FAIRMONT, W.Va. - It's been nearly 14 years since Virginia Tech graduate student Robert Leroy Kovack vanished, and his family in north-central West Virginia is still waiting for answers.
The 24-year-old from Rivesville disappeared Sept. 18, 1998. His red Geo Tracker was found out of gas five days later, parked and locked near the New River Gorge bridge in southern West Virginia.
Kovack is believed to have been headed for a WVU-Maryland football game in Morgantown, but his backpack, shaving kit and toothbrush were back home in his apartment. And there's been no sign of him since.
Now older brother Michael is once again seeking answers.
He tells The Times West Virginian ( http://bit.ly/nET7vY) he believes someone knows more than they're saying, and it might take only one person to give the family some closure.
Robert Kovack was an architectural student who had already landed a job in Fairmont and stayed in close contact with his family while at school. He called mom Jackie every Sunday and regularly made the four-drive home.
A surveillance camera video at Freedom First Credit Union in Blacksburg, Va., showed him withdrawing $80 at 5:21 p.m. that Friday. About 25 minutes later, a fellow student spoke briefly with him on an elevator.
"This is where it gets crazy," his brother recalls.
All weekend, his roommates told the family Kovack was out when they called.
"Then, when we hadn't heard from him Monday or Tuesday, those same people miraculously said he had gone home for the weekend," he says.
The Tracker was found locked, and nothing but the keys was missing. The soft roof had been slit, but investigators found no fingerprints but Kovack's.
A State Police investigator suggested Kovack jumped from the bridge, but the family had nearly 100 volunteers search twice, and no body was found. His wallet and credit cards remain missing.
Some events trouble Michael Kovack. His brother's roommates, for example, took down Robert's bed and packed up his belongings before the family could inspect the room.
"They said they felt it was easier on the family and they were trying to be helpful. But it wasn't like, How can we help you?' It was more like, Get your stuff out,'" Michael Kovack recalled. "We could never get any straight answers why nobody told us from day one."
Today, Kovack believes his little brother "heard or saw something he shouldn't have," though he has no solid theories about what that might have been.
"I think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and whatever happened, happened in Virginia," he said.
Police suggested maybe Robert Kovack just walked away from his life, stressed out by grades or debt. But his family rejects that theory, too.
"We're not glorifying him. He was outgoing and helpful," his brother said. "He would not cause trouble, but he wouldn't walk away from it either. He was not a pushover."
For months, their mother sat by the phone, waiting for it to ring.
"It's still hard. There's not a day that I don't think about my brother, and my parents _ their son. But the simple fact is you have to draw the line," Michael Kovack said.
"We still have hope, but as each day goes by, reality sets in and you deal with it. The worst part is not knowing."
Though their parents are reluctant to talk about Robert, Michael says it still gives him purpose.
"The more you talk about it, the more you work through it," he said. "It's never easy, but it becomes easier."
Information from: Times West Virginian, http://www.timeswv.com
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