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Family twists may hold clues to amnesiac

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Gwen Walter took a deep breath and walked into the room. After many sleepless nights at home in Houston wondering what had happened to her husband of 10 years, he had finally been found in Tampa suffering from amnesia.

While elated that Kirk Walter was alive and well, she barely recognized him.

His thick, curly hair was cut short. He had shaved the brown beard and mustache he had since high school. He no longer wore the well-pressed designer clothes he once preferred. He acted differently.

He had a new name, a new life.

"I said, "Kirk, I'm your wife,' " Gwen Walter recalled. " "I know you don't remember me, but I need a hug.' "

The next day she returned home without him: Walter had decided to stay in Tampa.

The story of Kirk Walter's disappearance nearly a year ago is so unusual some people wonder whether he is telling the truth.

On May 7, the then-29-year-old chemical engineer left a job site in Point Comfort, Texas, and disappeared.

Several days later, Walter says, he awoke in a train station in Connecticut. He carried no wallet, wore no jewelry. Not knowing who he was, he went to work at a nearby marina, assuming a new name. He met a University of Tampa student and went with her when she returned to school in the fall.

In Houston, Walter had left a 51-year-old wife, a home and a $65,000-a-year job at a consulting firm. A strict Baptist, he taught Bible classes at Encourager Church, where healings were performed daily. Authorities said he was in debt.

When he surfaced in Tampa, Walter answered to the name Stefan Bradley. He drank beer and attended hockey games. Family members said he used mild profanity and was spending time with the UT student. Walter said he remembered nothing of his past.

There were signs he may have planned his departure. His computer had been pawned, his company car found at an Austin airport and beard hair was found in the trunk.

Experts say that while his story may seem implausible, Walter has exhibited true signs of a rare form of amnesia known as dissociative fugue, in which the sufferer leaves behind all autobiographical memory.

"His actions are much more consistent with true amnesia than with malingering," said Dr. Robert Miller, who teaches forensic psychiatry at the University of Colorado. "That story sounds much more typical of a genuine state."

Many things can cause memory loss, including Alzheimer's disease, alcoholism, drugs, seizures, psychiatric disorders, loss of oxygen to the brain, head injuries and infections such as meningitis and encephalitis.

Just 2 percent of recorded cases are psychologically induced fugue.

Doctors say many people find it hard to believe because their only experience with amnesia is from television or movies. The idea of faking amnesia to escape a bad situation seems more believable than the actual illness.

"People are generally cynical when there are things in a person's history to not want to go back to," said Dr. David Kershaw, a psychologist with Mental Health Care, who witnessed the reunion between Walter and his family.

Dissociative fugue can often be traced to severe emotional shock or stress. Many sufferers have been sexually abused. As a defense mechanism, the mind blocks out the memories that cause anxiety.

Some experts believe Walter's stress might have origins in his tangled family history: He married his stepmother.

Texas records show Walter was 9 when his parents, Ronald and Billie, divorced. That same day, Gwen Walter and her then-husband, William Schneider, also divorced.

Within days, Walter's mother married William Schneider, and his father married Gwen.

Gwen divorced Walter's father July 1, 1988. One month later, Gwen and Kirk Walter were married in Brazos County while Kirk was a student at Texas A&M University. He was 20, she was 41.

Miller said it is common for amnesia sufferers to live with emotional stress for years until it finally becomes too much to handle.

"It's the straw that breaks the camel's back," Miller said. "It's something that has been building inside you for a long time and your tolerance is exceeded."

Gwen Walter denies her switch from stepmother to wife caused Kirk Walter's amnesia.

"That has nothing to do with it," Gwen Walter said. "That was old news. We have been married 10 years now."

Gwen Walter said they had a happy marriage and thinks her husband's amnesia was brought on by something traumatic that happened to him the day he vanished.

"People bring up a lot of stuff and speculation," she said. "It was something that happened to him that day."

Anne Simmons, who attended church with the Walters, said she saw no signs the couple had problems. She said Walter never seemed troubled.

"Because of their obvious fondness for each other, I asked how long they had been married," Simmons said. "I thought they were newlyweds."

Texas police suggested the stress might have come from Encourager Church officials who they believe pressured Walter into donating money to heal his wife from an "environmental illness."

But Pastor Wallace Henley said many people look to the church for help with allergies. Any healing would be strictly spiritual, he said.

"I certainly know nothing of any money," Henley said. "That would be totally outside our policies of the church."

Point Comfort police Chief Rick Brush said he believes Walter might have planned to leave and the reality of his escape brought about the amnesia.

Larry Squire, a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California at San Diego, who has done research on amnesia, said Brush's theory is possible.

"Maybe the trauma of carrying it out was so painful," Squire said. "The condition might have come second rather than first."

Squire said it is possible Walter developed the amnesia, then sold his computer, shaved his beard and boarded the train in Austin unknowingly, later coming out of his foggy state at the train station.

Billie Schneider, Walter's mother, said she doesn't believe her son planned to leave town. His credit cards were unused, his savings account untouched, and he packed no clothes.

"In my opinion, he would not have been working with police to find out who he was if that was his motive," Schneider said.

Law enforcement officials said they believe Walter is a true amnesiac. Walter went to Tampa police in November and cooperated in their efforts to identify him. He agreed to be photographed and fingerprinted and searched the Internet for someone who might know his past. He could have moved to another town, but he stayed.

Tampa police Sgt. Dan Long said Walter's reaction at the family reunion and his demeanor throughout the investigation seemed true.

"I believe him," Long said. "Maybe I'm being tricked, but I don't think so."

"If he was just trying to get out of a bad situation, it's not that hard to do," Miller said. "But he has changed his life completely, and that is not consistent with someone faking it."

In some cases, amnesia sufferers regain their memories. But in most, they do not.

Walter declined to comment for this story. Police officials said he is trying to come to terms with his life.

Gwen Walter will return to her job as an apartment manager. For a time, Walter's employer sent her his paycheck, but that ended last fall. When the bills began to pile up, she returned to work and borrowed money from her mother to pay the mortgage.

She cannot sell her assets because they are jointly owned with her husband. She must make two car payments. She does not want to pressure him with the bills, so she struggles to get by.

Gwen Walter said the Lord will bring her husband back to her. She is making a videotape she plans to send him with photographs and scenes she hopes will jog his memory.

She is prepared to wait for him to return but wonders what the future holds.

"How long do I put myself on hold, and how long do I wear this ring?" Gwen Walter asked. "Do I go on for years? I'm still in love with him. I want my husband back."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.