Lost Frontier

Fred Frontier came to Taiwan with a job and a well-researched plan for his time on the island. Then within days of his arrival, he vanished from sight

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sun, Sep 21, 2003 - Page 17

Like countless foreigners before him, Fryderyk [Fred] Mieszko Frontier came to Taiwan to teach English for a year or two, then travel on. He landed a job with Hess Educational Organization while still in the US and was to work at a branch in Kaohsiung. He arrived in Taiwan on May 20 in plenty of time to start training courses on May 26. With a few days to relax and a love of the outdoors, Frontier decided to see some of the beautiful places he'd read about from his home in Seattle. He packed a bag for his trip and left the remainder of his luggage at Hess' office in Chungho, Taipei County, where he was to take his training courses.

From there Frontier's story departs from the countless foreigners that came before him. Where he went and what he did on his trip remained a matter of speculation for nearly a month. The only thing his family and his employer knew was that they hadn't heard from him during that time. In Taiwan for only a couple days, Frontier vanished from sight.

Missing teacher notice

Of course, Fred Frontier wasn't the first English teacher in Taiwan who appeared to have skipped school. "We've had a lot of teachers bail on us," said Hess' Overseas Recruiting Coordinator, James Li. So two days after he failed to show up for training courses, Hess administrators simply sent him an e-mail reminder then phoned the Taipei Hostel where he was staying. According to Hess' records, a receptionist there said Frontier had checked out on May 22 and had mentioned wanting to visit Kaohsiung and do a bit of hiking. He had said as much to his recruiting manager, too, when he first went to the Hess office on May 21. The recruiter had given him the name and phone number of Colleen Symons, the organization's head teacher in Kaohsiung, but Symons never heard from Frontier. On June 1, she called all the hostels and hospitals in the Kaohsiung area describing Frontier. No one had seen him.

Now concerned, Hess administrators in Chungho e-mailed Frontier's mother, Barbara Klita, who planned to come teach in Taiwan with her son. It would be another two weeks before they would make contact with her. On June 9, according to Hess' records, AIT contacted local polices stations, who posted an all-points bulletin for Frontier on June 28. Hess, meanwhile, placed a missing person notice in the China Post and contacted hostels, monasteries and religious organizations on the east coast, where Frontier had also expressed an interest in visiting.

When Hess hired him on April 19, Frontier thought he was to be posted in Luotung, Ilan County. He'd even visited local Internet posting boards to inquire about living accommodations there and ask where he might find a locker to keep his luggage while touring the island. He later learned, however, that he'd be posted to Kaohsiung. And so on June 16, when authorities learned that Frontier had

purchased a train ticket for May 22 costing US$19.10 (NT$660), they assumed he had traveled toward Kaohsiung.

"We got a credit card bill from his girlfriend back in the States," Li said. "Obviously it only had the amount and didn't say where it was to. We looked at the train schedule to try and see what destinations cost that amount to get to." Having already been told that he wanted to visit Kaohsiung and do a bit of camping, they determined that he'd likely gone to Pingtung and perhaps into Kenting National Park.

In the following weeks, Hess provided information about Frontier's disappearance to media outlets and met with AIT officials to discuss alternative courses of action for finding him. On July 17, Barbara Klita came to Taiwan to assist in the search for her son and investigators turned their gaze on Frontier's past in the hopes of shedding light on the present.

Eeciting new experiences

Born July 9, 1974, Frontier lived in Italy, Poland, Austria and Buffalo, New York before moving to Alaska when he was 11. He earned a cum laude degree in anthropology from the University of Alaska in the spring of 2000. That fall he even ran for the Alaskan House of Representatives on the Green Party ticket, garnering 108 votes or some 10 percent of his district. At age 26, he moved to Seattle. "Now I'm on the west coast," his Web page says, "but [I'm] willing to travel almost anywhere for the truly exciting offer of new experiences."

Frontier was gregarious. While in Seattle he was active in various Slavic organizations and hosted a monthly vegan potluck. Before leaving for Taiwan, his friends threw him a party on May 8 where DJs played Russian, Polish, Latino and American disco. There was free bread, chips and vegan salsa.

His Web page (http://www.fredfrontier.tk/) offers a wealth of insight into Frontier's psyche, with links to his "mix of religions," art he's created and photos, including one of a tattoo surrounding a pierced nipple. He explains that he's "just a collection of positive and negative atomic energy based on the solar model of a star nucleus orbited by negative moons separated by the great unknowable nothingness ? and since we are all descendants of the same African Yve [sic] of 200,000 years ago, I'd say I' m your brother and therefore want to reunite with you at the fun social vegan potlucks with music and drinkable spirits at my place every first Wednesday of the month."

Frontier was gregarious enough to look for friends in Taiwan while he was still in Seattle. On April 29, he responded to a Taiwan-based Internet forum posting authored by "Val," who claimed to have been in Taiwan for a while and was "looking for a man to spend a little time with ? not particularly looking for a relationship, but more for sexual pleasure."

Frontier's posted response to Val's query was earnest: "Sure this Val may not be for real and sure we have no proof of her physical appearance and health but ... this forum just serves as the first step towards introduction and no one so far has given her offer a nibble. I'm not too humble, so here are my stats ?" He goes on to list his physical attributes (186cm tall, 86kg, brown hair, brown eyes), sexual experience (experimental, though only with women), hobbies and interests (the almanac and encyclopedia ? hiking and camping) and employable skills (including proficiency in Polish, Spanish and Russian, commercial driving and fish processing).

Val ended her original query, posted on Feb. 18, with an eerily prescient warning: "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Frontier ended his response, Carpe Diem! He copied and pasted the same response to another solicitation from

"Hotmama."

New leads

Armed with better insight and information, police continued their investigation. But it was Frontier's mother who turned the investigation around. To assist in the search, the Catholic hostel at which she was staying in Taipei had contacted a Catholic hostel in Tienhsiang, Taroko Gorge, which had possession of his bag and wallet. As quickly as Frontier had disappeared, his mother had found the first traces of him.

According to a Hualien investigator surnamed Chang, the bag contained Frontier's camera and the return half of a round-trip train ticket scheduled to depart for Taipei from Hsincheng station near Taroko Gorge at 10:27am May 25 -- a ticket that cost about the same as one to Pingtung. The wallet contained Frontier's driver's license and credit card and US$5, but no NT dollars. His passport remains unaccounted for.

Klita contacted AIT, who contacted the NPA, who then notified Hualien police to begin searching for Frontier in the area around Tienhsiang. Notwithstanding the NPA's initial all-points bulletin, this was the first indication Hualian authorities had that Frontier might be in their area. On Aug 5, nearly two weeks after Klita found her son's belongings and more than three months after he was last seen, Hualien police began the first physical search for Fred Frontier.

But the circumstances surrounding Frontier's bag and wallet are not clear. The owners of the Tienhsiang Catholic hostel told Chang that Frontier stayed with them from May 22 to May 25. "They recalled saying goodbye to him and remembered that he was carrying a bag," he said. But when police interviewed others who had stayed in the same dormitory at the same time as Frontier, they each insisted his bag was in the room from May 22 until May 26 or 27, at least one day longer than Frontier had reportedly stayed. The bag remained unaccounted for from that time until 10 days later, when it reappeared in the dormitory room. The hostel owners took it to a neighboring police station on June 10, but police instructed them to hold onto it in case its owner came looking for it.

Then, on June 13, the hostel owners reportedly found Frontier's wallet under a pillow in the dormitory. But despite the fact that it contained his identification, they neither turned it into the police -- who would have already received the NPA's all-points bulletin -- nor attempted to contact Frontier. The owners of the hostel did not answer calls for comment.

Despite the Aug. 5 search that lasted four days, 1,400 missing posters distributed by Hess, and Klita's barrage of pleading interviews with local media, there is still no sign of Frontier. And despite the peculiarities surrounding the disappearance and reappearance of Frontier's belongings, a Hualien police request to change the status of the case from a search operation to a criminal investigation has been turned down, as there is no evidence of foul play.

Klita returned to her home in Alaska on Sept. 1, where she lives without a phone. A friend reached for this report says she is doing well and remains actively involved in the search for her son.

Anyone with information regarding Fryderyk Frontier is asked to call the NPA' s foreign affairs office at (02) 2393 0989 or (02) 2394 0238.

Search and rescue

Fred Frontier isn't the first foreigner to disappear in Taiwan's maze of mountains. In 1997, German national Urs Graber got lost in Taroko Gorge. He'd attempted to travel the Hohuan Old Trail, a path first carved by Aborigines. Much of it became what is now the central cross-island highway and several remaining stretches have fallen into disrepair. Six days after setting out alone on a trail that no longer existed, Graber emerged alive.

A decade ago, ICRT news reporter Alan Beach disappeared on Yangmingshan. According to his former colleagues, he was found face down in water nearly a week later.

New Zealander Reuben Tchernegovski came to Taiwan in late 1998 for a solo trek of the Alishan National Scenic Area. He was last seen on Nov. 24 that year. Similar to Frontier's case, Tchernegovski's father-in-law, Phil Tchernegovski, came to Taiwan to look for him. He stayed through the beginning of 1999 hiking the Alishan area and encouraging members of the search operation. Reuben was never found.

It's been said that Taiwan's complicated system of applying for hiking permits encourages people to flout the law and venture off alone, thus reducing their chance of survival should they become imperiled. Permits are issued only to groups of three or more and, if the group is to hike above 3,000m, a certified guide must accompany them. But since Jan. 1 of this year, applying for permits to Yushan, Taroko and Hsueh-pa national parks requires neither a guide nor a three-person minimum.

The national parks have a relatively low occurrence of disappearances. While neither the NPA nor the park police departments maintain collective statistics on cases, an enquiry with Taroko's tourism department found that there have been nine missing cases within the park since 1996 and only one of those cases remains unsolved -- Fred Frontier's.

Park police say that the first three days after someone is reported missing are the most crucial, but as with Frontier's case, bureaucracy and uncertainty can slow the start of an official search. In Taroko Gorge, once a search has begun, police will employ a team of about 30 people to patrol and a helicopter to look from above. The total cost can exceed half a million NT dollars. The helicopter alone costs NT$300,000 for each use.

All of Taiwan's parks take measures to prevent disappearances. For its part, Taroko categorizes its trails into five levels, the lower the level, the easier the trail. Levels one through three are patrolled every day, according to the park's tourism department. Levels four and five, which reach altitudes of 3,000m, are patrolled one to three times a month.

And what of the unfortunate soul that is never found? According to Article 8 of the Civil Law, after a person has been missing for seven consecutive years, his or her family can apply to have their loved one legally presumed dead.