Disappearance of Robert Hoagland
Image of Hoagland distributed after his disappearance, showing scar over his left eye.
|Disappeared||July 28, 2013 (aged 49–50)|
Sandy Hook, Connecticut, U.S.
|Status||Missing for 6 years, 4 months and 16 days|
|Occupation||Chef, property appraiser|
|Known for||Mysterious disappearance|
|Height||6 ft (183 cm)|
On the morning of July 28, 2013, security cameras at a Mobil station in Newtown, Connecticut, United States, recorded Robert Hoagland (born 1963), a local chef and property appraiser, buying a map along with fuel for his wife's car. He was last seen by anyone who knew him later that morning, when his son said goodbye to him while Robert was mowing the lawn of the family home, a conversation also witnessed by a neighbor. He failed to show up for work the next morning or pick up his wife when she returned home from an overseas trip that afternoon. He was reported missing and his whereabouts are still unknown.
Police investigated several sightings of Hoagland over the next year, mostly nearby. Tips also placed him in Southern California and South Carolina; neither they nor the alleged sightings yielded any trace of him. Theories about his disappearance range from foul play, possibly connected to his son's drug problems, to an attempt to start a new life. The case has been featured on an episode of the Investigation Discovery channel series Disappeared.
Hoagland and his wife Lori, a culinary arts teacher at Newtown High School, lived on Glen Road in the town's Sandy Hook section, where they had raised their three sons to young adulthood. The couple had at one point separated for two years, but later reconciled. Lori Hoagland says they had begun planning their retirements.
Max Hoagland, 24, had a history of problems with drug addiction. Earlier in 2013 he had been in rehabilitation; Robert left his restaurant job for a position in a friend's law firm to better help his son with his recovery; he also worked as a real estate appraiser. Robert and Lori had talked about going on a hiking trip with Max on the Appalachian Trail that summer as part of that effort. In July, Lori went on a two-week trip to Turkey with some friends; she and Robert regularly exchanged email while she was away.
In the week before her return, two of the family's laptop computers were stolen. Robert came to believe that Max had taken them to either sell or exchange in order to obtain drugs, and sent an email to Lori apologizing for having let it happen. Investigators later learned that he had traveled to an abandoned industrial building in Bridgeport to confront some men they described as Max's "associates" over the theft, which Max had said they were responsible for. On July 25, $600 was withdrawn from one of the family's bank accounts.
Robert and Lori spoke briefly by phone on the evening of July 27, confirming his plan to pick her up upon her return from Turkey at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City two days later. Early the next morning, he went out in his wife's Volkswagen Golf to buy bagels for breakfast at a local bakery, then stopped at a Mobil station on Church Hill Road (U.S. Route 6 and Connecticut Route 34) near Interstate 84 to get gas. Security cameras inside recorded him paying for the fuel and also buying a map of the eastern United States at 6:45 a.m. It was the last documented evidence of his presence anywhere.
Upon Robert's return home, he and Max had breakfast. After the meal, Max said later, his father paid some bills and played Scrabble online for a while. Around 10 or 11 a.m., his father went out to mow the lawn. While he was doing so, Max went out in the Golf, telling his father he expected to be back a few hours later. A neighbor also told police he saw the two talking on the lawn.
The next day, Robert was not at the airport when Lori arrived around 4 p.m. She tried calling both their home and his cell phone, but got no answer at either. She assumed that he was in traffic on his way there and his phone's battery was dead. "This happens with him frequently," she later said.
She did not initially return to Newtown, instead going to a relative's home nearby. She learned from another phone call, to Robert's boss's wife, that he had not shown up for work that morning. When she did make it home on July 30, she found her husband's phone, keys, passport and prescription high blood pressure medications in the house, but not him. The mower he had been using had been returned to its usual storage location, and the loafers he had been wearing when he went on his morning shopping trip, his preferred summertime footwear, were also in the house, as was his other pair. Robert's dirty clothes were in the laundry. His Mini Cooper was still parked in the driveway.
The Golf was still absent and she presumed he might have had some other reason to leave for a short term. But then Lori heard from police in Bridgeport that they had arrested Max the night before, near the same building where his father had gone a few days before to confront the men Max had told him took the laptops, a location known to the police for drug sales and prostitution. Since the area is clearly posted, he was charged with third-degree criminal trespass, a misdemeanor.
Max Hoagland told them he had gone there in the Golf to buy drugs, and that he had his mother's permission to use it. She told the Bridgeport police that he did not, and they held him on $2,500 bond. However, Max did not know where Robert might have gone.
The Hoaglands also let the National Park Service Rangers know, on the theory that Robert might have gone on his own to hike the Appalachian Trail. Along with friends of the family, they printed up and distributed flyers with Hoagland's picture, and worked to bring media attention to the case. The Newtown police looked into the case as well, and soon learned of the events before Robert's disappearance such as the confrontation in Bridgeport and the cash withdrawal. A week after his disappearance his information was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System data base.
About August 6, Lori found her husband's wallet and the keys to his car, hidden under a doll on a chair in their bedroom. She said later that this led her to change her original theory that her husband had left voluntarily to include the possibility that he might have been abducted. Around that time, Max pled guilty to the trespassing charge in Bridgeport and was released from jail. Police questioned the two men he said had stolen the laptops, but could not establish any link to the disappearance. Max also denied any knowledge of his father's whereabouts. Lori later said his arrest was unconnected to Robert's disappearance.
Police also looked online. On his work computer, he was found to have searched several times on an address in Rhode Island, but no connection was found to his disappearance when it was investigated. A similar search on his home computer was frustrated due to a program, which he had apparently downloaded and installed a month before his disappearance, that allowed the user to delete all records of searches and results.
In the fall, Lori and volunteers searched wooded areas in and around Sandy Hook; police brought in search dogs as well. The Newtown police used sonar to search Lake Zoar along the Housatonic River on the edge of town in September. None of these efforts turned up any trace of Robert. Lori said these searches were about "eliminating possibilities." The next month, Chris Hoagland, the eldest son, left his job in the tourism industry in Hilton Head, South Carolina, to take over his father's responsibilities around the house.
Later in September, two sightings of men matching Hoagland's description were reported in Rhode Island, which borders Connecticut to the east. A man with a backpack was seen walking along Rhode Island Route 117 and Interstate 95 near Warwick; it turned out to be someone else. A short time later, Rhode Island Department of Transportation workers also reported seeing a similar-looking man, also with a backpack, walking west along Rhode Island Route 165 near the Connecticut state line at Voluntown. Police were unable to locate that man or determine his identity. The family began the court process necessary to appoint a trustee to represent Robert's interests, although they hoped it would not be necessary.
In December the Los Angeles Police Department asked citizens of that area to be on the lookout for Hoagland, who his family said had connections to several Los Angeles suburbs, including Hollywood. While no significant sightings have been reported there, in January another sighting came, much closer to Newtown. Someone reported to police that they saw Hoagland at a Savers thrift store in Brookfield, just to the north. He was reportedly driving a car with New York license plates. However, review of security-camera video from the store was inconclusive.
Around the one-year anniversary of Robert's disappearance, in late July 2014, another sighting near Newtown was reported. A man told officials of the Putnam County, New York, sheriff's office that he had seen Hoagland going into the county jail in Carmel, the county seat, a short distance from Connecticut, and then leaving after two minutes. However, the only video footage the county could find that might have shown the man was from the building's exterior, and the man on it could not be conclusively identified.
At that time, some of the Hoagland family friends complained about the slow pace of the search. They believed the possibility of criminal activity was highly likely in the case, and that the police had tacitly concluded that he had left the area of his own accord, in order to devote less resources to the investigation. "All we know is that he went to the Church Hill Road Mobil gas station, filled up his car and bought a map. We're at the same place we were at Day One," said one officer. They faulted the police for not publicizing the case more or enlisting the assistance of other law enforcement agencies. In his department's defense, Kehoe said detectives were still "putting a lot of effort" into the investigation.
In November 2014, Newtown police received another tip that Robert might be working in a restaurant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They clarified to a local newspaper that the tipster had not claimed to have actually seen him, only that he might be there. Their counterparts in Horry County, where Myrtle Beach is located, would be assisting them. "We cannot say how long it may be before it's known whether Mr. Hoagland is [in South Carolina] or not," said Richard Robinson, a Newtown supervising detective.
In 2016 the producers of the Investigation Discovery series Disappeared decided to make a season of new episodes after a hiatus of three years. One of the cases they chose to focus an episode on was Hoagland's. Since there had been no significant leads or sightings since late 2014, Newtown police and the Hoagland family (who cooperated) were hopeful that it would produce some new information. The episode, "A Family Man", aired on May 31.
"Everything is on the table," Newtown police chief Charles Kehoe said in 2014, as what might have happened to Robert. Two possibilities have emerged: that he was the victim of foul play, or that he decided to walk away from his life. The evidence suggests both; neither has emerged as more likely.
Since Lori discovered her husband's wallet and keys hidden in their bedroom, she has come to believe foul play is a stronger possibility. She finds the $600, still unaccounted for, an odd amount to withdraw if he was planning to disappear, as it was more than could be withdrawn at an automatic teller machine yet nowhere near enough to live on for an extended period. Concerning their earlier separation, she stated "[i]f he wanted out of the marriage, all he would have had to say is that he wanted out of the marriage. But that was not remotely where we were." His son Chris also finds it unlikely that his father left wearing neither pair of his loafers, "the only shoes he ever wore."
Lori says she believes it is possible that, where his children were concerned, Robert could have made someone feel scared enough to do him harm in return. "I've seen him chase people down the street with baseball bats," she told the Danbury News-Times. Family and friends also do not believe he would have walked away from his children so readily. "I don't believe he just left," says Lori. "Wouldn't he have surfaced by now?"
Whatever his fate, the family believes he is no longer in the Newtown area. "He's going to be stumbled upon," Lori said. "Someone's going to find him accidentally, and I hope that's sooner than later." Chris, too, fears the worst: "What if he was taken ... and he's in a hole somewhere? ... I don't want to think it, but I have to."
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