On July 16, 2009, when a Wyoming Highway Patrol car pulled up to a maroon 1996 Ford Explorer left empty on the side of Interstate 25, nothing seemed amiss. A patrolman left a sticker on the window of what appeared to be just another breakdown, warning that the Ford would be towed if the owner didn't move it.
The patrolman soon drove on through rural Converse County, near a speck of a town called Douglas. A search of the SUV would show that the Ford's driver had tucked the ignition key neatly beneath a floor mat and left a laptop computer just hidden from view under clothes. The Ford had three-quarters of a tank of gas, no mechanical problems and a newly installed tire.
The Ford held not a single clue, however, as to where its driver, 22-year-old Bradyn Fuksa of Olathe, had gone.
The stretch of I-25 where Fuksa abandoned his car cuts through a lightly populated part of the nation's least populated state. A nine-hour drive from Yellowstone National Park, Douglas lacks the mountains of Wyoming's more famous terrain. In contrast to what passes for a big city here — Cheyenne, Casper, Laramie — Converse County contains about 13,000 souls tossed like shaken salt over a little more than five square miles. Unless you're visting the uranium mine or the restored POW building that housed Germans and Italians during World War II, the county is not a destination.
Detective Kenton Thompson of the Olathe Police Department searches for missing persons. He has worked on Fuksa's case for more than a year. He says the Ford's location is strange.
"I can't make sense of that," Thompson says. "Obviously he wasn't trying to hide the vehicle. Because that's probably the most obvious place to leave a car, is alongside the interstate. You know troopers are going to check on it. So I don't know why he did that."
Wyoming is where Fuksa's 700-mile highway trek ended, but it may not have been the last stop on a journey that began July 6, 2009. On that day, authorities say, Fuksa stole more than $1,000 from the Olathe Bass Pro Shop, where he worked in loss prevention.
The theft was not the stuff of heist thrillers. Fuksa was no criminal mastermind with a plan to block camera sightlines and manipulate till changes. His parents speculate that he was responsible for carrying cash from the checkout lanes to a secure office and that he might have lightened the load along the way. (The store refused to comment for this story.) Prior to being accused of the theft, Fuksa's worst scrape with the law was a speeding ticket in 2007.
Fuksa, according to his family, cooperated with police after store management confronted him about the theft. His family says he returned some of the cash but was arrested July 9 and spent the night in the New Century Adult Detention Center in Gardner, Kansas.
The criminal complaint is little more than a single paragraph defining a Level 9 felony theft (the lowest level felony). Thompson says it's likely no one told Fuksa that with no previous arrests, the night of his incarceration would likely have been his only time locked up.
"There were a lot of options there that didn't necessarily include prison terms or very serious punishment like that," Thompson explains. "Whether he realized that or not, I don't know. The perception is that maybe he didn't. And that maybe he thought, 'Boy this is it. I'm really in deep over this felony theft.' Was it a problem? Yes. And obviously the warrant remains active, and it's an issue he'll have to deal with. If he had just stayed around and went to court and taken care of it in whichever way he chose to ... probation would have been the likely outcome."
Instead, Fuksa fled.
On July 19, 2009, three days after the Explorer was tagged, Fuksa's parents, Todd and Starla, filed a missing-persons report with the Olathe police. The following Friday, they drove to Douglas to retrieve the car they'd bought for their son in high school. At Thompson's direction, they examined it for clues about their son's destination and well-being. They discovered the car in eerily good shape, as if Fuksa had just parked it a few minutes earlier. There was no blood or signs of struggle. But there were clues that he had been prepared for a long retreat. Clothes had been tossed around the rear of the Explorer as though he had sorted through them in a hurry, deciding what to take and what was expendable. His laptop was in the backseat, covered with clothes to obscure it from the view of passers-by.
Starla Fuksa says what shook her was the sight of something else her son had left behind.
"His gummy worms," she says. "He always had gummy worms in his pockets. I thought it was weird that he would leave them there."
A few other things in the car confounded the Fuksas. Bradyn hadn't taken his Carhartt jacket, for example — a sturdy garment that he usually didn't go without.
"He didn't take anything warm," Starla says, recalling that Bradyn had also left behind thermal underwear. She says her son knew to pack for cold in prairie and mountainous regions, even in July. "We had been in Colorado the summer before, and it snowed. He had extra clothes and he didn't take those."
The '96 Explorer has a keypad for entering a code to get in without a key. Bradyn, Starla says, feared losing his car key, so he left the key beneath the driver's-side floor mat, always using the code to unlock the car when he returned. When Todd and Starla unlocked the Explorer and saw the key in its usual spot, they understood that Bradyn was sending them a message. He appeared to have left the car as a tidy package, not wishing to cause any further problems.
"There was certainly no indication of foul play," Thompson says. "Almost as if he was intentionally leaving it there to be found, so his parents could have it back."
Inside the car, Starla found what would be the first solid clue in her son's disappearance. It was a receipt from an auto-repair shop in Wheatland, Wyoming, about an hour south of Douglas. A tow driver later told police that he had fixed a tire for Fuksa on the morning of July 16. Fuksa paid the man for a used tire and set off again, but he drove only about another hour. By noon that day, the highway patrol had stickered the abandoned Explorer, having missed him by only an hour and 15 minutes.
After locking his car, which had plenty of gas and a fresh tire, Fuksa appears to have turned off his cell phone and walked alone or hitchhiked farther into the Cowboy State. All he had with him, his family believes, was a small blue Nike duffel bag, the Dockers boots on his feet, a pocket knife, and his parents' 9 mm Beretta handgun that he helped himself to shortly before driving west.
In photos that the family placed on "missing" fliers, Fuksa is a tanned, muscular young man with a pristine smile and close-cropped hair. (Starla usually cut her son's hair.) His mug shot, however, shows a different man. With a gray bib draped over his shoulders and chest, Fuksa is waxen, with sallow lips and eyes wide in seeming disbelief about where he has ended up.
In the days before he vanished, Fuksa concealed his haphazard plan well. He spent the night of July 14 with a woman he was dating. Then he told his roommate that he was spending the next night at his parents' house. (They were out of town at the time.) Instead, he took the gun from his parents' home and, while he was there, transferred $800 from their bank account to his. He also found time to casually text his mother about his dad's choice in movies, then collect the transferred $800 in cash from a bank drive-through. By July 16, the day he was due in court, Fuksa was in Wyoming, and nobody knew it. He had been gone four days before his parents realized anything was seriously wrong.
Thompson says he is fairly certain that the theft charge is why Bradyn Fuksa left the area and cut ties with his family. Still, while discussing the young man, Thompson makes it clear that the search is a missing-persons case, not a criminal manhunt. During an interview at the Olathe Police Department, Thompson hoists a 4-inch binder, with Fuksa's "missing" flier slipped under the plastic on the front cover. The binder overflows with documents — leads and other bits of information that Thompson and the Fuksas hope will lead to finding the missing man. The department wouldn't put this much work into chasing a suspect over a simple theft charge, he says.
A large reason that Thompson's binder is dictionary-thick is Fuksa's parents. Starla and Todd are experienced at sorting through tips and knowing which ones are good and which are bogus, after a year and a half of methodically blanketing just about every truck stop, Salvation Army store and Catholic church in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and parts of southern Canada with missing fliers. And Starla says she has learned to keep her emotions in check when she follows new leads.
The leads tend to be disappointing. There was the time that a man from the Northeast called Thompson after seeing a poster of Bradyn, which included two photos of him with different haircuts. The tipster was positive that he had seen "the boys" at a truck stop. It took a few minutes before he grasped that there were two photos of one person. Sightings that appear to be legitimate offer both optimism and heartache. "It's a horrible, horrible cycle," Starla says.
"You can't pin everything on one phone call," she says. "It's going to be the one phone call that helps us, but there are going to be hundreds in between there that don't."
Bradyn Fuksa's family began to think that he had committed a form of lifestyle suicide. No more scraping rent money together by making sure no one shoplifted shotgun shells or camo-print boots from Bass Pro's climate-controlled wilderness. It was time for the real outdoors. After all, he knew how to survive outside.
When Fuksa was a senior at Olathe East High School, Todd and Starla wanted to buy him a class ring, just as they had for his two older sisters. Fuksa didn't want a sentimental piece of jewelry, though. Instead, he asked for a lifetime hunting license. His parents obliged.
Bradyn, his parents say, loved nothing more than being outdoors and hunting and fishing. "He got his first gun when he was six months old — a Colt .22 pistol," Starla recalls. Between receiving the firearm and growing hands large enough to hold it, the boy accompanied Todd on hunting trips. Bradyn's BB gun was a kind of teething ring in the gun-owning Fuksa family. By age 10, he had mastered gun safety.
He also was skilled at fishing and had his first taste of camping by his second birthday. Starla says he was creative and determined enough that all he often needed was a string, bait and a hook. "He was MacGyver on fishing poles," she says, laughing.
After high school graduation, when his peers went off to college or careers, Fuksa lingered around his parents' Olathe home. He dabbled for a year at a community college but didn't return. (His dyslexia didn't help.) His dream, his mother says, was to work as a game warden in Montana. He had looked into a training program but never applied.
Fuksa remained a fixture at his parents' house even after he moved out. He often stayed the night before early morning shifts at the store and stopped in during lunch breaks. He spent time with the family's yellow Lab, Katie, whose health was failing. "That was her person," Starla says of the dog's fondness for Bradyn. "A lot of times he would lie on the floor with her and talk to her."
Despite the closeness with his parents, Fuksa had hidden his financial struggles and arrest. They knew he had been short on cash recently, that his hours at work had been cut. With their blessing, he occasionally transferred cash online from their account to his, with a promise to repay them. But Fuksa hadn't told them that he had been late paying rent in June and July. One day shortly before he left, after mowing the family's lawn, Starla asked him if he needed any cash. He said no.
"I said, 'Well, if you need to move home, you can.' And he just laughed at me and said, 'No, Mom, I'm OK.'"
He surfaces. He is in this area," says Linda Curl, who serves lunch at a Salvation Army Community Center in Cheyenne. Curl called Thompson last February, after she'd seen a flier about Fuksa's disappearance. She told him that Fuksa was eating and taking free bread there.
"He was way too clean-cut and way too polite for our people," she says. "He's in line with people that haven't washed their clothes in six months."
Curl first noticed the man whom she says is Bradyn Fuksa because he seemed ignorant of how the free lunch service worked. He came in with another man, she says, and went straight to the serving window for food, bypassing the line. It was a rookie mistake. "He had no clue. I really felt like he had never done that before," Curl says.
Last summer, Fuksa's parents, Thompson, authorities from Converse County and dozens of volunteers had conducted a ground search near the highway. They found no signs of a camp, and no human remains turned up. Authorities concluded that he hadn't stayed in the immediate area. Todd and Starla spent more than two weeks last summer searching and contacting authorities. They got in touch with game wardens, hoping to learn that Fuksa had been cited for fishing or hunting illegally. Neither attempt yielded any solid tips. Thompson also placed Fuksa's dental records and DNA profile in national databases, so that, if he died, his remains could be identified.
Thompson thought Curl's tip was the best yet, though he had doubts about it — more than a week had elapsed between Curl's sighting of the man and the arrival of the Fuksa fliers in Cheyenne. But last month, Thompson obtained a receipt from the same Salvation Army, detailing clothes given to someone who had signed his name "Brad Fuksa." Starla says the handwriting doesn't match her son's, but the signature is similar to his.
Curl tells The Pitch that Fuksa was in the center for lunch on December 20. She adds that people say he's been sighted at McDonald's and in the checkout line at King Soopers grocery store.
"He hasn't lost any weight or anything like that," Curl says. "He's not showing signs of wear, so I would take it that he's not homeless." She says he was wearing a Carhartt jacket.
Thompson says he is coming around to the idea that Fuksa has put down roots in the area, noting that this is the third time people at the Salvation Army have claimed to have contact with him. He asked Cheyenne police to drop by the Salvation Army and a shelter a couple of days later, but Fuksa wasn't there.
"When I got that [receipt], quite honestly, is when I finally started to finally accept that maybe they are seeing him there," he says.
But Fuksa has no known ties to Cheyenne, didn't drive directly there, and had refrained from identifying himself until this receipt surfaced. Why would someone in hiding put a close variation of his own name to paper? And if he still didn't want to be found, why would he stay in one place for almost a year?
"I was a little surprised, assuming that it is him, that he's stayed put out there," Thompson says. "I really kind of figured that when he took off, he went further away than that. Maybe he didn't."
Lacking evidence that Fuksa is living in the wilderness, and with good leads in Cheyenne, Fuksa's flight now seems less about leaving behind the modern world than the simple fear of a jail sentence. But if Fuksa is, in fact, dining at the Salvation Army, bargain shopping at the supermarket and ordering up Big Macs like any other Cheyenne resident, his disappearance is no less mysterious. Why didn't he ask for help after his arrest? Why Wyoming? Why did he leave the Explorer?
The new sightings have thrust Fuksa into an awkward dance with those looking for him. Thompson and Fuksa's parents want him to keep coming into the community center to ensure that he is alive and in good health, but they don't want him to sense a trap and stop making appearances. Starla says they will return to the area to look for him this year. Until then, she and her husband must hope that their son stays in the area — and that the man Curl claims to have seen really is Fuksa.
"When we first got fliers, I ran copies and put copies on every door and put them on tables and in the lunch-line window," Curl says. "And that may have been a mistake because he disappeared after that for quite a while."
It's a fear that Starla shares. "We're afraid that if he sees it, then he'll think that the trouble is worse than what he thought and he'll run again," she says.
Starla and Todd, who have relocated to Amarillo, Texas, for Todd's job with ConocoPhillips, have friends and colleagues in the Cheyenne area who continue to scour the region's homeless enclaves. Todd occasionally works in Cheyenne and drives the streets at night hoping that his son materializes out of the shadows or emerges from the lobby of a low-rent hotel.
"He's letting himself be seen, so is this a sign that maybe he's understanding what he did more?" Starla asks.
Until Fuksa makes his desires plain, though, or gets picked up by police, Todd and Starla Fuksa are condemned to wondering about where their son is. His phone hasn't been turned on since he texted Starla in July 2009, but they keep paying the monthly bill, just in case he decides to call home.
"It's the unknown that tears you up inside," Starla says of 500 nights spent wondering if her son ate or is warm or is having trouble with his asthma. "Whoever coined that phrase that 'time heals all' is a crackpot, because time doesn't heal all. Time makes it worse."