From the Archives: What Happened to Brian Shaffer?
Editor's note: As friends and family of Brian Shaffer continue to focus attention on his 2006 disappearance, Columbus Monthly is republishing former associate editor April Johnston's 2009 deep dive into the case.
The poster is still taped to the window in the sixth-floor lobby, where all who have business with the Special Victims Bureau can see it. In one photograph, Brian Shaffer is bearded. In another, cleanshaven. Detectives change the pictures every once in a while because, if Brian is still alive, it's likely he's changed, too.
But what hasn't changed, not in three long years, are the words: Missing. OSU medical student. Last seen at the Ugly Tuna Saloona on April 1, 2006. Reward. If the poster could speak, its pleas would be getting desperate, its voice higher pitched.
The case always has been a tragic one, even for the detectives who are accustomed to investigating hardship. Brian's mother, Renee, lost her battle with cancer only three weeks before he disappeared. The double loss sent her husband, Randy, into a tailspin. He spent the next two and a half years on a rabid, relentless search for his oldest son, sloshing along miles of river bank, fielding phone calls from psychics and making pleading, public pitches for help, until a freak accident during a September 2008 windstorm took him, too.
The only other surviving family member, Brian's younger brother, Derek, has fallen mostly silent since Randy's death. Friends say he needs a break from the pain and the overwhelming, and increasingly hopeless, task of finding Brian.
But those who watched Randy fight friends, detectives, volunteers and even sympathetic strangers—have a renewed fervor for the case. They want to find the answers for the father who never got them. They want an ending to this story, even if it's not a happy one. Only, without Randy, they're not quite sure what to do or where to begin.
"It's overwhelming," says Lori Davis, who never knew Brian but felt drawn to the case and to Randy after seeing him interviewed on television. Three years after Brian's disappearance and six months after Randy's death, she still wears a Where is Brian Shaffer? button on her jacket and scours the Internet for clues most every evening. “I want to respect the family's wishes [for privacy], but then I ask myself if Randy would want me to continue searching, and I know he would. I think we're all kind of lost right now.”
The details of that Friday night in 2006 have been reported and repeated, sifted and scrutinized, examined and re-examined by the family, the police and the web-based sleuths who love a good mystery.
It goes something like this: Brian, 27, and his former roommate, Clint Florence, arrive at South Campus Gateway's Ugly Tuna Saloona sometime after 9, determined to celebrate the beginning of spring break with a boys' night out. Just before 10, Brian speaks briefly to his girlfriend, Alexis Waggoner, who, like him, is a second-year medical student at Ohio State. He tells her he loves her and hangs up. It is the last time she'll talk to him. While Waggoner visits her parents' home in Toledo, Brian and Florence barhop from Gateway to the Arena District to the Short North, where they meet Florence's friend, Meredith Reed. By this time, Florence will later explain to police, they've had several shots and gladly take Reed up on her offer of a lift back to the Ugly Tuna.
Surveillance cameras hidden in the ceilings and facades at Gateway catch the trio riding the escalator up to the second-floor bar and stepping inside. It’s 1:15. Just before 2, Brian is back in the camera’s view, speaking with two college-age women. He appears to say goodbye and walk away. He’s never seen again.
Calls from Florence and Reed go unanswered that night. Calls from Waggoner and Randy go unanswered all weekend. But it isn't until Monday morning, when Brian misses a long-scheduled flight to Florida, that his family is sure something is wrong. They call Columbus police.
Sgt. John Hurst is a father. A sign that has the word “Daddy" scribbled in wavy, blue crayon hangs from the front of his desk, though his kids are years removed from making such things. So he understood right away Randy's terror, his insistence that Brian would never have walked away on his own and his repeated pleas for the police to find his son. He would have done the same.
But detectives, especially those who work on missing persons cases, are at the mercy of the clues left behind, and in the case of Brian Shaffer, there were precious few.
Hurst and his detectives began their investigation where they believe Brian ended his night at the Ugly Tuna. It's one of those quintessential college bars, with a spring break attitude, plenty of drink specials and constant entertainment (think “Naughty School Girl" night). But it also was trendy enough to be located in Gateway, the city and Ohio State's upscale answer to the increasingly dangerous and deteriorating south end of campus. That meant one thing to detectives: surveillance cameras. They are indispensable to investigations. The silent and often incontrovertible witnesses to crime can crack a case open faster and more reliably than humans, who are prone to faulty memories and misled loyalties.
But the cameras at Ugly Tuna only caused more confusion, because while they caught Brian entering the bar that night, they never caught him actually leaving. Detectives were perplexed: If Brian left the way he arrived—on the escalator—he surely would have been taped by one of the cameras. But they soon learned there were other ways out. He might have changed his clothes or donned a hat and kept his head down and face obscured. He could have left through an exit that led directly to a construction site. It would have been difficult to navigate, especially if Brian were intoxicated, but not impossible. Or, the worst scenario of all—maybe the cameras simply missed him. One panned the area constantly; another operated manually. What if Brian had slipped out in the anonymous space between them?
In those first few days, and on the heels of that theory, as many as 50 police officers searched for Brian at a time, scouring the streets, pawing through dumpsters and knocking on doors. They moved in an orderly, concentric pattern, beginning at the Ugly Tuna or Brian's campus-area apartment and working their way out, marking distance in blocks and then miles. They questioned Brian's friends and family and asked them all the hard questions you do when someone disappears, questions about drugs and enemies and difficult times. They checked hospitals and homeless shelters. They followed tips and hunches to landfills and riverbanks. They even persuaded the city to check nearby sewer lines. But no one found anything, not even the K-9 units.
Police began to wonder if Brian's disappearance was a crime or a setup. Maybe he was more distraught over his mother's death than he had been letting on. It had been only 25 days since the funeral. Perhaps Brian's disappearance was preconceived, a way for him to escape the pain of losing a parent for a while. If that were the case, they were sure he'd return.
But Hurst had another theory, and it wasn't good. It had been gnawing at him since that first day at the Ugly Tuna. Brian had missed his Monday morning flight—a plane ride that would have taken him to a sunny stretch of Florida and a possible proposal to his girlfriend. It seemed unlikely he would skip such a trip. When people disappear, they typically do it on the brink of desperation, not vacation.
In those first few months of searching, Randy allowed bits of hope to freckle his pain. Friends say he seemed oddly buoyed when Brian's apartment was burglarized, thinking there could be a connection. There wasn't. He figured a good tip would come in after Pearl Jam's lead singer Eddie Vedder took time out at a concert in Cincinnati to talk about the case. None did. And he and Waggoner prayed Brian had turned his cellphone on when, after months of going directly to voicemail, it began to ring. He hadn't. It was a Cingular computer glitch.
And soon, the earmarks of tragedy became more pronounced, splintering Randy's optimism. A year into the search, no one had used Brian's cellphone to make a call or his credit card to make a purchase. None of the hundreds of tips police and Crime Stoppers received had led to Brian or a body. His features should have distinguished him from all the other dark-haired, athletic twentysomethings—a dark fleck on his left iris, a Pearl Jam tattoo on his right bicep—but every so-called sighting proved erroneous.
Still, Randy refused to give up. He figured the best way to find Brian was to remind the world that he was still missing, so he courted the media constantly, chatting openly with reporters and crying before the television cameras. He wallpapered the city with “Missing” posters and organized vigils and searches. He befriended the parents of other missing children, and, with their help and the assistance of Crime Stoppers president Kevin Miles, persuaded the Ohio legislature to pass a missing adults bill that established statewide protocol for detectives in cases such as Brian's. Before the bill, each case was handled at the discretion of the detectives and, some families felt, haphazardly.
Desperate for any link to his son, Randy even listened to the advice of psychics. One insisted Brian's body was submerged in water, held down by the whirlpools that form at the base of concrete bridge posts. At the time of his disappearance, Brian lived in the 200 block of King Avenue, less than a mile from the Olentangy River, Randy and his brother bought fishing waders, called Kevin Miles and headed for the riverbank to roam.
For hours, Randy splashed from bridge post to bridge post, kneeling and peering into the murky water for any sign of his son, while Miles looked on helplessly, sensing this particular search was futile. At one post, Randy's feet slipped out from underneath him and the whirlpool that was supposed to be holding Brian yanked Randy toward the riverbed. His brother grabbed him just as he went under.
Miles stood stunned by the scene and by Randy's willingness to sacrifice so much for the faintest possibility of victory. He called in a silent wish. "This father shouldn't be going through all of this," he thought. “Please just let him find his son."
While Randy grieved, Columbus police continued their investigation. It was frustratingly slow. Because the detectives didn't have one good clue to follow, they had to chase a slew of questionable ones. They searched empty fields and lonely patches of woods, followed up on possible sightings in Texas and Sweden. They administered lie detector tests (even to a willing Randy) and questioned the friends who had seen him last. They watched surveillance tapes until the scenes invaded their dreams, hoping to catch something they'd missed the time before. They even briefly considered the possibility of a serial killer—an idea that gripped Internet bloggers and sleuths. Some became convinced that Brian died at the hands of the Smiley Face Killer, who is said to prey on intoxicated, college-age men in the Midwest, murdering them and tossing their bodies into local rivers. Two retired New York City detectives have spent more than 10 years investigating the scenes of the 40 so-called drownings. They've found a smiley face spray painted along the river bank at each one—except Brian's.
"Maybe they just haven't found it yet," one blogger suggested. But Hurst finds the whole idea unlikely. For one, they have no evidence that Brian's body is in a river. They're not even sure he's dead. For another, the FBI conducted its own investigation into the drownings and doubts the existence of a Smiley Face Killer.
Still, every scenario detectives can investigate and eliminate is a possible step toward the answers they need. So they've consistently refused to dismiss even the most outrageous tips. “We've got to keep our senses about us," Hurst says. “But we don't want to say, ‘There's nothing to this.’ We might look at it at first and say, ‘Come on, you've got to be kidding me?’ But the ones we can follow up on, we do."
One of those tips came from a young woman who, on a drive through Michigan, had stopped to eat at a diner and was waited on by a man who looked suspiciously like Brian Shaffer. His name tag even read “Brian S.” She was afraid to ask the question, so she called police instead. When they tried to follow up, the restaurant owners were coy, claiming no one named Brian worked there.
“We have to drive up there tonight," Lori Davis insisted when Randy told her the news. She had become, to her family's bewilderment, both the keeper of Brian's website and Randy's confidante.
"I don't know if I can," he told her. He was scared to find out the truth, afraid, if it were his son, he'd hate him for every thing he'd put the family through. But before Davis could convince Randy otherwise, they got the news. Police in Michigan confirmed it: The waiter wasn't Brian.
Randy seemed both deflated and relieved.
In a radio interview 18 months after Brian disappeared, Randy told the host he never understood why Brian went out on the night he disappeared. Father and son had grabbed a steak dinner earlier that evening, and Brian seemed exhausted after pulling all-nighters for a flurry of med school exams, and, though he wore a remarkably composed exterior, he was still reeling over his mother's death. Renee was, Brian's friends say, his confidante and his hero. She also was the center of the Shaffer universe, and losing her alternately unraveled tight family ties and thrust the men closer together.
When she died, Randy was too distraught to sort through her things. He left them unmoved, untouched. He did the same when Brian disappeared a month later. By the fall of 2008, the reminders, memories and questions those items brought appeared to some to be choking and taunting Randy. He wrote frantic letters to Clint Florence and Meredith Reed, who he assumed last saw Brian, and asked them to come forward if they knew anything, even if they had promised Brian they wouldn't. He started to call Davis several times a day—one afternoon, she counted 30—just to replay the scenarios.
"He needed peace," she says. "He was a lost soul on this earth.”
The evening of Sept. 14, a windstorm ripped through Central Ohio and Randy's backyard. He was, his friends believe, attempting to clean up debris when a violent gust cracked a limb from a nearby tree and hurled it in Randy's direction. The impact killed him. A neighbor found his body the next morning. The family asked Crime Stoppers' Kevin Miles to give the eulogy.
“It haunts me," Miles says, “that we still don't know where Brian is."
Hurst believes in heaven. In the case of Brian Shaffer, it's a critical consideration. Because, if there is a heaven, he can be sure that Randy is with Renee and that he has the answers he wanted about Brian. But it doesn't stop Hurst from wishing he had been the one to provide them.
Within weeks of Randy's death, the detectives uncovered two clues in Brian's case. One was a posting on Randy's memorial website that read, “I miss u dad love brian.” The writer listed the Virgin Islands as his home. The other was a third party tip, claiming Brian's body could be found in a field, near a freeway and just outside of the city.
With no evidence to dismiss either possibility, detectives investigated both. “We were looking for a deceased person and for someone who's still amongst the living at the same time," Hurst says. But in the end they found neither. The posting turned out to be a hoax, written on a public computer in Columbus, and the K-9 search of the field turned up nothing.
Hurst was disappointed, but not surprised. Nothing about this case surprises him anymore. Brian Shaffer is not the first person who has disappeared without leaving any hint of his whereabouts behind, but, in many ways, he is the most frustrating. Even with a reward of $25,000—and even when that reward spiked to $100,000—there were no answers. No one came forward to say what they know. That doesn't mean that person doesn't exist. Hurst, for all he can't say about the case, can say this for sure: “Someone out there knows something."
Lori Davis and Kevin Miles have their suspicions. They're fairly certain Brian is dead, killed over some misunderstanding, and that his body is still somewhere in this city. If he were alive, they reason, he'd never let his brother navigate a world without parents alone.
In some ways, they need to believe this. For Randy, and for themselves. Miles's father was murdered in Washington, D.C., five years ago. The family still doesn't know who committed the crime. They've never had anyone to blame. Miles needs to believe that they'll find Brian just like he needs to believe they'll find his father's killer, so he can still count on justice.
Davis has spent the better part of the past two years immersed in this case, Her husband doesn't understand it. Her 13 year-old son has reluctantly accepted it. He took the photographs when she stopped at the Ugly Tuna Saloona to conduct her own investigation. He's accompanied her to vigils and interviews, Davis needs to believe her family's time hasn't been wasted, that Brian, who she never knew, isn't the type of person who would let his father die, and his brother live, without answers.
For Randy's sake, and on Brian's behalf, Davis plans to keep searching. It's what she'd want someone to do for her, what she'd want someone to do for her son. And though she hasn't found the answers yet, she feels as if she's made progress. Old Shaffer family acquaintances have contacted her with tips and ideas. A woman from Cleveland wants to form a volunteer task force, to share theories about the case. Strangers from as far away as Ecuador and Panama who saw Brian's story featured on the A&E show Psychic Kids have signed the website guestbook and offered their prayers.
"The Internet won't let this case die," Davis says. “People a lot more distant than even me want answers. This case haunts them. I think it's because any of us could be in that situation. I have to fight against becoming so paranoid about it that I can't live my life.”
With that, Davis's son, Kaleb, sighs. It's his birthday, and he's in a Bob Evans, listening to his mother talk about Brian Shaffer, again. “I'm going to the bathroom," he tells her.
Her head snaps up.
"If someone tries to take you, you scream," she says.
Kaleb rolls his eyes. “I know," he says. He's obviously heard this before. “A million times,” they agree. Then their eyes lock, and they both start to chuckle.
So much has changed in three years. Brian's girlfriend, Waggoner, has graduated from medical school and gotten engaged. His brother, Derek, plans to marry his longtime girlfriend. The house where the Shaffer boys grew up is empty. Their mother and father are gone. Clint Florence, the last person believed to have seen Brian alive, moved to Tennessee. The apartment on King Avenue where Brian last lived has been rented, deserted, rented again. Winters have frozen and springs have thawed the Olentangy, where Randy once believed his son's body could be found. The “Missing" posters that once wallpapered campus and beyond have weathered and worn and faded away.
But, somehow, the tips keep coming. Sometimes months lapse between the calls. Sometimes only mere hours. Recently, the police received three in one week. They investigated. They found nothing. But they won't stop. Not now.
"I think it's time," Hurst says, "especially for Derek, to have the answers.”
This story originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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