A call from a desperate mother leads investigators to a secretive cult … and a brainwashed missing son.
This article is excerpted from How Do Private Eyes Do That? by Colleen Collins.
We occasionally get a cold case, which we define as one law enforcement has closed after not finding evidence or solving it. One cold case that haunted us for months was a missing young man whom we eventually found living in a cult.
It Began with a Phone Call from the Mother
“My son has been missing for over a month. The police have no leads. Can you help me find him?”
We were deeply moved by her story. She and her husband had helped their son move across the country to attend a university in our state. “He’s highly intelligent, speaks several languages, and doesn’t easily make friends,” his mother said. “But it seemed he was adjusting to the new city and school…”
Then he started telling his parents about a mysterious figure who called himself “Silver Puma.”* The son told his mother that Silver Puma was teaching him more than he could ever learn at college. Within weeks, he had dropped out of the university and moved into a community with Silver Puma, although he was evasive about its whereabouts.
Weeks later, the son told his parents that he would no longer refer to them as his mother and father, but call them his “friends” as the community was now his real family.
The Son Disappeared
Soon, the son stopped responding to his family’s phone calls. Emails and letters went unanswered. The mother, distraught, contacted the sheriff’s office for that region, but they weren’t aware of anyone named Silver Puma. She hired a PI who charged several thousand dollars and did little more than run a database report that contained no helpful information. Another PI recommended she call our agency.
By the time the mother contacted us, she was frantic. A credit card she’d provided her son had been run to its limit with charges for a moving van, meals, and lodging in different cities, terminating in a small town in another state. Based on the excessive charges, she guessed he had paid for himself and others to relocate to this town. But why?
It was a murky case with scant data and a lot of questions, all swirling around some fellow called Silver Puma.
Who was he, really?
Tracking Silver Puma
Over the following weeks, we dug for information about Silver Puma, hitting dead end after dead end. Someone mentioned that Silver Puma might possibly be a member of a South Dakota Native American tribe, but no one in that community, including its tribal police, had ever heard of anyone by that name.
After stumbling on a P.O. Box address in a small Colorado town that our client’s son had used, we decided to drive there. Maybe someone had heard of this Silver Puma.
A liquor store owner described Silver Puma as a Hispanic man in his late thirties. He had once dated a waitress named Donna* who worked at a local brewery-restaurant.
We visited the brewery and learned that Donna had quit months earlier, so we asked employees if anyone recalled a guy named Silver Puma. A bartender not only remembered him, but said he had once worked as a sales rep for a beverage company, although she’d forgotten the company name.
We Learned Silver Puma’s Real Name
We started calling every beverage company in the region and eventually found a former employer. However, she had paid him under the table and only knew him as Silver Puma. But she did know the name of another company where he’d previously been employed.
We contacted that company and through a manager, finally learned Silver Puma’s real name. For this article, I’ll refer to him as Martin.* Researching Martin’s name, we learned he:
- Was known by other monikers, not just Silver Puma, in different parts of the state.
- Was in his mid-forties.
- Did not have US citizenship.
- Had a history of living with groups of young people who apparently worked menial jobs to support themselves and him.
- Had a criminal history that included assault charges.
We found a former landlord who had rented a home several years before to Martin and others. Although Martin had seemed “nice enough” at first, neighbors began complaining about loud chanting and drumming at all hours from the house.
Whenever the landlord visited the residence, Martin and his roommates refused her entry. She thought the tenants, some of whom appeared to be teenagers, acted oddly as though drugged. Concerned about their activities and secretiveness, she evicted them.
After they left, she was stunned to find the inner walls of the house blackened with soot as if they’d regularly lighted fires indoors. The tenants had also buried dozens of small glass vials in the backyard.
We Were Dealing with a Cult
Based on the landlord’s story, neighbors’ descriptions of late-night chanting and drumming, and the son severing all contact with family and friends, we believed Martin AKA Silver Puma headed some kind of cult.
Eventually, we tracked Martin to an address in a neighboring state. As the son had made purchases via his parents’ credit cards in that same town, it made sense that he was living there, too.
We Found the Son
That state did not require licensure for private investigators, so we could legally continue our investigation there.
It was late spring when we traveled to the neighboring state and located Martin/Silver Puma’s residence, a ranch-style home on the outskirts of a small town. After scouting a nearby surveillance spot, we spent hours documenting the tenants’ comings and goings.
Six to seven young people, who looked to be in their early twenties, spent a great deal of time outside doing yard work or tending to a garden. Based on photos the parents had provided, we easily identified the son, who stood apart from the others, engrossed in conversation with a tall, Hispanic man.
We took pictures for his parents, who were relived their son looked fit, but remained extremely worried about his well-being.
The Cult Didn’t Like Visitors
We decided to approach the house, pretending to be a couple who had gotten lost and needed directions. We hoped to catch a glimpse inside the residence, and if we were lucky, talk briefly with the son. We weren’t going to identify ourselves as private investigators, of course. Our goal was to learn more about his welfare.
We rang the doorbell next to the front door several times, but no one answered. We didn’t detect any voices or other sounds from inside.
Just as we decided to try another door on the side of the house, a young man, carrying a baseball bat, suddenly appeared. His face and hair were wet, as if he’d just gotten out of a shower. We gave our “we’re lost” spiel, he gave us directions to the highway, and we left.
We sent our final report to the parents, and forwarded them the name of a competent PI in that state should they want further investigation.
Do You Remember Me?
Fast forward several years. One day, out of the blue, the mother called. “Do you remember me?” she asked. “I think of you and your son every day,” I answered.
She had good news: Her son had been back home for several months. Also, she wanted us to know that parents whose children were still in the cult were appearing on a prominent talk show the next day. She wasn’t telling her son about the show, however, because she didn’t want to upset him.
We watched the program. Sadly, we recognized a photo of a young man as it flashed on the TV screen. He had been the one with the baseball bat. His mother looked at the camera, her face strained with worry, begging her son to please come home.
Parents of children who are still in this cult have banded together, telling their stories to the media. Hopefully the cult will eventually be disbanded, and these young people can return home.
*Most names and some details have been changed to protect identities.
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Before becoming a private investigator in 2003, Colleen Collins worked as a telecommunications manager at the RAND Corporation, and a technical editor/writer in California and Colorado. Since selling her first novel in 1996, she has written nearly thirty novels and five nonfiction books. Read her PI blog, Guns, Gams, & Gumshoes, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @WritingPIs.
This second edition of How Do Private Eyes Do That? is a compilation of new and updated articles on all things private investigations, from the history of PIs, an investigator’s equipment and techniques, case studies, online resources, and writing tips for crafting plausible private eye stories.
How Do Private Eyes Do That? is currently available on Kindle. But you don’t need a Kindle to read the book. Amazon’s easy-to-download app lets you read it in your browser and on a variety of devices. A print version will be available in the near future.