Weary of the frenetic pace of his sales job, Steve Juggert set out a year ago today for the back roads of Western Europe and the Middle East on a journey of self-discovery.
The 30-year-old Orange man began his trip in Spain, carrying with him only a backpack, a camera and a note pad in which to chronicle his adventures.
In his only letter home, postmarked Dec. 19, 1988, Juggert wrote of encountering herds of sheep and goats, visiting quaint mountain villages and meeting warm, friendly natives while hitchhiking through the Spanish countryside.
"So far the trip is going better than I expected," he wrote to his parents. "I am safe and I have not run into any sort of problems."
The letter was followed by a collect phone call to his parents three days later.
Then the communication stopped.
Months later, his parents learned that $1,300 worth of his traveler's checks were cashed in one day at a bank in a Spanish port town, all bearing forged signatures. The checks, family members said, represented almost all the money Juggert took for what was to be a yearlong trip.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. State Department notified the family that four men suspected of robbing hitchhiking tourists had been arrested in Europe, two of them in a Spanish coast town near where Juggert was traveling and the other two in West Germany. The family fears the worst as authorities examine stolen property recovered from the men to see if any of Juggert's belongings are included.
"It is and it isn't our hope that some of Steve's stuff is there," said Bob Oppermann of La Habra, Juggert's brother-in-law. "The fact that we don't have an answer is the hardest part of this. We just need to know one way or another."
The case of Steven Lee Juggert has drawn international scrutiny from law enforcement agencies. The agencies involved include the La Habra Police Department, the State Department, Spain's Guardia Civil and Interpol, the international police agency that is coordinating the investigation.
Although Interpol officials, by policy, would not comment on this or any other pending cases, U.S. officials in Washington and Madrid confirmed Tuesday that they are working with Spanish authorities on the case.
"We are taking this very seriously," said State Department spokesman Phil Covington in Washington.
In Madrid, Begonia Alvarez, a U.S. consulate services assistant, said the Juggert case is the most serious of any now under investigation involving Americans missing in Spain.
"We have Americans that sometimes families call us about, but no one like this," Alvarez said in a telephone interview.
Alvarez confirmed that the police in Spain are investigating two men arrested there last month in connection with a string of robberies, mostly involving hitchhiking tourists. The robberies, she added, have been occurring for several months.
Alvarez said that hitchhiking is just as unsafe in Spain as it is in the United States and many other parts of the world. She noted that Juggert did not register with the local U.S. Embassy and leave an itinerary when he arrived in Spain--an important precaution, she said, for anyone intending to hitchhike unfamiliar back roads, as Juggert told friends and family he was going to do.
Juggert was a novice world traveler. According to his longtime friend, John Davis, Juggert had never ventured outside the United States, "except to Tijuana." He had spent much of his adult life building an impressive sales record at industrial products companies in Orange County.
Davis and others who knew him said Juggert loved sports and was an avid camper. It was this camping experience, Davis said, that helped prepare Juggert for his travels in Europe.
Although Juggert had outperformed many of his fellow salespeople, he found himself out of a job and at a crossroads in life when his Chicago-based employer went out of business in the fall of 1988, Davis said.
That's when he decided to go to Europe and the Middle East.
"He was just going for the nice trip that everyone wants," said Davis, 31, of Long Beach, who grew up with Juggert in Bell.
Frustrated with the "rat race" of Orange County sales, Juggert was searching for something more meaningful, said Davis.
"He wanted to be a writer," Davis said. "He took two books with him: One was the Bible, and the other was a book on grammar so he could study up while he was there."
Juggert left no fixed itinerary. Davis said Juggert told him he planned to visit Spain first, because of its warm Mediterranean climate during December.
"From there he would go to Israel and then to Greece and he would work his way north, to Scandinavia, for the summer," Davis said. "He was basically planning to take a year or until his money ran out. There were no official plans."
Juggert also left behind his former girlfriend, 29-year-old Susan Ramage of Orange, and their 4-year-old daughter, Jenni-Sue, this year's Orange County United Cerebral Palsy poster child. Ramage said Jenni-Sue misses her father and their weekend outings at the park.
"I want to play at park with my daddy," the child said as her mother recounted the frustration of dealing with the disappearance.
"This one needs some answers," Ramage said. "You feel like if you could go to these places, you could turn over the rocks and get some answers. But we're so far away."
Bob Oppermann, who is married to Juggert's only sibling, Laura, said that Juggert's parents were against the trip, especially his father. They were worried about his traveling alone so far from home.
Juggert's parents, Carl and Paula Juggert of Bell, are so distraught over their son's disappearance that they declined to comment. In an Aug. 28 letter to their congressman, the Juggerts expressed their frustration.
"We are deeply upset," they wrote in urging Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Montebello) to initiate speedier U.S. search efforts for their son.
In his only letter home, Juggert gave no hint that anything was amiss. He had been in Spain for 12 days and had hitchhiked from Madrid to Andalusia, a sprawling region of mountains and hills in southern Spain. He had spent the last nine days camping in the mountains, and wrote that he was headed toward Spain's southern beaches.
"The skies are very blue and very clear, except for Madrid," Juggert wrote from the mountain town of Cazorla. "It is so clear you can see Mars or Venus amid millions of stars.
"The people here," he wrote, "are very friendly, also very small. It is little poorer than the U.S. but not too noticable (sic). There are very few fancy cars and fancy homes, but the people live well. They all seem very dignified.
"I have seen no other travelers yet, but I'm sure I will once I get on the coast," Juggert wrote. "I love you all and wish you a Merry Christmas."
Three days later, on Dec. 22, 1988, Juggert telephoned his parents collect. He did not say where he was. The call lasted eight minutes. He promised to write or call again soon.
Family members grew concerned when February rolled around and they still had not heard from him. Oppermann said he called the State Department to try to start an investigation.
"They said he was probably lying on a beach somewhere," Oppermann said.
The family spent the ensuing months waiting and wondering. Finally, in August, they received evidence of foul play--American Express notified them that Juggert's forged traveler's checks all had been cashed in Huelva, an Atlantic coastal town of about 60,000 near the Portuguese border.
A review of American Express records also revealed that the last known place Juggert had been was Mojacar, a village near Cazorla in which he cashed one of his $100 traveler's checks, Oppermann said.
A missing persons investigation was then launched. Oppermann said he was told to file a missing persons report with La Habra police, and then relay pertinent information such as photographs and other identifying information to the State Department.
The family and friends are still waiting by the phone for confirmation of their worst fears.
"My feeling now is everything is in limbo," Davis said. "You want to hold out a little bit of hope that he is alive somewhere. But at this point, I don't see how that is possible. It's just been so long now."
STEVE JUGGERT'S JOURNEY THROUGH SPAIN
1. MADRID, DEC. 7, 1988: Juggert arrives in Madrid. He intends to spend a year hitchhiking through Europe.
2. CAZORLA, DEC. 19, 1988: Juggert mails his parents a two-page letter. He tells them all is well.
3. MOJACAR, DEC. 20, 1988: Juggert cashes traveler's checks.
4. DEC. 22, 1988: Juggert telephones his parents, collect, from an unknown location. This is the last known communication.
5. HUELVA, JAN. 3, 1989: Thirteen of Juggert's travelers checks are cashed using forged signatures.
6. Aug. 26, 1989: Juggert's brother-in-law, Robert Oppermann of La Habra, files a missing persons report with the La Habra Police Department after learning of the forged checks
7. Nov. 17, 1989: The State Department notifies Juggert's family that four men have been arrested in Europe on suspicion of robbing hitchhiking tourists.