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An Atascadero postal worker’s disappearance is the latest of 237 missing-person cases in SLO County

BY DANIEL BLACKBURN

The last time his friends saw Tim Bryner, the 42-year-old Atascadero mail carrier was shooting pool in a Paso Robles saloon with a young Mexican man.

Bryner, as far as anyone knows, departed that cold November evening for a weekend trip to Ensenada, something he had been doing occasionally since a painful divorce one year ago.

No one–not his friends, members of his widely scattered family, or post office associates–has since heard a word from him. This has proven particularly disturbing to those who know Bryner.

A story has been circulating locally that the bullet-riddled body of his unidentified companion was found dumped in an alley in a downtrodden suburb of the Baja California city.

"I’ve been hearing all those rumors," said San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Detective Scott Odom, whose office received a missing-person report from one of Bryner’s associates in the Atascadero Post Office. "We have no information on that [rumored slaying]. Do you?" he asked.

Odom, assigned to work the case, has his own opinion.

"Our investigation into Mr. Bryner’s disappearance is continuing, but there is nothing to suggest that suspicious circumstances are involved. I suspect we might be dealing with someone who doesn’t want to be found," he said.

That assertion infuriates Bryner’s older sister, Connie Brown, of Erie, Penn.

"My brother would never, never have taken off like that and not told one of us," said Brown, adding that she and her six siblings maintain "fairly regular contact" with one another.

Brown expressed "extreme dissatisfaction and frustration" with what she called "a lack of effort" by San Luis Obispo County law enforcement authorities to locate her brother.

"I don’t want to be too critical [of authorities], but I don’t see much happening," she said this week. "We are worried sick about Tim." She described her brother as "gentle, quiet, and generous to a fault."

Brown said she has talked to the investigator, Odom, on two occasions, and each time she said she "got the impression that he just wanted to sit and wait."

Odom said Brown "hasn’t communicated that to me." The detective added that every missing case he handles weighs heavy on his mind.

Bryner’s ex-wife agrees that Bryner’s disappearance was not something he planned or wanted.

"He just left everything behind. He wouldn’t do that," said Nancy Vanni. Bryner’s 18-year-old son alternates between anger and sadness, said Vanni. Bryner’s two dogs were left alone, too, and eventually were taken to the county animal shelter.

She is also frustrated, she said, because, as a former spouse, she is not able to get any information from law enforcement or from officials at Bryner’s bank.

With his mysterious disappearance, Bryner joined the ranks of Americans who mysteriously go missing every year. At any given time, according to U.S. Justice Department data, the whereabouts of 40,000 adults in this country is unknown. Each person leaves behind loved ones and friends who can do nothing but ponder their absence–and worry.

People drop from sight for almost as many reasons as there are disappearances–broken marriages and dreams, shattered romances, disappointing occupations, financial problems, general dissatisfaction with life, fear. With many others, the departure is not at all voluntary.

When an adult’s disappearance is reported to law enforcement agencies, details provided by the reporting party and by relatives will be used by investigators to place the case in one of seven different categories: "lost," "catastrophe," "stranger abduction," "suspicious circumstances," "voluntary missing," and "dependent adult."

In 2001, 841,266 cases were reported to the FBI, but 861,918 were cleared, reflecting closure of old cases. Experts agree that the number of missing adults reported in the United States each year–almost 200,000 in 2001–is low because local police routinely take a wait-and-see approach. Cost-effectiveness is said to be the reason. And without sound evidence of foul play, a disappearance case probably will not get much attention.

Statistics kept by the California Attorney General’s office show that county-by-county averages of missing persons in this state remain fairly constant from year to year. The number of active cases in California counties at any given time is almost directly related to population size, which is to say there is no favorite place in the Golden State for folks to disappear.

In 2001, the last complete period for which California data is provided, San Luis Obispo had 96 adults missing under "unknown" or "suspicious" circumstances, and another 121 filed as "voluntary missing"–someone who has chosen to disappear.

This county’s most prominent missing-person case also remains unsolved.

Cal Poly freshman Kristin Denise Smart, 19, was last seen by friends at about 2 a.m. May 25, 1996. The communications major had been at a party and at evening’s end had walked toward her dormitory, Muir Hall, accompanied by another student, Paul Flores.

Flores later told investigators that he and Smart parted at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Perimeter.

Two days later, Smart’s roommate filed a missing-person report with police.

Four "cadaver" dogs were utilized by authorities to search Flores’ room, and the animals responded to a waste basket. Flores remains a suspect in the case, according to authorities.

Despite the years of investigation and intense public attention, police do not appear to be close to making an arrest in the case.

National television programs including "Unsolved Mysteries" and "20/20" aired the Smart case.

When 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart was found last week in Utah, many San Luis Obispo County residents mistakenly thought that Kristin Smart had at last been found, demonstrating how a missing-person case can powerfully effect a community for many years.

Fair or not, certain cases warrant a higher degree of official concern than do others.

On paper, the established protocol for locating missing people appears organized and effective. In reality, if your loved one should turn up missing, you’d better hope the person is a juvenile or a pregnant white woman. They are the ones who receive the most attention and highest priority in most investigations.

Few lawmen, however, concur with this contention. Another problem is that missing persons in general are not a high priority.

An exhaustive, 10-part series on missing persons published in February by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer suggested the low priority assigned missing cases by most police departments is a national problem.

"Because of a lack of knowledge, indifference or poor training, police officers around the country fail to take even the most obvious steps, conduct routine follow-ups or comply with the law when handling missing-persons cases," the newspaper reported following a year-long investigation.

Detectives will often look for ways to dump cases so they won’t have to do follow-up work, according to the newspaper, quoting a forensic specialist who said, "If people knew how little was done with missing-persons cases, they’d scream."

Ben Ermini, a former police officer now with the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children, was also quoted by the Seattle newspaper: "The people who are put in missing-persons bureaus are not the most experienced detectives. Usually, it’s the guy on sick leave, reprimanded for something or near retirement. The missing-persons bureau is not looked at as the choice job."

In the past, police often would wait hours, days, even weeks or months before acting on a missing person report. The theory was that most people who went missing had done so voluntarily, that they didn’t want to be found. After a number of high-profile cases where law enforcement’s judgment was profoundly questionable and lack of action deplorable, demands for change were made.

There is at least the appearance of improvement in the system. By statute, California law enforcement officers are required to take immediate action on missing-person reports; there is no waiting period.

"All California police and sheriffs’ departments must accept and report, including any telephonic report, of a missing person, including runaways, without delay and will give priority to the handling of the report," reads the statute. Lawmen must then report those cases to the state.

The California Department of Justice is required by law to produce a monthly poster of missing children and a quarterly bulletin of missing children and dependent adults, and occasionally special edition posters of missing adults. However, only those cases in which law enforcement has provided a photograph of the missing person to the Justice Department will be published in the bulletins.

The state agency coordinates activities of law enforcement and criminal justice agencies in efforts to locate missing persons and identification through fingerprints and dental and body X-rays. Hotline telephone numbers are abundant.

Extensive databases, private and public, can be found on the Internet. Most of the information, however, is dated, making these sources alternately depressing (because so many cases go unresolved) and essentially useless.

One of the biggest problems facing searchers for missing persons is a flawed computer system, containing incorrect data and producing incorrect results.

The National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the primary source of dental-record matching technology, is "unreliable," according Washington state officials.

* * *

Bryner’s November-December 2002 banking records provided to New Times by a source close to the investigation help construct a timetable of his activities before the paper trail disappeared in mid-December.

A month earlier, Bryner had used his bank card to make a $100 withdrawal from Heritage Oaks Bank on 12th Street in Paso Robles. He then drove to San Diego, where he made several purchases at a Rite Aid drugstore; an Arco gas station; and at AutoZone, an auto parts store.

Shortly after those purchases were made, Bryner talked by telephone to his supervisor, Ron French, at the Atascadero Post Office. French told New Times that he informed Bryner that he had to return to San Luis Obispo County to take care of some business.

By the next night, Bryner was back in Atascadero, using his card to purchase gas at a Paso Robles Arco station, and twice making debit card purchases at Albertson’s on El Camino Real.

Bank records show Bryner ate lunch at Papi’s Taco and Gorditos on Pine Street in Paso Robles on the afternoon of Nov. 13, and that evening spent $34 at Atascadero’s Outlaws Bar and Grill.

Bryner apparently headed south shortly thereafter, because he used his card again at San Diego Hardware the following day.

For the next seven days, there was no activity on Bryner’s bank card, except for a series of overdraft fees.

Then, on Nov. 22, Bryner’s postal paycheck for $914.72 was automatically credited to his checking account. Hours later, at a Bital Bank in Ensenada, 3,000 pesos ($299.70 U.S.) were withdrawn from an ATM.

Bryner’s card was used for two withdrawals three days later, of $19.96 and $69.88, at Centro Artesanal in Ensenada.

By the beginning of December, Bryner’s family and San Luis Obispo friends were beginning to get worried; no one had heard a word from him.

At the Atascadero Post Office, Bryner’s supervisors pondered their next action. Bryner, a 15-year post office employee, had accumulated 6 1/2 weeks of vacation and 11 weeks of sick leave at the time of his disappearance, and no effort has yet been made to claim either the time or a payout.

"He never missed work," said Vanni. "He was very conscientious about his job at the post office. And he was only five years or so away from retirement. He wouldn’t have walked away from all that."

Vanni said Bryner had been able to carry over nearly eight years of U.S. Navy service to his federal retirement plan. "He was looking forward to retiring as soon as he reached the right age," she said.

From Nov. 22 until Dec. 5, none of Bryner’s friends or relatives heard from him. During the same period, his bank card remained unused until a charge for $498.91 showed up on his records, paid to the Hotel Corona, a 99-room seaside landmark boasting "5-star service" and moderately priced lodging, catering largely to American tourists and Mexican businessmen.

That was the first of numerous charges incurred at the hotel over the next five days.

On Dec. 6, Bryner’s card was used to make six purchases, most likely for room rental at the hotel. There were three separate transactions for $49.46, two for $98.92, and one for $395.69.

Four days later, another $59.52 was charged to his bank card by the same hotel. That was the last use of his card, according to bank records. Those deductions depleted Bryner’s checking account. And because he had neither shown up for work nor made any arrangements to take vacation or sick leave, postal authorities were forced to terminate him from the payroll.

By Jan. 12, after several weeks of accumulating overdraft charges, Bryner’s checking account was closed by Heritage Oaks Bank officials.

If not for friends and family, Bryner’s strange disappearance might have gone unnoticed.

"It wasn’t like him at all not to come to work," said Bryner’s supervisor French, who also is a friend of Bryner’s and the man who filed the missing person report with county sheriff’s deputies. French made inquiries to Bryner’s ex-wife, who in turn notified Bryner’s sister in Pennsylvania. The concerned trio launched the search.

Odom, the sheriff’s detective assigned to the Bryner case, said his investigation is continuing.

"So there’s not much I can share," he said, "other than to say we’d like to talk to him. But there is no immediate, apparent indication of foul play."

Odom said he "has heard the stories" about Bryner’s companion’s reported murder. "But we don’t know anything for certain. If you hear anything, be sure and let us know."

"If he took off voluntarily, then we can all be mad at him later," said ex-wife Valli. "But right now we just need to find him." Æ

News editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at dblackburn@newtimesslo.com.




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