint checked the men’s restroom. He called Brian’s phone. There was no answer. Brian must have left without him, he thought. He had probably gone home.
Soon the sun rose, shifting the sky from charcoal to pigeon-gray. Chilly, in the low 40s, it was the kind of weather that made spring break a crushing disappointment. It didn’t matter to Alexis. She and Brian would soon be sitting on a sun-drizzled beach, shading under a cabbage palm. She called his cell phone to discuss their vacation — it went straight to voicemail. Perhaps he was sleeping off a hangover, she thought. Later, she tried again. Still nothing.
When Randy, Brian’s father, arrived at his son’s apartment to see if he was there, everything was how it was supposed to be: his car was parked outside; his medical books were neatly positioned on the shelves; his bed was made. But Brian wasn’t there. Derek, his younger brother, joined the search. Randy filed a missing person report. He had lost his wife just weeks before; now he begged the police to find his son.
Brian couldn’t have gone far. Perhaps a taxi driver recalled him from the morning before. Maybe he wound up at a local hospital. Still, nobody remembered seeing him. The Columbus Division of Police stapled missing-person posters to telephone poles. They combed every inch of the Ugly Tuna. They scavenged through the trash cans that lined Pearl Alley, a time-worn pathway that ran adjacent to the bar. They marched up and down the banks of the river — the Olentangy — that snaked through central Columbus. Cadaver dogs prowled the campus grounds in search of a body. All efforts proved fruitless. Brian had vanished.
Law enforcement seized a videotape from the surveillance camera that scanned the bar’s entrance area. It tracked Brian, Clint and Meredith riding the escalator to the upstairs bar at 1:15 a.m. An hour later, Clint and Meredith left in the opposite sequence: bar, escalator, street level. Brian should have come back down, too. He didn’t. Detectives gazed at the recording, rewinding and fast-forwarding it over and over again. A second camera was positioned outside an emergency exit, and they examined that footage too. Everyone who entered the bar that night was accounted for. Everyone except Brian.
When the police reported his disappearance to the FBI, it sounded like an April Fools prank, a guy-walks-into-a-bar joke without a punchline. “Med student seems to disappear into thin air,” reported the media. The footage stymied detectives for the next decade. “The police were just as confused as the rest of us,” Derek Shaffer tells me. “They did everything they could to try and find my brother.”
There might have been a blind spot. Perhaps Brian eluded detection. The craggy building that housed the Ugly Tuna was under construction, and a temporary freight elevator escaped surveillance. Maybe Brian came down the rusty service ladder that traversed the shaft, resting for a few seconds on each rung. Maybe someone waited for him at the bottom, making sure he didn’t slip. Still, security cameras from nearby bars — Sloppy Donkey, Mad Mex, Lucky’s Stout House — would have caught him when he fled the building. Somehow, he evaded surveillance in a city with more closed-circuit television than Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo combined. Brian had disappeared in Ohio’s most-watched metropolis, where it’s always 1984.
Derek remembered the surveillance footage, foggy and translucent; it became a visual time capsule, a Pandora’s box. Brian scaled the escalator before turning right; he walked into the bar, into the blank. “He looked like he was having a good time,” says Derek. “Nothing seemed off at all.”
Brian’s shave was close, his hair neatly combed, his jeans and olive t-shirt well-fitted. On his wrist, a yellow cancer awareness bracelet, a reminder of Renee. “We had become closer after Mom died,” says Derek. “He would call and ask how I was doing.”
Brian called his brother the day he disappeared: “We were trying to meet up. I’d been to a comedy club in Columbus, but it was late. Maurin, my girlfriend, and I headed back to where I lived, and met with friends at a local bar instead.” That was the last time Derek heard from Brian.
“Two days later, Dad said Brian was missing. He asked if I could go to his apartment and see if he was there, so I drove to his place. The lights were on, so I thought, ‘Oh good, he’s back home,’ but Alexis was there, not Brian. That’s when we knew something was up. No one had talked to him or seen him since Friday night.”
Police soon turned their attention to Clint and Meredith. She passed a polygraph. He refused to take one. “I didn’t know Clint very well, but I always thought something was off with him,” says Derek. “The way he talked about my brother after he went missing — kind of in a negative way. I wouldn’t expect that from someone whose friend vanished.
“If Clint knew something, I hope he would have shared it. I deserve to know.”
Weeks passed, then months. The case wasn’t cold; it was arctic. Randy hadn’t lost hope. He set up a website that invited tips from the public, a digital shrine that preserved his son’s memory. He posted photos from the family scrapbook, images of joy and happier times, praying that someone, somewhere, would recognize Brian: his thick mop of dark hair, his hazel eyes, his square jaw.
Tips soon dribbled in by email. Someone called Jesus claimed he knew what happened, that Brian was battered unconscious by two black men after a clash at the Ugly Tuna. “[Jesus said] ‘When Brian woke up, he had a big black penis in his mouth,’” Randy recalled in 2007. “[He said] they shot him in the head, burned his body and had sex with his ashes.” It was a hoax. Later, a woman thought she saw Brian in Atlanta; another was certain she had spotted him in Sweden. These sightings were likely nothing more than memory misattribution, brain fuzz, the Virgin Mary on toast.
Alexis called Brian’s cell phone every evening before bed. It always went to voicemail, the same sequence of sounds night after night: static, message, beep, silence. Then, on a sticky Friday in September, six months after her boyfriend evaporated, it connected. The ringback tone hummed once, twice, then three times. For Alexis, it sounded like a symphony. “It scared the crap out of me,” she wrote on her MySpace. “I had no idea what I would say if a person answered it.” Brian’s phone pinged a tower in Hilliard, a suburb 14 miles northwest of central Columbus. It could have been a glitch, it could have meant nothing. Still, it suggested the incredible: Brian was alive.
Brian’s disappearance soon became part of the Ohioan collective mythos. Just like with Jeffrey Dahmer and the Circleville letter writer before him, armchair detectives foraged for clues and conjured elaborate narratives of wanderlust online: Perhaps Brian, burdened by the death of his mother, hopped on a Greyhound headed for D.C. or Philadelphia or Atlanta, pausing at every podunk town on the way. Maybe he succumbed to disaster, not depression: Web sleuths wondered if he slipped, intoxicated, into the Olentangy, a tributary of the Scioto River, or if his body was dumped there by a murderer, pointing to the similar fates of three other college-aged men (even though coroners concluded all three deaths were accidental drownings). Others wondered if Brian never left the Ugly Tuna; if he was hidden in an empty beer keg, his body chopped into pieces.
“I don’t really read stuff about Brian online,” says Derek. “He was going to do great things as a doctor. He wasn’t into drugs or anything like that. I don’t think he would just take off and never contact us again. No, he wouldn’t have done that to us.”
Still, his fears persist: “I’m afraid that something bad did happen, and we may never find out.”
Nothing much happened in Baltimore, Ohio, before September 2008. Drivers whooshed through the sleepy village when traveling north to Columbus: welcome sign, cottages, laundromat, gas station. Brian grew up here, in a little wooden house with a sloped roof, encircled by sassafras and bitternut hickory, on the edge of Appalachia. Then came the third Sunday of the month: black clouds gathered over the town; the Shaffer family home was swallowed by a hazy darkness. The wind shrieked, picking up speed like a freight train pulling out of a station.
Randy, an electrician, prepared for the fallout: tripped circuit breakers, damaged power lines, families huddled around candlelight. He stepped outside and crept toward his tool shed, trudging over a patchwork of fallen leaves, the whip of the wind on his cheeks. Suddenly, a tree creaked; a branch snapped; a bough struck his head; his body crashed to the ground. Five residents perished in the storm that Sunday; Randy’s body was discovered the next morning. It was a bizarre twist of fate: the final act of a triple tragedy that, in less than three years, left Derek without a mother, a brother and, now, a father.
Randy had searched tirelessly for his missing son. He worked closely with law enforcement, gave interviews to local media, consulted with psychics; his snow-colored hair and chunky glasses were a familiar sight to locals as he handed out missing person flyers around Columbus. “Those first couple of years were all very hectic and a blur,” remembers Derek. “We were meeting with police, and the media was all around. I remember calling Brian’s cell phone over and over, hoping he would answer.” Now, like an orchestra without its conductor, the search effort fell silent. Then, days after his father’s death, came the breakthrough Derek had craved.
When The Columbus Dispatch posted Randy’s obituary on their website, workmates and well-wishers left tributes at the bottom of the page. One message stuck out from the rest:
Dad, I love you. Love, Brian (U.S. Virgin Islands)
Brian had always dreamed of living in a far-flung Tropicana where he could slurp cocktails and listen to Jimmy Buffet — his own Margaritaville. He told friends med school was a stopgap, that one day he’d form his own band. Perhaps Saint John or Saint Thomas provided salvation, a refuge from exams and a marriage proposal, from cancer and death. He wouldn’t have needed his passport to get there, just photo ID — his wallet was in his jeans pocket when he disappeared — and the flight from John Glenn Columbus would have taken less than six hours.
Columbus police traced the comment to a public computer somewhere in surrounding Franklin County. It was just another bluff, a wild internet goose chase. “I always hoped that Brian had just taken off because he was stressed or something,” says Derek. “But obviously, as time goes on, you lose that hope.”
Ohio brims with tales of young men who go missing, and Brian was just another case number: MP#1709. He was an everyman, any man; average weight, average haircut, regular clothes. Two identifiers distinguished him from the other FBI profiles: in his left iris, a small black speckle no bigger than a centimeter; on his right bicep, a tattoo of the stickman pictured on the CD-case for Pearl Jam’s debut single “Alive.” Brian, a devoted fan, planned to see them in Cincinnati. He never made it.
On May 6, 2010, four years after he went missing, the group performed “Come Back” at Columbus’ Nationwide Arena, two miles from the Ugly Tuna. Eddie Vedder dedicated the track to Brian: “Wherever you are, we’re still thinking about you,” he said. The song’s lyrics — “There must be an open door for you to come back” — paralleled the “runaway” narrative: Brian was out there, somewhere, breathing, living.
When someone disappears in Arizona or Alaska or Alabama, search areas are cruel and unforgiving: sterile desert, crunchy glaciers, impenetrable swamp. In Ohio, the search should be easier. Still, there are thousands of missing people in the Buckeye State: runaways and castaways and milk carton kids banished to the Land of the Lost.
Nobody understands this better than Lori Davis, Ohio’s amateur ambassador for the “unfound.” Her Facebook page publicizes the missing people that “Dateline” and “20/20” won’t touch, small-town stories that lack the luster of a JonBenét Ramsey or Maura Murray. “Social media has helped bring these cases to the public’s attention,” she tells me. “I had no clue there were so many. I have met many families with missing loved ones, and it has become a passion of mine — to be their voice.”
Brian’s disappearance became Lori’s pet project: “I heard his case on the evening news. I couldn’t believe a 6-foot-2 man could just vanish.” She contacted Randy and struck up a friendship; they organized prayer vigils; they spoke on the phone just minutes before he died. “It’s been incredibly hard to keep the amount of attention on Brian’s case that his father was able to generate. I’m not a relative, so it’s very hard to get updates from the detectives.”
Lori witnessed Randy’s darkest moments and his quest for clues: “It was heartbreaking to watch a father suffer, not knowing what happened to his son.” Somebody, somewhere, she says, knows what happened: “I feel that one or more of the people out with Brian on the night of his disappearance hold the answers. I pray every single night that the guilt will become overbearing. That answers will come. I hope that at one point, they will talk and bring closure to a family that has waited far too long for the truth.”
That truth has become muddled with myth: Brian Shaffer was once a missing person; now he’s that guy who vanished on camera. His image plays out, not on a screen in a police department, but on YouTube compilations: “5 Mysteries That Will Scare You,” “5 Unexplained Disappearances With Mysterious CCTV Footage.” He’s an internet meme, pixels on a monitor.
Derek recalls a simpler time: “I remember going to the beach as a family every year. We would always go out at night with flashlights and look for crabs. That is a memory I always remember. My family was all together. We always had fun.” Today, he lives in Pickerington, Ohio, close to where his parents died and his brother disappeared. He got married. He has a son. He’s still looking for answers: “There’s been nothing for years now,” he says.
Brian’s disappearance is an enduring puzzle. One with few clues. “Usually, with a missing person, there will be signs,” says Lori. “Their vehicle will be found. Or their wallet. Or their cell phone will bring answers. None of that has worked in Brian’s case.
“How can a person just disappear, with no trace of what happened to them?