Five years have lapsed since local commercial art executive Bart Newsome disappeared in the San Francisco area.
There have been no telephone calls to his wife of 20 years, or to their three children. The family mailbox has been hauntingly void of a letter of explanation.The only tangible remains are his black Datsun 280ZX, which was stolen and involved in a hit-and-run accident in Dallas three days after his disappearance, and later recovered. There's also a death certificate, signed 3 1/2 years ago by the courts after FBI agents reached a dead end in their search for the 40-year-old man.
"When we were waiting to get the death certificate, I would tell people that it would help me financially (by releasing insurance and Social Security money), but not in any other way," said Newsome's widow, Pat Armstrong, who has since remarried.
"But I think once I got it, I put him to rest. I felt that was concrete enough. It was then I started going on with my life."
Armstrong, now a successful businesswoman, was a devoted housewife and mother. She was unprepared for the challenges that faced her after her husband's untimely disappearance, which shredded the family's security.
But much has changed in five years.
So much, in fact, that she was willing to dredge up painful memories in hopes that her story will give comfort and strength to others who have also suffered a terrible loss.
"I think I could have become bitter, thinking, `Why is this happening to me?' " she reflected. "But I almost believe that things happen for a reason. I feel it happened to me so I could become my own person."
Armstrong said she was incredibly shy and timid, with low self-esteem, in contrast to her gregarious husband. "I always thought Bart was so neat because he had an outgoing personality; he was all the things I wish I could have been. I think I hid behind him and because of that didn't exert myself," she said softly. "Then all of the sudden there I was alone. And I had to do something."
Armstrong's strength in the face of the eerie crisis confounded even her closest friends and family members. The once-demure homemaker immediately "took charge" the day she sensed her husband had met with foul play.
That was March 15, 1983.
Unsatisfied with his employment in Salt Lake City, Newsome had driven back to California (the couple's home for 16 years) to find fresh opportunities. The morning of his disappearance, he had met with a former partner to discuss resuming business. They shook hands and parted as friends even though Newsome rejected the proposal. They vowed to keep in touch, Armstrong was told.
That was the last time family or friends saw Newsome.
He wasn't at his aunt's San Francisco home at 11 p.m. to receive his wife's nightly call. That told her something was terribly wrong. Newsome, she said, was a devoted family man who called his mother every day. He wouldn't intentionally miss her scheduled telephone call.
"Now it all seems like a dream, but it was the worst nightmare," she said. "I went through literal hell that night. I would lie in bed and think of all the different things that could have happened. Then I would get up and straighten the house. Then I would get the shakes and go back to bed."
Huddled with her children, Armstrong was awake all night wondering what had happened and expecting the worst.
Unfortunately, the daylight didn't bring new hope.
Relatives in the Bay area, who still hadn't heard from Newsome, had to cope with the San Francisco Police Department's skewed priorities. Their message to the family: "Sorry, but we have 250 missing people, and they're the lowest on our priority list."
Even more painful was their intimation to Armstrong that "the wife is always the last to know. Bart probably skipped town because he was tired of being a husband and father."
"I just wanted to tell them that even though they have 250 missing people, this person is somehow unique, different," said Armstrong. She had dated her husband for seven years before marrying him at age 19. "In 27 years, you know a person pretty well."
The day after Newsome's disappearance, Armstrong flew to San Francisco to find the man she knew and loved.
Assisted by her 15-year-old son and her two brothers, also Salt Lake residents, she followed a psychic's leads, and for two weeks combed the couple's former hangouts and the ocean-side highways around the bay city. The brothers and sister, bonded closer by tragedy, walked in the rain along muddy roadways looking for any evidence.
But their biggest lead came from the Dallas police, who informed Armstrong that Newsome's car had been involved in a hit-and-run accident. The driver had fled and was never found. The passenger, a hitchhiker, told police he had been picked up in Flagstaff, Ariz., by a man from San Francisco trying to hawk a gold ring (presumably Newsome's wedding band) for gasoline. For a lift to Texas, the hitchhiker agreed to pay for the fuel.
Neither man fit Newsome's description. But the story came as no surprise to Armstrong. Friends said it wasn't uncommon for Newsome to pick up hitchhikers. He had said it was one way he could help people.
"My assumption is that because Bart had an out-of-state car, full of art equipment, they figured he was someone traveling and had money on him," Armstrong said. "The most they could have gotten off him was $30. He had cashed a check in that amount that morning."
At the request of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the FBI initiated a search for the missing Utahn. Newsome's wife returned home to Salt Lake City to wait by the phone for any hopeful word. But the outlook was bleak.
"I felt desperate. I was left with no income at all," said Armstrong. She had only a high school diploma and no resume. She hadn't worked since giving birth to a child with spina bifida early in her marriage.
But outweighing her insecurity was her love for her children, who were emotionally and financially dependent on their mother.
Friends and family members rallied, establishing a trust fund to pay the mortgage on Newsome's Federal Heights home so the children's lives wouldn't be further disrupted. And with encouragement from many, Armstrong entered the frightening world of employment. Despite her self-declared inadequacies, she landed the job of graduate records specialist at the University of Utah a position that was advertised for a college graduate.
The competent, hard-working woman progressed rapidly and now is administrative assistant to the dean of the U. College of Engineering.
"I can remember the first time my boss asked if I wanted to work for him and asked me to go to lunch to talk about it," she said. "My first reaction was, `What am I going to say for an hour?' It was really an effort.
"It's amazing how much has happened. I feel like I grew more in 31/2 years than I did during my entire life."
Armstrong's reddish-brown hair has a few gray highlights now, but her eyes shine with youthful optimism as she talks about the activities of her children Lisa, 24; Scott, 20; and Nichole, 10 and her husband, Earl Armstrong, a brother of her sister-in-law and a long-time acquaintance.
Armstrong is content, even hopeful, about the future for the first time in years. That doesn't mean that memories of Newsome don't sometimes flood her mind especially when she's driving alone in her automobile. But no longer does she dwell on the negative.
`I used to think, `The Lord knows where he is. Why can't someone just happen upon him?' " she said. "I would still like him to be found. I wish we could go to a grave for it to be really finalized."
But then, pausing, Armstrong said it's probably better she doesn't know the details of Newsome's disappearance. "It has been a lot easier for me to handle his death than believing he just went away because he didn't want a wife and family anymore."