Something different laced his voice. Gone were stories of rock concerts in Florida, adventures while hitchhiking south, of a young man who set out to see life.
It was Aug. 17, 1980, and Esaw Rodriguez, Jr., was scared. He was alone. There were relatives in Texas he planned to meet, but he was still miles away in Lafayette, La. With everyone he knew miles away, he called collect to his family in Toledo. This wasn't fun anymore. He called his sister Marta and started to cry.
"I want to come home," he told her.
Marta asked where Esaw was, but he didn't know any landmarks or at what exit he was dropped off.
Marta said she couldn't help him, that she couldn't come get him if he couldn't tell her where to go. But she wanted him home. She told him to find a Catholic church and ask for help.
Marta Rodriguez went to her mother's place near Kenilworth Avenue and Cherry Street. Her mother, Pauline Rodriguez, said Esaw called her twice. The first time he said he was sad, he was tired, like when he talked to Marta -- but he said he was OK.
Pauline told her son to wash his face, to relax, and call her back. The second call was different.
There was fear. He was all alone in strange place. And something happened. Two men got out of a green pickup truck and were walking toward him, he told his mother, and he was worried. He told his mother he loved her over and over again.
"That was supposed to last me a lifetime," Pauline said. "I didn't know it then."
That's the last they heard from Esaw.
When the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System started in 2009, it was made up of two lists. The U.S. Department of Justice-funded project is a publicly viewable online database with entries from police, medical examiners, and other sources. The first list is of thousands who are missing.
"You have to wonder where all these people go." Esaw's cousin, Valentino Zavala, said.
The second list is of the thousands who are dead but unidentified. Many are waiting to be matched with someone who is missing.
Perhaps nowhere else do so many stories of hope, fear, desperation, and despair collide.
It's hard not to search the database and ask if it's better to live life with uncertainty -- with the haunting of the missing, but with at least hope a loved one still lives -- or to know the terrible truth.
And what does a family do when they find their lost loved one but learn nothing of what happened? Maybe knowing that he's found, that he's coming home, is enough.
South, then west
Esaw Rodriguez, Jr.'s family called him "Chick" because he was the youngest, because he was small -- the smallest among the boys in the extended family -- because he was their little chicken. It was a term of affection, though he never much cared for the name, nor Junior, nor really his own name. He didn't like his curly black hair. He didn't care much for school. There were days Esaw would walk through the front doorway at Woodward High School and walk out the back. Eventually he dropped out.
What Esaw did like were friends and family. His parents were separated, and he and his mother lived alone, but there were constant visitors. Friends and cousins, such as Mr. Zavala, would drive by their house, and they'd sit in their cars and talk late into the night.
Ever trusting, Esaw thought everyone was going to be his friend, despite his mother's warnings. Many were, and that trust was probably why hitchhiking had such an allure.
In the pictures they have of Esaw, he either smiles wide in a moment of joy or stares straight at the camera, stern, determined.
Esaw never told his family about plans for his life, about careers or dreams. Ms. Rodriguez doesn't think a woman alone can raise a man and said her son was still in many ways a boy. She thinks he was looking for a way to prove the man he was.
At 22, with two friends, he hitchhiked to Clearwater, Fla. There was family there. What he didn't tell his mother or sisters or friends, though, was that his trip would have a second leg. His two friends headed back to Toledo, but Esaw went west, alone, toward Texas.
His sisters and mother remember now that they'd been to Texas just a month before, for a friend's funeral, and their brother had occasionally talked about going back.
Maybe he was headed to find a job, to start a path.
A mother's search
Not a pay phone went unused by Esaw when he traveled. He called his mother, collect, every single day.
So when the calls stopped coming, Ms. Rodriguez knew something was wrong. She first tried to file a missing-person report for her son in Toledo, but police told her she'd have to file the report where he'd last been seen. Her boss gave her two weeks off, and she traveled to Lafayette with two friends to the truck stop from which Esaw disappeared.
Staff there stonewalled her, said she had the wrong spot, that the numbers for the pay phones there were different. But Pauline had phone records, and knew she was right.
She filed a missing-person report with Lafayette police. Any effort by Louisiana authorities to find Esaw seems to have been minimal at best. She wrote letters to federal agencies and investigators and congressmen.
Nothing. So they waited and prayed and held out hope Esaw had maybe started a new life in some strange land, eventually to return.
"We hoped he still would call," said Diana Lerma, another sister. "He never called."
A few days before he left, Esaw told Mr. Zavala he was planning to go to Florida and asked if he wanted to come along. Mr. Zavala was just out of the military, working two jobs, going to college. He was starting a life, and eventually would become a police officer. So he told his cousin he wouldn't go with him.
"In a lot of ways, I felt guilty," he said recently. "I'm responsible in some sort of way."
He didn't do enough to discourage Esaw to hitchhike. Many family members felt private guilt they didn't stop him, but Esaw did what he wanted, Diana said. Nobody was going to stop Chick.
But Mr. Zavala let it haunt him in quiet moments alone in his squad car, when he'd call his aunt and listen to her cry about her lost son.
In 2010, he was coming up on retirement, and an urge started. For what he didn't then know. He woke up one day and started a search that became one both for his cousin and for his own redemption.
"I couldn't handle seeing my aunt go to her grave not knowing where her son was at," he said.
He called his aunt. He said, "Tell me about Chick. Tell me everything you know."
Ms. Rodriguez told him everything. When she was finished, he promised that he would find his cousin and bring him home.
'Just a shame'
Years after he disappeared, Esaw came to his sister Marta in a dream. She was soon to have surgery and she was anxious.
"He came to me and said, 'I'm all right. Take care of Diana and Mom,' " she said as she started to cry.
"I yelled out, 'Chick!' " she said, then trailed off.
She'd often see him in dreams or think about him. On trips down south, driving along the waterways of Louisiana, Marta would look out and worry.
"I hope he didn't fall into the water," she'd say to herself. Nobody would find him then.
When Esaw disappeared, the boys stopped coming to Ms. Rodriguez's home. Her son was what drew the cousins and friends, but with him gone, everybody else stayed away. Over time, after her reports and calls and letters turned up empty, people moved on with their lives.
The boys who became men later told her they stayed away because they didn't want to hurt her. They thought their presence would remind her of Esaw, that her son was gone but they were still here.
"It hurt just the same," she said.
A fate revealed
Mr. Zavala knew his time was limited.
A longtime police officer, he planned to retire in 2012 from the Wyandotte, Mich., department. He'd have to find Esaw before then. Police officers open certain doors for fellow officers that they don't for others, he said. Once he retired, those doors would close.
He called dozens of contacts nationwide to get him set up with someone in Lafayette. Finally, the calls worked, and he found an investigator in that city's police department who'd talk to him.
The investigator told him no departments in the area had any missing-person report for Esaw. Nobody had been looking for him.
Mr. Zavala persuaded Lafayette police to take a report on his cousin and got a written statement from Ms. Rodriguez. Now, Esaw's information was in the system; Lafayette police put his report into the FBI's National Crime Information Center, a national database all police can check.
"The first time in all these years my cousin's information, this missing kid, will be in that computer," he said. "It should have been many years ago."
Next, he persuaded forensic experts in Louisiana to accept a DNA sample from the Rodriguez family, free of charge. Then, they put Esaw on the missing-person database.
Mr. Zavala searched that system for hours, looking for cases that matched his cousin's: young white Hispanic males found dead in the early 1980s between Florida and Louisiana. He pored over gruesome cases, of terrible pictures and details, looking for Esaw.
In February, a call came.
An officer from Mr. Zavala's department phoned him at home and said there was a message left for him at the Wyandotte police station from Texas, and it sounded urgent.
He called the number. Dr. Deborrah Pinto, a forensic anthropologist from Harris County, Texas, picked up.
"Are you the contact person for Esaw Rodriguez, Jr.?" she asked. He said yes.
"Is your name Valentino?" she asked, and again he said yes.
"We've got your DNA sample. I've got some good news, and some bad news."
Mr. Zavala paused. He asked about the bad news first.
"The bad news is that it's a homicide," Dr. Pinto told him. "The good news is there's a 99.9 percent likelihood we've identified your cousin."
Harris County received a National Institute of Justice grant last year to test the DNA for the hundreds of unidentified remains found there. Remains buried in a county plot matched Esaw's family's DNA.
His skeleton was found on Jan. 14, 1984, under a bridge just outside downtown Houston, along the banks of the Buffalo Bayou. The site was about 20 yards from I-10, the same highway from which Chick had called home from the Louisiana truck stop.
He'd suffered blunt-force trauma to his skull. All he wore was a heavy-metal band's T-shirt, a pair of wool socks, and underwear.
And that is almost everything that's known about what happened to Esaw.
Records don't show an estimated time of death. Nobody knows if he died under the bridge or was dumped there. Houston police say the case is active, although solving the crime seems nearly impossible. But at least they found him.
"Never give up hope," Mr. Zavala said to families of missing persons. "You can find them. They are out there someplace."
He called Diana and emailed Marta. They told their mother. Everyone was shocked. No one had expected they'd ever find Esaw.
His family still waits for his return. Myriad red tape means a funeral home in Baytown, Texas, still holds his remains.
"I know I'm not going to get a body, but it'll be my son," Ms. Rodriguez said. "We want him to come home."
Once Esaw's remains are released, cousins in Texas will drive them to Toledo. They'll hold a small service for family, then bury his ashes with his father, Esaw Rodriguez, Sr., who died in 1989.
And then there will be closure.
Even though the small piece of hope they held that Esaw was alive is gone, they will have Chick back. Dead or alive, Ms. Rodriguez said, that's my son. There's no sense longing for justice for their brother, they said, because what's justice? They've waited so long for Chick, and they so nearly have him back, that it's time to let what happened go.
"My brother's dead, and nobody can hurt him anymore," Diana said.
Now, they can remember Esaw as Chick, their brother. Not somebody who is lost.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6086.