The Missing Man

Fliers plastered everywhere. Friends scouring the city. High-tech search logistics. And psychics. Why can't San Francisco find Jerry Tang?

Everywhere he went, Jerry left behind the same impression of astonishing kindness. Joyce received several letters and donations to the reward fund from classmates of Jerry's who hadn't spoken to him since high school graduation.

Few outside the family were aware of Jerry's disappearance until, after two sleepless nights, Joyce sat in front of her computer at 5 a.m. Thursday and e-mailed everyone she knew. By midmorning, 30 people crowded into the Tangs' modest apartment, ready to search for Jerry. The San Francisco Police Department was already conducting its own investigation. Inspector Angela Martin began fielding the first of hundreds of tips and sent cops hunting all over the city. (In mid-December, she would borrow search and rescue dogs from Marin County to conduct a rigorous, dawn-to-dusk search of Golden Gate Park.) Soon, though, the efforts of Jerry's family and his wide circle of friends dwarfed anything the SFPD could do.

On Friday, Joyce and her friend Ingrid Overgard, who also happens to be Steve Ginsberg's wife, relocated the increasingly professionalized search operation to a neighbor's garage. They spread maps onto tables and overlaid them with sheets of transparent paper to plot the locations of volunteers. Friends and family searched the neighborhood during a storm so strong that one volunteer, bicycling through the park, heard trees falling from the wind and hard rain.

During the next few days, a crescent of orange dots on the map recorded the first alleged sightings of Jerry. Tuesday night, he was spotted (perhaps) on the corner of Haight and Shrader, down the street from his apartment. The next day, a groundskeeper saw him (maybe) crying in the pouring rain near McLaren Lodge in Golden Gate Park, and offered him an umbrella. He was (possibly) at 16th and Geary, then 19th and Geary, in the Richmond the day after that. Someone said he showed Jerry a "Find Jerry" flier. He (supposedly) looked at the photo for a moment, then kept walking.

The phone was rewired to ring in the garage, and Joyce brought in a fax/copier. Volunteers out searching often called the garage to check in. Tips came into Overgard's cell phone -- her number was printed on the fliers. The Tangs' home phone and e-mail accounts, usually staffed by Joyce, were the catchall for everything else.

That first week, as the number of volunteers pushed into the 60s, the search quickly expanded throughout the city, from Ocean Beach to the Financial District. Because so many of Jerry's friends worked in the technology industry, their efforts became ever more high-tech. Overgard and others were pulling 20-hour days on the search, then writing pages-long e-mail updates at 2 a.m. Someone had the idea of setting up a wiki Web page, which anyone can edit, to maintain current information about the search. When the wiki filled up with posts by random users, another friend set up an invite-only Yahoo! group for the campaign's leaders to strategize and plan. Ginsberg discovered that he could use satellite images from a program called Google Earth to pinpoint details -- the incline of a hill, the shape of an alley underneath Interstate 280 -- about search locations before he even visited them.

The search continued amid increasing worries about Jerry's health. Without medication, he was probably experiencing occasional seizures, but none that was life-threatening, according to his neurologist, Dr. Wade Smith. Except on a few occasions, Jerry's seizures were minor spasms or disorienting déjà vus, not serious, grand mal convulsions. It's also possible, though unlikely, that Jerry entered a dissociative fugue state, forgetting everything about his life and wandering off. Fugues often occur among veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and Dr. Smith compares experiencing an out-of-the-blue stroke at age 37 to being shipped off to a war zone. Jerry might be wandering the city, unaware of who he is, unable even to recognize his own face on the fliers.

Jerry's brother Austin has a less clinical explanation: During the weeks leading up to his vanishing, Jerry seemed to be showing signs of losing control of reality, and possibly having thoughts about escaping his life. In Jerry's dresser drawer, folded up as if kept in his wallet, was a very metaphysical San Francisco Chroniclecolumn by Jon Carroll from Nov. 2 about watching "the room of reality drift apart." The day before he disappeared, Jerry ordered a copy of a poster that he'd quietly read over and over on his sister Audrey's fridge. Titled "How to Build Community," the eerily prescient list included suggestions such as "Learn from new and uncomfortable angles" and "Leave your house."

Two weeks after Jerry's disappearance, a security guard at the One California building (believes he) saw Jerry in the outdoor part of the complex. "Jerry" had laid out not just a piece of cardboard, like most homeless people, but also a brand-new bamboo sleeping mat. Later, he awkwardly rolled his shopping cart down Market Street, and the cardboard fell off a few times. Generally, the guard told Jerry's family, the guy looked like an amateur homeless person. Family and friends organized another targeted search, unearthing yet more alleged sightings.

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