Missing

Rhodes College student Matt Pendergrast disappeared seven years ago. So far, investigators offer only theories about his fate. Are those theories valid?



On a cloudy winter day in suburban Atlanta, Mary Ellen Pendergrast looks out her kitchen window as birds dart among the branches of a large crab apple tree. The tree was planted when her son Matt was an infant. "He was born at 3 a.m.," says Mary Ellen, a slender, blue-eyed woman with a smile much like her son's, "and I woke up at 3 o'clock this morning thinking about him."


Today, January 9th, would be Matthew David Pendergrast's 31st birthday, and his parents, on the preceding Sunday, placed flowers on the altar of their church in celebration of his life. It's a date that's difficult to commemorate. Matt disappeared seven years ago and has not been seen or heard from since. Not knowing whether he's dead or alive hovers over the young man's family, which includes Matt's two younger sisters, Diana and Julie. In a dining room window, a candle always burns, signifying hope of Matt's return.

"It really breaks a heart to lose a child," says Matt's father, Dr. Jeff Pendergrast, a prominent cosmetic and reconstructive surgeon. "But I understand now what the saying means, 'A broken heart heals open.' For others facing a tragedy, our empathy and concern for them is greater, and that's been a gift."

Matt, then 23, was finishing up his last semester at Rhodes College when he vanished on Friday, December 1, 2000. He had appeared in a play on campus the previous evening and was scheduled to attend a Spanish class at 9 a.m. that morning. The woman from whom he rented a room near the school said she heard him moving around and leave the house between 7:30 and 8 a.m. A friend had spoken to him at length the night before and later described Matt in a newspaper article as "very upbeat."

The next day, the Pendergrasts received word that their son's vehicle — a maroon 1998 Toyota 4Runner SUV— had been found on a levee in an area reserved for duck hunters in Lonoke County, Arkansas, off the Kerr Road exit of Interstate 40, about 120 miles from Memphis. The keys were still in the ignition. Some 100 yards from the vehicle, in a wooded thicket, investigators later found Matt's clothes in a pile, along with his wallet containing $46 in cash, credit cards, family photos, and driver's license. Accounts differ on whether his socks and shoes were wet or dry. But all accounts describe his pants as wet from the knees down, looking as if the wearer stepped out of them and let them drop where they fell. His T-shirt, one of the investigators was heard to say, could have come right out of the dryer. Despite the frigid temperature that day, no coat or jacket was found.

Over the next few days, searches used helicopters with night vision, divers equipped with sonar, and scent-tracking by blood-hounds and cadaver dogs. The K-9 team picked up the young man's scent from the pile of clothes to the edge of Bayou Meto, a complex waterway that winds through five Arkansas counties. They found no scent, however, leading from the vehicle to the clothes. Nor did investigators find signs of a struggle, footprints, weapons, or DNA evidence.

The Memphis Police Department, from the beginning, considered it a missing person's case and not necessarily a crime; they would provide us only the initial incident report, would tell us nothing about how the case was investigated, and said that in 2002 they'd turned over the file to the Arkansas State Police (ASP). The ASP and the Lonoke County Sheriff's Department (LCSD) don't know if they have a crime, either — as one official says, "What we have is an abandoned vehicle with suspicious circumstances." Yet, unlike Memphis, both Arkansas law enforcement entities pursued all leads and still consider the case open.


The ASP would not discuss Matt's disappearance with us. But the LCSD welcomed us to their office, where Lieutenant James Kulesa and Chief Deputy Dean White let us look through three bulging file folders. It's a case that troubled the lead investigator, not only because it's still a mystery but because he himself had a son who drowned.

That investigator, Frank Sturdivant, is now retired and in poor health. Colleagues say his arthritis was so severe that he'd come to work on crutches, obsessively following every murky thread that might possibly yield a clue to Matt's disappearance. When this story was being researched, Sturdivant was recovering from heart surgery and not available for interviews.

Theories abound as to Matt's fate. Did he surrender himself to the brown waters of the bayou in accordance with some strange ritual, a possibility Sturdivant pursued? Those who know Matt well adamantly deny this. Did he choose to leave his family and friends and head for Mexico, following a route from Little Rock to Dallas, to start a new life? Or to live in the wilderness, like the hero in the popular movie Into the Wild? Again, say his loved ones, no clues ever pointed in that direction.

One last theory — one that can't be proven but that was pursued by Sturdivant and by an investigator the Pendergrasts hired — involves a possible drug deal gone bad, a deal Matt was allegedly drawn into against his will and one that, theoretically, could have cost Matt his life.

"Rhodes was a great fit."

Matthew Pendergrast was a slight five feet-six inches tall and 115 pounds — but well-coordinated and a fearless competitor. He played goalie on a soccer team and took wrestling at Westminster Academy, an elite Atlanta private school. He also ran track and lettered in cross-country. Interested in music as well as sports, he played drums and other percussion instruments. He was at ease in front of crowds. His parents recall a school talent show in which Matt decided he'd do a juggling act — with lit firesticks. His father tried to talk him into using balls instead, but Matt stuck to his plan. The act earned him a first-place prize and an ovation from the audience.

When it came time to choose a college, Matt and his parents had a routine. "We'd go on a Sunday and spend the night in the dorm," says Mary Ellen. "Matt liked the whole atmosphere at Rhodes. It was a great fit." In 1995, in the fall of his freshman year there, he pledged Kappa Sigma fraternity and made friends with two other Atlantans, Jason Woods and Justin Lennon, both a couple of years his senior.

Woods, now assistant dean of arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, recalls a boy brimming with creativity and passion for life. "We spent many nights in intellectual discussions that ranged from existential philosophy to literature to quantum physics," says Woods. He adds that while Matt could be introspective, he also had a gift for bringing lightness to serious conversations.

Lennon, who was Matt's big brother in the fraternity and is now a research analyst in New York City, echoes Woods' description: "Matt never took himself too seriously. He was a good balance between an introvert and an extrovert." Both friends call him unselfish, kind, and caring.

Another friend, Geo Presley-Brooks, was a tutor and mentor to Matt, Lennon, and Woods. He played tennis with Matt and sometimes dined and traveled with the Pendergrast family. Among the qualities Presley-Brooks appreciated most were Matt's intelligence, his fun-loving nature, and the fact that he "looked for the best in people, even those who might be closed-minded or simply mean-spirited."

In his first two years at Rhodes, Matt studied pre-med. But then he took a Spanish class that involved a trip to Mexico. Matt liked it so well he changed his major to Spanish. It was on that trip that Eric Henager, an associate professor of modern languages and literature who eventually became Matt's academic advisor, got to know him in a social situation. In the classroom Matt was inquisitive and would often "extend class discussion to a topic that had intrigued him in another class," says Henager.

Yet he could also drift off into a pensive mood, an act "not unusual for young liberal-arts students who are dealing with new ideas." On the Mexico trip, although he occasionally "floated away mentally," says Henager, he was friendly and funny and looked out for other students. If the group was together late, Matt would see to it that they called a taxi, and because his Spanish was so much better than theirs, they'd rely on him for communicating with the locals.

"I don't recall him seeming worried."

Those who knew Matt say he often wondered what he would do with his life. Then in the summers of 1999 and 2000, a volunteer experience with Orphanage Outreach, when he worked with children in the Dominican Republic, sparked a goal for Matt. "He decided that after graduation," says his mother, "he would get a job with a nonprofit in Atlanta, learn its fund-raising and legal aspects, and start his own organization that would benefit orphans." In the Dominican Republic, Matt also had a girlfriend, with whom he maintained a long-distance relationship.

In 1999, Rhodes arranged, through the American Institute for Foreign Studies, for Matt to spend a year in Spain at the University of Granada. By the time he returned to Memphis in the fall of 2000, his best buddies, Woods and Lennon, had graduated and "Matt was a little lonely when he returned to Memphis," says Mary Ellen. Instead of moving into the dorm, he rented a room in a house on Trezevant, within walking distance of the college.

At Thanksgiving of 2000, during a trip home, he was in good spirits. "We went online and ordered a two-volume dictionary from amazon.com for a Christmas present," says Mary Ellen. "This was a child who would never let you spend money if he didn't really want something." Matt also visited with Lennon, whose family had invited Matt to join them on a Caribbean cruise after graduation. "Then we were going to rent a house together here in Atlanta and be roommates," Lennon recalls.

After Thanksgiving, Matt was set to finish his degree requirements in two weeks. He talked with his advisor about his final paper — "just a standard visit," says Henager. "I don't recall him seeming worried." On Thursday evening, November 30th, Matt appeared in a play titled Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman as part of a class assignment.

That was the last time Matt's advisor saw his student. Though scheduled for a 9 a.m. class the next morning, the young man never showed up.

One ominous message

On Saturday, December 2nd, around 2 p.m., Mary Ellen Pendergrast received a strange telephone call. A man identified himself as Joe Murdall and asked to speak to Matt. When Mary Ellen told him her son was in school at Rhodes College, Murdall explained that Matt's SUV was parked on a levee in a private duck-hunting preserve in Lonoke County, Arkansas. At 10 a.m. on Friday, when Murdall and his companion had gone hunting, the 4Runner had not been there. At 2 p.m., however, the SUV was parked on the levee, and the men had left a note on the windshield asking the owner to remove it. But a day later, there the SUV remained, unlocked, with the keys in the ignition. The men took the liberty of opening the glove compartment, where they found a record of an oil change that contained the Pendergrasts' phone number.

In the blink of an eye, with one ominous message, Mary Ellen's and Jeff's typical Saturday turned surreal.

First, Matt's mother called Margaret Meredith, Matt's landlord at 591 Trezevant, but couldn't reach her. Then she called the Rhodes security department, which sent an officer to check the house but saw no sign of Matt. Ralph Hatley was head of security at the time and worked with law enforcement agencies. "The incident was really upsetting to all of us. It was a rough time," he says. An email was sent to all students advising them of Matt's disappearance and giving them a number to call if they knew anything about his whereabouts.

A Memphis police sergeant who searched Matt's room noted, according to Mary Ellen, that it was "in disarray." Meanwhile the Pendergrasts contacted the LCSD, who put out a department-wide BOLO ("be on the lookout for"), and they also contacted the ASP.

On Sunday, then-LCSD Chief Deputy Sturdivant met with the ASP and Arkansas Game and Fish employees to launch a grid search of the area. Before long, a helicopter search team spied a pile of clothing about 100 yards from the levee — shoes, socks, pants wet from the knees down, a dry T-shirt, and a wallet containing cash and various forms of identification.

"A matter of grave concern "

Over the next few days, according to police documents, published accounts, and the memories of those who participated, the search team explored the thick stand of woods near the levee, and sent divers and boaters to navigate the bayou's tortuous waters. Swollen and running fast at the time, the water could have carried off a slight young man like Matt, if for some reason he'd waded into its depths.

Mary Ellen and Jeff Pendergrast did not join the search, choosing instead, at the advice of law enforcement officials, to remain in Atlanta. "We were hoping Matt would walk in the door or would at least call," explains Mary Ellen, who says that back then they did not have a cell phone. "Or we thought we might get a demand for ransom. We felt it best to stay here."

But Lennon, Woods, and several other of Matt's friends did fly to Arkansas that weekend. Among them was Presley-Brooks, the last person to speak with Matt, a telephone conversation that took place around 1:30 or 2 a.m. Memphis time. Describing Matt as "very upbeat," Presley-Brooks says they "discussed how he would outline and write a final paper that was due the following week." The next morning around 7:30, Matt left Presley-Brooks a message saying, "Everything's all right. No problem. I'll talk to you later."

Matt's friends had hoped to help officials with the search for their missing comrade. Instead, they were confined to a "staging area" near some grain bins. "I think I understood [police] keeping us at arm's length from the investigation," says Woods, "but I was disappointed in the reaction by the Lonoke County sheriff's office. We were adamant that Matt's disappearance should be treated as a matter of grave concern and a potential crime." Instead, Woods claims, they didn't start the search till 11 a.m. and then "walked all around the scene with disregard and flew around in ATVs at high speed, mucking up scents, footprints, and all manner of potential evidence around the car, the levee, the woods, and the fields."

"For days," continues Woods, who stayed in the area for nearly two weeks, "they didn't even search the downstream banks of the stream where his clothes were found or the trailer park beyond the far bank of the stream. When we complained to the sheriff that this should be done, we were told to butt out and that we'd be arrested if we were seen searching by ourselves."

Lieutenant Kulesa, who assisted with the search, responds to Woods' criticism: "At that point we didn't know if this was a crime scene or not, and these individuals weren't trained. Also, you can't just launch a search without logistics. You need a plan." Kulesa denies Woods' allegations of "mucking up" evidence.

During that first week of December, several ground, water, and aerial searches were conducted. Two different K-9 teams were used, each one picking up and then losing Matt's scent at the same sites. On December 8th, at the end of the third effort, officials determined that they had covered the area as thoroughly as they could and called off further searches.

"We saw nothing on Kerr Road to attract him."

About three weeks after Matt's disappear-ance, since they had received no calls from their son or from anyone demanding ransom, Matt's parents flew to Memphis and stayed with one of Jeff's friends from medical school. They met with Rhodes officials, who extended their condolences, and with security chief Hatley. Upon visiting Matt's room on Trezevant, his mother recalled that MPD had described the room "in disarray." To her it looked merely typical — the bed unmade and his suitcase open, still strewn with the clothes from his Thanksgiving trip home.

That same weekend the Pendergrasts rented a car and drove to the Kerr Road site. The street itself is well-traveled, but a private dirt road leads to the levee, where Matt's car had been found. Beyond is Bayou Meto, one of the largest state-owned wildlife management areas in the nation, encompassing more than 30,000 acres, about half of which are flooded each fall to attract ducks and hunters.

But Matt was not a hunter. Though he'd been camping in the Ozarks, say his parents, this part of Arkansas would be unfamiliar to him. As for Kerr Road: "Even if he'd had reason to come to Lonoke County, we could see nothing on Kerr Road to attract him," says his mother.

"Give Matt a modicum of privacy."

Meanwhile, Lonoke County investigators were examining Matt's SUV, which had been taken to the state crime lab for processing. There, inside a backpack, officers found journals that Matt kept — poems, reflections, observations of life, death, and nature that Sturdivant read and pondered. In at least one entry, Matt mentioned a group called the Silver Elves. Its website features the "Elven Tree of Life and Death," which leads visitors on a "journey of s'elf discovery and the means to obtaining Immortality, which some seem to think is the doom of the elves even while they hunger after it."

Weird words, but worth pursuing, ac-cording to Sturdivant, who, according to file documents, wondered if a connection could exist between the Silver Elves and Matt's disappearance. Sturdivant made note of one journal entry in which Matt described the cold mud in the woods, lying down in the icy water, and feeling his blood turning to ice crystals. The LCSD hired a psychic who claimed that Matt wanted to be rebirthed as a Silver Elf. The psychic told Sturdivant that she "saw" Matt take off his clothes, fold them neatly, and step out into the bayou, where he died of hypothermia.

Matt's mother rejects this notion, saying the boy never did anything neatly in his life. She did acknowledge that he played, "when he should have been studying," an interactive computer game called Multi User Dungeons and Dragons, whose website has links to the Silver Elves. Matt's friend Justin Lennon says that Matt got more involved in online games when his Atlanta friends graduated. "He wasn't going out a lot, his girlfriend was in the Dominican Republic, so Threshold-RPG.com became his social life." (According to its website, Threshold-RPG.com is a "high fantasy, multi-user virtual reality game.") Lennon refutes the idea that Matt killed himself, or engaged in such a bizarre ritual.

Jason Woods takes strong offense at strangers reading his friend's private reflections and making inflammatory suggestions. "Matt wrote creatively about all aspects of life," he says. "Focusing on dark poems or a fantastic idea [only] sensationalizes and creates non-sensical mystery. I urge you to give Matt a modicum of respect and privacy of thought."

A mysterious incident got the detective's attention.

Matt's parents and friends aren't the only ones who dismiss the Silver Elves theory. So does the private investigator whom the Pendergrasts hired in May 2001, five months after Matt disappeared; he was recommended by Tom Henderson, a prosecutor with the District Attorney General's office.

"Roy" — who agreed to speak with us only on the condition of anonymity and is no longer a private investigator — describes Matt as a very intelligent, artistic young man who was exploring many ideas in life. "You peel back that one [Silver Elves] layer, and that's all there is," says Roy.

What struck him as suspicious was the condition of Matt's pants. "They were wet up to the knees," he says. "Yet the drainage ditch between where his vehicle was found and where his clothes were laid was filled with water that would have come up much higher on Matt than his knees, probably over his head. I think it was all staged."

Staged by whom? Roy doesn't know for sure, but soon after he accepted the Pendergrasts' case, he learned of a mysterious incident that occurred on December 28, 2000 — nearly three weeks after Matt vanished. The incident involved the driver of a blue Cadillac who'd run out of gas on Kerr Road. When a trooper stopped to offer help, his suspicions were roused because the man was trembling uncontrollably. As he started to question the driver, another motorist brought gasoline. The trooper, who decided the driver may have been shaking from the cold, allowed the Cadillac to leave — but he noted the car's tag number.

What the trooper couldn't know was that later that day, the Cadillac driver would break into a house on Kerr Road, not to burglarize it but to make a phone call. When the owner came in from shopping and screamed for him to leave, he calmly told the person on the phone, "I have to go. The lady of the house just came in." As he walked out the door, she noticed he held a cell phone in one hand.

Shortly after he left, the homeowner pressed "redial" on her phone and learned that the home intruder — the Cadillac driver — had called a convenience store in North Little Rock. She gave the number to LCSD's Sturdivant, who questioned an employee there. A background check revealed that the employee had a felony record. We don't know what the employer and the home intruder discussed that day, but the LCDS continued to track the Cadillac driver. In early January 2001, about a week after running out of gas on Kerr Road, he was busted on a drug charge — possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms and marijuana — in Prescott, Arizona.

"A circle on the sidewall of the trunk."

So what, if anything, does all this have to do with a missing Rhodes College student?

When Sturdivant ran the tags on the Cadillac, he learned that it belonged to a convicted counterfeiter and drug-runner — who lived in Atlanta about three miles from a friend of Matt's. This friend — or "person of interest," as Sturdivant described him — was someone whom Sturdivant and later Roy had questioned in-depth, whose background they checked, and about whom they had serious suspicions.

In a city of 4 million people, was this proximity between the Cadillac driver and the "person of interest" coincidental? Roy and Sturdivant don't think so, especially considering other details: the Cadillac showing up on Kerr Road not far from where Matt's own vehicle was found; Matt, who "never got up earlier than he had to," according to his mother, leaving his room at least an hour early for a class five minutes away; and, most of all, calls allegedly made on Sunday, December 3rd, between the "person of interest" and the Cadillac owner.

Roy, who believes that both individuals were involved in drug-dealing, says, "I can't prove it — it's a gut feeling — but I think [the person of interest] convinced Matt to do something he didn't want to do." He thinks the Cadillac driver had connections with another house on Kerr Road, one known as a crystal meth manufacturing center, and that he had intended to use the phone there. He thinks the convenience store owner was involved with the Cadillac driver but he's not sure how. He thinks at the urging of the "person of interest" that Matt was persuaded to let the driver use his SUV — either borrowing it from Matt or having Matt drive him to Lonoke County — so the Cadillac wouldn't be linked to a drug deal. He thinks that Matt, once he realized what was going on and how his vehicle would be used, changed his mind, panicked, perhaps tried to get away. And that three weeks after he disappeared, and the Cadillac showed up on Kerr Road, Matt's body was in the trunk.

"I think [the Cadillac driver] killed Matthew and planted the wet pants to throw searchers off track," says Roy. He thinks the driver hid Matt's body out of range of the search site, then came back to get the body on December 28th. "I think Matt is buried somewhere between Memphis and Arizona."

By the time Sturdivant tracked down the Cadillac owner, six months had passed; the man had posted bail and headed off on foot. But his car was still impounded, and in the summer of 2001, at the request of Arkansas authorities, Arizona police ran a luminol test on the Cadillac. The chemical luminol creates a greenish glow when it comes into contact with blood. Police saw a "circle on the sidewall of the trunk," says Roy, "just like the top of a head leaning against it." Authorities suspected human tissue but could get no DNA. The car had been sitting in the Arizona elements so the test was inconclusive.

"Why would he take such a risk?"

Since we could not interview Sturdivant, we read other published accounts that documented his reasons for suspecting this "person of interest" from Atlanta. We also listened to Roy's account of how he questioned the person, investigated how he claimed to make a living, and found that "not one thing he said was true."

Then we did our own fact-checking and discovered the person had not lied about his means of support and that other claims Roy made could not be confirmed or corroborated. We specifically asked Roy to provide records of the alleged phone calls between the Cadillac driver and "the person of interest." He refused to do so in order to protect his source, but he claimed that Lonoke County authorities had "backed them up." Lieutenant Kulesa says he could find no record of such phone calls and that Sturdivant did not respond to our queries about them.

As for the theory about the Cadillac owner traveling on the interstate with Matt's body, Kulesa is doubtful: "Why would he take such a risk? Why would he return to the scene of the crime?" Yet Roy insists that the "person of interest" knows more about Matt's disappearance than he's telling.

Mary Ellen praises Roy's work ethic: "He was like a bulldog, nonstop, thorough, absolutely determined." In early 2004, when they took him off the case — for which they'd been paying him $60 an hour — Roy told them he'd never quit, and he continued to conduct searches himself, "digging in fields all over Arkansas."

For Jeff, however, Roy's findings were pure speculation and Jeff says, "He never gave us anything in writing."

 

"A feeling of peace"

An unsatisfactory conclusion, and one that leads us back to the troubling question: Where is Matthew Pendergrast — the altruistic young man who tutored children in Memphis and Mexico, volunteered with orphans in the Dominican Republic, and delivered Meals on Wheels to homebound locals? A boy whom friends recall as funny and smart, but also innocent, naïve, and inclined to trust people, possibly at his own peril?

His mentor, Presley-Brooks, believes that "something sinister and unforeseen" occurred, "something Matthew had no opportunity to counter or to alert his family and friends [about]."

Lonoke County authorities keep Matt's case open. "People still talk about Matthew's disappearance and I still ask informants if they know anything about it," says Kulesa. "I think someday we'll find out the truth."

Matt's former landlord remembers seeing a Robert Frost book lying open on Matt's bed; she recalls how he liked to cook. She sometimes Googles his name, hoping to read of new developments in his case.

Henager, Matt's former Rhodes advisor, has kept Matt's file "on the off chance that he is still around." And he doesn't believe Matt staged his disappearance or took his own life. "He was always thinking of how his actions affected others," says Henager. "I don't think he'd disappear without a good-bye."

Mary Ellen misses her son's weekly phone calls and his cheery "Hello, Mom!" Difficult as it is, she's more comfortable thinking of him dead: "If he could have gotten home, he would have. He was a smart kid and he was close to family." She says that last Valentine's Day she received a clear message from her son. "Not a voice, just a feeling of peace," she explains. "I don't know if it meant he was dead or alive, just that he was okay. That was such a gift." And though she wants his case to be solved, she adds, "I'm at the point now that we're just glad we had him for as long as we did."

For Jeff, "time is a healer," he says. "At first the loss was overwhelming. Then the acute nature softens and life goes on. And during the spiritual journey, at times I've experienced peace."

He still holds out hope for a miracle. Though the vision of Matt returning may grow dim, it's like the candle in their dining room window, still burning. M

Anyone with information about this case should contact the Lonoke County Sheriff's Department at 501-676-3001; the Arkansas State Police at 501-618-8441; or the ASP's hotline at 800-553-3820. The family of Matthew Pendergrast is offering a $15,000 reward for information leading to his whereabouts.

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