A vanished brother, veils of secrecy and the sister who would not give up
Devoted and devastated she travels thousands of miles, makes thousands of calls, but she finally finds out what happened to her big brother.
For a recording of John, and to learn about a foundation Liz established to support the creative endeavors of people who are mentally ill or homeless, click here.
THE THING they all remembered most was the voice. High and pure, they called it. Crystalline. Strong but so very tender.
John Adams didn't just sing; he felt the music.
"He sang the way birds sing — because that's just what they do," bandmate George Gleason remembers. "Music just came out of every pore in his body."
Piano, drums, bass, violin — he just picked up an instrument and figured it out. But guitar, that was his main thing. They all remember the Epiphone 12-string he got in junior high. Not a great guitar, but a good guitar. He carried it around through college and beyond, singing on street corners. If strangers tossed some coins into the battered case, well, that was OK, too. John didn't seem to care about money.
He could have done anything, really. His friends say he was brilliant. He got a degree in math and physics. He wrote poetry and painted and took photographs. People were drawn to him.
"He just seemed destined for greatness," Gleason says.
The Adams' family home was Mercer Island, but they were truly citizens of the world. John's dad, Leonard, was an engineer who worked on projects in Brazil, Hong Kong, Singapore, and brought the family with him. His mother, Mary, was full of personality.
Sister Lizbeth, she had a voice, too. John was 18 months older, and, oh, how she looked up to him. He was so cool that one of Liz' best friends fainted when she got up to play guitar in front of him.
But Liz, she would just say, "let's sing a song, John," and the two of them would make a sound so sweet, friends were mesmerized.
"People used to tell us we sounded like one voice," she says.
John and Liz weren't just siblings, they were great friends. A year after John went off to college in Olympia, Liz followed him. She would later earn a degree at Reed College and ultimately a doctorate in physiology, but back then, he was her protector.
Actually, he took care of a lot of them.
WHEN JOHN arrived in 1972, The Evergreen State College had been open just a year. He and some 20 other musicians and students lived on an old farm, putting up yurts and teepees and cabins. They called the encampment Kallyope.
They pooled their money, formed a food co-op and held endless meetings about house rules. Each day, someone was responsible for breakfast, for dinner, for baking the bread, which they made by grinding their own wheat berries.
"I guess you'd call it a commune," says Damon Titus, who was in a band with John for several years.
At Kallyope, music was the glue, but it wasn't really about being rock stars. It was about sharing something meaningful.
Sure, some chased after that stay-up-all-night social life, but not John. Titus remembers stumbling into the living room at 7 one morning and finding him there, strumming quietly.
"I said, 'What are you doing?' " Titus recalls. "John said, 'There's nobody around and it's quiet and peaceful. It's a great time of day.' He definitely was following his own drummer."
He, John and Gleason had a group, The Fruitland Famine Band, and they played around Olympia, covering Elton John, Steeleye Span, Jackson Browne. No pay, mostly, but that wasn't the point.
Once, John showed up for a big gig in Seattle wearing a sarong. Not the attire for a bunch of guys trying to look like "sexy rock 'n' rollers," Titus laughs.
The thing about John was, once he made up his mind, there was no dissuading him.
"He had a stubborn streak," says Gleason. He was always the one who questioned the status quo.
At one point, the band had a chance to go on tour. That's when John up and quit. To focus on school.
"I cried," Titus says. "Cuz we were good, really good." Titus would go on to form one of Seattle's early punk bands, but to this day, he says, "I'm not sure I ever got in a better mix of musicians." It took two people to replace him.
Through college, John talked about pursuing a doctorate in physics. But after graduation, he didn't jump on that path. He wanted a less structured lifestyle, to take advantage of his musical talent and just be himself. So he busked at Pike Place Market and on The Ave in the University District. In some ways, it seemed romantic — that's what artistic types did. Besides, this was the '70s. Living an alternative lifestyle was sort of, well . . . normal.
"THIS THING that happened to him, it was gradual," says Rob Stauffer, who knew John from Mercer Island High School and Evergreen.
While his friends went on to become community organizers and computer experts and nurses, John kept busking.
They would occasionally see him at the Market, barefoot, his beloved long hair hacked up in some strange style. They would talk, but the conversations were rambling, confusing.
"He kept talking about Albuquerque, about the landscape down there, or the art. It wasn't at all clear," Stauffer says.
He had a tendency to veer off on odd tangents, then circle back and pick up the original thought as if nothing had happened.
"I thought, this guy's always been individualistic, but there's something not quite right here," Stauffer says.
Some wondered about alcohol, although John hadn't been much of a drinker. Others thought, drugs?
One day, he showed Liz where he was living.
"It was an abandoned house. I'm not sure there was running water or electricity." That's when it hit her. This wasn't youth or creativity or even substance abuse. John had a mental illness. Schizophrenia.
In retrospect, Liz says there were signs. But "there's always so much denial."
"I guess I thought it couldn't happen to John because he's such a smart guy," Gleason says.
ON AND OFF through his 20s and 30s, John had his moments. He'd stay with his parents awhile. They'd patch him up, take him to doctors, get him on medication.
He'd stabilize. He helped his dad work on the house and got a job delivering pizzas. Friends would sometimes see him walking on Mercer Island. They'd get coffee and talk, but the anti-psychotic took its toll.
"It's such a sledgehammer of a drug," Liz explains.
He'd quit the meds, disappear, and eventually come back. It went on like this for years. For the family, it was terrible. For him, it was worse.
The family set up a bank account he could draw on each month, but there wasn't much they could do. It's not like they could lock him up.
Finally, the bank said he hadn't touched the account in three years. He'd vanished.
"One thing my family and I really learned is, the space into which someone can disappear is vast," Liz says.
They remember the day he left, in 1993. He was very, very ill.
"IT'S A SEARINGLY painful thing," Liz says. "There's the grieving, but there's the little flame of hope that he had been able to survive, that he was maybe healthy."
Often, she would just stand at the kitchen sink. Was John alive? Was he playing guitar?
Wouldn't he come home if he could? Did he even know where home was?
"One of the really heartbreaking things about mental illness is, a lot of times they don't want to be contacted by their families," Liz explains. She believes he was trying to shield them from his troubles.
She thought often about how lonely John must be.
"I think it's an excruciating pain, that existence."
Occasionally, she would brighten. Sometimes, as people with schizophrenia age, their symptoms subside.
"There was this whole fantasy scenario," Liz recalls. "He's got a wife and three kids in Peoria.
"That was part of the limbo. You know what the least likely thing is, but it's the one you want to accept."
ON NEW YEAR'S Day 2004, Liz woke up and decided she had to find him. Her mother had died; her dad simply couldn't keep up the search.
As a scientist, Liz would be logical. So the first step was to file a missing-person report. Tens of thousands of people with mental illness wander away each year, and these reports are all-important. It means the missing person's name will be entered in a national law-enforcement database. If the police stopped John anywhere — and he'd had a string of misdemeanors — they would immediately know he had been reported missing.
In the '90s, when John was popping in and out, his family filed a number of these reports. The problem is, once police had contact with him, he'd get removed from the database because he was no longer "missing."
The family would file another report, and the same thing would happen. So they'd file another. It got confusing. Was he in the database or not?
Sometimes, the police wouldn't even take a report. That's what happened to Liz in 2004. She called one department after another, and no one would put him in the database.
In some ways, it's understandable. In Washington, some 20,000 people are reported missing each year. If he was a child, that would have been different. Or maybe if there was an indication of foul play — some kind of emergency. Police would ask, when did you last see him? 1993, she'd have to respond.
There was another problem. "There's no law out there that says you just can't disappear," explains Detective Pete Erickson of the Mercer Island Police.
People do it all the time. Privacy rules say that even if someone has been reported missing, police can't tell their family where they are without permission.
John Adams had a right to privacy, too. He could run away if he pleased.
Striking out with the police, Liz hired a private detective. And she racked her brain. Where would John go? The Southwest? Arizona?
Liz dialed the police there, and a woman answered. Dolores. They got to chatting. Seattle? My son lives in Seattle, Dolores said.
Bingo. Liz found someone willing to take her report. It had taken her nine months, but now a detective would be assigned to the case. The detective could search the FBI databases; she could ask questions with real authority. Surely she could find him.
WITHIN DAYS, she had a lead.
"I shouldn't be telling you this," Liz remembers the detective saying. You know — privacy. But she had discovered that John was in Omaha in 2001.
"I thought, oh my God, this was 2004! So I got on a plane to Omaha."
In a folder she carried photos of her and John, and a pile of missing-person fliers. She went to the social-services department, to the homeless shelter, to the police, and showed them her folder. They wouldn't tell her anything.
But I'm trying to help him, Liz would say!
Turns out privacy is a factor not just in missing-person cases. Under the law, you have a right to be in a mental hospital without letting anyone know. You have a right to be homeless without word getting out. You have a right to wander the streets.
Liz knew all about privacy. Earlier that year, she became director of Bastyr University's Office of Research Integrity. Part of her job was to review proposed experiments and make sure patients were protected. Did researchers really explain the risks of the experimental treatment? Is there subtle coercion going on? Will confidentiality be protected?
Liz knew everyone she questioned was worried about losing their jobs or getting sued. But she also knew that there were subtleties to the privacy rules, and that some people were going overboard. They seemed to be using "privacy" as an excuse.
"I was trying so hard not to be angry," she says. "I begged, I pleaded. But I didn't yell."
Dejected, she was ready to head back home when she got a phone call. It was someone who had turned her away earlier.
"I'm going to tell you some letters and numbers," the caller said. It was an address where John had lived. She raced to the housing projects, and showed strangers her flier. They shook their heads.
At one point, she drove past a local news station and it dawned on her that if she got John's face on TV, maybe someone would recognize him. She took a breath and rang the buzzer.
And she got another clue. Back home, she learned a woman had called the TV station claiming to recognize John. There was this guy who called himself "the poet," she said. Hung out at a local bar.
"Sweetheart," the barkeep told Liz when she called, "that was years ago."
THE SEARCH continued. Liz called hospitals. Mental institutions. Homeless shelters. She figures she made a thousand calls.
As the months wore on, Liz sank lower and lower.
She got a list of California's county coroners and began ticking them off. Do you have my brother's body?
She and her son went to Arizona, and she passed out fliers.
She looked through newspaper archives to see if unidentified bodies had washed up, then calculated how long it would take to float from here to there. Someone suggested she look at a website that has photos of unidentified dead people.
"Are you getting the sense of how totally random this was? It's crazy. It's not the way I was trained to behave."
Liz was a scientist. Methodical. Logical.
"It made me feel like a failure over and over again."
IN 2010, she called the Santa Cruz, Calif., sheriff's office. Try the Mercer Island police again, the guy said. File a missing-person report. He was emphatic.
At this point, she had been at it for six years. In that time, Washington had stepped up its efforts on missing-person cases. This time, they took the report.
A detective punched John's name into the database. The Albuquerque detective had presumably done this, and she didn't turn up all that much. But there was a solid lead. Harrisburg, Pa.
ONE OCTOBER afternoon in 2001, a disheveled man was spotted walking along the state highway carrying a guitar. Later, he was struck and killed by a train.
Ill as he was when he left in 1993, John had survived eight years.
The Dauphin County coroner took John's body and confirmed his identity via fingerprints when he died, but that information wasn't entered into government records until years later. It doesn't appear they tried to find relatives. Would they have handled it differently if he hadn't looked like, well . . . like a bum? Liz can't help but wonder.
John was buried in a pauper's cemetery. They weren't sure of the exact spot. Deputy Coroner Tommy Reinhard figured they might have to dig lots of holes before they found the right grave. But they made their best guess and began to dig.
As Liz huddled nearby, Reinhard climbed into the hole. The pine box had begun to disintegrate. He could see the body inside. Head trauma. He noticed a hospital bracelet around one wrist. Another clue.
Reinhard put his arm around Liz as she began to cry.
"It was awful," she later said, "and triumphant. We finally found him."
Inside the coroner's office, she laid her hands on what was left of her brother.
"I was taking care of him," she whispered.
EIGHT YEARS, 2,700 miles. What was John doing?
Reinhard had a file 2-inches thick, but all it told was the end of the story. That's pretty much what coroners get. Reinhard wasn't around when John died, but he studied the file before Liz came. That's the John he knew.
Liz showed him the John she knew, the brilliant musician, the brother who always looked out for her.
"John's story, from how he was, to how he ended up . . . " Reinhard was stunned.
"What this disorder did, what it does to many people — it completely changes their lives."
He thinks about that for a minute. He thinks about how the world sees people like John, people who wander and babble and talk to themselves.
"They don't ever think of who these people were," he says. "And who they still are."
Maureen O'Hagan is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Contact her at 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer. News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.