It would be the ultimate April Fool’s Day prank, if only it had a punchline. Early on the morning of April 1, 2006, Brian Shaffer and his friend William “Clint” Florence were wrapping up a night of celebration commemorating their completed final exams and the start of spring break at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. They had begun the night at the Ugly Tuna Saloona, and they were ending it in the same place, having gotten a ride back from Florence’s friend Meredith Reed.
While they were enjoying a final round to close out the evening, Brian Shaffer somehow became separated from his friends. When the bar closed down at 2:00 A.M, Florence and Reed waited for him outside, but he never appeared. They assumed that he had simply gone home without telling them. The following Monday morning, he failed to arrive for a flight that he and his girlfriend had planned to take to Miami, where she thought he might propose. It was only then that Brian Shaffer was declared missing.
Police began their search at the last place Brian Shaffer had been seen, the Ugly Tuna. What they found there was the beginning of a perplexing mystery. Because the bar was located in what was considered a high crime neighborhood, it had been outfitted with a number of security cameras, including one which monitored the escalator that led to the entrance of the bar. On the security footage, Shaffer was seen standing outside the bar shortly before 2:00 A.M. talking to a pair of women. Then the cameras show him walking toward the bar’s entrance. He has not been seen or heard from since.
The bar had no other publicly accessible entrance or exit, and the only other way out—a service door out the back—led to a construction site which police believed would have been difficult to safely maneuver through even sober and during the daytime, let alone in the dark after a long night of drinking. Police searched through security camera footage from several other nearby establishments to try to determine if and how Shaffer left the Ugly Tuna, but they saw no sign of him.
The search fanned out from the Ugly Tuna. Police investigated far and wide, even including the city’s dumpsters and sewer system in their search. But not even the K-9 unit could find a trace of Shaffer. Shaffer’s abandoned apartment was later burglarized, and police and his family were hoping the crime might have something to do with his disappearance. It didn’t. Recently widowed and desperate to find his son, Shaffer’s father consulted a psychic. He was told that Brian’s body was resting in water near a bridge. He spent hours wading in the Olentangy River in Columbus with a search party, to no avail.
For months after his disappearance, Shaffer’s girlfriend, Alexis Waggoner, called his phone every night, though it went straight to voicemail. However, one night in September, she was thrilled to hear the phone ring at the other end of the line. It rang three times, and in her excitement, she called again. There was no answer, but a ping from the cell phone was later traced to a cell tower in Hilliard, about 14 miles from Columbus, where Shaffer disappeared. Shaffer’s cellular carrier later admitted that the ringing and the tower ping could have been a glitch in the system, rather than a sign that Shaffer had turned his cell phone on.
Almost everyone involved in Brian Shaffer’s life or who had been with him on the night of the disappearance agreed to take a lie detector test, except for Clint Florence. According to Florence’s attorney, his client had nothing to hide and simply felt that he had told police all he could about the subject. The two women who Shaffer was last seen with were identified by police and cleared of any suspicions. They also stated that they were not asked to take a polygraph test.
For years, the search for information about Brian Shaffer’s fate continued. Posters of Shaffer were plastered everywhere, noting that the missing man had a distinctive tattoo and a black fleck on his left iris. Rewards were offered, tip lines were set up, and Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, one of Shaffer’s favorite bands, even took a break between songs during a concert in Cincinnati to ask for any information about Shaffer’s disappearance. Brian’s father, Randy Shaffer, joined the families of other missing persons to successfully lobby the Ohio legislature to reform the state’s laws regarding missing person cases. Now Ohio has a more organized protocol for investigating missing persons cases, a small relief for Shaffer’s loved ones.
In 2008, Randy Shaffer was struck by a branch while cleaning up debris from a windstorm in his backyard and died. In an online condolence book, someone wrote, “To Dad, love Brian (U.S. Virgin Islands)”, leading many to believe that Brian was alive and well. However, police later concluded that the note was posted from a publicly-accessible computer in Franklin County, Ohio, and it was determined to be a hoax.
With no solid theories about what happened to Shaffer, Columbus police continue to follow up on even the most far-fetched leads, from alleged sightings in Sweden to a phone call from a woman at a Michigan restaurant who believed that Shaffer was her waiter. There have even been anonymous online tips that claim to know the location of the body, but investigations into the claims have proven fruitless.
What became of Brian Shaffer remains a mystery to this day. One theory suggests he left the country to start a new life—possibly playing in a Jimmy Buffett-style band, as had always been his dream. Others have suggested that he was more devastated by his mother’s recent death than he let on and took his own life. Another possibility is that he befell an accident in the dangerous worksite behind the bar and that the owners covered it up to avoid legal problems. Some people have even linked his disappearance to the supposed Smiley Face Killer, a theoretical serial killer proposed by retired NYC police detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte and championed by a number of online amateur sleuths.
Shaffer’s disappearance fits part of the pattern of the alleged Smiley Face Killer; Gannon and Duarte believe that a serial murderer or group of killers preys upon college-age men as they leave parties or bars. Corpses are often left next to bodies of water. Of course, Shaffer—whether alive or dead—has yet to be found. It's also worth noting that most police departments dismiss the unifying theory of the Smiley Face Killer, even in cases where bodies have been discovered, chalking up many of the deaths to accidental drownings. At this point, any connection between Brian Shaffer’s disappearance and the supposed killer remains conjecture.
In 2018, the Ugly Tuna Saloona closed down and is rumored to be undergoing construction to be converted into an office. Although cadaver dogs searched the establishment way back in 2006 and found no sign of Shaffer’s body in the building, one can’t help but think that this will close one chapter of the investigation and potentially destroy key evidence. After all, we have no proof that Shaffer ever left the premises that night. To date, Brian Shaffer's fate remains a mystery with no promising leads in sight.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons