Julia O'Malley: 10 years later, mother still searches for son

Julia O'Malley
Barbara Klita holds a flyer seeking information about her son, Fred Frontier, who went missing in Taiwan in 2003.
Marc Lester
Barbara Klita is still looking for her son Fred Frontier who went missing in Taiwan in 2003.
Marc Lester

Barbara Klita left me one message, then another. When I didn't respond right away, she called a third time. When I answered, she introduced herself and told me I should write about her son. Her son is missing in Taiwan, she said. Maybe I remember him? His name is Fred Frontier. He grew up here.

I didn't remember so I looked it up in the archives. It's been 10 years since Fred Frontier vanished. He graduated from Steller and went to UAA. He was a free-spirited, big personality on campus, a KRUA DJ, Northern Light reporter, a Free Hemp crusader, a Rainbow Gatherer. He changed his last name to "Frontier," (It was Veschi) because he loved Alaska. He once ran for the Legislature. He was 28 when he moved to Taiwan to teach English. He'd only been there a few days when he went on a sightseeing trip to a national park. He was never seen again.

We'd already written all that anyone knew about what happened, I told Klita. What more could I say? It would soon be Mother's Day, she told me. She is still a mother even if her son has disappeared. Fred was her only son. She raised him by herself. I could write that a mother never stops looking, she said, even when 10 years have gone by. A mother never gives up, even when she is the last one searching.

Klita is 75 years old and speaks with an accent from Poland, where she is from. She works as a school bus attendant for the Anchorage School District during the week and cleans for the Alaska Club West on the weekends. This year, she told me, her son would have been 38. She is going back to Taiwan to search again at the end of the month.

"I am going to celebrate 10 years anniversary of missing my son," she told me last week. "No. How can I call it? I go to demonstrate. I go to demonstrate."

It has been eight years since she has been there. Her contacts have moved on. Those who know what happened to him, those she suspects hurt him, probably think she is dead, she said, or at least too old to keep pushing. That is why she wants to show her face again, to show them that she's still asking questions. Maybe then they will give her a clue this time. Some piece of information that might help her explain where Fred disappeared to.

Local police were friendly when she was last there but their investigation went nowhere, she said. Most of what she knows about what happened to her son comes from her own detective work. He checked into Catholic Hostel, near Taroko National Park, on May 22, 2003. She saw his signature in the log book at the hostel. He called his girlfriend in the U.S. and told her where he was. It is possible that he went into the park, with its swift river and cliffs, and had an accident, but she suspects someone hurt him.

Locals who spoke some basic English told her that he was seen at an ATM the morning after he checked in, at a post office near the nearby Grand Formosa Hotel. There were people with him, the people said.

"He went to the machine to get the money," she said. "The guys (with him) say come on with us, we give you a ride to the top of the mountain."

But who were these people? No one would identify them to her, she said.

"They are afraid," she said.

She suspects there is organized crime there, she said.

"This is Asian culture. (The locals) know something, but they don't tell every thing. ... They keep some things in secret."

And it's always possible they remembered wrong. Or that they didn't understand the question. Or they thought some other tourist was Fred.

Fred's belongings went missing from the hostel but were later mysteriously returned. No one there would explain what happened or who dropped them off. It was mostly his camping gear, she said. His wallet was there, but his credit cards and passport were missing.

Police developed film on his camera. She brought me a last picture of him. In it, he stands on a street somewhere smiling, a fanny pack around his waist. No one knows who took the photo.

I asked her whether the ATM had a surveillance camera. Maybe it captured an image of who was with him? I asked if she was able to look at his bank records. What about the jails? Could he have ended up three? She shook her head. She had no access to any of that information. She knew no details about the Taiwanese investigation.

"This is a foreign country. It is not like FBI here," she said.

In 2005, she made appearances on Taiwanese television and radio and gave out a cell phone number. Someone called and told her they knew where her son was, she said. They asked her to meet off a main street and to come alone. She was scared, she said, but she would do anything to find her son. She went to the appointed place at the appointed time. A man showed up to meet her. He wore all black and sunglasses. He approached where she stood, holding a missing poster she'd made.

"He saw me and he realized I don't have money for him," she said.

He turned and left. She watched him get into a car. She wrote down the license number and gave it to the police. Nothing came of it.

Klita sometimes believes her son is dead. Maybe the people who took him up to the top of the mountain threw him off a cliff, she told me. Maybe they were looking to steal his passport. She worries that he might have been alive but injured wherever he landed. She worries that no one heard him calling for help. This is the story she imagines because she cannot find the real one. Perhaps she will never bury her son, but maybe, on this trip, she will learn what became of him. This would be a victory.

"I would be happy to know the truth," she said. "Because the truth sets you free."

Other times, like when she heard the news this week about the three missing women freed after being held captive in a Cleveland basement for 10 years, a sense of hope lifts her, even after all these years.

"This is why I don't give up," she said.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.

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