He has seen his share of bullet-riddled bodies, tracked down the killers of mothers and fathers and children. But in all of William Howell's years as a crime investigator, he never had a case cause bad dreams and doubt--until he began trying to solve the curious disappearance of Michael Negrete.
Sixteen months ago Negrete was a freshman at UCLA, an unassuming teenager, a talented musician with good grades and good friends, living in one of the biggest dorms on campus.
Then one night, after hanging out with dozens of dorm mates, he walked down a hallway to his room, intending to go to sleep. Instead, he vanished.
Nobody has seen him since. Nobody seems to have a clue about what happened.
"It seems like there's nowhere to turn," said Howell, a sergeant for the Sheriff's Department homicide bureau. "This is a kid who wasn't in a lick of trouble. . . . One minute he's here. The next, poof, he's gone."
Howell's partner, Joe Purcell, added, "It's like he never walked the earth."
At 18, Negrete was considered an adult, which crime experts nationwide say can be a problem.
There are many complicating factors in the search for missing adults. Often there is no evidence of wrongdoing. Many adults simply vanish on their own, starting new lives and hoping never to be found. Police may be slow to respond because of doubts that any crime has been committed.
What's more, missing adults generally do not engender the same concern as missing children. Resources for finding missing adults are slim, a fact that frustrates loved ones and bogs down investigators hoping to conduct broad searches.
Howell and Purcell have been trying to find out what happened to Negrete since they were handed the case last summer.
Both say the case is vexing, not only because of the dearth of evidence, but because there was nothing in Negrete's past--no depression, no secret life, no drug use or known enemies--to suggest he might one day disappear.
The investigators hope that the quiet, bronze-skinned teenager is alive. But they know the odds: If a missing person isn't found in the first few days, he's probably dead.
Finding Negrete alive is more than a long shot.
"The hardest thing is telling the parents," said Purcell, a homicide detective for nearly a decade. "Telling them there's still nothing new. Telling them, 'Hey, we think he's not alive. That's why two homicide guys have the case.' " Negrete's parents, Miguel and Mary Negrete, who live near San Diego, go about their lives in quiet despair.
They are tired of waiting, tired of wondering. The oldest of their three sons has missed the last two Christmas celebrations and his last two birthdays.
The family actually tried to hold a small party on his 20th birthday on March 25. They gathered in their dining room around a little lemon cake with a single candle.
"It was pitiful," said Mary Negrete, 46, a teacher at a local community college. There was no joy, only emptiness and heartache.
She spoke of her frustration as she looked at a trophy her son won for playing the trumpet: Coronado Jazz Festival, Outstanding Soloist.
"All we want is to know what happened," she said. "People keep saying that with time there will be healing. But it just gets worse."
The family is offering a $100,000 reward for information directly leading to Negrete's whereabouts.
So far his relatives and investigators know this much:
On Dec. 10, 1999, Negrete was with his dorm mates at UCLA's Dykstra Hall. The first quarter of his freshmen year was winding down. Negrete attended a party on his floor, where he and his friends sipped margaritas and listened to hip-hop.
"He was just part of the group, like he always was, not doing anything that made him stand out," said Ross Wolf, who held the party. "That was Mike. He just blended in with everyone."
Played Late-Night Video Game
After leaving the party, Negrete went to his room and played a computer video game, competing against a friend in another room through an intranet connection. When the game was over, about 4 a.m., he signed off. He went outside his room and high-fived the kid he was playing against. The two then turned and went back to their rooms.
No one can remember seeing Negrete after that. Investigators found his wallet, his keys and his shoes in the dorm room.
In the months following his disappearance, UCLA detectives worked the case. Their best lead came when a bloodhound seemed to follow Negrete's scent across campus to a bus stop a few miles away. UCLA eventually requested help from the Sheriff's Department, which is how the case landed with Howell and Purcell.
Throughout last summer and well into fall, the investigators searched nearly full-time for Negrete.
They quickly decided they couldn't trust the bloodhound's trail, figuring the dog was probably confused. They thought a strange man might have been in the dorm that night, but the lead took them nowhere. They searched the dorm's garbage chute and through every construction site on campus but found nothing. They tracked down dozens of UCLA students who had lived in the dorm. The students told the same story, again and again: No one knew, or saw, anything.
For Howell and Purcell, there was none of the usual evidence: no blood, guns, bullets or bodies.
"Usually, those kinds of cases lead us in a certain direction. There's a light at the end of the tunnel," said Howell, wiping his large hand over his face. "In this case, there's absolutely no certainty anywhere. It's maddening."
Howell said the lack of evidence and leads has caused him sleepless nights. He has even dreamed about finding Negrete. He and Purcell consulted a Sheriff's Department homicide profiler, an expert who tries to solve crimes by looking at statistical data and probing into criminal psychology. The profiler advised them they had, more than likely, already interviewed somebody who knew what happened. This eats at Howell.
"I just don't see it," said Howell. "If we've already interviewed somebody who knows what happened, we don't know it, I don't know it, I've been fooled. And if that's the case, man, I should just retire right now."
When Negrete's parents reported him missing to UCLA--their son, a teen who never missed appointments and hadn't been seen in days--the first response was lukewarm. We've seen this a million times before, they were told. He'll be back.
The Negretes had to convince authorities that he was missing against his will.
That lack of initial concern--and experts say the first days of a search are key in finding a missing person alive--is common and springs partly from the fact many adults reported missing end up having skipped out on their own volition, usually because of financial or relationship woes.
Overcoming early skepticism is just part of the problem faced by those looking for missing adults, experts say.
Police, and the public, usually don't treat a missing adult's report with the same fervor they would have for a missing child, said Kym Pasqualini, president of the Phoenix-based Nation's Missing Children's Organization and Center for Missing Adults.
Pasqualini also said police and other investigators have few places to turn for accurate information about missing adults. Federal law mandates that all missing children's cases be reported to an FBI database. There's no mandate for adults. While there is a federally bankrolled clearinghouse for missing children, a resource providing expert advice, as well as clues, statistics and trends from all 50 states, nothing similar exists for adults.
Many of the people working on the issue of finding missing adults are hopeful that a bill passed by Congress last year--the so-called Kristen's Law, named for a North Carolina woman who vanished in San Francisco--will bring changes.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) will provide federal funding to nonprofits involved in finding adults. It will also establish the nation's first comprehensive missing adults clearinghouse.
"There have been minimal resources; there's frequently minimal attention," Pasqualini said. "For families like the Negretes, since their son [was] just 18, he's really just a kid. But authorities treat him like he's an adult, which is unfair to his family. They know he wasn't a grown man."
Parents' Hopes Are Fading
At the Negrete home in suburban San Diego, a yellow ribbon is wrapped around a willow tree in the front yard, put there soon after the disappearance. The ribbon is faded now, as are the hopes of Mary and Miguel Negrete.
The couple's days are no easier now than in the early days of the search for their son, when they would walk the UCLA campus before dawn, putting up fliers, trying to figure out where he could have gone.
They still look for clues, speaking frequently with Howell and Purcell, monitoring the Web site they've set up at http://www.findmikenow.com.
They work to keep pain at bay by keeping busy, but it's to no avail.
"Mostly we're totally down," said Mary Negrete, looking to the floor, speaking slowly and flatly, the emotion drained from her voice. "I'm still asking myself, 'How am I supposed to deal with this?' I must admit I really don't have any hope I will ever see him again. I do tell myself we will find [what happened] out someday."