HINCKLEY, Ohio — There was no hint, none at all. He ambled in that Friday morning as usual. The shop was busy. He asked for coffee, a medium-sized cup. He put cream in it as usual, but no sugar, and that was normal, too.
He lit a Salem. He always did. As the chief of police, Mel Wiley seemed imposing--a little rumpled, maybe, but imposing. That was to be expected. All police chiefs look imposing, especially in uniform. A customer came in and asked for a dozen doughnuts. The chief stopped him. The customer gave a start.
"They're horrible tasting," Chief Wiley said. "And they look terrible. Don't buy 'em, 'cause you'll get sick."
"Mel!" Mary Kirby said. "Don't do that!"
The police chief smiled. The customer winked--and bought the doughnuts anyway.
A Running Gag
All of this was unremarkable. Among the three of them--Mary Kirby, 49, and Carol Kosman, 48, the proprietors of K&K Donuts, and Mel Wiley, 48, the chief of police of Hinckley, Ohio--this was a running gag. It was easy humor, and it made the day look like any other.
But this was, in fact, an unusual day.
It was the last day the townspeople saw Mel Wiley. He left the doughnut shop, went to his office at the police station and spent an uneventful morning and afternoon at work. Then, over the weekend, he disappeared. The chief vanished.
A year has passed. Mel Wiley has not been seen. He has not been heard from. In Washington, D.C., the National Crime Information Center, run by the FBI, says that 54,430 regular people are missing in the United States--and one chief of police. This is the story of that police chief and some of his friends. It is the story of an enduring American mystery.
Mel Wiley became a Hinckley policeman in 1978.
Before that he was a fingerprint clerk for the FBI in Washington, then a soldier assigned to Army intelligence--part of the time at Ft. Ord, Calif.--then a newspaper reporter on the Gazette over in Medina, eight miles southwest of Hinckley, and then a deputy sheriff for the county.
When Len Keller, a fellow deputy, became chief of police in Hinckley, he hired Mel Wiley to be his sergeant. When Keller quit, Wiley became chief.
He gained a reputation as an ideal police chief for this town of 5,000 people. Hinckley is at the crossroads of state highways 303 and 3. The residents live in white-shingled, red brick houses, tucked into the woods along the east side of the Rocky River Valley. Many of them commute to work in Cleveland or Akron.
The big thing in Hinckley is Buzzard Day.
Once, Hinckley was woods, filled with wild animals. The animals ate the settlers' first crops. On Dec. 24, 1818, the original residents surrounded the town and drove the animals to the center of the circle. They shot them and celebrated Christmas by feasting on the game. The leftovers froze. In mid-March, the carrion thawed and attracted buzzards. Since then they have returned each year on March 15--four days before the swallows come back to Capistrano.
As sure as Buzzard Day is a big thing, crime in Hinckley is pretty humble.
Never, while Mel was chief, was there any kind of crime that would suggest, even remotely, something that might cause him to vanish. Nor did Mel seem to be the sort of cop who would get involved in anything big, much less anything sinister. By every account, he was an unassuming and modest man.
"He was not the spit-and-polish cop," said Jim Bigam, 39, the police detective in Medina who headed the investigation into Mel's disappearance--because Mel's apartment was inside the Medina city limits. Bigam recalls that Mel stood about 5 feet 11 and weighed about 165 pounds. He looked solid, but he had a bit of a paunch.
He wore his hair in a butch cut. Mary Kirby at K&K Donuts had noticed that he was getting a little bald.
Pale Spots on Arms
His neck and arms had patches of extra-pale skin. These were caused by radiation, says his mother, Doris Wiley, 66, who lives near Hinckley. Mel was affected by the radiation, she remembers, when his military duties took him to Nevada. She says he got the white patches while at the Nevada Atomic Test Site.
Otherwise, the chief seemed healthy. He did have a wart on his nose. He rubbed it when he talked. And, at times, Mel Wiley had a Basset-hound sadness in his eyes.
In some ways, he was an unlikely cop.
"He was a policeman who didn't hunt and who didn't like guns," Doris Wiley says. "He would never have joined the National Rifle Assn." He was fascinated by trains. He had a model railroad collection and he displayed model engines and cars on the shelves in his office.
And he loved music. He collected records--of classical music, jazz and, particularly, the big band sounds like Jimmy Dorsey. He taped his records and added his own commentary, like a disc jockey.