Hope and excitement turned into disappointment and heartache for the family of a Bay Area man missing for 12 years. A homeless advocate in San Diego thought she had found him, but it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.
Mel Bittner thought she saw Michael Wallace, who went missing in Menlo Park in 2003, last Wednesday at a bus stop in the Midway District. The man introduced himself as Michael and asked for help going home.
Something about the man made Bittner take a picture and post it on a Facebook page dedicated to helping family members search for their homeless loved one. That was when the picture came across Kim Wallace-Pehi’s radar. A friend had thought the man in the picture looked like her missing brother.
But Wallace-Pehi couldn’t believe it.
“That can’t be him,” she said. “My brother was a beautiful man.”
She has reasons to be cautious. She and her family has gone through this before in the last 12 years. They’ve had DNA tests done on deceased homeless men, hoping they had found Wallace.
But Wallace-Pehi contacted Bittner anyhow, hoping the man in the picture was her brother.
Wallace went missing 12 years ago when he walked away from his Menlo Park apartment in the Bay Area. He left behind all his worldly possessions, including an Alfa-Romeo, Porsche and a sizable bank account.
And after talking to Wallace-Pehi, Bittner was convinced as ever that the person she talked to was Wallace.
“After looking at his old photos, I’m convinced it’s him because of the smile,” Bittner told 10News.
And so did Wallace-Pehi.
“He used the same line on her that he used on his wife,” she said. “He said, ’Hi, I’m Michael.’”
It’s a simple line, she said, but it’s the way he said it that convinced her. 10News also had a forensic expert look into it and determined that the man in the picture was Wallace with an 85-percent certainty — 90 percent is considered a perfect match.
Meanwhile, Bittner spent the past four days looking for the man in the picture, the man she thought was Wallace. Tuesday, she found him. But elation turned into disappointment.
Wallace-Pehi said the man showed Bittner his ID. It wasn’t Wallace. Bittner asked to see his tattoos, tattoos she knew Wallace has, but that man had no tattoos, Wallace-Pehi said.
“We are heartbroken but, at the same time, inspired by the outpouring of love and support not only from those that know and love us, but from complete strangers,” she said.
She still doesn’t know why her brother disappeared. He was “stupid smart,” a cum laude Harvard graduate. When he was in high school, Wallace was diagnosed with clinical depression. At the time of his disappearance, he was dealing with the sudden loss of his father, the separation from his wife and the loss of his job at Sun Microsystems. But all that doesn’t explain why he disappeared for 12 years.
“You can’t explain mental illness,” Wallace-Pehi said. “He thought he was a burden to us, which he wasn’t.”
Wallace’s family has never given up looking for him, even setting up a Facebook page and a charity for mental illness in his honor, Michael’s Run.
And while the media’s attention to the story didn’t bring her brother home, Wallace-Pehi said she’s glad for the attention because it means bringing awareness to mental illness.
“It’s a hell of a story. I get it,” she told Times of San Diego. “And I’m willing to share it and do what it takes to spread the word, educate people to the struggles of mental illness, end the stigma and bring my brother home.”
Wallace was originally from Leominster, Mass., but he moved to California to escape the winter’s blues. His family still lives in Massachusetts.