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Into thin air

Brian Shaffer was seen as a grainy image on a surveillance video... the next minute he was gone .  Dateline's Rob Stafford reports.

On a spring night, the city of Columbus reflects off the Olentangy River as students at Ohio State reflect on the end of another school year.  There’s the usual stress of final exams.  But this year, on this campus, something unusual:  fear and foreboding.

It’s a mystery with tantalizing clues on tape. One minute a young man was a grainy image on a surveillance video, the next minute he was gone and police are baffled.

Sgt. John Hurst, lead investigator:  All the tips that we’ve received thus far has turned into nothing.

And one student is living a nightmare  -- until another student is found.

Alexis Waggoner, girlfriend: I want him home you know. I want to see him every day.

27-year-old Brian Shaffer, a second yearmedical student,seemed to have everything going for him: good looks, good grades and a girlfriend he adored him. “Awesome and amazing” is how he described Alexis Waggoner on his MySpace profile. And she says the same about him.

Waggoner: He’s brilliant, he’s handsome, he’s sweet and loyal and caring.

Like Brian, Alexis is in second year med school. Like Brian she is super-smart and striking. The two were inseparable. They’d planned a trip to Florida for spring break—and they had even bigger plans.   

Rob Stafford, Dateline correspondent: Are you convinced he’s the guy?Alexis Waggoner: Yeah. Pretty much since day one, I really thought of him as kind of the love of my life.

Then one spring night, Brian vanished. 

Brian was last seen in this Columbus neighborhood not far from the Ohio State campus. It was early in the morning on Saturday, April 1. Brian had been out bar hopping with a friend from school.

The evening began about 9 p.m. Brian met up with his friend Clint Florence. The two were former roommates and drinking buddies. That Friday was supposed to be just another night out—as Clint told MSNBC’s Rita Cosby.

Clint Florence, Brian's roommate: Brian and I always went out. There’s nothing new. Sat down, opened a tab. And then you know had three, four, five shots of liquor.

Alexis, visiting her family for the weekend, was checking in by phone and called Brian at 10 p.m.

Stafford: Did he sound at all concerned when you talked with him Friday night?Waggoner: No.Stafford: Did he sound down depressed in any way?Waggoner: No, he sounded fine.

After Brian and Alexis spoke, Clint told the police that he and Brian walked to some more bars and downed some more shots and then, with a friend of Clint’s in tow, ended the night at the bar where they’d started.  Surveillance tape shows them at 1:15 a.m. coming up the escalator to the bar. Brian was leaning on the handrail. Once inside, they ran into a couple of young women Clint knew.

Florence: Brian was doing his usual thing and was talking to those two girls.

At 1:55 a.m. Brian made his final appearance on the video. He was outside the bar chatting with the young women. Then he walked out of frame—and disappeared. Police say it appears he went back into the bar. Minutes later, Clint and his friend got ready to go.

Florence: It was closing time. 2:10, 2:00 and Brian was nowhere to be seen. 

They told police they called Brian’s cell and got no answer, even checked the bathroom—but no luck, so they left without him.  Saturday passed without a word from Brian. By Sunday morning Alexis was growing more and more concerned. She hadn’t talked to Brian since that Friday night call. They were due to leave for Florida the next morning—and he still wasn’t answering his cell.

Waggoner: I was really scared.

Late that night, Alexis says she began what would become a ritual: going to Brian’s apartment to see if by some miracle he’d come home. Inside she broke down. Since then she says, she’s cried “millions of tears.”

Waggoner: I came here every single day the first few weeks and just you know laid here in the middle of his bed and just sobbed.

Fiveweeks after Brian disappeared, and after an intensive investigation, Columbus police still have no idea where Brian could be. Sgt. John Hurst is the lead investigator.

Stafford: Any sign he’s used his credit cards?Sgt. Hurst: No, there’s no sign of credit card usage.Stafford: Cell phone?Sgt. Hurst: No cell phone usage.Stafford: Buses, airplanes?Sgt. Hurst: Nothing.

One part of the mystery is how Brian left the building without being caught on tape. Both bar exits are covered by cameras— as is the escalator that leads to the street. Outside the bar, out of camera view, are stairs and an elevator that lead to the first floor. Once on the first floor, the only way out, without being seen on tape, would be through a service exit that leads to a construction site, with doors to the street. But why would Brian go that way?

Sgt. Hurst: There’s no reason for anybody to want to go out that area. It’s heavily under construction and would be difficult sober.

Police say it’s possible that because Brian was drinking heavily that night he may have been vulnerable to foul play. If Brian had tried to walk back to his apartment half-a-dozen blocks away,  he would have been an easy target—police say there’s a “significant amount” of crime in that neighborhood.

In the meantime, Brian’s father Randy is desperate to know what happened to his son.

Stafford: What has been the toughest moment for you?Randy Shaffer, Brian’s father: Just not knowing or understanding. What, why, where, how. I mean there’s nothing that really fits.

This ordeal has been even more devastating for Randy because just four weeks before Brian disappeared, his wife of nearly 29 years, Brian’s mother died of cancer.

Shaffer: I just don’t understand why I would have to go through so much.

Brian spent that last night before he went out with his friends consoling his dad.

Shaffer: He was concerned about me. He was going to go out drinking that night earlier and he told them “Guys, I have to be there for my dad you know.”Stafford: So he waited to go out that night.Shaffer:  Because he wanted to be with me, yeah.   

Now his father would give anything to be with him.

Shaffer: Somebody has to know something, no matter how small or whatever it may be.  Please don’t be afraid to call. Please help me find my son.

There is a $100,000 reward for any information leading to the whereabouts of a missing Ohio State medical school student Brian Shaffer. Anyone with information about the case is asked to contact Central Ohio Crime Stoppers at (614) 645-8477 or (877) 645-8477.