One of our goals this season is to bring you to states we have not yet covered, so tonight we are traveling to Ohio. Ohio is just to the west of Pennsylvania, making it one the first states making up the midwest. Columbus, it’s capital city, is just about smack dab in the middle of the large state.
Columbus has a big population of over 900,000 today, and depending which source you find it’s about the 15th largest city in the country. It’s a far cry from its origins of the variety of Indigenous villages lining the banks of the Scioto and the Olentangy Rivers. The city is predominantly white demographically today, though a more even trend has been emerging over the recent years making the city more diverse than ever. Columbus is considered to be pretty hip and innovative, at least among midwesterners. There’s a great arts scene and there’s been quite a tech boom as well, so it appeals to young people. Another reason for this is because of Ohio State University.
OSU is one of the largest schools in the country and it’s widely considered one of the best schools as well. In addition to their educational programs, the school boasts over 1,000 student clubs. The most popular of those clubs are of course- Athletics. Even little old me in Maine has heard of the Division One Ohio State Buckeyes.
Tonight we bring a darker story about the big University from 2006 when an OSU Med student seemingly vanishes into thin air.
Brian Randall Shaffer is born in a suburb of Columbus called Pickerington on February 25th, 1979 to parents Randy and Renee Shaffer. Shortly after, his brother Derek joins the family and the two boys grow up in a typical suburban lifestyle. After Brian graduates high school in 1997, he heads to Columbus to attend Ohio State University where he works hard and graduates with a degree in microbiology in 2003.
Brian can’t stay away for very long though, and in 2004 he is back on the OSU campus for medical school where he lives alone in an off campus apartment. It’s in his medical program that he meets a fellow student named Alexis Waggoner. Brian doesn’t really seem to have a problem meeting women- he’s good looking, he’s tall, he’s accomplished, he’s smart, he’s funny. But something about Alexis, who is herself all of those things as well, really seems to catch Brian’s eye and the two form a quick bond. Things progress so well for them in fact, that by 2006 most of their friends and family are expecting Brian to propose on their upcoming spring break vacation to Miami.
It’s well known by Brian’s friends and family that he loves a good tropical beach, so Miami seems like the perfect occasion for some special news. Brian is, afterall, a really fun guy. He works hard but he plays hard too! In addition to the beach and his girlfriend, Brian’s favorite pastime is music! He plays the guitar, he loves to see live bands, and he especially loves Pearl Jam, even wearing their stick figure logo tattooed on his arm. Brian has even been known to say that down the road, he wants to give up the doctor work and start a Jimmy Buffet style band on a beach somewhere warm.
Unfortunately in March of 2006 the Shaffer family’s world is shattered when Brian’s mom Renee is overcome by a fast and furiously spreading form of blood and bone cancer known as myelodysplastic syndrome. Though everyone is deep in their grief at this time, Brian’s friends report that he seems to be recovering as well as one can, and that he was in decent spirits considering this tragedy.
Three weeks after Brian’s mom passes away, on March 31st he and his dad Randy have a steak dinner out together at the Outback to celebrate some school successes. At this time, the two have a sweet father and son heart to heart, which Randy remembers well because of the insane mystery that follows. During this conversation, Brian tells Randy that he wants him to know he’s here for him. He knows his dad is lonely after the loss of his mom, and he just wants to reiterate that he’s around- that they’ll spend more time together, that they’ll get through this hardship together as a family.
After dinner with his dad, Brian and his friends have plans to continue celebrating the start of Spring Break like most city living 20 somethings would- bar hopping. Before he heads out for the night, at 9pm he calls his girlfriend Alexis who is home visiting her parents. The two chat excitedly about their trip to Miami on Monday morning, he tells Alexis he loves her before hanging up. Alexis says all seems normal. Brian’s brother Derek is invited out that evening as well, but can’t make it.
Brian lives only 6 blocks or so from the Ugly Tuna Saloona where he meets his friend William “Clint” Florence at 9:30 pm. Clint and Brian take some shots, and hit up a couple different bars in the area when around midnight they run into their friend Meredith Reed. Since Clint’s car is at the garage near the Ugly Tuna, Meredith drives them all back to that bar where they go inside to continue having fun for around 45 minutes until the bar closes. Brian is in and out a little, being social as we hear him described often. The three decide it’s about time to leave, and Brian tells Clint he’s going to give his compliments to the band and he’ll be right back.
Meredith and Clint wait for Brian for a few minutes, but when he doesn’t come back they check the restrooms and look around the bar for him. At this point it’s 2:00am and the bar is closing, so Meredith and Clint assume he’s waiting outside for them. They head down the escalator to realize Brian isn’t there either. The pair wait outside for a while, watching all the patrons pour down the escalator and onto the busy street. They call Brian several times asking “where the hell are you?” Eventually, they assume that Brian pulled what we would call an Irish goodbye and just left without telling them, so they go home themselves.
Though Clint and Meredith continue to call Brian over the course of the weekend, it’s Alexis who grows really alarmed when she can’t reach him. Around 2pm on Saturday, (which I’ve heard conflicting reports from sources that this may have been Sunday, but I don’t think it matters) Alexis shows up at Brian’s apartment to find it undisturbed. It looks like he probably hadn’t slept there and she feels really uneasy about the fact that his car is parked outside- where would he be without his car? She calls Brian’s Dad Randy, who also calls Brian’s brother Derek to come check out the apartment. Alexis sleeps there for the weekend, waiting for Brian to come home.
When Monday morning comes, a completely helpless and confused Alexis heads to the airport for their flight to Miami. She knew that whatever has been keeping Brian, there’s no way he’d miss this trip. She watches in horror as her flight boards and then takes off with no sign of her boyfriend. Randy immediately calls the Columbus police department and reports his oldest son as a missing person.
As the search springs into action, local organizations catch word of the missing OSU student and offer to pitch in wherever possible. Crime Stoppers offers a $2k reward for information, and Ohio State University offers $5k assistance. Investigators naturally begin at the last place Brian was seen- the Ugly Tuna Saloona.
One thing that’s absolutely essential to understand in this case is the physical layout of the bar and specifically the entrance to the bar. The Ugly Tuna Saloona itself is inside a larger building with other businesses. So you have to go in the main entrance and up an escalator that leads to the bars doors. There is one back entrance which many sources refer to as an emergency exit, however my understanding is that while it can be used for emergencies of course, it is mostly used as a service entrance by staff, musicians, for deliveries, and things of that nature. This door does not have a security camera pointed on it directly, however there is a security camera on the hallway that leads to the door. There are also security cameras everywhere surrounding the exits, thanks to the other local businesses.
The bar security footage is a top priority as the detectives dive into their search for Brian, and all these years later it is still what absolutely confounds authorities and armchair detectives alike. What we know now is that the escalator shows Meredith, Clint, and Brian riding up and into the bar at 1:15 am. At 1:55 am, Brian is seen chatting with some women at the top of the escalator. Brian then comes back inside, and this is the point where they decide to go and Brian walks away to chat with the band.
Detectives watch minute by minute footage of the entrance and exit to the bar, waiting to see which direction Brian heads when he leaves in order to find their next focus of investigation. They scour every face leaving the Ugly Tuna that night riding down the escalators and not one of them was Brian. They go to the back hallway footage- No brian. They go to the street footage from other local businesses- NO BRIAN!
The building is searched Monday by cadaver dogs who find no indication of Brian anywhere within the building, including the parts of the building which are described as under construction, or around it.
The next step is to interview all of the people in Brian’s life. Though law enforcement has not revealed any valuable information about Brian’s whereabouts that come from these interviews, the court of public opinion has been very quick to cling to one thing they do know- that Brian’s friend Clint is refusing to take a polygraph. From my research it seems that Clint is cooperating at first, but that his lawyer has advised him against the lie detector.
18 days after Brian was last seen there’s a new development and detectives call Alexis to Brian’s apartment. Someone had broken in and they want her to look around and see what could be missing. This is a huge point of hope for Alexis, thinking perhaps it had been Brian coming back for his stuff! Though a couple things were stolen, Alexis tells police that none of it has a particular importance to Brian. Ultimately the detectives determine that the break in is unrelated.
Poor Alexis clings to the wish that Brian is alive somewhere and just in hiding. For months and months, she makes a habit of calling Brian’s cell phone just to check in. Sometimes multiple times a day, but always before bed to say goodnight. On September 11th 2006, Alexis’ breath catches in her chest when the phone actually RINGS before going straight to voicemail- something it had never done before! Unfortunately law enforcement says that the cell phone provider explained this was likely due to the call being bounced from tower to tower and the ring was more like a transfer waiting noise than a true ring. Another hope dashed for the grieving young girlfriend.
Months turn into years. Sightings of Brian lookalikes come in from all over the world, and the searches of the Columbus area continue. At the helm of all of this, Randy is a champion for his son’s cause. Then in September of 2008, two years after Brian goes missing, an unimaginable freak accident changes things forever when his dad Randy is killed by a falling tree during a bad storm. As if that isn’t devastating enough on its own, someone then chooses to leave a comment on his online obituary guest book that states “Dad, I love you. Love, Brain- US Virgin Islands.” Obviously this has created a massive amount of speculation, but analysis determines that the comment was left from a public computer in Franklin County Ohio.
The case has remained unsolved for almost 17 years now. The Ugly Tuna Saloona closed in 2018. Alexis has married and had children, and still publicly speaks about Brian occasionally in hopes to help his case. His only remaining relative Derek still fights to find out what happened to his big brother. Brian turns 44 this year.
With any missing persons investigation, there are usually 4 main theories. Did the person take their own life? Did the person fake their disappearance and start a new life? Was that person killed accidentally? Or was that person taken or hurt maliciously and against their will.
One thing I see debated often online is the evidence to suggest or disprove the idea that Brian may have taken his own life. Many people point out that Brian had everything going for him, that Brian was making plans for the future, that Brian was coping with the loss of his mother relatively well. I’m not saying that I think this is what happened to Brian, I honestly don’t know how I feel, but I have to step on a soap box for a second.
We cannot go by that anymore. Hasn’t the loss of Stephen Twitch Boss, or Robin Williams, or Anthony Bourdain, or Kate Spade or anyone that we personally know who seemed full of life…. Hasn’t that taught us that depression does not discriminate and depression does not always present itself in the way that we expect? We can never again use “But he didn’t act depressed” as a reason why a missing person couldn’t have taken their life. I think “I want to keep my hope alive” or “I can’t believe that because there’s no body so it doesn’t make sense to me” are good reasons to not believe a suicide theory, but not “they didn’t seem sad.” There’s no such thing. People fake it. That means nothing. But if he was depressed and took his own life- where is the body? He disappeared within minutes in a very public space. Where is he?
One theory that maybe kind of has legs is that Brian ran away to start a new life. There are a couple pieces of evidence that people who believe in this theory cling to. One is that Brian sometimes spoke of wanting to live on a tropical beach someday. The other was the signature on the virtual guestbook for Randy’s funeral. On a regular basis I daydream like he did of moving to a tropical island, but I don’t because I don’t have the means for that fantasy. Brian was tens of thousands of dollars in debt from undergrad and medical school. He was a full time professional student and he worked at a department store part time. How, logistically speaking, did he fake a new identity and flee the country to start a new life? I just don’t buy it.
The police did find one man in a mysterious yellow hoodie on the security footage of the escalators leaving the bar, which made some people wonder if perhaps Brian had packed a change of clothes to get out unrecognized. However, several parts of that just don’t make any sense to me. Firstly-they found the man in the yellow hoodie who was not Brian, and he had a very simple explanation- he took it off and put it on throughout the night when he got hot and cold. Brian’s friends say he had no extra clothes or bags or anything like that with him, and I find it hard to believe that if they’re going back and forth to a variety of bars all night and taking shots he could have planted a disguise at the Ugly Tuna somewhere to carry out this sinister plot later.
So that leaves the theory that something happened to Brian.
Let’s explore some potential accidental deaths.
First of all, it’s unlikely he left the building and wandered over a mile in the wrong direction in a busy city to drunkenly stumble into the Olentangy river without any person or camera seeing him at all.
The biggest theory about a potential accident surrounds the construction areas in and around the building. When I first heard this story because of the way some people describe it I think I was under the impression that the back service entrance of the bar basically opened you up to a construction pit, and he probably drunkenly stumbled and fell in and was cemented over the next morning. Which in retrospect is ridiculous.
As I did deeper research into this I’ve found that the construction was not large scale building, it was more like putting up drywall. It’s very possible and even likely that Brian drunkenly stumbled out the wrong door and fell and hit his head, maybe even causing his own death. But this was a Friday night. Someone would have found him. The cadaver dogs were there by Monday so the construction crew was probably only even on site very briefly before the police got there.
What harm could have come to Brian intentionally that night?
Many people speculate Clint may have contributed, either accidentally or intentionally, to Brian’s disappearance based mostly on the fact that he hasn’t cooperated with law enforcement but honestly… I’m not sure I would either! The police have released no information at all as to evidence he may have been involved, I’m personally unaware of any motive of any kind, and Meredith was with him the whole end of the evening. She’s cooperated fully, passed her polygraph test, and their entire story is corroborated by the escalator footage at the Ugly Tuna. What could Clint have done? Why? When?
Well what about the theory that Clint helped Brian disappear? Some have theorized that Clint is keeping quiet because he knows exactly where Brian is, and even Brian’s own brother Derek has hinted at this possibility in his interviews. Alexis has also indicated that she believes Clint may know more than he’s sharing, but at this point she doesn’t believe that he just ran off.
Shortly after Brian’s dad Randy was killed in the tree accident, Clint’s lawyer Niel Roseberg sent a letter on behalf of his client to the family’s private detective Dan Corbett. In this letter,
Rosenberg wants to clear up why Clint has refused the polygraph, and he does so by saying in part “If Brian is alive, which is what I’m led to believe after speaking with the detective involved, then it is Brian, and not Clint [Florence] who is causing his family pain and hardship,”
If the last thing Brian said to Clint was “I’m going to see the band, I’ll be right back” could the band have any involvement? I’ve heard that in interviews with the band, they say they don’t remember him at all. Does that mean he never made it to speak to them?
Just a handful of minutes before Brian disappeared he was seen on CCTV talking to two young women at the top of the escalator and even accepting a phone number from one of them. Authorities tracked them down, their names are public online. Police have said they’ve cleared them of any involvement but the women do say that he was flirtatious. Is it possible his overly friendly demeanor got him in trouble with the wrong person? Could his conversation with those girls sparked a fight inside the bar? Could he have angered someone else, the wrong person at the wrong time?
One final theory I want to share with you is the stranger foul play theory, though it’s really the least evolved of all of them. In those brief moments did someone do something to Brian? Some people have actually pointed the finger at the Ugly Tuna management, saying that it had to have been a member of the staff (or more than one member) who killed Brian and covered it up. I have also seen rumors online that maybe certain people who owned or ran the bar (I’m being vague on purpose) were into some portion of the drug business and so I could see a scenario where maybe Brian walked in on the wrong thing at the wrong time, or Brian asked the wrong person for some recreational drugs (which by the way there’s no evidence he did that), and that escalating to injury or something. Or say for example (and again there’s no public evidence out there to support this, just me spitballing) he ran into an employee he knew, so they snuck out the back door to do something off camera like smoke a joint in the back stairway or whatever, and something happened.
But the part of that I just can’t make sense of is how would they get away with it? Even if it was one member of staff who snuck off to dispose of Brian- closing time at a bar is BUSY for the staff. If one person was off somewhere because they were disposing of a body, wouldn’t the other staff notice their absence? If there were a cover up, wouldn’t at least one person break their silence by now? And how does an altercation happen in a crowded bar and go unnoticed? Why did the dogs not indicate any presence of blood or a body? I believe its possible someone could have quickly accidentally or intentionally killed him, and then hid his body to come back later to deal with- but would the dogs have noticed that? Maybe not.
In 2014 magazine Columbus Monthly did an interview with original investigator Andre Edwards who said they are 100% certain that Brian did not leave the Ugly Tuna via the escalator, and that they have three theories as to what happened but would not further elaborate.
To Listen to the full episode of the Lost Souls of America Podcast visit:
Listen to “32. Missing in Ohio: The Story of Brian Shaffer” on Spreaker.
Sources for full podcast episode:
- True Crime Garage Podcast
- Photos from the Columbus Dispatch https://www.dispatch.com/