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Despite Loss, Family Touched by 'Alberta Spirit'

Search for math prodigy ends tragically

By Matthew Simon
Epoch Times Victoria Staff
Aug 23, 2006

Twenty-year-old student Robert Barrington Leigh dressed as last seen. (www.findrobert.ca)

Tuesday evening, volunteers and members of the community in Edmonton attended a vigil at Queen Elizabeth Park to remember the young man who had just captured the attention of the country.

The week-long search for Robert Barrington Leigh, 20, ended Tuesday when his body was recovered from the North Saskatchewan River.

Investigators were determining the cause of his death at the time of this writing. No foul play was suspected.

"The outpouring of public concern we've had so far has been astonishing," said Robert's brother, Christopher Barrington Leigh, before the finding.

The case was a strange one. Leigh, a top mathematics student with a bright future, had last been seen on August 13, before heading off on his bike to watch the Edmonton Folk Festival. He sent out a text message to his girlfriend late that night, and then simply disappeared. The text message was nothing out of the ordinary, and it was unlikely he was hiding or running away.

Around 75 people showed up when the ground search began on August 15. Quickly, efforts from family, friends, and volunteers spread the news of Robert's disappearance. Businesses in Edmonton began to help out. Soon enough, media around the country took note.

Tuesday morning before Robert's body was discovered, Robert's mother, Iris, talked to The Epoch Times about the support the family had received.

"I moved to Canada, and I've never lived in a different part of the country. To put it simply, it's 'Alberta Spirit.' People have been very touched…We're very lucky that we live in an older neighborhood, where there are a lot of people who've lived here for a very long time."

Iris believes that because many people were involved right from the start and spread the word quickly, business owners were moved to give their support.

A recent photo of Robert with his girlfriend, Lucy Zhang. (www.findrobert.ca)
Tom Booth, owner of Specialty Installations in Edmonton, lent the family a fully-equipped office. Flyers were distributed and thousands of man-hours of ground searches were coordinated from the office. "He really put himself out for us," said Iris of the donation. "Giving our office over for the volunteer headquarters is the least we can do," said Booth during the search.

Leigh's mother also praised Staples, among many businesses, which offered to do their photocopying.

"I think they never had any idea how much photocopying it was going to be. Despite it being a huge number, when we run in with an order, and we say we need this in 15 minutes, they put everything else aside—all their paying customers—and run us up to the front."

Over 20 local businesses in the community came to help the Leigh family over the week.

Robert and his girlfriend, Lucy Zhang, had spent most of their summer working with a professor under a NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award. Robert was known as an exceptional student in the Mathematics Department at the University of Toronto, and was spending his August at home with family. Lucy flew from Italy to be with the Leigh family and help with the search.

Robert fared well in the William Lowell Putnam mathematics competition for undergraduates, twice coming in the 2nd highest group—a significant achievement. He was also twice part of a five-member team that represented Canada in the International Mathematical Olympiad during high school. His mother chose not to emphasize these activities.

"I was very proud with what Robert achieved, but it was never something which I would ever chalk up. My belief has always been that you should do things for the love of it."

Robert's story generated concern around the world. Friends in Toronto, Vancouver and in the math community worldwide had been spreading the word through flyer campaigns, electronic networks and donation campaigns. Volunteers for the ground search went into the hundreds. National news programs conducted interviews on the case. A volunteer video crew even began filming a 30-second video spot reenactment.

Despite the tragic end to the search, family and friends were moved by the community effort. The vigil was held to show "appreciation for the amazing outpouring of support this week."

Robert's father, John, thanked the police for their hard work, telling the Edmonton Sun, "I just have to hope that every community, when something like this happens, has the benefit from support at this level."