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Wed, August 23, 2006
The mysterious disappearance of the brainy kid from the brainy family is only partially solved after his body was found yesterday


The numbers did not add up, and for a young mathematical genius like University of Toronto scholar Robert Barrington Leigh -- who could rattle off the value of pi to the 100th power, and then rhyme it back in reverse -- his disappearance presented an equation that baffled everyone.

And that included a family steeped in academics.

At mid-afternoon yesterday, however, a news bulletin dashed all hope that Robert Barrington Leigh, a 20-year-old honours student missing for nine days from his Edmonton home, would somehow be found alive -- the discovery of a body near the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, and a blue bicycle in the bushes nearby, bringing hope to an end.

Robert Barrington Leigh had vanished two Sundays ago after making dinner for his family, and having then bicycled to meet friends at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

He had sent a late-night text message to his girlfriend in Italy, fellow U of T student Lucy Zhang, wishing her good luck on the mid-term exam she was writing overseas, and then there was nothing more.


No subsequent cellphone call was ever made, no action took place on his bank or credit cards. Even the bicycle he was riding -- a blue Raleigh mountain bike -- had vanished without a trace.

It did not look good, even to an optimistic family which had posted a $5,000 reward for information on his whereabouts.

"Everything in his life was coming together," his cousin Anna Bretscher, a PhD scholar and computer sciences lecturer at the U of T's Scarborough campus, had said earlier yesterday, back when hope still had a life.

"He had a girlfriend with whom he was completely in love, and he was going to a wonderful university."

"The whole thing is so enigmatic," added her father, Peter Bretscher, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. "At that age, you might think of some unhappiness with life, but there was none of that."

Peter Bretscher and his wife, Calliopi, also a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, had come to Toronto a few weeks ago for the birth of their granddaughter, Kaya, now all of five weeks old, and soon became caught up in the mystery of their nephew's bizarre disappearance.

Early yesterday, long before the body was found, Anna Bretscher's husband, Ed Kulperger, had left her and their newborn daughter at their home in the Beach, to travel to Edmonton to help in the family's prolonged search.

Accompanying him was Paul Bretscher, Anna's 23-year-old brother, a political science student at U of T, past president of the Student Administrative Council (SAC) and now student vice-president of external affairs.


If there were two reasons for Robert Barrington Leigh had chosen U of T over the enticements of such high-profile American institutions such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford, Anna and Paul Bretscher were those two reasons.

"I think we provided the reassurance of having family close at hand," said Anna Bretscher. "U of T has an excellent math department, and Robert had his cousin Paul to show him the ropes."

Peter Bretscher is the brother of Iris Barrington Leigh, the dead man's mother, and to say a high level of academia runs in the family genes would be an understatement.

Their father, Dr. Egon Bretscher, worked alongside Dr. Ernest Rutherford, the brilliant Nobel Prize-winning scientist known as the "father of the atom," and later he worked on the Manhattan Project, in the United States' development of the first nuclear bomb.

Brilliance in mathematics and physics were virtual givens.

Yesterday morning, long before the news bulletin out of Edmonton dashed all hope, Iris Barrington Leigh appeared on Canada-AM and ominously spoke of her son in the past tense. Robert "was" this, Robert "was" that.

"I don't think she has slept in the last two weeks," Anna Bretscher tried to explain before her aunt's maternal intuition became so tragically accurate. "No one wants to give up hope. Robert is one of those people who you can say truly loves life.

"He's never down. He's always upbeat."

Here in Toronto, Robert Barrington Leigh's school, U of T's University College, had donated $500 towards the costs of the search for their academic colleague and friend. Posters had started going up throughout the university's campus.

And SAC had sent out more than 2,000 e-mails to students advising them of Barrington Leigh's disappearance in hopes that he had tried to contact someone ... anyone.

By late afternoon yesterday, however, it was obvious that all efforts were tragically for naught -- with a news bulletin suddenly bringing to a close all talk of Robert Barrington Leigh still being in the present tense, as police began the forensic investigation into his cause of death.


"The news is bad. They found Robert's body in the river," a heartbroken John Barrington Leigh, a retired University of Alberta professor, said of his son around 1 p.m. yesterday, Edmonton time. "Some people were prepared for the worst and this is the worst."

According to cousin, Anna Bretscher, initial confirmation came quickly.

There was a wallet found in the pants pocket of the body that was pulled yesterday from the raging North Saskatchewan River, and in that wallet was found Robert Barrington Leigh's driver's licence.

And the body was wearing the shirt that Robert Barrington Leigh is pictured wearing here -- the same shirt he was wearing nine days ago on the day he disappeared.
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