A soldier goes AWOL and is never seen again.
Private Justin Burgwinkel, United States Army, had a plan...he set his sights on serving with an elite combat unit known as the Rangers. He scored high on his army tests and immersed himself in language training. His specialty was Korean. But three years after reporting for duty, Justin went AWOL, absent without leave, and then he vanished without a trace.
Three months after Justin disappeared, his car was found, gathering dust in the parking lot of a motel. His cars keys were locked inside, along with his wallet, credit cards, and military ID. To this day, no one knows what happened to Justin Burgwinkel. However, the person who was closest to him at the time--his girlfriend Ioland Antunes--had noticed an extreme change in Justin's behavior during the weeks prior to his disappearance.
Justin was stationed at Ford Ord, in Monterey, California. He met Iolanda, a computer science student at Santa Clara University, while he was on a weekend pass. Before long, he was regularly driving the 80 miles from Fort Ord to visit her. After awhile, Iolanda began to see signs of trouble..Justin seemed to have a secret life. This is how she described Justin's behavior:
"All of a sudden, he would just stop what he's doing with me in the afternoon and he would just say, 'I'm sorry. But I have to go to Monterey and see some people. But I'll be right back.' I'll be just saying, 'Just like that? Out of the blue?'"
"And then he started getting more vague: 'I can't tell you, it's, I really can't--can't discuss this with you right now. I'm doing something you know, kind of secret and I, I can't reveal it to you.'
After three years at Ford Ord, Justin was transferred to Fort Lewis, in Washington state. More than two months passed before he was able to take a two week leave and visit Iolanda. She recalls that Justin's unusual behavior continued:
"Justin always had a briefcase with him..He'd be very secretive about it. He would never open it in front of me."
'There was this one time, I kind of angled myself just to turn and look over my shoulder to see what he was doing. All he's doing with that briefcase is taking pieces of paper in fact--taking pieces of paper out and shredding them with his hands. Just tearing them into little tiny, tiny pieces.'"
Whatever Justin was involved with, it seemed to be veering out of control. One day, Iolanda found him alone in the living room, sobbing.
Later, there was a strange phone call. Iolanda says that she answered, only to hear a stranger's voice say, "The mission's off." Lolanda asked the caller to explain what he meant. "Just tell him--the mission's off", the voice said.
According to Iolanda, when she told Justin about the call, he reacted badly, storming through the apartment shouting, "Damn it! Damn it!" When Iolanda asked Justin who he was involved with, he simply told her, "You don't want to know."
At the end of his visit, Justin returned to Fort Lewis. Soon after, he bought two handguns, and more than 100 rounds of ammunition. Then, he failed to show up at Fort Lewis and was reported as A.W.O.L.
But Justin didn't make much of an effort to hide. He showed up at Iolanda's apartment. She insisted that Justin call his parents, and they urged him to contact the base.
Justin did call the base and said that he would return. But Justin didn't return to Fort Lewis. Instead, he remained at Iolanda's and resumed his secretive trips to Ford Ord.
When Iolanda pressed Justin for an explanation, he referred her to White Sands , a suspense film about the intrigue-filled world international arms smuggling. But Justin wouldn't confide anything more about his activities. Then, one day, he left Iolanda's apartment and never returned.
No one heard anything about Justin for three months. Then, his car was found in the parking lot of an isolated, beachfront motel near Fort Ord. Justin's name did not appear in the motel register. His handguns were nowhere to be found. But, surprisingly, his briefcase, which he seldom let out of his sight, had been stashed in the trunk. Inside was his wallet. And, tucked in the wallet was his standard-issue, military dog tags. Based on what Justin had once said to her, Iolanda saw the dog tags as a bad sign:
"We were driving down one time in his car and Justin had his dog tags and he said, 'Do you know what they're for?' I kinda had an idea but I just said, 'No, no, what, what are they for?' ≠And he says 'Well, when a soldier dies they put it in his teeth so, you can identify him. If you ever see these, you know, lying around, that means I'm dead.'"
Is Justin Burgwinkel dead...swallowed up by a shadowy role in a gun running operation? Or did he simply run away and cover his disappearance with a twisted fantasy plucked from a Hollywood movie?