The Disappearance of Brian Shaffer

Brian Shaffer
Brian Shaffer

Brian Shaffer (born February 25, 1979) was a medical student at The Ohio State University. On the night of March 31, 2006, he went out with friends to celebrate the beginning of spring break; later he was separated from them and they assumed he had gone home. However, a security camera near the entrance to a bar recorded him briefly talking to two women just before 2 a.m., April 1, and then apparently re-entering the bar. He has not been seen or heard from since. The case has received national media attention.

Shaffer’s disappearance has been particularly puzzling to investigators since there was no other publicly accessible entrance to the bar at that time. Columbus police have several theories as to what happened, some interest and suspicion has been directed at a friend of Shaffer’s who accompanied him that night but has declined to take lie detector tests related to the incident. While foul play has been suspected, including the possible involvement of the purported Smiley Face serial killer, it has also been speculated that he might be alive and living somewhere else.

Background

Shaffer grew up in Pickerington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, the state capital, where The Ohio State University (OSU) is located, the older of Randy and Renee Shaffer’s two sons. He graduated from the local high school in 1997 and went to OSU for his undergraduate work. Six years later he graduated with a degree in microbiology.

Following that, he began studies at Ohio State University College of Medicine in 2004. During his second year there, in March 2006, his mother Renee died of myelodysplasia. His friends say that although he appeared to be handling it well, her death was hard for him.

Brian and his mother
Brian and his mother

Renee was not the only woman important in Brian’s life. He had become romantically involved with a fellow second-year medical student, Alexis Waggoner. She, along with their families and friends, believed that Brian would probably be proposing marriage to her later that year, most likely on a trip to Miami the couple had planned for spring break at the beginning of April.

Tropical locations such as Miami were also attractive to Brian, he liked the relaxed lifestyles. He told his friends that despite his decision to pursue a medical career, his real ambition was to start a band playing music in the vein of Jimmy Buffett.

Disappearance

On March 31, a Friday, classes at OSU ended for spring break the next week. Brian and Randy Shaffer, his father, celebrated the occasion by going out for a steak dinner together earlier that evening. The older man noted that his son seemed exhausted from having pulled all-nighters earlier in the week cramming for some important upcoming exams. He did not think Brian should go out with a friend, William “Clint” Florence, later that night as he planned to do, but did not express his reservations to his son.

At 9 p.m., Brian met Florence at the Ugly Tuna Saloona, a seafood restaurant and bar in the South Campus Gateway complex on High Street. An hour later, Brian called Waggoner, who had returned to her home in Toledo to visit with her family before the two went to Miami, and told her he loved her. He and Florence went bar-hopping, visiting several other drinking establishments and working their way down to the Arena District. At each stop the two had one shot each of hard liquor, according to Florence.

After midnight, the two met Meredith Reed, a friend of Florence’s, in The Short North. She gave them a ride back to the Ugly Tuna Saloona, where they had started the night, and joined them there for a last round. While the three were there, Brian separated from his companions. Florence and Reed had been trying to find him, repeatedly calling him. They left with other patrons when the bar closed at 2 a.m., waiting outside for Brian. When he was not among the departing crowd, they assumed he had gone back to his apartment without letting them know.

Waggoner and Randy Shaffer both tried to call Brian later that weekend but he did not answer. On Monday morning he missed the flight to Miami he and Waggoner had scheduled long before. He was reported missing to the Columbus police.

Investigation

Police began their search for Brian at the Ugly Tuna, the bar where he had last been seen. Since the area around South Campus Gateway was somewhat blighted, with a high crime rate, the bar had installed security cameras. They reviewed the footage, which showed Brian, Florence and Reed going up an escalator to the bar’s main entrance at 1:15 a.m. Brian was seen outside of the bar around 1:55 a.m., talking briefly with two young women and saying goodbye, then moving off-camera in the direction of the bar, apparently to re-enter. The camera did not record him leaving shortly afterwards when the Ugly Tuna closed; that was the last time he was seen.

It was possible, investigators realized, that he could have changed his clothes in the bar or put on a hat and kept his head down, hiding his face from the camera. The cameras might also have missed him—one panned across the area constantly, and the other was operated manually. He might have also left the building by another route. However, the building’s only other exit, a service door not generally used by the public, opened at the time onto a construction site that officers believed would have been difficult to walk through while sober, much less intoxicated, as Brian likely was at the time.

Since Columbus has the most security cameras of any city in Ohio, more than Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo combined, officers next looked to the footage from other bars to see if cameras there could explain how Brian had left the Ugly Tuna. However, footage from cameras at three other nearby bars showed no trace of Brian.

The search began to fan out from the Ugly Tuna, with officers, sometimes accompanied by police dogs, looking closely in the street, inspecting dumpsters and other waste containers and asking residents if they had seen him. Flyers of Brian’s picture, showing a tattoo on his upper right arm of a stick figure logo from the cover artwork for the single of “Alive” by Pearl Jam, one of his favorite bands, and noting a distinctive fleck in one of his irises, were posted widely. The police even persuaded the city to let them into the sewer system and search there.

No useful information was uncovered. At Brian’s apartment on King Avenue six blocks from the Ugly Tuna, his car was still parked outside. Inside, nothing appeared amiss.

After searching miles away from the bar in every direction, police began to consider other possibilities besides an accident or foul play. Since his mother had recently died, it was speculated he had gone away temporarily to grieve in solitude. Yet, his disappearance proved permanent. No evident reasons appeared for him voluntarily disappearing.

Those who had seen Brian that evening, including his father, were asked to take lie detector tests. Reed and Randy Shaffer passed theirs, as did reportedly all the others, while Florence refused. The two women Brian had last been seen talking to were later identified; they said in 2009 that they had never been asked to take one themselves.

Waggoner called Brian’s phone every evening before going to bed for a long time after the disappearance. Usually it went to voicemail, but one night in September it actually rang three times. “I kept calling it to hear it purely because it was one of the best sounds I have ever heard, even if no one picked up”, she wrote on her MySpace page. Cingular, Brian’s wireless provider, said it might have been a glitch that caused a different phone to ring. His phone was not GPS-enabled so its location could not be determined. A ping from the phone was detected at a cell tower in Hilliard, 14 miles (23 km) northwest of Columbus.

The police received many tips, none of which resulted in any breakthroughs in the case. At a Pearl Jam concert later that year in Cincinnati, lead singer Eddie Vedder took time between songs to ask for tips in Brian’s disappearance, but none of those were useful either. Possible sightings in Michigan, Texas and even Sweden were investigated.

Randy Shaffer, who had recently suffered the death of his wife, continued the search for his son on his own. A psychic he consulted told him Brian’s body was in water near a bridge pier. He and Derek, Brian’s brother, along with some other citizens who had become interested in the case, bought waders and spent much of their free time along the shores of the Olentangy River, which flows through Columbus adjacent to the OSU campus, searching in vain for the body near bridges.

This possibility also led police to briefly consider the heavily disputed Smiley face murder theory. Brian Shaffer, under this theory, would be the killer’s only victim whose body had not yet been found. Columbus police eventually rejected any connection to the alleged killer in Brian’s case, following the lead of most law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, that have looked into it.

Death of Randy Shaffer

In September 2008, during a heavy windstorm in Central Ohio, Randy Shaffer was out in the yard of his Baltimore home clearing debris. A branch blew off from a nearby tree and fatally struck him. Neighbors found his body the next morning and called police.

Brian and Randy Shaffer
Brian and Randy Shaffer

After his obituary ran online, a condolence book was posted. One of the signatures in it said “To Dad, love Brian (U.S. Virgin Islands)”. This suggested Brian might have left Columbus for a new life elsewhere. However, upon further investigation the note was found to have been posted from a computer accessible to the public in Franklin County; it was determined to be a hoax.

Subsequent developments

Shortly after Randy Shaffer’s death, Neil Rosenberg, attorney for Florence, wrote to Don Corbett, a private investigator who has volunteered his time to help the Shaffer family find Brian, regarding his client’s ongoing refusal to take a lie detector test. Rosenberg intimated that he had learned that the Columbus police investigating the case believed Brian was alive.

In April 2009, The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper, disclosed the exchange. “If Brian is alive, which is what I’m led to believe after speaking with the detective involved, then it is Brian, and not Clint who is causing his family pain and hardship,” Rosenberg wrote. “Brian should come forward and end this.” Florence, he said, did not have anything to hide, he had merely told everything he knew from the beginning and did not see the value of doing so again.

Rosenberg’s assertions notwithstanding, many of those who were close to Brian have criticized Florence for not being forthcoming enough. “As soon as the detective started getting involved, that’s when he pretty much had no contact with anybody,” recalled Derek Shaffer, Brian’s brother and last surviving immediate family member. “I’ve always thought he definitely knows something–just won’t come forward with it.” He believes it is still possible that Brian is alive, and Florence knows where he might have gone. Shaffer’s girlfriend at the time, Alexis Waggoner, also thinks Florence is withholding information. However, she believes it’s likely that her former boyfriend is dead. “I can’t imagine he would have just done that.”

In 2014, the Columbus police said they were still receiving at least two tips a month on the case via the local Crime Stoppers hotline, though none had proven useful. The evidence in the case filled four boxes of files. One of the original investigators, Andre Edwards, told Columbus Monthly that after extensive review of the camera footage at the Ugly Tuna from the night Brian disappeared, he could “say with 100-percent certainty” that Brian did not leave via the escalator. Police say they have three theories of the case but declined to discuss them even generally with the magazine.

Legacy

Between Brian’s disappearance and his own death, Randy Shaffer joined the families of other missing adults in Ohio in lobbying the state legislature to pass a bill establishing a statewide protocol for such cases. At the time Brian disappeared, it was left up to individual departments how to handle the cases, and some parents felt that investigations into their relatives’ disappearances had suffered as a result. By the time Randy died, the bill had become law.

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