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Loved ones search for answers 46 years after University of Texas student Brian Vargo vanished

The Vargo family last saw Brian when they dropped the 20-year-old off at a Houston bus station in March 1976. They believe he was headed to Colorado.

“I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I remember when I was little, you know, I’m at my grandma and grandpa’s house,” Amanda Vargo Wattecamps said. “And I’m, like, you know, looking at the pictures on the walls.”

She remembers the frames that held photos of her father when he was younger. One photo stood out to her. “Above their cabinet TV… was a picture of the family -- meaning my dad's immediate family,” Amanda said. “My grandmother, my grandfather and the five children.”

Amanda thought something was off when she looked at that family portrait. “I'm looking at this and I'm counting the children and I'm like, ‘OK, that's uncle Mark. OK, that's my dad. That's Aunt Robin. And that's Aunt Vanita,’” Amanda said. “Grandma only had four children. There -- there's five here. And that's when I'm like, ‘Who's that guy?’”

“That’s when I get the, you know, like, the -- the shoulder nudge or the elbow,” Amanda told Dateline. “Like, ‘We don't want to upset Grandma, we'll talk about this later.’”

As she got older, Amanda discovered who that guy was: her father’s little brother Brian, who disappeared in March of 1976.

Amanda never met her uncle Brian, but his story stuck somewhere in the back of her mind. She grew up and had kids of her own. “That’s pretty much why I started -- started digging in further,” Amanda said. “I can't believe my grandmother has gone this long without knowing where her son is. That must be awful.”

Amanda’s sister, Christina Vargo Brooks, was 5 years old when their uncle went missing. “I have recollection of him. He, of course though, was in college when my memory essentially started,” Christina said. “He was a very conscientious kid.”

Ron West grew up with Brian. He lived in a house adjacent to the Vargo home. They were in the same grade and attended the same elementary school, junior high and high school – and then they made the decision to attend the University of Texas at Austin together. “I mean, he's a great guy,” Ron told Dateline. “Real calm, like a very bright individual. Very, very smart.”

Brian Vargo, High School Graduation
Brian Vargo, High School GraduationAmanda Vargo Wattecamps

In 1976, Brian was 20 years old and in his sophomore year of school, studying Architectural Engineering, which was no surprise to anyone who knew him. To them, Brian was always the smartest guy in the room. “He was fairly studious when we were in college,” Ron said.

Brian’s niece, Christina, told Dateline that ever since Brian was a little kid he would do calculations in his head. “Everything was a math problem to him,” she said. “He was very mathematically inclined.”

Brian’s roommate at UT Austin, Tim Murphrey, agreed. “I remember he was real proud that he was getting good grades in his engineering calculus class,” Tim said.

It seemed like Brian had transitioned well into college life. He had good friends and was hard at work on his degree. For spring break that sophomore year, Brian told his roommates he was going to head to Colorado and planned to do a self-guided tour of the state.

He climbed into his white Mazda RX2 and hit the road. But somewhere along the way, his car broke down -- bringing his travel plans to a halt.

“His car broke down and I guess he decided that it wasn't worth the money to fix it,” Brian’s niece, Amanda, said she learned. “He left it with a mechanic. He went back to Houston to get the title for the car,” so he could sell it.

Amanda told Dateline that Brian came home to search for the paperwork for his Mazda. “My grandmother remembers him, like, shuffling through papers,” Amanda said. But they don’t know whether he found it.

His family then took him to a bus station in Houston, assuming he was heading back to Colorado. “My great aunt and my grandmother took him to the bus station. She didn't, like, go in with him or watch him get on the bus because he was a 20-year-old kid and, you know, that's not cool,” Amanda told Dateline. “That's what we know… I don't know if he got on the bus. We don't know if he made it out of Houston.”

That was the last time anyone in the Vargo family saw Brian. “Forty-six later years later, we're still waiting for him to come back,” Brian’s niece Christina said.

The last known photo of Brian Vargo, Christmas 1975
The last known photo of Brian Vargo, Christmas 1975Amanda Vargo Wattecamps

Amanda told Dateline that at the time, her grandmother tried to find Brian, but faced roadblocks with the police. “My grandmother was told -- whenever she attempted to contact the police -- that he was an adult and maybe he just went missing because he wanted to,” Amanda said.

There are no official missing persons reports from 1976. “Even back then you would have had to speak to a police officer and make some kind of report and -- and there -- that never happened,” Amanda told Dateline. “Even if she called and even if she said she wanted to make a report that there was a missing person, they must have not written anything down.”

When Brian didn’t return to his apartment in Austin after spring break, his roommates also grew concerned. Tim Murphrey told Dateline that he only roomed with Brian briefly, but recalled feeling worried when he didn’t return from his trip. “It kind of raised an alarm with us that, ‘Hey, something's not right. He hasn't been here. We haven't seen him in a while. We haven't gotten a note,’” Tim said. “I don't know what span of time elapsed before alarm bells started going off in our heads.”

Tim also told Dateline that he thought Brian could have been dealing with some kind of an identity crisis. “I wouldn't have been surprised if you know he had gone off and just kind of decided to strike a match and… start a new life,” he said.

That’s what some of Brian’s family members thought as well, a theory only bolstered by what they later learned: Before spring break, Brian had dropped out of school. The youngest of Brian’s siblings, Vanita Vargo Netek, told Dateline she remembers her brother needing some time away from school. “He was doing really well in his freshman year,” Vanita said. “And then sophomore year -- I think maybe just not doing as well.”

Vanita, who was very young at the time, grew up knowing little about her brother’s disappearance. “All I knew is that he went to Colorado,” she said. “He went to Colorado.”

Vanita remembers Brian was very introverted and reserved. “I knew he did stamp collecting. He also built model cars,” she said. Vanita thought Brian would be home soon, and there was no easy way to contact him in 1976. “There wasn’t phones,” she said. “He just left and, you know, I just thought he was coming back.”

Initially, the Vargo family wasn’t too worried. They thought Brian might have just gone on a journey to find himself. “I did find a letter that he wrote to my father that said, ‘I just need to get away. I need to take some time,’” Vanita told Dateline.

According to Vanita, their mother always believed that one day Brian would return on his own. “For the longest time she kept his room exactly how it was,” she said. “They thought he would come back.”

But a call from a mechanic in Colorado led the family to grow suspicious. “They said, ‘Hey, we got this car, what do you want us to do with it?’” Vanita told Dateline. “And that's when they realized that he might be missing.”

Shortly after that, according to his sister Vanita, Brian’s family hired a private investigator to look into his disappearance. Brian’s roommate, Tim, remembers speaking to the private investigator. “I do remember that his line of questioning-- he approached this as -- that it had to be drug related,” Tim said. “At the time, I totally did not buy that and I still don't all these years later.”

Tim told Dateline he has been around addicts and Brian wasn’t one of them. “He smoked weed and drank beer but he didn’t have a greed for drugs,” he said.

Brian’s niece, Christina, remembers hearing about the private investigator, too. “We were always told that my grandfather had gotten a private investigator,” Christina said. “But the case went cold.” The Vargo family began to give up hope.

Vanita told Dateline Brian's disappearance became too emotional for their mother. “It kind of, like, we just didn't talk about it,” she said.

Vanita said she tried to file an official missing persons’ report about 20 years after Brian disappeared. She said she got the paperwork, but needed her mother’s help to fill it out. “She didn't want to know. She said, ‘I don't want to know. I feel like something tragic happened to him and I just don't want to know,’” Vanita told Dateline. “So I couldn't do anything.”

But last year, her mother had a change of heart. “I think now that she's 99 -- she has a change of mind,” Vanita said. “She wants to have peace and know what happened to him.”

On February 2, 2021, the Vargo family decided to let Brian’s niece, Amanda, file an official missing persons’ report. Forty-six years after Brian’s disappearance, investigators are finally looking into his case. “For my mother, I would like to have her have closure and for everybody else, too,” Vanita told Dateline.

The Austin Police Department told Dateline that Brian’s case is an active investigation and declined to comment further for this article. A press release from the city of Austin in April of 2021 detailed information about Brian’s disappearance stating that he, “did not return to his apartment located in Austin” and that “his wallet was found inside.”

Now, the niece Brian never met, Amanda Vargo Wattecamps, is leading the charge to find him and bring Brian home. She is managing the Searching for Brian Vargo Facebook page, plus a TikTok account and an Instagram, in the hope that someone, somewhere, knows something.

Age progressed photo of Brian Vargo
Age progressed photo of Brian VargoAmanda Vargo Wattecamps

Amanda has conducted her own interviews on her uncle’s case. “I've reached out to his friends, roommates, girlfriends of friends, people he worked with even when he was in Houston,” Amanda said.

And if she ever finds anyone named Brian Vargo, she reaches out to them, too. “If I find somebody named Brian Vargo and their address, I send them a postcard that has a little story on it about Brian and Brian's pictures,” she said.

At the time of his disappearance, Brian had strawberry to dirty blonde hair and was about 6 feet tall. According to his family he walked with his feet in an outward position and had a snake bite on one of his fingers. Brian Vargo would be 66 years old today.

Anyone with information about Brian’s case should contact Austin Police Department’s missing persons’ unit at 512-974-4123.