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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Missing Missing (March 12, 2003)

Family desperately searches for Menlo Park resident

by Nina Nowak

Michael Wallace loved to walk. A restless wanderer with a trim, athletic build, he could often be found strolling the Redwood City baylands, hiking the Stanford foothills, or trekking the wooded paths along San Francisquito Creek with a friend. One time, the Menlo Park resident walked so far he had to pay a cab driver $30 to get him back home.

But on Feb. 4, Wallace did not come home. As far as anyone knows, he walked out of his life and into a baffling riddle that continues to stump family, friends and law enforcement officials, who have searched for him the past several weeks.

Wallace, 29, had made plans to visit his estranged wife in San Francisco that Tuesday when -- at around 1p.m. -- he called from his cell phone to cancel. His roommate was the last person to see Wallace, who apparently left the house they share at 125 Loyola Road on foot. Both of the cars he owns -- a Porsche and an Alfa Romeo Spider - were parked in the driveway. No one has heard from him since.

Police agencies in San Francisco, San Mateo County and other parts of the Bay Area have been notified of Wallace's disappearance. He has also been listed on a national database of missing persons accessible to law enforcement officers across the country.

"At this point, Michael is considered a voluntary missing adult. There's no belief there's any kind of foul play involved," said San Mateo Country sheriff's spokeswoman Bronwyn Hogan.

But that is little solace for Wallace's family in Leominster, Mass., where the former marketing manager at Sun Microsystems was born and raised. From more than 3,000 miles away, his family launched an urgent campaign to track him down, spreading the news of his disappearance on Web sites and printed fliers, by e-mail and word of mouth. The family is working closely with authorities and combed the Bay Area for clues, leads -- anything that would indicate his whereabouts.

"It's such a mystery," said Kim Jaynes, who recently traveled to California to search for her brother.

"My emotions are all over the place, because I certainly think there's a possibility he could have hurt himself," she said. "But I also think there's a possibility he just walked off, and I also think there's a possibility somebody could have hurt him."

Jaynes and her husband, Mark, spent a week in the Bay Area combing the area for any sign of Wallace, who she said suffers from depression and takes medication to manage his symptoms.

"Not a lot of people are aware of that, not even some of his closer friends, just because of the stigma related to it and people not understanding it," she said.

Although Jaynes felt fairly confident her brother was still alive, she covered all the bases -- contacting morgues, calling suicide prevention hotlines and asking where people in Northern California gravitate when they want to put an end to their suffering.

"We drove Michael's Porsche around, just searching, putting fliers up to all the places I thought he would go," she said. "He loves where it's beautiful, so that's why I went to the coast."

On Feb. 23 -- a day before she was scheduled to fly back to Massachusetts -- her hunch paid off. Pulling off Highway 1 to post a flier and take a coffee break, she stopped at the McDonald's in Pacifica, where the store manager informed them that someone who looked just like the picture on the flier had entered the restaurant earlier that morning.

"He said this guy came in and ordered hash browns, which happens to be my brother's favorite thing at McDonald's, then said he didn't have the money to pay for them and left. But the manager watched him, because he was acting so weird, like he was confused," she said.

The Wallace look-alike, who wore a white baseball cap and a green windbreaker-type jacket, reportedly drove around the McDonald's building in a yellow Corvette with no plate "and then actually came back in with money he said he had found in the car," she said.

He then sped off, heading south on Highway 1, "so that's what we did," she said.

If it was really Wallace, she had missed him by only four hours.

With his personal charm, entrepreneurial flair, and penchant for numbers and complexity, Wallace -- 6 feet tall with brown hair and brown eyes -- exemplifies the typical Silicon Valley transplant.

President of his class, editor of the newspaper and an all-star running back at Leominster High School, he was courted by Ivy League schools as a senior. He chose Harvard, majoring in organizational psychology and continuing his football career until an ankle injury sidelined him. He graduated cum laude in 1995 and spent three years as an associate at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., writing technology reports.

In 1997, Wallace moved to the Bay Area and worked as a technical search consultant at MSI in San Francisco before becoming a contract technical writer and consultant at Sun Microsystems in Palo Alto. In 2000, he was hired full-time and quickly rose through the ranks to become a highly-regarded marketing manager, overseeing strategy for major product launches and creating content for company Web sites, brochures, presentations and research.

Those who know Wallace describe him as intelligent, ambitious, organized and intensely analytical. But Michael Silverton, a close friend and former colleague at Sun, said Wallace often viewed himself as a drain on the love and support of others.

"He increasingly felt that sense of being a burden," said Silverton.

Wallace was first diagnosed with clinical depression at the age of 18, during his senior year of high school. According to his mother, Angela Wallace, he sought treatment immediately and at one point counseled others diagnosed with similar conditions. As is common with some sufferers, his depression was cyclical, with serious episodes emerging every three to four years -- usually in the winter.

Angela Wallace noted her son moved to California in part to escape the cold, dark months of his native New England, where he felt vulnerable to Seasonal Affective Disorder, an affliction that triggers depression in light-sensitive individuals.

According to family members, Michael Wallace endured a number of personal setbacks the past two years, including a separation from his wife of four years and the loss of his job at Sun last fall (which he had recently begun to challenge in court).

In March 2002, he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. In fact, Wallace's disappearance prompted police to issue a warrant for his arrest, because he never showed up at a sheriff's work program to serve his community service sentence.

Family members said the weeks prior to his disappearance were especially hard on Wallace. At times, he seemed to be slipping into another depression, calling them daily on the phone and talking about moving back home to Massachusetts.

"He tried to explain it to me once, that when you wake up from a nightmare and you feel for that fraction of a second that the nightmare was real -- he feels like that all the time. The first time it happened to him, there's a feeling of, you know you can never get any better," she said. "But obviously he's gone through it a few times. He knows he can get better."

For sister Jaynes, the detective work is far from over. She continues to dig through her brother's records, calling every phone number in his address book and Palm Pilot, even hacking into his computer to access information about credit card and bank accounts, which have been inactive since the disappearance. She said his cell phone, which he apparently took with him, has gone unused and has been turned off.

Speaking of Wallace, Jaynes describes an intense young man who referred to so-called "normal people" as "the crowd," unable to understand his experience as an intelligent and accomplished -- but troubled -- young man intent on controlling a powerful illness.

"He uses movies as a way to relate to people to try to make them understand what he's thinking," she said. In recent months, "The Bourne Identity" and "Catch Me If You Can" hit particularly close to home for him.

The two films, about brilliant young men struggling with notions of identity, could have almost been a blueprint for someone planning to drop out of life. In "Catch Me If You Can," the lead character assumes a series of false identities and eludes authorities for several years as a counterfeiter on the lam. "The Bourne Identity," a secret agent suffers from amnesia and struggles to find his real identity amid the host of false names and fake passports set aside for him by the CIA in a bank vault in Switzerland.

Both films portray glamorous images of life on the run in glistening world capitals, but their endings are decidedly different. In one, the police eventually corner the counterfeiter, who gives up on fakery and ends up working for the FBI. But in the latter, the secret agent gives up on his true identity, opting instead for an anonymous life in hiding on a remote Greek island.

Could Michael's disappearance be part of an escape fantasy, a way to cope with his illness on his own terms? No one knows. But his mother noted that he alluded to friends "about walking away from life."

"I have an impression of him just living on the streets or in a shelter somewhere, or off by himself. I don't know, I just don't know what to think," she said. "There's just so many people out there helping and praying, and that's what we need to do, and hopefully he'll see something and say, you know, they're looking for me, but I don't know that in his mental status, he'll do that.".


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