FOLLOWING THEIR PATHS - MISSING - Did they meet with foul play or simply walk away?

FOLLOWING THEIR PATHS - MISSING - Did they meet with foul play or simply walk away?

August 3, 2008
Houston Chronicle

AN over-achieving Rice University computer student; a pastor's wife who lived in a shotgun shack; a hard-partying father with ties to crime.

People of all ilk vanish from Houston each year, leaving friends and family to grow old wondering what happened.

Faces stare from handbills taped to windows and are posted on Web sites begging clues.

Family and friends get on with their lives while also waiting for the phone call or e-mail that almost never comes.

"All he has to do is call me and say he is all right, and we wouldn't have to hound him like a fugitive," Cathy Wilson said of her son, Matthew Wilson, who authorities believe bailed out on his life as a Rice student last December.

They huddle with police, private investigators and support groups as they hope to learn the fate of the missing.

It is impossible to know how many of them met with foul play or just walked away and never looked back.

Houston police Sgt. Tina Peacock of the Missing Persons Unit said there were 914 cases of missing adults resolved in 2007.

The majority were solved within days and chalked up to brief family or relationship disputes, she said.

Instances of someone intentionally disappearing and never again contacting family are extremely rare, she said.

Cases that don't go away tend to tug at the unit's eight investigators.

"I'll go home and redo it in my head, re-create it, think about the family members," Peacock said. "You definitely carry it home with you to make sure you're not missing anything."

Dawn Workman, area director for the Doe Network , an alliance for finding missing persons, said mysteries can drag on for years.

"There are so many cases where the circumstances leave you scratching your head," Workman said. "One thing I've noticed with what we do is you don't want to box yourself in."

In one case, a man missing for decades was found on a West Texas ranch where he'd gone to live his cowboy dream.

In another instance, a woman had left her family in the South to take a new life and work at Wal-Mart in the North.

"It seems like most of them are men, and they just want to be with a different family or have a completely different lifestyle," Workman said.

Wilson, the Rice student, appears to have driven his silver Dodge Neon to a residential neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif., and abandoned the car, leaving inside a scattering of clothing, canned food and books on assuming a new identity.

"Matthew, as smart as he is, if he doesn't want to be found, it'll take a genius to find him," said his mother, who vows she won't give up.

She got his car back from police and said when she opened the door, his scent was everywhere, making her feel closer to him than ever.

Armed with fresh tips on his whereabouts, Wilson's mother is in California searching for him.

The idea of walking away has been fodder for songs, books and movies, including Into the Wild, which was released as a film last year.

The story - right down to a college-educated kid heading West with just a few hundred dollars and leaving behind family money - is chillingly similar to Wilson's so far.

"Like in the movie, the guy left and didn't tell his parents or anybody what he was doing, and they were just beside themselves," said Capt. John Martin of the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

"Law enforcement is really limited as to what we can actually do," he said of missing-persons cases. "There is nothing to keep you from walking away from your home and meeting new friends and starting a new career."

Sheriff's deputies have solved a handful of walking-away cases in the past few years, including a man they tracked to the East Coast, Martin said. The man said they could tell his family he was fine but wanted to be left alone.

In May, a deputy near Yale and Loop 610 questioned a panhander. A background check showed his wife reported him missing eight months earlier.

When confronted, he told the deputy he preferred the freedom of panhandling to the stresses of his previous life.

"You can't order the guy to go home," Martin said.

Mike Wahnon, who lives on the city's west side, said he doesn't care how many years pass; he's waiting for the chance to again see his childhood friend, Melvin "Pud" Butler II, who went missing in March 2002. Wahnon said he has become an uncle figure to Butler's children in his absence.

The last time Butler was seen, he was supposedly on his way to buy a used Harley-Davidson. Instead, his pickup was found parked not far from Wahnon's house. He left his Texas driver's license inside and apparently took his dog, Lucky.

"He's either in witness protection or down (in Mexico) on the beach soaking up rays and drinking margaritas," Wahnon said.

Court documents from Butler's divorce, which was granted in his absence, indicate he'd been arrested numerous times on weapons and guns charges.

Joyce McAdams, who mysteriously left her pastor husband of 40 years and an Acres Homes house behind on a summer night in 1998, is listed among 11 missing persons posted on the Houston police Web site.

"I ain't lost. I'm doing fine," a smiling McAdams, 70, told the Chronicle last week at an assisted-living center.

McAdams ended up at Turning Point Center, which specializes in helping Houston's homeless. Records show she checked in using a different last name and an incorrect Social Security number.

The center's director, George Gomez, said he spent years trying to learn the true identity of McAdams, who he described as a friendly woman who has helped out in the center's kitchen.

Thanks to help from state and federal agencies, he pieced her life together last year. McAdams, who had no children, spent her younger years cleaning homes in River Oaks.

"It is hard not to care for her; she's been such a delightful person," Gomez said.

She has memory and perception problems, so it will likely remain a mystery why she left.

"She was probably not feeling well, confused," Gomez said. "She got here and was comfortable, and adopted a new way of life."

Lillian McGee, McAdams' niece, said McAdams had been missing about eight years before Gomez solved the mystery that tore at her uncle.

"He went loco for a while," she said. "He started getting sick. He never did get back up after she left."




914: Cases of missing adults resolved by Houston police last year

5,636: Cases of missing juveniles (mostly runaways) resolved by HPD last year

7,923: Unsolved missing-persons cases in Texas

106,324: Unsolved missing-persons cases in the United States

Source: HPD, FBI, Doe Network