Cold trail yields few hints

Three months after Justin Burkhart disappeared after a Friday night on the town, police and a private investigator hired by Burkhart's mother say they know little more about what happened to him than they did on the day he went missing.

Burkhart, 28, spent the night of July 31 drinking and dancing with friends, returning early Saturday to the downtown Bend apartment he'd moved into two days before. In the middle of the night, he apparently left to get something to eat and vanished. He missed appointments to spend time with friends over the weekend, and was reported missing when he didn't show up for work on Monday.

Lt. Ben Gregory, head of the detectives unit for the Bend Police Department, said that between interviews and surveillance video from businesses, the police have a reasonably good idea of where Burkhart went on Friday night, but the trail goes cold after midnight — Gregory said he didn't want to give a more precise time — when two people who knew Burkhart saw him at the west end of the footbridge in Drake Park.

Gregory would not say if police have located any physical evidence in the case. The department doesn't have enough evidence to rule out any explanation of what might have happened to Burkhart, he said.

“We don't have a theory one way or the other, that he's come about foul play or is missing of his own accord,” Gregory said.

Eloisa Chavez, Burkhart's mother, said she's dreamed up more theories about what happened to her son than she can remember. She's imagined scenarios where he hit his head and is wandering around town unsure of who he is, and the possibility that he was struck by a car and dumped in the woods or the river by the panicked driver. When she heard about the teenagers who attacked a man in the Mirror Pond parking lot in mid-September, she wondered if they might have done the same to her son, and she's racked her brain to remember anyone who might have held a grudge against him.

“Every day I can come up with a new theory, but a lot of them I just have to put them away, because they don't make any sense,” she said.

Teri DuFresne, a private investigator hired by Chavez, said she's recruiting divers to perform a search of Mirror Pond down to the spillway at the Newport Dam, a more thorough search of the water than was previously done. DuFresne said she doesn't believe Burkhart went into hiding or committed suicide, leaving foul play or an accident as the most likely explanation of his disappearance.

“This is a young man that is very, very close with his family, he has very close family ties, and I do not believe that he just said, ‘I have too much pressure and I'm leaving,'” she said. “I just do not believe that. When you have that close of family ties, you just don't do that to your family.”

Checkered past, hopeful for the future

Burkhart and his mother moved to Bend when he was 7 months old, and he attended St. Francis School, Pilot Butte Middle School and Mountain View High School, earning a GED in 1999.

After high school, Burkhart had a succession of run-ins with police. According to court records and Bulletin archives, in 2000, he was arrested and convicted for selling half a pound of marijuana to an undercover officer, and in 2003 for stealing a car. In late 2004, Burkhart was arrested on federal charges for distributing cocaine. Convicted in late 2006, he served a little less than two years in federal prison, and was released in May 2008, according to federal court records.

After his release, Burkhart enrolled in Central Oregon Community College, earning a position on the dean's list in the fall 2008 term. In late 2008, he started working at Allyson's Kitchen in the Old Mill District, and started dating Rachelle Templin, his fiancée at the time of his disappearance.

Co-worker Serena Searcy said Burkhart didn't hide his past from close friends. Searcy said he was an “open book” who would have likely told her if he was feeling threatened by anyone or if he were seriously depressed.

“I don't think Justin opened up for probably four or five months about what had gone on, but he went into extreme detail,” she said. “I'm well aware of what used to happen in his life, but I never knew any of that with him.”

Templin said Burkhart had made significant strides toward putting his past behind him.

“I was with him almost every day for a year, and I can honestly say that drugs were not part of his life,” she wrote in an e-mail. “He was at work, school, or home with me for the majority of that time. He was doing great things, and trying to be the best man he could be.”

Burkhart drank heavily at times, Templin wrote, becoming “someone else.” Some nights he failed to come home, and Templin kicked him out of their apartment more than once. On at least one night last summer, he slept outside in the park after a night of drinking. His mother said she didn't learn of her son's nights in the park until after his disappearance.

“He never told me that,” Chavez said. “I would have begged him, please, just call me, I'll come and get you, but he didn't want me to worry about him.”

Chavez said Burkhart was stressed in the days prior to his disappearance. Templin was set to move to Alaska to take a teaching job on the Saturday when Burkhart was last seen, and they'd put getting married on hold so that Templin's income wouldn't disqualify Burkhart from the grants he was using to pay for school. Burkhart had purchased a plane ticket to visit Templin in Alaska in early September, and was planning to move to Alaska in November.

On Thursday, July 30, Burkhart tried to persuade his fiancée to go get married at the courthouse, but she turned him down. The next day, Templin dropped Burkhart off at work at Allyson's Kitchen, and headed to Portland to say goodbye to her family and prepare for her flight to Alaska.

Friday night

Searcy and Burkhart shut down at Allyson's Kitchen on Friday around 9 p.m. He was in an uncommonly good mood that night, Searcy recalled, optimistic he was going to be able to make his relationship with Templin work. Searcy said he told her about having an emotional talk over breakfast with Templin that morning, and his plan to trade his plane tickets to Alaska for tickets to Hawaii, where he hoped to meet her in September and marry her.

Burkhart did not tell Searcy he was planning to go out that night. Searcy said he told her he wanted to be well-rested so that he could take a trip to the lake with friends the next day, and she assumed he'd go home, drink a little wine and go to bed early.

A search warrant affidavit filed by the Bend Police Department in mid-October to obtain access to Burkhart's laptop, e-mail account and Facebook account outlines a portion of Burkhart's night.

According to the affidavit, a friend of Burkhart's found him near the Newport Bridge on Friday night, and invited him to join him on a trip to Underground, a nightclub on Northeast Third Street. Burkhart, the friend, the friend's brother and two women drove to the nightclub, where they stayed until closing time at 2 a.m.

Joined by two different women, Burkhart and the two brothers returned to Burkhart's apartment on Northwest Broadway to drink wine after the club closed. The group drank on the front porch of Burkhart's apartment complex with other tenants of the complex until around 3:30 a.m., the affidavit states, when the two brothers left to walk the women back to their car a few blocks away. As the brothers were leaving, Burkhart said he was going to the Pita Pit to get something to eat. He was told the restaurant had closed for the night, but headed there anyway.

Burkhart made a handful of phone calls Friday night. Around 11 p.m, he called his mother, and left a message to tell her he'd be over for a visit on Sunday. She arrived home shortly thereafter and called his cell phone, but he didn't pick up.

Chavez said she still regrets missing the call, and that if she'd been home, her son might have asked her to take him grocery shopping to stock up his new apartment, rather than going out with his friends.

Templin wrote that she talked to Burkhart at around 12:30 a.m., and that she was frustrated that he'd been drinking.

“He had asked me to come back to Bend and go fishing with him (we fished a lot), and I said no, as I was in Portland saying goodbye to my family,” she wrote. “The last thing he said to me on a voicemail was ‘I love you; I will talk to you tomorrow.'”

Early Saturday, Templin drove back to Bend to surprise Burkhart. At his apartment, she met the friends who had made arrangements to go to the lake with him that morning at around 8:45 a.m. They called his cell phone and heard it ringing inside the apartment, over the sound of his still-playing stereo.

Inside, they found his phone. A text message that Templin had sent him before leaving Portland was unread, and on Burkhart's bed was a journal containing an entry from the night before, “not a suicide note, but rather a proclamation of love and frustration,” as Templin described it.

Few leads

Since Burkhart was officially reported missing that Monday, as many as six of the Bend Police Department's nine detectives have been assigned to the case at times. Officers have interviewed more than 40 people, Gregory said, including individuals who were incarcerated with him. Police are still looking to interview one person who was incarcerated with Burkhart, Gregory said, but he is not considered a suspect.

Chavez and DuFresne, the private investigator working on the case, said Burkhart's neighbors told them they believe he headed for the 7-Eleven on Galveston Avenue, about a half- mile's walk from his apartment, after finding the Pita Pit closed for the night. DuFresne said it was unclear if he made it to 7-Eleven or not, but that employees of the store did not recall seeing Burkhart that night.

Templin has come back to Bend twice since Burkhart was reported missing to help search for him, visit his friends and talk to people who might be able to help solve the case. The police, Templin wrote, have done a “wonderful job” throughout the investigation.

Chavez is more critical. She said police told her they expected Burkhart would be back in a week or so when she reported him missing, and speculates that valuable evidence may have been lost in that first week.

“They could have gotten a cadaver dog or a scent dog out there,” she said. “There could have been blood there, his wallet, his keys, the bandanna he was wearing that night.”

Gregory said police are continuing to investigate leads as they come in, but that there's only so much they can do given the limited evidence available. Drake Park and Mirror Pond have been searched twice, but Gregory said there's no limit to the places Burkhart might be found if he were killed and dumped in the forest, committed suicide or wandered away and was in an accident.

“People think we can just turn loose cadaver dogs in the woods and they find dead bodies,” Gregory said. “In order for us to deploy some resources — which I'm happy to do — we need to have some information to know where to start looking.”

Police have seen no activity on Burkhart's bank account for the past three months, and Gregory said there's no indication he withdrew a large amount of money prior to his disappearance. The affidavit notes a $90 withdrawal from his account on July 30.

DuFresne said she's found no evidence of anyone who might have been looking to harm Burkhart.

“Everyone I talk to says this is a jovial young man, very vibrant personality, and you know, that night he was a little bummed out; (Templin) was leaving and going to start her career, so of course he was bummed out,” she said. “But this is a real friendly guy that pretty much everybody that meets him likes him. It's hard finding any enemies or confrontations; I haven't found anything like that directly with Justin.”

Chavez continues to hope that her son is still alive, but said she tries not to get too excited over every tip she hears. Not long ago, a woman e-mailed her to say she thought she'd seen Burkhart walking near The Shepherd's House on Division Street, laughing and talking to himself — dirtier, scruffier and skinnier, but with the same smile the woman recognized from the posters of him hung around town. Periodically, Chavez has visited homeless camps around the area, looking for her son or anyone who might have seen him.

“It's just a daily, minute-to- minute thing, every day something new coming up that I need to work on,” she said. “Yeah, I can't believe this. I've never gone a week without talking to my son. He's my best friend and my only child, and it's really hard.”

Scott Hammers can be reached at 541-383-0387 or at shammers@bendbulletin.com.

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