Vanished—with a Trace

UPDATED 03/28/1994 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/28/1994 at 01:00 AM EST

JOHN CHEEK WAS ABOUT TO BECOME A rich man. At 28, he was the chief financial officer of a Memphis apartment-management company. For three months he had been working 18-hour days, putting together a stock offering to take the company public—a move that was expected to bring him a personal windfall of $1 million. Then, on Dec. 2, he disappeared.

The day before, Cheek had returned to Memphis at 6 a.m. from a business trip to Portland, Ore. He had gone straight to the office and worked until 11 p.m. "That was the last anyone saw of him," says one of Cheek's closest friends, Andy Teller, 29, of Dallas.

Police found no evidence that Cheek had met with foul play. An audit of his company did not uncover any improprieties, and the public stock-offering plan eventually went through without a hitch. No money had been withdrawn from Cheek's checking account. And family members discovered nothing out of the ordinary at his three-bedroom colonial-style house, except that the garage door was open with no car inside.

Cheek's charcoal-colored Acura Legend was found that same day, parked near the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River. "The police said it is not uncommon for somebody to jump in that river and never be recovered," says John's father, Richard Cheek, 54, a Memphis surgeon. But there were no other indications that Cheek might have committed suicide. Nor could his parents or his sister, Lucy Gordon, 26, a Phoenix accountant, think of any reasons why he might have done so. "I didn't know what had happened to John," says his mother, Arrena, 54. "But I have never, ever thought he was dead."

In the weeks that followed, the police searched in vain for clues to Cheek's whereabouts. "For almost three months there was not a morsel of information," says his father. Then, on Valentine's Day, trucker Ron Jackson rolled into West Memphis, Ark., and saw a missing person's poster of Cheek. Jackson called police and said the photo of Cheek bore a close resemblance to a vagrant he had seen the day before loitering at White's 76 Truck Stop in Raphine, Va., 170 miles southwest of Washington. The man wore a dress shirt and necktie and had a small bundle of clothes bound neatly by a belt. "It is so uncommon to sec someone like that al a truck stop," says Jackson, who slipped a waitress $6 to give the man breakfast while he refueled his truck. Before leaving, Jackson saw the man again and asked him if he enjoyed the meal. "He said, 'Yup,' and that was all," says Jackson.

Truck-stop cashier Amanda Hartless recalls the vagrant hanging around for a few days, sleeping in a chair in the CB-radio shop. But her boss, Pat Cash, has retracted his positive identification. He originally told police he was sure Cheek was the man he threw out of the truck stop for panhandling around Valentine's Day. Now, he says, he isn't entirely sure. Cheek's parents, though, have no doubt that the man was their son because of one important detail in Jackson's account: the man was wearing Topsider shoes. "Those are exactly the kind of shoes that are missing from John's closet," says Cheek's mother.

But why would a man on the verge of becoming a millionaire be begging for meals at a truck stop? Ray Sexton, a Memphis psychiatrist and longtime family friend, suggests that John may have developed a form of amnesia due to extreme stress and is roving around frightened and confused. The medical term for this rare condition is "a fugue state." Explains Sexton: "John was obsessed with a big project, and it is possible that this was so overwhelming to him that he blocked out his own identity."

Though Cheek has no history of mental illness, friends and family say he pushed himself beyond normal limits of physical endurance before his disappearance. A work-consumed bachelor, he had gone for months without gelling a full night's sleep and brushed off his father's warnings that he was putting his health at risk. "He kept saying, 'I can do it,' " says Richard Check.

If John Cheek is indeed in a fugue state, he needs lo be found quickly, says Emory University psychiatrist Alan Stoudemire, an expert in dissociative disorders. Such people "are very vulnerable," says Stoudemire. "They're confused, have no resources and their judgment is bound to be poor."

So far there have been some eight possible Cheek sightings in Virginia and Arkansas, but his whereabouts remain a mystery. "It's incredible how difficult it is to find somebody." says Richard Cheek, "if they are just randomly roaming around." In the meantime, Cheek's family and friends have stepped up their search. In late February, a group of John's old college buddies from Southern Methodist University in Dallas fanned out through the Southeast to tack up posters with his picture in truck stops and homeless shelters. "I believe he's out there," says Cheek's close friend Trey Jordan, 29, a Memphis businessman. "I just hope we can find him before he gets in a situation with some undesirable people and something happens."

DAVID GROGAN
JANE SANDERSON in Memphis and ALICIA BROOKS in Washington

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