OREM — After 21 years, Orem police are close to closing a missing-person case, after finding the man working as a cowboy on a Texas ranch.
Keri Bray was 27 when he walked away from the Lake Crest Development Center in Orem in 1986 with only the clothes he was wearing.
Officers tried to find the disabled man for years and even worried he might have died, said Denton Johnston, who was the Orem police lieutenant over investigations at the time of Bray's disappearance.
"In a missing person case, you can't just close it, because there's a human being missing," Johnston said. "It's kind of like a homicide investigation; you leave it open forever if necessary."
So Johnston worked on the case off and on for months, trying to track down family members and talk to previous caretakers.
Bray's case file was even accidentally destroyed when the police department changed buildings — but that didn't close the investigation.
"This case kind of got to me," said Johnston, who now works in courtroom security for the Utah County Sheriff's Office. "Nobody really cared about this kid."
Bray's parents died when he was a child and he had very few other relatives. Those he had didn't seem to care he was missing, Johnston said.
With that in mind, Johnston said he felt a push to learn what had happened to Bray.
The break came Wednesday when Johnston received a phone call from Orem Police Lt. Keldon Brown. Brown told Johnston that Orem investigators think they've found Bray alive and well.
"It's kind of a fun story," Johnston said. "It made me feel good today. That's a long time that he's been gone."
In 1986, Bray told employees at Lake Crest — a place for people with disabilities — that he wanted to go to Texas to become a cowboy, Johnston said.
Apparently, he did just that. A few weeks ago, Bray crashed a tractor while working at a ranch. During the insurance-review process, an insurance-agency employee tried to learn more about Bray.
A Google search on Bray's name brought up a link to his picture on the nonprofit Web site www.doenetwork.org. The Doe Network is a volunteer organization that posts pictures and information about missing and unidentified people from North America, Australia and Europe, according to the group's Web site.
The site also listed the Orem Police Department's number, and the insurance-agency employee called to say that she thought the tractor driver was Orem's missing person. He looked just like the man in the Doe Network picture, just 21 years older.
"(She said she) had seen the guy, he'd been in the office, the name was the same, the date of birth was the same and he had worked on this ranch for about 21 years," Brown said.
While officials still need to confirm Bray's identity based on personal scars, they're nearly positive that this is the Orem man they've been looking for.
"(This) tells me that these databases (work)," Brown said. "Even 21 years later, people can be located alive and well."
The Doe Network has helped law enforcement agencies solve 41 cases since its inception in 2001, said Todd Matthews, U.S. media director for the Doe Network.