Monday, October 2, 2006
Randy Leach was a "happy-go-lucky, all-American, clean cut, normal boy," says his mom choking back tears.
Talking to a Lawrence Journal-World reporter in 1988, weeks after her 17-year-old son disappeared without a trace, Alberta Leach can't believe not a single clue had been found yet.
Eighteen years later, nobody seems to know any more about what happened in Linwood - a town 13 miles northeast of Lawrence, pop. 377.
What is known is that the night he disappeared, he went to a bonfire party in Leavenworth County at the Erwin's, a family who was new to the area.
Many people saw him there, and they report that he was having trouble walking. Annie Erwin - the mother of the high school senior hosting the party - saw Randy just after 2 a.m.
"The first time I saw him I said 'Oh my God, what's wrong with him?' I said 'You guys better keep an eye on him', because I didn't like the way he was acting. He was just stumbling. But when you looked at him, he didn't look drunk," Erwin told the Journal-World for a June 26, 1988, article. "I never saw Randy with a drink in his hand while he was out here."
Nevertheless, rumors began to circulate about how intoxicated Randy was. There were also rumors about cocaine and crack. Other rumors said he was drugged and later killed - by some accounts, from dehydration after being tied to a tree. Some said a breakup with his girlfriend lead him to drive his car into Bear Lake.
Some in the area believe he simply ran away, but anyone who knew Randy rejects that notion.
For a while, investigators asked questions about "Dungeons and Dragons" and pursued rumors that a satanic cult may have murdered Randy in a deep cave nearby. That lead originated from a man who claimed he'd been abducted by satanists and saw Randy's body hanging from a cave wall. Investigators eventually dismissed the story as a drug-induced hallucination.
Many bizarre circumstances and events following in the weeks after Randy's disappearance, which fueled rumors and compounded the investigation.
Everything makes for a chilling story - albeit a story without an ending.
But that isn't stopping Tim Macy, a local playwright, from retelling it.
Macy, a 27-year-old KU graduate student, labored for over a year to adapt the disappearance of Randy Leach to the stage in his original play, "Leaves of Words."
Macy scoured countless articles about the investigation and spent a year interviewing Randy's parents, Harold and Alberta Leach.
"It's one of those things I probably could've written in 200 pages," Macy says. "It's not your average disappearance."
"Leaves of Words" is Macy's first full-length play, and he says writing it was no easy task.
"It's probably harder to write something based in fact than it is in fiction," Macy says, explaining that much of the play is fictionalized.
The play's director, Professor Paul Stephen Lim, mentored Macy through the writing process.
"He's not writing a journalistic account," Lim says. "He's not writing 'In Cold Blood'. He should never allow the facts to get in the way of the truth."
And Macy couldn't anyway, since no one claims to have the definitive answer to what happened to Randy Leach.
"Leaves of Words" doesn't have an ending. Or rather, it doesn't have one ending.
The play is an ongoing series of what-ifs and what might-have-beens. Scenarios explaining Randy's disappearance-he ran away to California, committed suicide, was sacrificed in a satanic ritual-are meshed with an extended monologue by Randy's father.
The character known only as "Dad" was roughly based on Harold Leach. But Jeremy Auman, who was cast as Dad, says he wanted to take the role beyond caricature.
"I'm not trying to play Harold. I'm trying to play Randy's father," Auman says. "I was more interested in that emotional interpretation."
In the play, Auman paces the stage, moving between scenes and actors as various scenarios unfold. One moment he's screaming at an incompetent police officer, in another he's begging for answers, for any information that could help him find his son. Dad watches as Randy gets drunk near the bonfire. He watches as Randy begs for food on an L.A. street. He's even watching as Randy is brutally murdered.
The dreamlike-and at times nightmarish-fluidity of the play attempts to reflect the real experiences of Harold and Alberta Leach after their son's disappearance.
"We know no more today than we did April 15, 1988," Alberta Leach says.
But it hasn't been for lack of trying. For most of these 18 years, Harold Leach, 65, has made finding his son a fulltime job. He tried to go back to work, he says, but couldn't shake the distraction. He gave up repairing motors after he sunk his fingers into a spinning mower blade.
Since then, the Leaches turned Randy's room into an office used for investigating the disappearance. There's a computer in one corner, and in the closet there are countless cases of videotapes and microcassettes. Harold Leach records most phone calls related to the investigation, then meticulously labels and stores them. He might need them, he says, in case his memory weakens.
A large bulletin board on the wall of this room displays ribbons and medals Randy earned in high school. The Leaches just picked up a stack of "Leaves of Words" flyers, and two are pinned to the wall.
Randy's face is everywhere in the house. A long row of 8x10 photos, taken each year Randy was in school, lines a wall in the living room. The Leaches even frame photos that have been digitally enhanced to show what Randy might look like today, if he's still alive.
Even outside, on the garage, a hand-painted sign reads, "Harold, Alberta and Randy Leach."
The Leaches say they were happy to hear about "Leaves of Words." In a way, Harold says, they hate to talk about Randy. But they know that any coverage of his disappearance could lead to more information.
The Leaches plan to attend the play, and maybe a rehearsal or two. That makes Macy a little nervous.
"Mostly, I just hope Harold and Alberta are happy with it. It's hard to think of them sitting in the front row during the scene when Randy is brutally murdered, which is one of the scenarios."
Garrett Kelly, who plays Randy, admits he's scared to disappoint the Leach family.
Kelly was only six months old when Randy disappeared, so he had no knowledge of the case before accepting the role. But after rehearsal one night, he went home and googled Randy's name. Through research, Kelly says he tried "to piece together a Randy."
"It frightened me dearly," Kelly says. "I thought, am I trying to play him or am I playing myself in that situation?"
It's hard for Harold Leach to describe his son without choking up.
Leach remembers that when Randy was just 14, he would tear apart mower engines just to see how they fit back together. He was strong, and a star shot-putter. Randy remembered everything, his father says, and breezed through school. They say, sometimes, they wish they'd pushed him to take harder classes, to challenge himself more.
Harold Leach says that he and Randy had talked about opening up a lawn care shop behind the house. They could've repaired mowers and built a greenhouse, too.
"He was a super kid," Leach says. "He had his problems, but you couldn't ask for anybody better."
"'Course we were really prejudiced," Alberta Leach says, wiping tears from her eyes.
The Leaches' pain is still raw. They've told their story to countless investigators, reporters, psychics and TV producers, but it never gets any easier or becomes any clearer for them.
Once, they were invited to appear on the Jerry Springer Show in the early '90s. A "psychic" from the show called the Leaches to tell them she was sure Randy was alive and that they should come on the show so she could tell them more. They flew to Chicago, and were picked up by a limo at the airport.
But as soon as Harold and Alberta Leach sat down onstage and the cameras began rolling, the psychic changed her tune.
"The first thing she said was, 'I guarantee your son is dead'," Harold says.
"I just lost it."
Immediately after the show, the Leaches were unceremoniously rushed onto a bus and sent back to the airport.
Macy says what drew him to Randy's story was the unknown.
"How can something that required at least five people, getting rid of a car:the fact that not one of them has ever said anything is unbelievable. They're not going to get away from this, ever. That's the thing that blows me away most," Macy says.
Then there are the other strange details-why has no one ever searched the cave, or dredged Bear Lake for Randy's car? Why was the field where the party was held freshly cleaned? And why did someone pour gasoline in the house on that property and burn it to the ground just months after Randy disappeared?
Those questions remain unanswered, even after the case was reopened in 2003.
Macy wonders if there is a conspiracy, and that people are afraid to say what they know.
If such a conspiracy does exist, Macy says he's not afraid of it. (Incidentally, his mentor, Lim, received death threats after writing a play in the late 1980s about what was thought to be a murder by satanists).
"People can't just shy away from it because of that," Macy says.
"They deserve to know."