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POSTED AT 2:18 AM EDT ON 22/08/06

Math whiz's disappearance bewilders loved ones

Family and friends struggle to find out what happened to bright student 'at his happiest'

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

EDMONTON AND TORONTO — It's been more than a week since a young math genius vanished in Edmonton, but the 20-year-old man's family and friends, and even concerned strangers, have no plans to scale back efforts to find him or clues that could solve the mystery of his disappearance.

“I don't know him, but I'm a dad and I've got a son. If he went missing, I'd want as many people as possible out looking for him,” said Rick Ferguson, as the 61-year-old flower-shop owner clawed through thick brush close to Edmonton's North Saskatchewan River Monday. “From all I've heard and read, it sounds like it is out of character for someone like him to just go missing.”

Robert Barrington Leigh, 20, who is considered one of the country's top mathematical minds, hasn't been seen since Aug. 13, when he told his parents he was bicycling to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival to meet friends around 10:30 p.m.

The Edmonton Police Service conducted an extensive ground, air and water search of the area last week, but called it off Friday night after no sign of the University of Toronto math student turned up.

Although the police are no longer searching, his family hasn't stopped looking and has helped arrange search parties every day since he vanished.

At the Barrington Leigh family home, multiple phone lines have been set up, along with a website (www.Findrobert.ca), featuring photos, a timeline of events leading to his disappearance and daily updates on the search.

His family has also posted a $5,000 reward for any information that helps find him.

Mr. Barrington Leigh's family has described him as a brilliant but shy young man who was “at his happiest” before he disappeared. He was ready to start his fourth year at the University of Toronto, and just moved into an apartment with his girlfriend last month.

He prepared a mushroom Parmesan risotto for his family the night he disappeared.

“He hadn't told me how much cooking he'd been doing [in Toronto],” his mother, Iris, said.

“It was excellent.”

Later that night, he waved goodbye to his mother, who was sitting on the couch in the family room watching television. “It was quite an ordinary day,” she said, her voice breaking. “I said ‘bye' and that was it.”

Ms. Barrington Leigh said the family is staying strong by focusing on finding her son, who is six feet tall, weighs 150 pounds, and was last seen wearing an olive-coloured fleece jacket, short-sleeved shirt, khaki shorts and brown shoes.

“Right now, we're all out there looking for him. Until we know something more concrete, then we will know what emotions we'll have to deal with,” she said.

Mr. Barrington Leigh's older siblings are also helping with the search. His 32-year-old brother, Chris, told an Edmonton newspaper on the weekend that while it is out of character for his younger brother to go missing, he's worried Robert may be on a self-imposed “math retreat” or hiding.

He suggested that his brother might be too afraid to come home because of all the effort people have made to find him since he disappeared.

Edward Bierstone, a mathematics professor at the University of Toronto, remembers how Robert was just a first-year student when he signed up for an advanced course for third-year mathematicians.

“He was the best student in the class,” Dr. Bierstone said. “I was very much impressed. He would do his work so well and he would always be smiling.”

He said he often saw the young man studying in the math commons with his girlfriend, Lucy Zhang.

Ms. Zhang, a 22-year-old mathematics student at the university, was in Italy completing a summer credit course when she heard that her boyfriend was missing. She cut her studies short and flew directly to Edmonton to help in the search.

“He's my best friend; I'm his best friend,” she said. “We've become very close and we talk about anything. It is so uncharacteristic of him to just disappear like this.”

Ms. Zhang still keeps a text message she received from Robert before he disappeared. It was sent at 11:34 p.m. Sunday, which was Monday morning in Italy when she received it: “Good morning. I'm out at the moment so I can't call. Good luck on your mid-term.”

Edmonton police have confirmed that the text message was picked up by a cellphone tower in the city's river valley, close to where the folk festival was being held, on the night he disappeared.

Police spokeswoman Lisa Lammi said that while there is no information so far to indicate foul play, the officer assigned to the case has been working tirelessly to find him, and has received tips from Lake Louise, Banff and Toronto.

Ms. Lammi said the police ground search was called off because not a single clue turned up during a thorough sweep of the area where he was last believed to have visited.

“And until we have information leading us into another direction, we really have no place to turn,” she said.

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