Note: This article was originally published in Isthmus on July 22, 2005.
When the hip-hop group Jurassic 5 played a concert in San Bernardino, Calif., in late June, friends of Amos Mortier hoped he'd be spotted in the crowd: disoriented, homeless, stricken with amnesia, perhaps even hiding from people wanting to do him harm.
The band was among Mortier's favorites. Eerily, his mother says it was a Jurassic 5 album that friends found spinning endlessly on his turntable when they entered his Fitchburg home last Nov. 13, days after he seems to have vanished.
If Mortier was stricken with memory problems or on the run traveling the country hanging out at music festivals, this might be a good spot to find him. But missing-persons fliers posted at the event and shown to local sheriff's deputies failed to turn up any new leads.
Mortier, who was 27 when he disappeared, attended classes at Madison Area Technical College, shopped at the Willy Street Co-op, frequented the Inferno, and had worked at the Den and Shakti, two shops on State Street in downtown Madison.
He was last seen eight months ago. As time has gone on, friends have prepared themselves for the worst, especially after Fitchburg police announced this April that they were considering the case a homicide.
Then, last month, three nurses reported seeing a man who matched Mortier's general description at a Tennessee music festival that included bands he liked. He appeared disoriented and complained about memory problems. The tip was phoned to Mortier's mother, Margie Milutinovich, whose cell phone number is plastered on hundreds of posters across the country and on the Web site findamos.com.
Milutinovich called the Fitchburg Police Department, which in turn contacted local Tennessee police. They canvassed area campgrounds and distributed more posters, but were unable to locate the man.
Police have been careful not to discredit the tip, in part in deference to Milutinovich, who's left her job as an information technology contractor to devote herself to finding her son. She's created posters, hired a private investigator, contacted psychics, and forged alliances with missing-person groups around the country.
Milutinovich believes her son may be out there, surviving somehow with no memory of his family or life in Dane County. But the police, while continuing to pursue every lead, are clearly investigating this as a likely homicide. It remains a high-priority case.
"We have dedicated personnel to this case 24 hours a day, seven days a week, since its inception and have no plans to turn back," says Fitchburg Police Lt. Todd Stetzer, who is supervising case detectives. "There continues to be additional information that's gained on a daily basis. This is a very fluid, real active investigation."
The case is the subject of a John Doe inquiry, an unusual court proceeding that takes place in closed court, and witnesses have been instructed not to reveal anything about the inquiry. But several agreed to talk to Isthmus on condition that their names not be published. Other new information on the case was obtained from interviews with family, friends, attorneys, police and others, as well as a review of court documents.
A police official with direct knowledge of the case confirmed the accuracy of this new information.
Isthmus has learned that the John Doe probe has focused on evidence of a drug conspiracy involving several of Mortier's friends and acquaintances. Some attested in court that Mortier was selling large quantities of marijuana while struggling with debts related to this activity.
Two of these friends and acquaintances were granted immunity for their testimony. Many others testified without such guarantees of freedom from prosecution. Among them is an individual one law enforcement official has called a "prime suspect" in Mortier's presumed murder. The suspect, an owner of a Madison music-related business, allegedly sold large quantities of marijuana with Mortier and owed Mortier money. Like several other friends and associates, he has retained an attorney.
A search of court records reveals that many of Mortier's friends and acquaintances have been convicted of drug crimes, ranging from simple marijuana possession to heroin distribution. At least three have convictions for possessing marijuana with intent to deliver. One, who was in jail with work-release privileges at the time Mortier disappeared, has a conviction for attempted murder.
Did these drug connections get Mortier killed? Or did he realize his life was in danger and decide to disappear? Did he suffer some mental catastrophe that caused him to forget his own identity?
What is known for sure is that on Nov. 8, 2004, Amos Mortier left his apartment in a hurry. His friends and family have not seen him since.
'A very kind soul'
Before his disappearance, Mortier was attending classes in ecology and botany at MATC, where he hoped to earn good grades and transfer to a university. His mother says he previously took classes at MATC in electrical circuitry, and had expressed regret about not setting on an education path earlier.
"I told him not to worry," Milutinovich says. "Some of us wander for many years, and some of us die wandering, never knowing what we really want to do in life."
Mortier was an outdoors enthusiast who loved camping, hiking and taking long walks with his beloved Husky-mix dog, Gnosis. While outdoors, he liked to identify trees and birds. He enjoyed fishing and liked to garden.
"He grew up pretty much in the woods," his mother says.
Mortier was also a music buff. He played the harmonica and loved the blues, as well as electronic music and hip hop. "His music collection is as vast physically as it is musically," says Milutinovich. "Some call tapping a stick on a table annoying. Amos would probably call that music."
One friend, who met him through a sustainable-energy conference several years ago, remembers Amos' quiet compassion. "He was just a very kind soul," she says.
The two kept in touch in part because of their environmental interests, and she helped him land an internship at Growing Power, an urban organic farm in Milwaukee. "He was really excited about going to school and getting an education," she says. "I felt at the time I met him he was changing his life."
Another friend felt a "magnetic connection" with Mortier from their first meeting: "He's just got a really wonderful personality. He's very kind, passionate and generous. I mean, he's the kind of guy that anyone would want as a friend."
Besides paying rent on his house, Mortier owned several vehicles and was making payments on land in Stitzer, about 75 miles west of Madison, where he had a mobile home. But at the time of his disappearance last fall, as far as police have been able to determine, his only legal income apparently came from doing odd electrical contracting jobs and selling homemade jewelry.
Vanished without a trace
On Nov. 6, 2004, a Saturday, Mortier went hiking with two friends and his dog. Afterwards, they returned to Mortier's ranch-style townhouse at 5078 Lacy Rd., in a rural part of Fitchburg, for dinner. One of those friends, a 36-year-old Madison restaurant worker, noticed nothing unusual.
Mortier had complained about a broken coffee maker. The following Monday, the friend found a French press unit at Goodwill for a dollar, and called Mortier with this news. Mortier didn't call back.
"I was kind of perturbed when I didn't hear from him," the friend says.
Mortier also missed a dinner date on Tuesday, Nov. 9, and failed to show up for a class exam on Wednesday. On Nov. 13, after several days without word from Mortier, the friend and another concerned about Mortier stopped by Mortier's house. The front door was locked, but a side door through the garage was open. They entered the dark house using a flashlight.
"We were prepared for the worst, but he wasn't there," says the friend. "Although his turntables -- and this was what was really freaky -- were spinning around and around with abrasive noise coming through the speakers, like an end-of-the-record kind of a noise."
Mortier's friends found a check in his apartment that listed his grandparents' address. They eventually tracked down Mortier's mother, on Sunday, Nov. 14. Police were called in the morning.
At first, the police launched a search-and-rescue mission. They noted that Mortier's two cars - as well as his coat, wallet and backpack -- were left behind. But Gnosis was missing, and Mortier's friends said the dog had a habit of bolting if he wasn't on a leash. That Mortier chased after Gnosis was not improbable.
But the case, says Lt. Stetzer, "started to take on a different context" when police realized that Mortier hadn't been seen for almost a week, during which his cell phone was not used.
Gnosis was found at a neighbor's house. Friends don't believe Mortier would have willingly left his dog.
In the days after Mortier's disappearance was reported, search crews scoured swampland near his home, hoping he might still be found, injured or disoriented. His mother wondered if he could have been hit by a speeding car.
"It's a horrible thought, but people have been known to try to hide the person they hit," she says. "I am trying to think of theories. People driving incredibly fast -- Amos chasing after Gnosis -- definitely a hit-and-run theory is an option."
Mortier's disappearance generated some media coverage, but it was nothing compared to that of Audrey Seiler, a UW-Madison student who went missing in early 2004. That case prompted a massive search that was covered for days by national cable news networks. Seiler was found unharmed and later admitted to faking her abduction.
About 30 tips a day regarding Mortier poured into the police hotline. A billboard went up on the Beltline with two photos of Mortier and the phone number for police, generating more tips. But as time went on, it became harder for friends to remain optimistic.
"The first thing you think of is that he's hurt," says one friend. "He's outside. He's injured. And then, after that, it's just shock. To have a friend just disappear and to not know what happened to him, it's just the most awful feeling."
Was it over drugs?
Within days, investigators started to look at more sinister possibilities. Says Stetzer, "There were certain things that were not consistent with just wandering away with a medical condition."
By the time police arrived at Mortier's house, friends later admitted, they had removed some incriminating items, including jars of marijuana. Police won't publicly confirm such details. But, Stetzer admits, "Friends had access to the house during the time Amos went missing. I would not classify it as a pristine crime scene."
On Nov. 20, the case's two lead detectives showed up at the town of Dunn house that belonged to Jacob Falkner, one of Mortier's closest friends. Falkner reportedly had not helped out in search efforts, which another friend had described to police as "strange."
Detectives Dave Bongiovani of the Dane County Sheriff's Office and Shannan Sheil-Morgan of the Fitchburg Police Department immediately noticed a "strong smell" of marijuana emanating from the house. After being denied permission to search, they filed for a search warrant. It was one of almost a dozen sealed search warrants issued in November related to the case signed by Dane County Circuit Judge Shelley Gaylord, who recently extended the seal for another 180 days, a court official confirms.
The search turned up evidence of a sophisticated growing operation in the basement, including 373 marijuana plants. Detectives also found an underground room that had previously been the lower structure of a farm silo that contained grow lights, reflective foil, an intake fan equipped with an odor eliminator, and a security camera, according to a criminal complaint.
Falkner was arrested and, on Dec. 21, pleaded no contest to one count of manufacturing and delivery of marijuana. Several other charges, including maintaining a drug dwelling, were dismissed. Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stuart Schwartz withheld sentence and ordered Falkner to serve three years' probation.
Eight days later, Falkner was back in the Dane County courthouse to testify in the secret John Doe hearing. He was one of two men granted immunity for their testimony, according to minutes of the hearing released by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Robert DeChambeau.
The hearing itself was kept secret until Dec. 30, when veteran Capital Times courts reporter Mike Miller broke the story of a John Doe inquiry into Mortier's disappearance.
That inquiry, Isthmus has learned, has had at least two sessions: one in December and one in April, just days after police held a press conference intended in part to shake upcoming testimony in the secret inquiry. Both sessions were led by Corey Stephan, an assistant district attorney specializing in drug crimes.
The investigation into Mortier's disappearance has at times involved other law enforcement agencies, including the state Division of Criminal Investigation and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Sheriff's departments in Columbia and Juneau counties have also been contacted.
By spring, police had interviewed several people who admitted buying marijuana from Mortier. One said Mortier was "a pretty heavy user of marijuana," while another told police his suppliers were part of "a very professional organization."
Some said Mortier was in need of money before he disappeared and that some friends were scrambling to come up with it. One suggested Mortier owed as much as $20,000 to a New York City drug supplier. Police also established that Mortier sold marijuana to at least one man in Milwaukee and may have had further drug connections there.
It's possible none of these details -- many of which were revealed during the John Doe proceedings -- had anything to do with Mortier's disappearance. But police have focused on them in their inquiry.
On April 13, Fitchburg police held a press conference to announce the probability that Mortier was murdered due to unspecified drug activity. His mother says she learned of these developments just minutes before.
While the press conference was held in part to keep the public informed, it was also meant to shake out new information.
"We know there are people out there with information who haven't come forward, whatever their motives may be," says Stetzer, adding that every little bit helps. "There was additional information that was gained after the press conference that benefited the investigation."
Police submitted Mortier's DNA to a national FBI missing-persons database, used by law enforcement agencies across the country when an unidentified body is found. Reports to the FBI, reviewed by Isthmus, indicate that police believe Mortier is "presumed dead" based on the "potential of his involvement in a drug conspiracy."
Just days after the press conference, police executed another round of searches. On April 19, they searched the home, office and vehicle of the Madison music-business owner whom police have internally identified as a "prime suspect" in the case.
One official said the man gave "inconsistent statements" about Mortier to the police. At least one friend told police the man owed Mortier money because he either stole money or skimmed proceeds from drug sales. And it's possible, another told police, that Mortier had threatened to go to the police about the debt.
On May 24, investigators used a cadaver-sniffing dog to search land in Juneau County owned by the suspect's parents. Some evidence was collected in the search of the man's vehicle, but apparently nothing strong enough to prompt police to make an arrest. The man has four criminal convictions, two felony and two misdemeanor, all related to marijuana, court records show.
"I have a good idea of what happened to him," the man purportedly told police, "but I couldn't tell you where a body is."
Police acknowledge this man remains on their list, along with others. "There's still a pool of people who are persons of interest," Stetzer says. "There are some persons of interest who stand out above others."
The search goes on
Margie Milutinovich says she sometimes regrets ever calling the police to investigate her missing son. They've pried into his private life and have focused for months on a drug connection that Milutinovich says "seems the least likely" to explain her son's disappearance.
"Anything that doesn't go along with their drug theory gets very low priority, if any priority at all," she says. "Police, in general, tend to go down paths where there is a prosecution involved."
One friend is especially harsh about the police's investigation: "I really think they've given up on looking for Amos. They're more interested in getting another celebrity drug bust."
Stetzer is acutely aware of this criticism, and says it's not fair: "You can't get tunnel vision. In essence, the drugs, when they became apparent, were one line of investigation. A medical condition was and continues to be another direction. Taking off on his own because of stress continues to be another possibility. We're looking at all those things."
He adds, "It appears this is a homicide investigation, but again, we're not putting on blinders by saying that's what it is. That's a high probability at this point, but we're still looking at other options."
Two of Mortier's friends say the purported Tennessee sighting has given them, and the family, renewed hope that Mortier may still be alive. "This [has] made such a difference to everyone who knows Amos," says one friend, adding that it was the posters put out by Mortier's mother, and not any action by police, that led to this sighting. The friend wonders if other sightings may have been reported to police but ignored.
Milutinovich, who lives on Madison's southwest side, has relied on a network of Amos' friends to help her create a Web site, pay for posters to be distributed, and search for signs of her son across the country. She walks a fine line between criticizing police and asserting her belief - her hope - that Amos is still alive.
"I know they're working very hard," she says. "I know that whenever I make a complaint to them, they don't listen to what I'm saying. They think I'm saying, 'You're not working hard enough.' No. I'm just saying they're going down a path that I don't think is the right path."
The drug allegations are difficult for Milutinovich to acknowledge, in part because she says she isn't privy to the details of the investigation.
"To date, I've seen no evidence [of drug connections]," she says. "I've asked for hard evidence, and they just say, 'Well, people said this, and that's strange.' Well, you know what, I have three nurses that say they ID'ed Amos. That's tangible stuff. Yeah, I get upset when they start pooh-poohing stuff like that when they're not giving me anything else."
Milutinovich resents that details of her son's life have become public. "It's not like Amos is running for a Senate seat," she says. "Everyone needs privacy, and everyone deserves the dignity of privacy."
Lt. Stetzer empathizes with these frustrations: "I can't imagine as a parent going through something like this, not trying to look at every single alternative, every single option." He supports Milutinovich "doing anything and everything she can possibly do" to find Amos.
The cops, he says, are doing the same. Two full-time detectives are assigned exclusively to the case, along with support personnel. "Until all efforts are exhausted, we won't stop looking," Stetzer says. "We have some very positive leads."
Those leads, admittedly, aren't pointing in the direction of a happy ending. But even Stetzer has not abandoned hope: "There's nothing we'd love more than to find Amos sitting in a café this afternoon."
An investigation timeline
Nov. 8, 2004: Amos Mortier is last seen on the Madison Area Technical College campus.
Nov. 13: After days without hearing from Mortier, friends show up at his house and find no signs of him or his dog. They later admit to removing marijuana from the house before authorities are called.
Nov. 16: At 12:35 p.m., Mortier's house is secured as a potential crime scene.
Nov. 17: The first news stories appear about a missing man.
Nov. 20: Detectives find a major marijuana-growing operation at the home of one of Mortier's friends.
Nov. 23: Nearly a dozen search warrants related to the case are sealed in Dane County Circuit Court.
Dec. 7: A billboard is erected on Beltline with Mortier's picture and police phone number.
Dec. 17: A fund-raiser for search efforts held at the Inferno, a local club.
Dec. 29: Two men are granted immunity for their testimony at a John Doe hearing.
April 2005: Fitchburg police submit Mortier's DNA to FBI database, saying he's "presumed dead" because of the "potential for his involvement in a drug conspiracy."
Apr. 13: Police announce that their investigation leads them to conclude Mortier was likely murdered because of drug involvement.
April 19: Police search the home, office and vehicle of a man one official calls a "prime suspect" in Mortier's death. No charges ensue.
April 20: Several witnesses testify at a John Doe inquiry.
May 24: Police use cadaver-sniffing dog to search land in Juneau County.
June 10-13: Three nurses report seeing a man who generally fits Mortier's description at a Tennessee music festival.
How you can help
There is a $10,000 reward for information leading to the whereabouts of Amos Mortier. Contact the Fitchburg Police Department at 270-4300 or 270-4321.
Amos Mortier's mother asks anyone with information who does not want to talk to police to contact her at 347-7363 or visit www.findamos.com. She also asks that anyone going to music festivals across the country print fliers from the Web site to post.