Suzan McColl has her routines. She spends sunny afternoons in the garden of her century-old Craftsman home, runs her three border collies nearly everyday and writes in her personal journal each morning.
She has another ritual as well -- checking the Doe Network website to see if there are unidentified remains that fit the description of her missing son, Peter John McColl.
"Sometimes I check (the website) daily for information about unidentified bodies. I've gotten quite hardened to that (process)," said the 66-year-old former North Berkeley resident, a retired social worker who lives in Poulsbo, Wash., outside of Seattle.
At 9 a.m. Aug. 28, 1995 -- the Monday before Peter was to start his junior year at Berkeley High School -- he left his parents home in the 700 block of The Alameda and told his younger brother, Joseph, now 29 and living in San Diego, that he was going to take a bus to Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue.
Peter's mother had asked him to have breakfast with her at Berkeley's Fat Apple's Restaurant, but he declined.
He's never been seen again.
Today marks 15 years since Peter's disappearance. If alive, he is now 31. While Berkeley Police have a four-inch-thick binder full of dead leads, news clippings and other information about the case, they have no new leads.
Detectives are calling on the community for solid leads they hope will allow them to investigate further, Berkeley police spokeswoman Sgt.
Mary Kusmiss said.
"The case strikes us as a significant mystery," Kusmiss said. "We do need the community's help, possibly nationwide help, to get to the bottom of this. Cases like this that get a lot of attention and have a real air of mystery to them never leave a detective's mind."
At the time of Peter's disappearance, he had won a spot on Berkeley High's varsity crew team and regularly rode his mountain bike in the Berkeley hills.
The teen was described by family members as a quiet, deep-thinking young man who had a passion for music, playing the guitar, and reading the poetry of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.
His family, who all left Berkeley several years ago, pore over the details of their last days with the teen. They try to piece together what might have happened -- that he might have taken his own life, or been kidnapped or murdered. Or even joined a cult or just left the area of his own free will.
"He was happy -- at least when I spent time with him in June and July," said his older sister, Rebecca McColl, now 36 and a Seattle grant writer. "We played racquetball together at the YMCA and I remember he made me a 'super fruit drink' in the blender for me, and brought it out as a surprise with a little umbrella in it. We were kindred spirits. He kept some of the art that I had made in high school up on the wall in his room. It was not as if he was withdrawing into himself or acting suspicious in any way prior to disappearing."
Peter was nearsighted and wore glasses, but did not have his glasses with him the day he went missing. He also did not have the $100 in cash he had stashed in his room, or any clothes or personal belongings. He had passed his driver's license test a few weeks before and the license arrived in the mail several weeks after he disappeared.
"Anything could have happened to Peter," his mother said.
She said some friends and family believe he was killed.
"As time goes by, I am a little more open to (the possibility that he was murdered). When you have a missing child, the parents of murdered children will say, 'I can't imagine what you are going through,'" Suzan McColl said. "But when you have a missing child you still have hope."
The disappearance has changed Suzan McColl's life as well as the life of her husband John, a retired UC Berkeley soil science professor. She has become a kind of amateur sleuth -- dealing with police, the FBI, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which tracks the estimated 2,000 children reported missing daily, and the media.
When the remains of a young man were found in Lincoln County, Ore., Suzan McColl asked Berkeley police to send her son's dental records to the county coroner there to see about a possible match. She made sure her DNA and the DNA of her husband were entered into a national database in case an unidentified body turned up. She has done extensive research into religious groups and cults to see if her son may be living among them, and hounded Berkeley detectives to put her son's fingerprints in a national law enforcement database used to solve missing-persons cases. She has consulted four psychics.
'Like a sixth sense'
But she isn't just looking for her son among the unidentified dead.
"I look for him all the time in my daily life -- in crowds, at airports, on street corners in Seattle. Tall, slender figures with long, brown curly hair often get a second look or even a U-turn if I'm driving. Young men playing guitar for spare change. Strangers who walk a certain way on the street outside my kitchen window. It's almost subconscious now, like a sixth sense, having this radar operating. And I think all parents of missing kids must do this. I am realistic about the possibility that he is dead, but I fully believe he is more likely to be alive, living in another identity, for reasons only he and God know. And one day while I am working in my garden he will open the gate and say, 'Mom, it's me, Peter'."
Suzan McColl said that because religious groups and so-called "cults" were recruiting around the UC Berkeley campus around the time that her son went missing, she has entertained the idea that he did join one of the groups.
She has traveled to four states to follow leads and possible sightings, and attended Rainbow Gatherings, counterculture outdoor festivals of the Rainbow Family, after an early tip.
Nothing ever panned out.
She said she also met with a leader in the Brethren, a religious group that shuns material things and family and is often known as the "garbage eaters" for their ritual of eating out of trash cans. The man she met with in the East Bay said he'd never heard of Peter, his mother said. She said the group encourages members to write three letters to their families.
"The third letter usually says you will never hear from me again. We never got such a letter,'' she said.
His sister believes the cult theory is plausible as well.
"He was very spiritual and believed in God and wanted to know the truth and a lot of cults prey on very intelligent people," Rebecca McColl said. "(Some) specifically ask their devotees to not contact families. They were recruiting around college campuses at that time and Peter liked to talk to people on Telegraph Avenue."
The best they can
Though both Rebecca and Suzan McColl have battled depression and deal, nearly daily with the anxiety and sadness around Peter's disappearance, they said they are doing the best they can.
To help her own healing, Suzan McColl and her 68-year-old husband, John, run a three-bed respite foster care facility in her home for troubled teenagers.
"This is the classic 'turn your grief into helping'," she said. "It's a way of healing. At the beginning when I was working with homeless kids in Berkeley, I thought, 'I'm helping this kid. Somebody is helping Peter.'"
Rebecca McColl said she thinks about her brother on a subconscious level all the time.
"I will still slow down when I am driving or walking, and scan someone's face. I am always looking for him. I don't talk about it very often. It's a really traumatic experience. Once I talk about it, it's almost like that first day happened again. The only way I go on is, I think he wouldn't want me to be sick with anxiety and fear. That is what helps me keeps going"
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