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Finding Fletcher: A man's search for what became of his troubled childhood best friend

CLEARWATER

A single spotlight illuminated one end of an otherwise dark room at the Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's office. William Pellan sat behind a computer, eyes fixed to the image of a dead man. Everything I needed to know was on that screen, glowing on his face. But Florida law forbids non-family inspection of autopsy documents. If only I could see, I might be able to answer a question that has haunted me for 15 years, leading me on one fruitless search after another. I might finally learn what became of my childhood best friend. Stewart Fletcher Currin has been missing since 1999. The last time I saw him, he was homeless and paranoid, and his time at a motel was about to run out. The last time anyone saw him was about a month later, when a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy shooed him off a bench. Now here I sat, watching the director of investigations study actual photos of unidentified body 99-1145, a man found five days after Fletcher's last sighting, 5 miles away, by a bus bench. The identity had puzzled the office for years. Even though the medical examiner gets about one unnamed body a week, fingerprints and facial recognition solve most cases within a day or two. Investigators had ruled out this one for 170 missing persons cases. Pellan knew what was at stake, and left the room to talk with Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin. He emerged several minutes later. Solving the case, he said, outweighed any legal technicalities. I braced myself as he turned the screen.

Fletcher is, quite possibly, the brightest person I have ever met. His thick, black-framed glasses were always buried behind a book. In our fifth-grade class at Bay Point Elementary in 1965, we were part of a self-anointed "Brain Club," something I hope was not my idea. We held impromptu Brain meetings, during which we discussed "world affairs."

At Lakewood High School, Fletcher was the better student. When adults lamented my long hair and spotty grades, he appreciated what made me different, without the accompanying blame that often made "potential" feel like a rebuke.

He was an only child; I was the rebel in a family of high achievers. The understanding we had for each other was the foundation of our friendship, which we cemented on the cusp of adulthood with deep discussions and sophomoric antics.

We offended old people and smirked during their lectures. We got the giggles in church. Fletcher laughed easily, a sustained cackle he could not shut down even when the situation was past the point of embarrassing.

One night senior year, we went to the Mustang Drive-In in Pinellas Park and bought tickets to Little Fauss and Big Halsy, starring Robert Redford. The film was just a backdrop, though, for our true mission that night, which was to take LSD for the first time. What we hoped might be a mind-expanding adventure was perhaps the worst we shared.

We decided to make faces in the side mirrors of my parents' Volkswagen van, and try to explain the distortions.

At one point, Fletcher asked why I was crying.

"Because I can't explain," I said.

"Explain what?"

"Why I can't explain!"

For those few hours, I got a glimpse of how sad and terrifying it must be to go insane. I couldn't imagine the loneliness of living that way all the time.

• • •

Adulthood, if we ever reached it, came with caveats. While others progressed to conventional careers, neither Fletcher nor I did. He went to Emory University and switched from pre-med to philosophy. I stayed in-state and switched from pre-law to theater and philosophy.

We wound up back home, working construction jobs during the day, arguing over beer and joints late into the night, believing we were on the edge of great insights. Parents of our peers pegged us both as being "on drugs."

The years that followed were dark for Fletcher. He lost his father to a heart attack. Then, his mother sent him away. I didn't know the whole story at the time, but piecing it together after the fact, the signs of paranoid schizophrenia were there.

He believed she had allowed police to place listening devices in the attic. He spoke of the FBI attacking him with beams of high-intensity magnetic light.

Fletcher stayed with relatives for a while in North Carolina, and spent some weeks in a hospital under the care of a psychiatrist. He eventually decided he didn't need the medicine, or his relatives.

I was 45 and Fletcher was 44 the last time we saw each other in August 1999, in a room at what is now the Continental Inn in Clearwater.

A friend who owned a construction company had paid for a two-week stay and given him a job; he'd lost the job by not showing up, and his motel money had all but run out.

Fletcher looked like he hadn't shaved in about three weeks. He stared at the television, and at one point, frowned at the home shopping channel as women in spandex suits performed calisthenics.

"What are they doing?" he asked.

I told him the women appeared to be selling exercise clothing. He took a drag off his cigarette and continued to stare in silence. I don't know what was bothering him, but the show had triggered it.

I wasn't in a position to help him. No one was, really. His mother had died. I was coming out of a rough period and couldn't take on a roommate who would probably never leave.

I guess with some friends, you can be comfortable being uncomfortable. That's what our goodbye was like. He knew my limits, and I knew his prospects were not good.

I caught myself scanning the faces of drifters downtown in the years that followed, looking for wavy hair and thick-framed glasses. I existed on hope and denial, thinking about Fletcher and not wanting to.

Three years ago, I attended a funeral service for the mother of a former girlfriend of Fletcher's. Sigrid found me in the church foyer, stepped a bit closer than is normal or necessarily comfortable, and looked up at me.

"I know I ask you this every time I see you," she said, "and I'm going to continue asking you, until I get an answer. Have you heard from Fletcher?"

Friends had asked me about him, none more earnestly than Sigrid. Years stretched into more than a decade with no new information. Now it felt like a past-due bill.

For the first time, I told her I would find out what had become of Fletcher. Before we parted company, Sigrid had one additional question.

"Would you let him know that he is loved?"

I write obituaries for a living. I start with the most obvious of facts, namely the ending, then rewind through the life. There is an order to it, and an information box at the end with the dates of birth and death.

I once wrote a different kind of story, called Sea of Sadness. It catalogued the names of scores of lost fishermen. They surely died in the gulf, but only reason tells us so. Decades later, families continue to manufacture scenarios by which their loved ones could still be alive, perhaps with amnesia and living in another country.

They know such conjectures are almost certainly false, yet cannot stop themselves.

For years, I've pictured Fletcher crewing a sailboat, maybe living in the Bahamas.

I felt entirely alone with these thoughts until September 2014, when I got an email from a Lakewood High classmate who wanted to talk about an obit I'd written about a spy.

I immediately recognized the name.

Jim Gutch was a year older than us. He was tall, had a deep voice and hung out with the tough guys. We were both in the auditorium when Fletcher told the students why they should elect him their vice president.

From the seats, Gutch interrupted the speech with a wisecrack.

Fletcher blushed and chuckled. His humility in that moment helped him win.

Now, Gutch was a retired Tampa police detective.

I didn't want to let the opportunity pass without running my search for Fletcher past him.

"If you can think of something I'm missing, some obvious box you would check if you were investigating this disappearance, please feel free to pass it on. Just thinking out loud," I told him. "No big thing."

It was a very big deal, but I was afraid that if I put pressure on him, he might not want to help me.

It turns out, Gutch had always sought after lost things. He read detective magazines as a boy and embraced his role as the person to find whatever had gone missing in the house. In retirement in Homosassa, he spends chunks of each week working missing persons cases free of charge.

Almost instantly, Gutch made himself into a powerful ally in the search for the boy he had heckled 44 years earlier.

Here, after six months, is what we have learned about Fletcher:

He has no driver's license or state identification card. He has not paid a water or electric bill in the state of Florida, nor registered to vote nor been sued. He has not received government aid in Florida, including food stamps or Medicaid, which would almost certainly rule out him being in a psychiatric facility.

Fletcher has not acquired title to a car, owned property or shown up with any address since the 1990s, including prison, anywhere within the continental United States, Hawaii or the Virgin Islands.

There is one record of interest.

On Sept. 30, 1999, a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy found Fletcher sleeping on a bench on Seminole Boulevard. He had no identification but gave the deputy his full name and date of birth.

The deputy told him to move along.

In September, I called the Sheriff's Office to report Fletcher as missing. I knew a citizen's complaint does not carry the same force as one lodged by a family member. Still, it was better than nothing, which is what I was almost positive had been done until now.

A deputy took down my information. He was polite and asked the expected questions. I never heard anything further.

I'm not holding my breath, Gutch emailed me. I suspect unless they are given a little push, they will do nothing ... Believe me, I know how these kind of cases go.

He urged me to call back, and in January, I did.

"That case has been solved," a clerk said.

Did the Sheriff's Office know something I didn't? The clerk would not elaborate.

I drove out to the headquarters to retrieve the report. It said I had called about my friend, that I had described him physically and summarized his mental state. Cpl. Scott Reid, the deputy's supervisor, signed off on the report, which is classified "Case closed; solved non-criminal," and dated Sept. 27 — three days after I made the call.

But what is closed or solved has nothing to do with Fletcher. It only confirms that I called the Sheriff's Office about him.

I called again. This time, Detective Jim Miller returned my call. He was contentious, challenging the idea that Fletcher's absence implies a problem.

I told him he had been homeless and paranoid.

"You do realize that neither of those things is against the law," Miller said. "If he doesn't want to be found, he's not going to be found."

What likely led to the classification, he said, is that authorities had seen no record showing Fletcher presented a harm to anyone else or himself, thus "closing" the case.

Miller did run Fletcher through databases available to him, including the FBI's National Crime Information Center, but found nothing past the 1990s.

Gutch, my law enforcement friend, had exhausted numerous contacts and databases without uncovering a trace of Fletcher. As one source after another came up empty, I stopped wanting to make any more calls.

Most people have some kind of paper trail.

I knew the obvious progression. Any news from here on out would likely be bad.

"Given the circumstances," Gutch finally wrote in one of his emails, "I would be of the opinion that he is no longer amongst us."

If Fletcher could not be found among the living, it was time to look elsewhere.

There are now 814 unidentified bodies in Florida showing up in National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, also called NamUs. I have studied lists of white males, only to rule most of them out.

Some are too tall or too short. I didn't recall Fletcher having a tattoo, so he likely wasn't the Confederate flag guy in Orange County or swastika guy in Palm Beach. I doubt crab fishermen found Fletcher's bones off Biscayne Boulevard, or that laborers in Miami-Dade found them in tall grass.

This part of the search feels like walking into a morgue. Everyone is departed, disembodied or dismembered. They have died the loneliest of deaths and are still unacknowledged.

I also feel guilt. If Fletcher is among the unidentified dead, it marks some kind of failure. We can't just blame a mentally ill person for falling on tough times and then dying.

Where was society? Where, especially, were his friends?

I combat these thoughts with reasons — decent ones — which let me back off the hook and put the responsibility on Fletcher, or on no one. It's a tug-of-war that never really ends.

The third and last time I spoke with Detective Miller, I told him about the list of bodies.

Miller responded with a piece of advice.

"You are going to drive yourself nuts if every time you find a set of bones or human remains, you are going to associate that with your friend," he said. "You are going to drive yourself to the point of madness.

"At some point, you are going to have to give yourself a break."

Now here I sat in that dark conference room at the medical examiner's office, as Pellan turned the laptop computer toward my face.

I jolted in my chair.

I pulled back from the computer, then leaned left and right as if that would afford a better view.

Body 99-1145 was lying on the concrete near a bus bench, elbow bent, his hand curled up on his chest. I had seen Fletcher sleep that way.

He wore shorts, tennis shoes and a filthy white T-shirt. Hair color is the same as Fletcher's. Height is close. The eye color seemed the same.

His head was turned slightly to the left, showing a beard that grew down the throat. It looked several weeks old, proportional with how I had seen Fletcher about five weeks earlier — at least as best I can remember 15 years later.

The autopsy said he had died of a heart attack, just like Fletcher's father.

The body was discovered with glasses, an earpiece broken off.

Was this him, at long last?

My heart raced to yes, but my mind held onto doubt.

It really looked like him, though there were aspects of the face I wasn't sure about. He was more gaunt than I last saw him, but homelessness could've done that. Death also tends to make even those with confirmed identities less recognizable.

Four days later, the chief investigator would email me a state identification photo of Fletcher he had found from 1998, one we'd been unable to find, and throw me into doubt again. Fletcher appeared to have a scar on his right cheek. The dead man at the bus stop did not.

Too often lately, I've felt like I did back in that Volks­wagen van, chasing my interpretation of a face. These small details can be so elusive. I think about all the wrongful convictions that rest on this kind of flexible, human memory.

But now, for the first time, it isn't just me and Gutch who are looking.

Pellan, excited about the possibility of solving this case, emailed me a list of his office's continued efforts, which seem as exhaustive as mine.

Enlisting the help of St. Petersburg police, they will seek fingerprints from a mid 1970s drunken driving arrest while Fletcher was a student at Emory. If all else fails, they will consider taking DNA from an envelope Fletcher licked shut in 1996 before he mailed me a letter.

After viewing three photos that afternoon, I sat in my car for a while, feeling numb.

I thought about the hand again, curled up toward the face. When Fletcher got on a laughing jag and he shook and his face got red, his hand did that. It was a protective gesture, a returning to the womb because at those moments he could not defend himself.

I suddenly felt as if nothing was going to be routine about this story for a while, or in my life. I turned on sports talk radio on the drive home. It couldn't drown out the image of the dead man.

One recent afternoon, I stopped by the bus stop bench in front of 8300 Seminole Blvd., where the deputy had told Fletcher to move along.

I suppose it was a desperate idea, but something I needed to do.

I knocked on a half-dozen doors at Majestic Park Homes, the manufactured housing complex at that address, looking for residents who might have been there 15 years ago.

No one remembered Fletcher.

I went over to the bench, and walked heel to toe to measure the width of the sidewalk that would have separated my friend from the loud cars that barreled by.

Six feet.

This is not even a particularly safe place to sit, I thought, let alone sleep.

I took a seat and, in the quiet of my mind, spoke to Fletcher.

I asked him if he is happy, having people wonder where he is. Does he feel that it serves them right, since they were not concerned about him when they knew he was down and out?

I would love to have him walk into the newspaper lobby tomorrow, laughing at me. In this scenario, which I have played over countless times, he's an old man like me, pushing 60, and has been living and working a few blocks away.

In case he is alive and well and reading this, I'll address him now.

Wherever you are, Fletch, a lot of people would love to know that you are okay. If you would like to contact me, there is never a wrong time to do so.

Whether or not you elect to do that, I hope you will at least know one thing:

You are, most definitely, loved.

Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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