Wed, August 23, 2006
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
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.
CHOSE U OF T
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
"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
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
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"
"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.
'NEWS IS BAD'
"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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