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On the other side of a missing-person case

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I took a photo of Benjamin Smith three weeks ago to save in my cellphone along with his new phone number. Any time he calls or texts me, his photo glows on my screen – his smile gentle, his eyes wide (one green, one blue), his dirty-blond hair tousled as if in a constant windstorm.

It is the pleasant face of a pleasant young man, one of my son’s closest friends who came to live with us a few months ago, shortly after my son died suddenly.

That pleasant face hasn’t come up on my screen for five days now. Ben is gone.

We have no idea what has become of him.

There is something grotesquely certain in death, a reliable finality. A body stops functioning. An explanation emerges. There are death certificates and autopsy reports. There are tombstones.

But when a loved one vanishes, there is no certainty, there are no answers. We float in the ether of the unknown: Is he dead? Where did he go? Why did he go? Will he come back? When?

Ben Smith, 24, went for a short walk on the Fourth of July in the East Mountains and never returned. Despite an intensive search, he remains missing. (Joline Gutierrez Krueger)

I have covered many missing person cases in my career. Some take years to yield answers. Some never do. Now I find myself on the other end of a missing person case.

This we know: On a hot Fourth of July afternoon, Ben, 24, went for a walk to a park near my East Mountains home after feasting on hot dogs and a few beers and never returned. He did not appear intoxicated. He did not appear sad. We had tickets to the Albuquerque Isotopes game and planned to leave around 5:30 p.m. Ben, who was looking forward to the game, left for the park after 4 p.m. and promised to return in plenty of time.

That’s where what we know ends.

I drove to the park to find him. He wasn’t there. I took different routes, thinking he might be on his way back home.

We never made it to the game.

We spent the rest of the night searching the neighborhood and the forest behind my house and tried not to worry. Ben had been homeless before. He can sleep anywhere, even sitting up. We imagined him napping under a tree, oversleeping and deciding to wait to return home at daylight.

But there were big cracks in our scenario. Ben has a serious life-threatening medical condition and requires a regimen of medications that he takes religiously at 8:30 each night, setting an alarm on his phone, carrying his plastic gray satchel of pill bottles with him should there be any chance he might not be home in time to take them. That day, he did not take his pills with him.

Ben is something of a free spirit but not a careless one. He does not just fail to show up. He does not leave his phone behind, though this time he did. He would let someone know where he is.

In the morning when he did not return, we called the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and heard the words so many people whose loved ones vanish hear: There is nothing to be done. He is an adult. Getting lost is not against the law.

At the time, we did not know Ben’s birth date, so even if the deputies had been willing, they could not take a missing person report.

That afternoon, Ben’s mother persuaded the Albuquerque Police Department to file that report, even though Ben had not disappeared in its jurisdiction.

State Police also contacted me to see if there was anything they could do.

And dozens of Ben’s friends, alerted by his two older sisters and an amazing social media network, began to gather at my house to launch a search of their own for Ben.

Then inexplicably, thankfully, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office had a change of heart, sent out more deputies and assigned detective Kyle Woods to the case.

By the second full day of Ben’s disappearance, a full search effort was under way. Roadblocks were set up on the road that leads to my neighborhood. Deputies went door to door, searched properties, queried motorists. Volunteers joined with members of the search and rescue team to scour the national forest that abuts the neighborhood. Cadaver dogs were called in.

The photo I took of Ben three weeks ago became the face you see on missing persons fliers, posters, on social media, on TV news and in the Journal.

Ben is still missing.

The search was suspended Thursday evening. The investigation turns now to detective work – checking messages on the cellphone left behind, tracking electronic activity, pursuing tips. It is a helpless feeling, knowing there is little more we who are not detective Woods can do beyond keeping our eyes and ears open, contacting more friends, passing out fliers, praying, hoping.

So we do that.

We also know this: Ben is a happy young man despite the hardships life has thrown at him. He is smart, well-liked, possibly too amiable, too easy to fall for people he shouldn’t fall for. He is working toward becoming a nurse. He dreams of moving to Australia someday and, until then, eating burgers made of kangaroo meat. He was the last friend to leave the celebration of life we held after my son’s death. And then when his living arrangement became untenable in May, he asked if he could move in.

It felt like I had lost a son but gained another one.

I hope I haven’t lost another one now. I hope his photo glows on my cellphone screen again someday soon.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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