Without a Trace

Beth Feresten holds a snapshot of herself and her boyfriend, Terry Johnson, in happier times.
James Bludworth

You think you know someone.

You live with him for nearly a year, eat together almost every night. The two of you run together, bike together, share bank accounts, a bed -- a life. If asked, you would describe him as your best friend. You feel great when he's happy and down when he's not. So you make your plans together. Whenever talk of the future come up, it always starts with the word "we."

And then one day (it starts no differently than any other) you casually say "Good-bye" or "See you in a while, dear." But this time he doesn't come home. He simply...disappears. There is no trace, no trail, no clues. It's as if he had been plucked cleanly off the face of the earth.

You panic, of course. But then, as the days wear on, a worm starts tunneling into your head, eating away at everything you thought was certain -- chewing little holes in everything you thought you knew to be true. And slowly, you start to wonder: Who was this guy?

Did I really know about him at all? Did anyone?

By all accounts, Terry Johnson of Boulder was a doting father to his ten-year-old twins and fourteen-year-old son. "He saw them almost every night and every other weekend," says Corrine Johnson, his ex-wife. "If he couldn't do it, he'd let me know in advance. He was the one who made the schedule. He was already planning Christmas a month ago."

On September 25, Terry was scheduled to pick them up as he did every Wednesday evening for dinner and a movie. "Tuesday night he left me a message, confirming that he was coming," Corrine says. "He wanted to make sure that our son's football practice time was the same."

Just after noon, Terry stopped by the Blockbuster store in the Meadows Shopping Center on Baseline Road. He dropped off two videos. The store's security cameras didn't catch sight of him inside, so he apparently slid them through the outside slot.

Terry had been a successful businessman, and he liked having nice things. He owned two cars: a Lexus SUV and a Mazda Miata, a red convertible he'd bought for himself exactly three years earlier. He usually took the Lexus to see his kids -- it was bigger and could fit all four of them comfortably. This time, though, he drove the Miata, a two-seat sports car. The drive against the flank of the foothills on Route 93, from Terry's home to Morrison, where his children lived, was one he'd made dozens of times before.

The first in a flurry of increasingly concerned phone calls among Terry's friends and relatives started around seven o'clock that evening. Corrine's son called her from football practice to say that Terry had not arrived to pick him up yet, but not to worry -- his coach had agreed to give him a ride home. A little later, Corrine's daughter called her mother to say that Terry wasn't at the house, either.

Terry himself couldn't be reached at all. In perhaps the first real sign that something was amiss, he'd left his cell phone at home, plugged into its charger in his office. Usually he had it strapped to his hip; he'd no sooner leave without the phone than without his wallet.

Beth Feresten also began working the phones that evening. She and Terry had met several years ago at work and had begun dating soon after. They quickly became serious. Beth has strong intuitions, and she knew she liked Terry right away. In a way, she could even see their future together. When they started looking for a house they could share, for example, Beth recognized the south Boulder house they'd eventually live in, even though it wasn't available at the time. It opened up about a year ago, and, just as she'd predicted, they'd been living there since last November.

Terry's kids called her, too, when he hadn't arrived in Morrison. "I told them, 'He's not here -- I'm sure he'll be there any minute,'" Beth remembers. She added that she would appreciate a call when he did arrive. Although Beth sounded calm on the phone, as soon as she hung up, she quickly called her best friend of ten years, Jennifer Fawcett.

"She called at around 7:30 and said, 'Terry never went to get the kids. It's kind of weird,'" recalls Jennifer. "I said, 'Oh, he probably got caught up in something. He'll be there.'

"At 9:30 she called again and said, 'He's still not here.' I told her not to worry again; that he was a responsible guy." At midnight, Beth called Corrine; still no word from Terry.  

Jennifer got her next call from Beth on Thursday morning. "She called at 6 a.m. That's when I went over there," Jennifer says. "I was worried about her. If he's gone, and he had the keys to the house, and something bad happened, maybe now the bad person had the keys. You think of everything, because you don't know what to think."

When someone leaves without a trace, the present suddenly becomes a mystery. So you scour the past for a sign that can lead you to a place that makes sense again.

Beth had met Terry at Athene Software, where she was working as a product manager. Terry was a Colorado native, although he'd moved away to Missouri at a young age. He'd attended high school and college there and then moved to Tennessee to work. (Family members who were contacted for this story declined to comment.) It was there that he met his first wife. Later, they moved back to Colorado. According to friends, the couple married too young. Public records show that their divorce was finalized in February 1986.

Terry moved on quickly. Within a year and a half he had remarried, this time to Corrine, whom he'd met at a small start-up company in Boulder called Cadnetix. In August 2000, after thirteen years of marriage, the two decided to split. "The divorce was amicable," Corrine says. "There were not really any issues; we communicated very well. We'd just become different people. A lot of people do."

Beth says she was drawn to Terry by his kindness, sense of humor and apparent stability. "He's very level-headed, very low-key," she says. "It took a lot to get him angry. He was pretty accident-prone. He'd bump into things, cut a finger, spill something. That's about the only thing that would make him angry."

They also shared many interests. Both had worked extensively for high-tech firms. They were athletic: Beth was the faster runner, Terry the better bicyclist. They saw tons of movies and went out to eat frequently. Friends say it seemed a more carefree life for Terry now that he was separated from his family. Although 46 years old and in a committed relationship, he also seemed to be enjoying the life of a suddenly single man with few daily entanglements.

"We definitely knew we wanted to get married," Beth says. "It was just a matter of when. I thought, 'What's the rush? We're not going anywhere. Things are great.'"

Not everything was perfect. Last November, one of Terry's best friends died suddenly. Beth says Terry stayed in bed for two days, although she is reluctant to call him depressed. "He was just very sad," she says.

And this past June, Terry was laid off from his job at a computer software company. His boss there declined to discuss Terry, but Beth insists it was no big deal. In fact, she says, "A couple of weeks before he was laid off, he had talked about wanting to do something different. So when he got laid off, it was perfect. Now he could concentrate on his new business."

The new business was to be a mediation company called LifeScapes. It was a complete departure from Terry's resumé of high-tech positions. But he'd always been good with people, and he had been impressed with how helpful mediation had been in his divorce with Corrine. He started taking courses at the University of Colorado. Most recently, he'd worked on his new Web site.

The Web site was still up recently. On it, Terry lists several counselors and psychologists he says he worked with and recommended as an adjunct to his mediation business. When contacted by Westword, they all said they had never heard of Terry.

Thanks to a series of highly publicized child abductions over the past couple of decades, today there exists a vast network of government and private organizations whose sole purpose is to track down missing children and give support to their frantic relatives.

When a child is reported missing, police quickly place him into a category that helps law-enforcement officers narrow down their searches: lost, kidnapped, non-custodial kidnapping, suspicious, runaways, etc. So-called Amber Alerts use high-power radio stations to broadcast details of particularly suspicious disappearances.

Comparatively little effort is expended on missing adults -- eighteen years or older in Colorado. After all, points out an agent for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation who specializes in missing persons, once a person comes of legal age, "it's not a crime to run away."

When the police receive a report that a man is missing and that there is no foul play suspected, his name is entered into the Colorado Crime Information Center computer system. That way, if he happens to be stopped, say, for a traffic violation, the cop entering his name and vitals into the computer can see that somebody, somewhere, is missing him.  

The next level of alert is called a BOLO -- Be On the Look Out. This advisory is requested by local cops and distributed by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Usually, it is sent to other law-enforcement agencies in a particular geographic area. If, for example, the missing person is believed to have left Longmont and is heading south toward New Mexico, a BOLO can be posted to all cops along the I-25 corridor, asking them to keep an eye peeled for him.

(This differs from an "Attempt to Locate" advisory, which is generally used in cases of family emergencies.)

Age is a crucial factor in determining a police officer's course of action. A missing child is assumed to have been abducted because he is not legally old enough to make the decision to leave, and so the police have a duty to take action.

Cops have fewer options when they spot a missing adult, however. While a BOLO alert permits a cop to stop a person simply for matching the description of the missing party, the policeman doesn't have the authority to detain him. The reason, of course, is that adults are responsible for themselves -- and no matter how much they are missed at home or work, some of them don't want to be found.

"If someone wants to drop out, it's easier than you might think," says Pam Gignac, a detective for the Boulder Police Department who specializes in missing persons. "What a lot of people don't understand is that if you're of legal age and want to disappear, you can disappear. And if you don't use a credit card or checks or a bank card, it can be virtually impossible to find you." While there is no research on just how many people decide to leave behind their old lives, she says, "it happens a lot more than people think."

The numbers are surprisingly large. As of late October, the National Crime Information Center, a database run by the FBI, revealed an active list of 42,199 missing adults. (The number is almost exactly split between men and women.) According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, 2,585 adults are considered missing in Colorado alone. Terry's case is included in that tally. Although many are probably crime victims, "I'm sure some of those people want to be missing," an FBI spokeswoman acknowledges.

Still, says D.J. Himstedt, an attorney and private investigator who was hired to look for Johnson, even when someone decides to disappear, "usually there are signs -- money withdrawn from the bank, credit cards used. But this is a true and complete mystery. I've looked at every potential scenario. And the guy has just vanished off the face of the earth."

"You don't prepare for this," Beth says. "You take CPR or first aid in case of an emergency, to prepare. But how do you prepare for someone just disappearing?"

What are you supposed to feel: Grief? Worry? Guilt? When is the right time to declare yourself ready to move on? Should you move? How soon before you box up the person's sweaters, throw away their socks?

Here, in the couple's rented house in south Boulder, a month and a half after he vanished, Terry could walk in the door and slip easily back into his life. The rowing machine is still set up in the basement. The rooms prepared for his children's visitations are unchanged -- bunk beds still made, Justin Timberlake poster still on the wall.

Terry's office is ruffled from Beth's early, frantic searches but otherwise undisturbed. His spare, modern-style furniture, all chrome and black, stands out from the home's early-1970s lime-green-and-dark-paneled decor. A bottle of Excedrin PM sits on his desk, a Bruce Springsteen CD and book by bicyclist Lance Armstrong on a small table.

Terry's bookshelves are crammed with an eclectic mix of self-help and espionage novels (Beth calls them his "boy books"). His cell phone sits in its charger on an end table; his black, pocket-sized appointment book rests on the desk, a neat notation written in black ink for September 25 -- "kids movie and dinner." Another jotting highlights a midterm the following day.

Beth spent most of her time here in the first days and weeks after Terry disappeared. On Thursday, the day after he vanished, a number of Beth's supporters began gathering at her house in the morning -- friends, running partners, business acquaintances.  

No one was thinking clearly, and even the obvious steps -- things that sane people think of without really having to think at all -- seemed complex. "When he was finally determined to be missing, it was hard to know what to do first," Beth remembers. "I called several police numbers. I didn't want to call 911. I mean, it's an emergency to me, but is it really? They called back early on Thursday and took down essential information. But there wasn't much: It's not like my house was broken into and something's missing that I can describe."

Soon after the police took Beth's report, a police officer who happened to be in the neighborhood stopped by to look for signs of foul play. Again, Beth found herself stymied by the simplest questions. She vaguely remembers thinking to herself, Isn't it funny what people don't know about those who are close to them?

"When you're living with someone and not married, you don't share all the information," she says. "We paid the rent and split household expenses together. But beyond that, our lives were alone." For starters, she had no idea of Terry's license plate number; it took her two days to find it.

The cop's investigation of the house and discussion with Beth turned up no clues that would indicate that Terry might have come to a violent end, and the officer left after a couple of hours. "And after that," Beth says, "we're just supposed to wait."

But most of Beth's friends, as well as Beth herself, are business professionals and managers. Although they found themselves in a position none of them had ever dreamed of being in -- essentially setting up their own detective agency -- doing nothing wasn't their style. Besides, everyone agreed that giving Beth things to do would keep her mind off Terry's absence. "We gave her tasks to do, like make a list of all the people who may have had contact with Terry," Jennifer says. "We sort of came up with a tactical plan."

Beth hovered in Terry's office, which overlooks the driveway. "Every car that came down the road, you think, 'Maybe it's him,'" Jennifer says. Beth stayed always within hearing distance of a phone.

"You're just so foggy," Beth says. "The first day I spent eight hours straight up here, just staring out the window." She shuffled randomly through the papers on Terry's desk, calling a phone number on a scrap of paper (it was a company that made business cards), looking for...what?

Her friends also urged Beth to try to crack Terry's computer passwords, to gain access to his bank records. Movement of money might hint at his intentions. They'd start her off on the project and leave her alone in the office. But every so often, one would climb upstairs to find Beth gazing blankly out the window.

"You live with a man for two years, but you don't share PINs and other personal stuff," Beth explains. "It takes you days to figure everything out."

She typed dozens of words and phrases into the computer (Terry never kept it locked), randomly guessing at the right combination of letters that Terry would use to access his personal files. Amazingly, she discovered the correct password, but the files revealed nothing. She scanned his computer's browser history, hacked into his e-mail. And found nothing.

In the days following, Beth also tried to pry information out of Terry's credit-card holders. But as only a girlfriend, she had trouble convincing the companies to release any information. Finally, though, with the help of the police, she managed to coax some information out of them: The cards hadn't been used. Corrine also convinced bank officials to open Terry's lock box. With the exception of some documents -- car titles and the like -- the box proved little help.

Beth's inner circle, meanwhile, dived into whatever idea they had, turning it into a project. One would think: Let's call the airport, or what about local hospitals? And someone would get on it. (Neither panned out, although checking DIA was surprisingly easy: The airport keeps a license-plate log of all cars that enter and leave.) The group also formed a lunch brigade, correctly guessing that Beth would not remember to feed herself.

It takes time to learn to think like a cop -- TV shows and books are about your only source material -- and new ideas came in fits and starts. By the weekend, somebody suddenly recalled that no one had driven around Boulder to look for Terry's car in a parking garage, or in a lot. "You don't think of everything all at once," Beth says. "What if he was suicidal and checked into a hotel?"  

A group took off, excited by the possibilities. But the search yielded nothing. A day later, Beth finally thought to drive to the Blockbuster store at Meadows Shopping Center with a photo of Terry. No one there remembered him.

As the days passed, the ideas of where to look for leads became more and more vague. Beth and her friends took long drives into the mountains. Terry enjoyed driving and small mountain towns, so they went to Breckenridge and Frisco. The Boulder police sent out BOLO alerts to Moab and Vail, two of Terry's favorite places to unwind. Later, Beth remembered that she'd never checked around Pinecliffe, a small town up Coal Creek Canyon off Route 93, where Terry might have driven that night on his way to pick up his children.

"Terry liked to drive his car, particularly in the mountains, so you see, it makes sense," Beth says. Each idea brought a fresh surge of excitement and hope, only to be followed by more despair.

"Every time I go out, my friends and I slow down and stare at every red Miata we see," Beth says. "I never realized there were so many of them. Now I see them all the time." A friend of a friend, a pilot, offered to fly over any area that Beth might think Terry could have traveled -- the theory being that Terry might have driven his car off a mountain road, either by accident or on purpose, and the vehicle might still be hidden under foliage.

She also printed dozens of fliers to plaster on walls and telephone polls around the Boulder area. "MISSING PERSON" they yelled, describing a 5' 11", 180-pound, hazel-eyed man with black hair. It all seemed so low-tech and cliche. But a couple of weeks ago, several people called from Estes Park, claiming to have seen a man fitting Terry's description there. Another trip, another rush of hope. Another disappointment.

Beth found it easier to go on by treating the search for Terry as work. She took a leave from her job and concentrated all her energies on finding her boyfriend. "I have a project-management background, and so to help myself, I've kind of managed it like a project," she explains. She made a spreadsheet list of everyone's phone number and put it by every phone in the house.

After a while, though, Beth says, her expectations and hopes naturally began to wither. She felt tired. At first, of course, she wanted to find Terry alive and well and get back to her life. Then she just wanted to find him. Later she found herself merely hoping for a sign -- any sign. "At that point you don't care where he is," she says. "You want to know if he's alive. Did he buy gas that night? If there's a credit-card receipt, then you think: Hopefully it's him, not somebody who stole the car.

"You don't sleep. Every night I go to bed and think of the theory that he's still alive, and that helps me. I get about four hours of sleep a night. You have to get some sort of a normal life, because if I didn't have a reason to get out of bed every morning, I'd stay there all day. I have to have something to do. I have to look for Terry. That's my job right now."

"Terry," says Beth, "has only a very few close friends versus many slight ones." Corrine shares that view: "He's a closed person -- not a lot of really close friends. He probably wouldn't have even told me if he was upset about things." The two men he considered his best friends, Beth says, are Nick Rinaldi and Dennis Sullins.

Like everyone else who knows Terry, the two men have been analyzing every interaction with him, looking for clues. In the process, each has discovered how little he really knew Terry.

Nick and Terry were initially drawn together by their mutual love of rafting. "We used to call him 'Ricochet,'" Nick recalls. "He hit all the rocks."

"He was a heck of a nice guy," Dennis adds. "Incredible sense of humor. He didn't take life too seriously."

While they'd known each other for years, Nick and Terry suddenly became much closer when Terry and his first wife, Laurie, divorced. "He asked if he could live with me," Nick recalls. Even then, he adds, he was surprised at the request. "I knew we were good friends," he says, "but not that good."

Terry ended up staying about six months. After he found a place of his own, he and Nick stayed close, though not always in regular contact. Still, when Nick's brother was killed in a hunting accident, Terry showed up without notice at the funeral in New Mexico. And Nick was in Terry's wedding to Corrine.  

Unlike Nick, Dennis knew Terry more as part of a social couple, growing close to him through their respective wives. Dennis's now ex-wife and Corrine were good friends.

"In the last three or four years," Dennis observes, "it seemed like Terry was changing jobs more frequently. In this day and age, you don't question it. But it seemed like he wasn't finding satisfaction in his work."

Indeed, despite their closeness and the fact that they'd talked several times in recent months, Dennis didn't even know that Terry had changed jobs yet again, or that he'd been laid off at the beginning of the summer. Neither did Nick.

Terry and Corrine's divorce caught Dennis by surprise, too. "He seemed to have it all," Dennis says. "He was climbing the corporate ladder and gaining responsibility. He had a gorgeous house on the fairway at a golf course. The divorce came very suddenly. I remember Corrine told my wife that Terry said he wanted a 'younger lifestyle.' I remember thinking, 'How could a guy divorce a family with three kids?' Maybe he was looking to regain something he lost."

But the subject never came up. "I didn't want to pry, and he never volunteered any information about it," Dennis says. "I was close -- but then again, I wasn't that close."

In fact, Dennis only learned about Beth when she and Terry popped by Dennis's stereo store in Boulder. (This was a pattern: When Beth called the widow of Terry's friend who'd died suddenly, the woman had no idea who she was; Terry had never told his friend that he'd moved in with a woman.)

"Come to find out he never really shared much," Nick adds. "Even his close friends -- I don't think he told us everything. Unless you really asked him point-blank -- 'How are you?' -- he wouldn't tell you anything."

So, like everyone else, both men have been reduced to guessing. "I have a theory that he's gone and run away to find himself," Nick says. "Terry was a guy who had the Lexus, very expensive toys, nice clothes, the big house. I have no idea what his debt was, but if he had a lot of debt and no income and sensed failure..." His voice trails off.

"The first thing I thought is, 'He's run off,'" adds Dennis. Noting Terry's divorce, he adds, "Here's a guy who wants a different lifestyle but has all these obligations. That could get stressful. So I thought, 'Gee, the guy just checked out.'" Now, though, he's not so sure.

In fact, both men are questioning almost everything they thought they knew about their friend. Now that Terry has vanished, even that which was considered a sign of his stability -- the very thing that made him a pleasure to be around -- is suspect.

"The guy didn't display any emotion," says Dennis. "You never saw Terry stressed. Never saw Terry in a bad mood."

"He was always happy-go-lucky," Nick adds. "Nothing really bothered him. He always had a positive outlook, never really showed a downside. And now I wonder."

Beth worries that Terry's disappearance might be her fault.

"We'd had an argument a few days before," she says. "He was spending so much time on business and school, and we weren't doing enough things together. I offered to help him study -- whatever it took to fix the problem."

The fight seemed patched up -- but was it? "They're just glitches that you don't give a second thought to," she adds. "Unless your boyfriend disappears a few days later."

In the days following Terry's disappearance, Beth's mind played tricks on her. Had she ignored giant clues about Terry? Could he have been so unhappy? Did he have a secret life? She wondered what she really knew.

"If he's alive, it's possible that his life got too stressful and he just had to take off," she says. "But have we just not found the evidence? If he'd gone away, he'd spend money, right? And he hasn't. But did he have a credit card I didn't know about?

"He had a ton of clothes. So could a couple of polo shirts be missing? Yeah. It doesn't appear that any of his shoes are missing. Running, hiking, work -- they're all there. Could a pair be gone, though? Yeah."

"It's so unbelievable that any theory in my mind is totally believable. Could he have been carjacked in Boulder in broad daylight? It's unlikely. But I guess it could happen. Could he have picked up someone who needed a lift, who then did something bad to him? I suppose.  

"Someone could come up with ten more theories. And I change my mind on a daily basis. I believe every one of the theories every single day. Basically, it's a process of driving yourself crazy."

In the meantime, she has learned things she never thought she'd have to, like the fact that a life insurance policy on a vanished person is valid only if the person doesn't show for five years -- and then only if you continue making the premium payments. (Terry's children are the beneficiaries on his.)

Now, Beth has woven her daily calls into her everyday routine. She phones Detective Gignac each day, just to check in, or to offer some thought about the investigation, no matter how trivial or seemingly far-fetched. On a recent weekend she read a newspaper article that described how another man, from Longmont, had been reported missing recently -- and that he was driving a red Miata! Could some madman be targeting men in red Miatas? Beth quickly phoned the detective, who politely took down the information.

"With the cops, you basically try to be in their face, but it's a fine line; you can't be a burden or a pain," she says. "They have to respect his rights. I know that in my head, but in my heart, it's really hard."

Corrine says that it's hard for Terry's children to understand, too. She isn't ready to tell them that their father is gone forever, because, well, maybe he isn't. "He had a lot of financial pressures," she says. "So my first inclination was that he'd taken off -- to get away, figure out what he wanted to do. But he doesn't have any money."

Also, she continues, if Terry did have to take a break from his life, why did he have to choose this way? "Why would he strand his children at football practice?" she wonders. "Why not go the next day? Unless he did it spontaneously..."

"I told the kids that he's gone away to sort things out," Corrine concludes. "So they're hoping that he'll be back."

Beth continues to hope for the best, too -- even though, for her, the best would still be hard to hear. If Terry's dead, she would grieve. If he ran away from her, it would confirm that she'd been completely blind to big problems. Still, she says, "I want to believe he just needed to get away. Because that means he's alive."

Beth and Jennifer usually talk every day, too. These days, Jennifer is urging her friend to move on. "Beth asks me, 'What am I supposed to do on weekends?' I tell her, 'Date.' I'm a very practical person. I don't think it makes sense to waste time just waiting. It's been several weeks now; you've got to move forward."

On the first Sunday in October, Beth went for a hike on the familiar path out of her back yard, a path she hadn't taken since Terry's disappearance. Although she is a conditioned athlete, she felt oddly fatigued. The next day she tried running for twenty minutes. "I had no energy," she says, "but I had to do it. I need these things to keep life normal."

Jennifer concedes that "normal" is a difficult thing to understand these days. "You want to hear my theory?" she says. "Aliens came and got him. Because there's no trace -- no trace! No clues.

"No sign.

"No nothing."

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