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When Loved Ones Became Missing Persons

February 18, 1987|LEONARD BERNSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Early on the morning of Dec. 11, Francine Williams received a telephone call from her brother. The call was about their 55-year-old father, Henry Foster, who had not arrived to escort his grandchildren to their Southeast San Diego school bus stop.

That was not like him. Foster was sometimes confused and often depressed since a 1984 stroke and a divorce a few years earlier, but he didn't miss appointments. Concerned, Henry Foster Jr. drove to his father's home and went inside. There was no sign of trouble, but there was also no sign of his father.

Henry Foster was missing.

Just three days later in nearby La Mesa, Lydia Peterson placed a similar phone call to the police. It was nearly midnight and Peterson had not seen her husband, Paul, since he had driven off at 9:30 a.m. that Sunday.

That was not like him. Peterson, 56, suffered from Alzheimer's disease and occasionally became disoriented, but he had always found his way home.

This time, though, Paul Peterson was missing.

For the next 12 days, Francine Williams, 36, an elementary school principal from East San Diego, and Lydia Peterson, 49, a La Mesa store owner, lived the same nightmare as they searched for two middle-aged men believed lost in San Diego County.

Although they have met only briefly since they were thrown into the same ordeal, Williams and Peterson tell remarkably similar stories of the hope, despair and frustration of searching for a loved one who has vanished without explanation. They have learned almost identical lessons, and they believe that publicizing their experiences may save another family the same heartache.

There is one difference between the two episodes. Paul Peterson was found alive Dec. 26 near a footbridge in Tijuana. Henry Foster's corpse was found in a Scripps Ranch canyon exactly one month later.

Henry Foster was last seen alive the evening of Dec. 10, when he finished bowling with friends at Leisure Lanes in Lemon Grove. Investigators believe that he went home from there about 9 p.m. because his son found Foster's bowling clothes in the house the next morning.

A man who rents part of Foster's home told police that Foster's car was in the driveway about 1 a.m. on Dec. 11 but that it was gone by morning.

But where was Foster? The question troubled Williams, who knew that her father was not the type to go off on an unannounced trip. An outgoing, gregarious man before he suffered a massive heart attack in 1978, Foster was well known in Southeast San Diego as a successful contractor. He rarely spent time alone away from home.

"He usually tells me if he's going somewhere," she said. "He tells me to keep an eye out on the house. If he's depressed, he calls. He's a talker, not a loner. He couldn't stand to be by himself."

Williams began to look for her father, confident that finding him would be a simple matter.

"You're thinking, 'It's all right, there's not going to be any problem,' " she said of those first few hours of searching. "We'll call people and we'll find him. You're sort of worried, but you don't want to go overboard."

Foster's physician ruled out the possibility that the stroke or medication would cause him to become disoriented enough to become lost. Foster did tend to forget things since the stroke in 1984, but his way home was not one of them.

"He was oriented to person and place and time," said Dr. Arnold Berlin. "His main problems appeared to be associated with memory. . . . This is not a man that is going to get lost."

But friends and relatives had no clues as to Foster's whereabouts. When Foster did not show up by Friday night, Dec. 12, Williams went to the police.

Police throughout the city were notified by radio that Foster and his vehicle were missing, said Fred Dreis, the missing persons detective for the San Diego Police Department. They were told that Foster's could be in jeopardy.

Police showed concern throughout the search for Foster, Williams said, but she believes that they could have done more. For example, she said, people who called with tips about Foster sometimes reached only a tape recording that asked them to leave a message. One man who tried to report information at a San Ysidro police substation was turned away and told to call the missing persons investigator, she said.

Williams was stunned when she was told Friday evening that Dreis would begin looking into her father's case when the bureau reopened Monday.

"The whole missing-persons bureau is closed down on weekends," she said. "I'm very concerned about that. I think as a city, we all should be concerned about that."

The issue of police response to a missing person report recently surfaced in connection with the slaying of 20-year-old San Diego State University student Cara Evelyn Knott, who was strangled and tossed from a 75-foot-high bridge on Dec. 27.

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