The Search


Needle in a Haystack

The way I see it the search for my brother was actually two separate efforts, divided by time and technology. The first search - conducted by my mother, father, brother, and a private investigator - was launched immediately after Jimmy went missing. It yielded some critical clues, some of which would only fall into place many years later. It also produced numerous puzzling questions and brick walls. During this first phase we learned that Jimmy had taken a red-eye flight from San Francisco to Miami to purchase a large quantity of Colombian marijuana from people he probably did not know well or directly. We learned that he was traveling under an assumed name: Richard Gunning. We uncovered names and numbers of a few individuals in Citrus County in Florida’s Gulf Coast area and in Miami, several of whom he had established contact with through friends here in the Bay Area.

For some reason my parents latched onto the idea early on that Jimmy never actually left Miami and didn’t mail the postcard himself. They believed that he was duped into using the alias, coerced into writing the postcard to throw people off the trail, then robbed and murdered. They concluded that his killer(s) traveled up to the Gulf and dropped the postcard into the mail in Inglis themselves. A Bay Area psychic once told my mother that Jimmy had been robbed and murdered in or around Miami, his body dumped into the Everglades. She said she saw visions of palm trees and a hotel with “Flamingo” in the name. I remember thinking at the time that it was as if the psychic just pulled Florida stereotypes out of the air and combined them into a story for my desperate mother, and it made me angry, then and now.

Something happened about 18 months after Jimmy disappeared that changed everything. My mother was totally frustrated by the lack of results - despite the family’s efforts to get answers - and she had fallen into depression. I was in the kitchen one morning at our home in Fairfield, CA and my mother walked in, beaming. “Jimmy came to me last night,” she said, “and he told me that I don’t need to worry about him anymore, that he’s at peace.” I set the newspaper down and stared at her. “What do you mean ‘he came to you’ Mom?” I asked, “Did you see his ghost or did you have a dream?” “No,” she said, “not exactly.” She told me that she was jarred awake in the middle of the night from a deep sleep and that he was there, moving through the room in a form unlike anything she’d ever experienced. She said she couldn’t see him and she didn’t hear his voice in the traditional sense, but that he was there and communicated in a higher way that was perfect, clear, and absolute. After this experience my mother began to emerge from the darkness that she’d been existing in for the last year and a half. The gleam was back in her eyes and she started living her life again. She also scaled back her search for Jimmy.

The Search, Part II

The second search didn’t commence in earnest until I got my first computer in the mid-1990s. My mother kept an old box in the closet, and inside was everything she had that was related to my brother’s disappearance. One day I told Mom that I would like to conduct a new search for Jimmy and asked her if I could take the box. She handed it to me and said, “I hope the computer can help.” When I got home I spread out the contents on my kitchen table and pored over each item and every note. (Because there is an active criminal investigation in progress right now Investigators have asked me not to divulge certain information, including details about the contents of the box, but I can say that the fact that my mother kept records, notes, and items related to her search efforts proved to be a tremendous boon to the second search.) My mother didn’t live long enough to know that it was because she did such a fine job of sleuthing that we finally were successful.

I spent a lot of time in the beginning researching the possibility that my brother was alive and out there somewhere; after all, uncertainty is the crux of the situation in missing persons cases. Whereas my mother knew in her heart and soul that Jimmy was dead, I felt it was disloyal to completely abandon hope. Now that I look back, I guess it’s a blessing that I didn’t accept it early on because that remote hope is what kept me searching, and those early efforts taught me the ropes and prepared me for the more intensive searches I was to undertake later.

2003 was the pivotal year in my search. In January I connected with one of my brother’s closest friends and asked her point blank if she thought there was any chance that Jimmy had disappeared willingly with the intention of starting a new life. Her response was unequivocal: “No. There’s no way he would have put your mother through that pain. He loved her too much to have done that to her.” I had heard this before over the years but for some reason the punch finally landed when I heard it from Linda, perhaps because of the absolute certainty in her voice. I felt that my family couldn’t see things objectively, and then there were the assertions of some of my brother’s friends who believed Jimmy had ripped them off and started a new life elsewhere. Once I accepted Linda’s words as truth I refocused my efforts and concentrated solely on recovering my brother’s remains.

I set about to put my brother’s story up on as many missing persons websites as I could find and soon was dialed into a large community of people working to find the missing and identify the unknown dead. And like those others, I spent countless hours poring over listings of John Does and making inquiries to law enforcement entities, medical examiners, and my fellow amateur sleuths. Sometimes I hit brick walls and felt like I was going in circles. It was at those times that I would take a break from my brother’s case and look at others. I learned an awful lot that way.

In May of 2004 I heard about the California Dept. of Justice Missing Persons DNA Program. According to California Penal Code Section 14250-14251 the family members of missing persons can submit cheek swab specimens for the purpose of developing a genetic profile to use in identifying remains. I contacted Detective Mel Ferro of the City of Fairfield (CA) Police Department and told him that my family wanted to submit samples. He sent away for the test kits and at the end of July in 2004 my siblings, my mother, and I submitted our samples. I distinctly remember feeling like we were on the cutting edge of something very big, something that could be the answer to our prayers. It took over a year for the DNA profile to be completed but once it was on file I felt like our chances were better than they’d ever been. My optimism kicked into high gear.

I’ve been asked what kept me going for so long. The answer is a simple one: I had a picture in my mind of my brother’s bones packed into a box on a dusty shelf somewhere with a fading “John Doe” label affixed. The idea broke my heart. I fought hard against the thought that his remains might be unrecoverable, long since swallowed up by the earth or the sea. Those thoughts would try to creep in on occasion but somehow I never let them take hold. More than anything else, I wanted to bring him home and bury him with dignity.


Anyone with information regarding this investigation is asked to contact
FDLE Special Agent Mike Kennedy at (850) 410-7578.