At 18-year anniversary, Brian Shaffer disappearance remains a mystery

John M. Clark

In the early morning hours of April 1st, 2006, Brian Shaffer walked into a campus-area bar.  The end.  

Or so it would seem.  The promising, 27-year-old medical student was seen on security camera video entering the UglyTuna Saloona in the Gateway Building at 1546 North High Street.  But no one remembers seeing him leave.  And footage from the camera that caught him entering the bar shows every patron except Shaffer leaving.  Calls to his cell phone repeatedly went directly to voice mail.

One of the few clues to Shaffer’s disappearance came five months later.  His girlfriend, Alexis Waggoner, who had dialed his number every night since his disappearance, finally heard ringing at the other end.  Yet, no one answered.  “I kept calling it purely because it was one of the best sounds I have ever heard,” she wrote on her MySpace page, “even if no one picked up.”  The calls appeared to have “pinged” a cell phone tower in Hilliard.  Cingular, Shaffer’s phone provider, said the rings may have been due to a computer glitch.

In the 18 years since Shaffer’s visits to the Ugly Tuna and surrounding bars, his disappearance has spawned an entire cottage industry of newspaper and magazine articles, TV documentaries, podcasts, a Wikipedia page, Facebook discussions and no fewer than 239 message threads on Reddit.com. Columbus Police say they have never had a more baffling case.

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For Shaffer, the evening of March 31st began with dinner at a local steakhouse with his father, Randy.  The two were still coming to terms with the death of Brian’s mother from cancer, just three weeks earlier.  It was the beginning of Spring Break and, to his father, Brian appeared exhausted from late nights of studying for that week’s finals.  Brian had made plans to go bar-hopping later with his friend, Clint Florence.  And he was due to fly with Alexis to Miami three days later, to begin a much-anticipated vacation.  It was believed that he would use the occasion to propose marriage.

At 9 o’clock, Shaffer met Florence at the Ugly Tuna.  Shortly afterward, he placed a call to Alexis, who had returned home to Toledo for the weekend.  The two young men had drinks and then then walked south along High Street, having more drinks at other bars along the way.  

It was after midnight, in the Arena District, when Shaffer and Florence ran into a friend of Florence’s, Meredith Reed, who gave the two a ride back to the Ugly Tuna for a final round of drinks for the evening.  The second-floor bar’s only public entrance was reached by escalator; one of multiple security cameras clearly caught Shaffer stepping off the escalator and into the saloon.  But once inside, he became separated from Florence and Reed.

Grainy video shows Schaffer stepping outside the front door at 1:55, speaking briefly with two young women, and then appearing to re-enter the bar.  At 2 a.m. – closing time – Florence and Reed waited at the top of the escalator, hoping to reunite there with their friend.  When Shaffer didn’t show up, the two left, assuming he had walked home.

Though phone calls from friends and family went unanswered that weekend, panic didn’t set in until Monday morning, when Shaffer failed to show up for the vacation flight with his girlfriend.  That’s when father Randy notified Columbus Police, who began an exhaustive search.

No clues to Shaffer’s whereabouts were found in the bar, at the movie theater next door, at a construction site behind the building, at his King Avenue apartment, at the home of friends, anywhere.  Randy, the father, even hired a psychic, who mentioned something about “water” and a “pier.”  So, donning waders, Randy, his younger son Derek and friends of the family searched the nearby Olentangy River.  They turned up nothing.  And police had, literally, nothing to go on.

Shaffer appeared intelligent and caring.  And though medicine wasn’t his first calling (he had hoped to become a musician in the vein of Jimmy Buffett), he seemed to everyone who knew him optimistic about his future in medicine and with his girlfriend, Alexis.  

As one would expect, many wild theories about the man’sdisappearance began to spring up almost overnight.  Maybe he had left by the employee entrance in the rear and had fallen into drying cement at the construction site.  Maybe he was kidnapped, killed and his body disposed of far from Columbus.  Perhaps he had decided to make a new life for himself and simply disappeared, willingly.

These and many other theories have been clearly debunked.  But what else is there to think?  Police have published an enhanced photo of Shaffer, showing what he might look like today.  Still, no serious leads.  Four years ago, a photo of a homeless man in Mexico who was said to resemble the missing medical student was sent to the FBI.  A thorough computer analysis determined it was not Shaffer.

In September 2006, tragedy continued to claim members of the Shaffer family when father Randy went for a walk just outside his home.  High winds were blowing, and a tree blew over on top of him.  His body went undiscovered until the next day.  

By 2009, girlfriend Alexis had finally been able to put the heartache behind her, fall in love again, marry and have children.  Today, she’s an OB/GYN doctor in Toledo.

As for Derek, the pain from losing his mother, brother and father in such a short period was almost too much to bear.  Today, he wears a “missing person’s” bracelet and keeps a low profile, still hoping to one day be reunited with his big brother.  But 18 years after Brian Shaffer’s sudden disappearance, hope is in short supply.

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