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."