The past caught up with Ed Greer in Houston.
FBI agents walked into his office, wanting to know if the tall, bearded man masquerading under the name of Kenneth Roy Hearn was a drug runner or a money launderer.
Instead, the agents found a software engineer seeking anonymity, a man whose sudden disappearance from a fast-track job at Hughes Aircraft Co. seven years ago made him a cult figure of rebellion against the corporate world.
Each September, his former co-workers at El Segundo-based Hughes celebrated the day of his flight as a holiday of sorts, with a party featuring large photographs and masks suggesting that he had gone off to a world free of corporate cares--often picturing him on the beach with beautiful women.
One month after the latest Ed Greer Day, however, the FBI was knocking at his door.
Since then, Greer has told his father and his former wife where he is. This week, he began calling his old friends at Hughes.
His former co-workers learned that Greer had, in fact, lived out many of the fantasies they had dreamed up. He spent two years on the beaches in Ft. Lauderdale, the Florida Keys and the Bahamas, before settling in Houston.
But even as Greer insisted that he had discovered a lower-key life, and now was relieved to be free of deception at last, the future was not without obstacles.
There is a criminal case stemming from his use of another man's Social Security number, for one thing. He has to settle a tax bill that could amount to almost $80,000.
And there is the problem of explaining how he could have abandoned his parents, wife and two sons without so much as a phone call or birthday card in seven years.
"I will never forgive him for what he did to the boys," said Greer's former wife, Kit Clark, now happily remarried and living in Northern California--and bitterly opposed to his attempts to re-establish a relationship with the two sons he left behind.
"Anyone with any attachment to the human race couldn't do what he did."
Greer insists he is trying to make amends. His long silence, he said this week, "is hard to explain to people but, in my mind, that whole past was someone who had died . . . ."
"Ed Greer in my mind was gone."
A decade ago, he epitomized the company man on the way up. At first a casually dressed engineer who engaged in the usual office banter at Hughes, the UCLA graduate was promoted to management at the aerospace giant and promptly bought five three-piece suits--one for each day of the workweek.
Subordinates say he cut out the chit-chat and became a stickler for deadlines. His boss, Dick Connett, said Greer hungered for promotion. Even his personal life--a nice home in Ladera Heights, a lovely wife with whom he rarely argued and two young sons--smacked of suitability for ascending the corporate ladder.
But on Sept. 9, 1981, he cautioned a co-worker: "Never become too good at something you hate. They'll make you do it the rest of your life."
The next day, Greer, then 33, disappeared.
Hughes officials found his car--his wallet and clothing inside--near the beach in Venice and feared that he might have drowned. That theory evaporated--and the mystery deepened--when another Hughes employee spotted Greer, dressed in jeans, on a shuttle bus near Los Angeles International Airport about midnight on the day he left. "You haven't seen me," Greer told the man.
Corporate day-dreamers soon theorized that Greer was lounging on the sand somewhere. Hughes employees started keeping pictures of Greer, always smiling, in their offices. They treasured copies of his old memos.
The cult flowered with increasingly elaborate annual celebrations of his disappearance. Last September's fete took the form of a mock political convention at a Manhattan Beach tavern to nominate the missing engineer as the presidential candidate of the "Hughesocratic" party. People wore "Ed" masks, straw hats and badges with slogans such as "Put Down Your Beer and Vote for Greer."
His father, a multimillionaire businessman who lives in Sacramento, set private investigators across the country working on the case by offering a $100,000 reward to anyone who found his son. He offered his son $1 million for a "consultation."
In a long telephone interview from Houston, Ed Greer tried to explain why he walked away without a word.
"I felt trapped. I really hated management," he said. " . . . I could do the management job but I didn't have much interest in it. I took long walks on the beach. At lunch, I would change into cutoffs and walk and walk. The walks got longer and longer. I didn't like my life."
He felt family pressures as well, he said, from his father's financial success and dominating personality and the expectations of his wife.
"I really didn't plan on leaving. One day I just walked away from it all," he said.
With four gold krugerrands in his pocket, Greer said, he caught a plane to Ft. Lauderdale. He worked at fixing boat engines and installing marine electronics when he needed cash. He visited the Florida Keys and the Bahamas when he was flush.
In short, he said, he "spent a couple of years bumming around."
He did hang out at the beach a lot.
"Yes, I did," he said. "There are a lot of pretty girls on the beach."
But the new life involved deception as much as his old life--he constantly had to change names.
"After a while, I got tired of never having enough money and never having an ID," he said. And he grew bored with superficial relationships with the "girls on the beach."
"Unfortunately, about the time you get to know them, they've gone back to Muncie," he said. "After a while, you want something more permanent."
When he decided to go back to work, he placed an ad for an engineer. When Kenneth Roy Hearn answered the ad, Greer assumed his name, Social Security number and resume and applied for a job in Houston, according to authorities in Texas.
Using his new identity, he got a job with Input-Output Inc., a small oil exploration firm based in Houston.
His references were from a company that had gone bankrupt "so they couldn't check."
He said he never intended to stay--"I knew it would catch up with me"--but "Ken" enjoyed his job. He didn't have to wear a tie, let alone a three-piece suit. And he met Vickie Hogg, an accountant and attorney in Exxon's tax department. He eventually moved in with her.
Greer said he was earning less than a third of his salary at Hughes, but that the old pressures seemed far away. He was living for himself, "not living up to what my parents, my wife, my bosses want," he said.
Greer said he intended to tell Hogg his real identity, but somehow never got around to it.
Trying to conceal his identity meant many nervous moments, he said.
"I run into guys in parking lots and malls who think they know me," he said. "I stand there breathing real hard inside but it turns out to be someone else."
The IRS began an investigation after discovering that there were two people using the name and Social Security number of Kenneth Roy Hearn. Agents summoned the real Hearn, who lives in Alabama, for an audit.
The FBI came to the phony Hearn's office last Oct. 12 and soon he was under arrest.
"The federal charge that he was investigated on was possession of a false Social Security card number. It's a felony. The maximum sentence is five years and/or a fine of $250,000," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Don De Gabrielle, who handled the case in Houston.
Greer said he realized he would have to tell the FBI the truth--and he did. But he stayed in a federal lockup for two days while agents ran his fingerprints to establish that he was Ed Greer, who for years had been one of the 65,000 missing persons on record at the agency's National Crime Information Center.
"As far as they are concerned, if you are running away, you are running away from a murder or from the law," Greer said of the FBI. "They can't imagine that you are running from personal things. Once they found out that I wasn't running drugs or laundering money, they lost interest."
In jail, Greer began to abandon the pretense he had lived for so long. He told his live-in girlfriend, who bailed him out. "I was surprised. We had been together for a long time," Hogg said in a telephone interview. The couple still plan to marry and have children.
He also re-established contact with his father, who flew to Houston to help him out. Both men cried at the reunion.
"That was just the happiest day of my life," the younger Greer said.
In court, prosecutor De Gabrielle took a lenient view of the case. "The main inconvenience that was suffered by anyone was suffered by (the real) Mr. Hearn, who had to go through the audit and clear up a number of things," he said.
Greer was placed in a pretrial diversionary program, under which no federal indictment will be brought if he stays out of trouble for 12 months. He also must pay about $78,000 in back taxes for 1986 and 1987, according to court papers.
Not everyone is happy that Greer has resurfaced.
His former wife said she got a call from him late last year.
"He said the same thing again and again. 'The past is the past and I am sure you wish I don't exist, but I do exist.' The same stock phrases. He never said he was sorry for all the hell I put you through," Kit Clark said.
In discussing Greer last September, Clark recalled how his disappearance was devastating at first, but then turned into "the best thing" for her. She divorced him in absentia, gained training as a marriage counselor and started a new, more open and happier family life, she said.
When Greer told her recently that he wants to see the boys, now 9 and 16, Clark talked it over with her new husband, who had a scornful response: "What does he think? That it was a seven-year vacation?"
Although she told her sons they could contact their long-missing father if they wanted to, she said she told Greer: "If your parents want you back, that's fine. But around here, nobody hates you, but nobody likes you. Nobody loves you, nobody wants you around."
In her eyes, he has not changed at all.
"His life is exactly like it was when he left. He is living in a big city, working in electronics, computers. He sent pictures of him sitting at a computer that I've seen before. He even has a red sports car like he used to have a red sports car. He is no different. He is just as cold."
Ed Greer said he was not surprised by the cool reception.
"I hurt a lot of people--my parents, my ex-wife and my kids," he said. "I really regret doing this. If I had to do it over again, I would do it differently."
What did surprise Greer after seven years was to learn about the legend that grew up around him at Hughes and the widespread publicity that it received. Articles on the annual Ed Greer party appeared throughout the United States and as far away as Singapore, but he never saw them.
Greer said he dreaded telling his friends at Hughes. In fact, it was only the thought that they might learn about him from a newspaper that prompted him to make the first calls to them Wednesday.
"This is Ed," said the voice from Houston when Greer's former boss Connett picked up the phone.
Among Hughes employees, the reaction was relief mixed with a regret of sorts.
"I'm glad he is OK and found alive and well," said Sherry McCullough, Greer's former secretary.
"But it is kind of disappointing that the mystery is gone. I'm not sure we can have any more parties unless we invite him. I'm not sure he would want to come."
Greer, indeed, shuddered at the thought.
"A mass party? No. I never wanted to be a cult figure."