Two cases: Local folks who just walked away

The disappearance of Owen Young was solved late last month when Albemarle County police announced that he had surfaced in Tampa, Florida.

Given the facts that emerged after Young disappeared in early January, it was hardly surprising to learn that the 60-year-old Charlottesville entrepreneur had vanished by his own design: His car was found the next week at Dulles airport in Northern Virginia, with no signs of foul play; he was known to be having financial difficulties; and, perhaps most significantly, he had disappeared once before, in his twenties.

Such cases– in which a seemingly well-adjusted person intentionally disappears, leaving distraught family and friends to search for answers– are rare. Yet an oddly similar drama played out in Charlottesville in the summer of 1994. Odder still, both people vanished from the same stretch of East Rio Road.

In the earlier case, Joann Pearson disappeared on July 13, 1994, during an early-morning walk. The 53-year-old woman's husband told the Daily Progress that "her absence was completely out of character."

A 100-person search-and-rescue operation– complete with helicopter, tracking dogs, and command post at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center on East Rio Road– was in full swing by late evening, combing the area within a two-mile radius of Pearson's Whitcover Circle home in the Stonehenge development.

The search was called off 48 hours later. Pearson's husband, Frank, told the Progress that "dogs had tracked his wife to Pen Park, where her scent suddenly disappeared, leading [police] to believe she got into a vehicle or was forced into one."

"We were scared to go out the door," Stonehenge resident Kay Roberts recalled recently. "No one knew if somebody took her."

As with Young, who disappeared from his rented townhouse at River Run– which borders Pen Park, where police dogs lost Pearson's scent– there were soon hints that Pearson's disappearance had been planned.

"Rumors... that Pearson is alive and well and living in San Diego have not been proven," County Detective Tommy Grimes told the Progress at the time that police were examining long-distance records and credit-card receipts, looking for a paper trail, but Grimes said that the search had been "far from fruitful."

"If somebody doesn't want to be found," he added, "they don't have to be found. They can stay hidden a long time."

On August 12, 1994, the Progress reported that Pearson had "left of her own free will" and was "safe in another state." Nothing more about the case appeared in the media. Pearson eventually returned and has lived with her husband on Whitcover Circle for a number of years.

Young remains in Florida, where, according to County police Det. Sgt. James Bond, he's working. Young "felt that he needed to get away from this area," Bond says.

Tracey Linkous, who knew Young through a local networking group called the Company of Friends, said, "I wasn't surprised at all" when she heard that Young had arranged to disappear, and added that that had been her assumption ever since she heard he'd done the same thing as a young man.

Young's disappearance has been discussed on cvillenews.com, where one poster, "fdr," had this to say: "He's been found; it's over; his reasons are nobody's business but those to whom he is obligated. I feel bad for his family and was glad to see only minimal coverage until the Hook piece ["Missing Man," June 26, 2003] came out. I for one hope this 'news' dies quickly."

But such cases have consequences. Albemarle County police captain Scott Hambrick, who is no longer with the force, told the Progress, after Pearson had been found, that he couldn't remember a case in the last five or 10 years "that we have put so much effort into." Because most of the searchers were volunteers, Hambrick noted, the search had not significantly drained public coffers, but it did, consume "thousands" of hours of volunteers' time.

Emotional costs were also exacted. Like the women frightened to walk alone after Pearson's disappearance, Owen Young's decision to vanish left its own kind of scars. At a "service of remembrance and appreciation" his friends held June 14 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, the prevailing mood was a mixture of bewilderment and muted grief.

"The Owen we remember," pastor David Takahashi said, "is the Owen who goes forward with us from now on." Presumably that's a different Owen from the one who, by then, was slipping into a new life and shedding the dust of the old.

In Exit the Rainmaker, a 1990 best-seller, Charlottesville writer Jonathan Coleman told the story of Jay Carsey, an outwardly successful Maryland community-college president who, in 1982, abandoned his life.

"I never passed judgment on him," Coleman said in a June interview. "That finally seemed, for him, the only way out– he was thinking about the excitement he was going toward." In Carsey's case, the exciting new life evolved into one that, like the old one, he ultimately abandoned.

"One thing that is a shared trait among people who voluntarily disappear," Coleman added, "is that they're very good at dissembling. It partly comes from an inability to confront weakness." Yet new lives, no matter how much respite from weakness they may appear to offer at first, have a troubling tendency to develop the same old cracks. They also have a tendency to be painful– and expensive– for those left in their wake.