Charting Course Of Hope On A Sea Of Mystery -- Wife Logs Miles, Months In Search For Lost Love

WESTPORT - The woman stands on the beach, the waves of the Pacific Ocean lapping at her shoes. Behind her is Grays Harbor, a haven for fishermen who scour the ocean for crab and salmon. Like them, she is searching for something she cannot see.

She stops from time to time to pick up sand dollars and watch a freighter slip toward the horizon. It's been cloudy most of the month but the sun breaks through on this December day. The only sounds come from the surf and the gulls overhead.

"Is it any wonder Craig loved the ocean so much?" she says.

Craig Williamson was a man of the sea; a fisherman and diver whose love for the ocean and the tiny villages that hug its shores was beaten only by his love for a woman.

Now that woman, Christine Reinhard, has returned to the ocean to search for the man it took her a lifetime to find but only one night to lose.

On Aug. 30, Williamson was in Colorado Springs on business when he vanished. His last contact with his wife was a telephone call from his motel room. All that came after is a mystery.

Police found no signs of struggle in Williamson's motel room. Most of his belongings were left behind. They say they don't know what happened or where Williamson might be, but they have some disturbing clues: Williamson's credit cards were found in El Paso, Texas, within 24 hours of his disappearance, and his rental car was found two weeks later in Mexico. Landowners along Interstate 25 have been asked to be on the lookout for human remains.

Theory based on hope

People disappear all the time in the United States. In 1993 alone, 9,146 adults were listed as missing with the National Crime Information Center; only 31 names have been removed from the list. El Paso County, Colo., authorities have two other unexplained disappearances on the books, one involving a drifter, the other a despondent man.

What makes Williamson's disappearance unique is not only the mystery of what happened to him but what his wife has done to find out.

Based on a report by a woman who thought she saw Williamson in September, Reinhard, 44, began a defiant, methodical search. She has focused on the Northwest, where she thinks her husband is wandering, suffering from amnesia after being mugged. It's a theory based on little evidence and a lot of hope.

Accompanied only by her two mixed-breed dogs, she's logged 7,120 miles, literally trying to pick a face out of the crowd. She has done television and newspaper interviews, pleaded with authorities, searched shelters, consulted psychics, chased down the flimsiest of leads.

Some are skeptical of her effort. The El Paso County, Colo., Sheriff's Office threatened to put the case on hold if Reinhard persisted in her investigation. A Seattle television reporter who interviewed her recently expressed sympathy but then remarked, "She's chasing a dream."

Perhaps. But in Reinhard's mind, her dream has a happy ending. She rejects the possibility that her husband was abducted and killed or that he carried out an elaborate scheme to drop out of sight. She has lost the man she loves, and she won't give up until she discovers the truth.

"I'll ask anybody for anything. I have no hesitation to beg, borrow or plead for help to get Craig back," she said during her journey last month through Washington. "I can't live with myself unless I do this."

Dinner, then dreams shared

Reinhard met Williamson in fall 1990, in Port Townsend. Both had an interest in New Age movements and found themselves at an Indian medicine wheel - a retreat where people sit in sweat lodges and group sessions meditating and searching for spiritual harmony. Before the weekend was over, Williamson asked her to dinner, and they shared a kiss that changed their lives.

Within a month, Williamson and Reinhard were married, exchanging rings bought at a pawn shop. They lived in Olympia; he fishing and diving for sea urchins in the San Juan Islands, she drafting and organizing maps.

But the couple dreamed of more. Williamson wanted to own a fish farm, raising stock for restaurants and markets. Reinhard wanted to move back to her home state. Both dreams came true when they bought land near the Reinhard family farm in Wisconsin in 1991.

They sank everything they had, $80,000, into the venture. They also borrowed $160,000 from her father and another $255,000 from a bank.

The couple worked hard building the business and setting up connections with fish sellers and buyers. Williamson chose to raise tilapia, a food fish growing in popularity and said to have been the type Jesus Christ used to feed the multitudes.

With demand for his product growing, Williamson began seeking new suppliers. He heard about Ilene Kerr, owner of a fish farm in Alamosa, Colo., and began arranging to buy stock from her. Kerr recalls Williamson as "just a big teddy bear." What stands out, she said, was his devotion to his wife; he called her two or three times a day. "He was so much in love with that lady."

Williamson left on Aug. 27 for what would be his last trip to Kerr's fishery. He also intended to shop around for generators to provide back-up power for his farm.

The search for equipment brought him to Colorado Springs. On Monday evening, Aug. 30, Williamson phoned Reinhard from his room at a Super 8 Motel in Colorado Springs. He said he was on his way to return his rental car and asked his wife to call him at 5:30 the next morning so he could get an early start home in the converted school bus he used to haul equipment.

It was the last time the two spoke.

Reinhard rang the room three times before asking the desk clerk to check on her husband. The bed had not been slept in. Reinhard called police immediately but was told she had to wait 24 hours before making a missing-person report.

Williamson became an official missing person on Wednesday, Sept. 1. Authorities found his rental car two weeks later in Juarez, Mexico.

Reinhard theorizes her husband was attacked behind his motel by robbers who took his credit cards and money. She thinks her husband probably was hit on the head and that, coupled with a concussion he suffered in July, stole his memory. Williamson headed for the last home he could remember, the Pacific Northwest.

Her proof for this scenario: none. Yet she says detectives haven't come up with anything better.

Following sightings, hunches

Reinhard anchors her theory in a retired nurse's sighting of a man resembling Williamson on Sept. 15.

Judy Inman boarded a train in Montana, heading for Denver via Portland. She said a man wandered the coach car, talking about fish. He acted like a person who had suffered a head injury: confused, agitated, disoriented.

Arriving at her son's house in Pueblo, Inman saw a photograph of Williamson on the television news.

"I know it was him," she said of the man on the train.

About the time of Inman's train ride, Reinhard was taking a polygraph test in Colorado Springs as authorities eliminated possible suspects. She also went through her husband's suitcase, clothing and bus, looking for clues.

In early October, near the couple's third anniversary, she began to lose faith in how the sheriff's office in Colorado Springs was handling the investigation. A detective did call Inman but apparently didn't put much stock in her sighting.

Reinhard pushed detectives for leads. Getting none, she enlisted friends to distribute posters from San Diego to Canada with Williamson's picture and a plea to call Reinhard or the El Paso County, Colo., sheriff with information.

Detectives tried to discourage her from sending out the posters, saying it could complicate their investigation. On Oct. 27, she had a run-in with Capt. Bill Mistretta. He told her to stop investigating or he would place the case on hold. Reinhard filed a complaint and got an apology from Sheriff Bernard Barry. Despite that, she hired David Boyd, a private eye who plans to challenge Barry in this year's election.

The Sheriff's Office won't provide additional details of the investigation. But based on a sketchy outline of the case, Detective John Carrolle of the Los Angeles Police Department's missing-persons bureau calls Reinhard's theory a "very, very big longshot."

In his view, Williamson is either dead or hiding. The fact that the missing man's credit cards were left in plain view at the El Paso grocery could indicate that Williamson laid a false trail.

The other possibility: Williamson was killed and his body was dumped somewhere.

At the Bread and Roses shelter on dimly lit State Street in Olympia, Reinhard plunges into a crowd of unshaven and disheveled men, some smelling of booze. Her husband has been missing so long now that he could resemble a street person, she reasons, and with no place of his own, he could be living in a shelter.

She tells the shelter manager her story and is allowed to hang her missing-person poster on a board that also bears posters of a child and another man.

Surveying the room, she spots a man hunched over the day's hot meal of chicken, rice and corn.

"He just looks so much like my husband," she later sobs.

A shelter official consoles her. The other people stare at the poster, saying, "I know I've seen him."

She's heard it a hundred times. While at the Thurston County Sheriff's Office in Olympia, someone in a real-estate office in nearby Yelm calls to say a disoriented man had just wandered in. Reinhard jumps in her four-wheel drive with her two dogs, Humphrie and Bogart, and goes to Yelm. Another dead end.

"I try to play all the angles," she admits. She often contacts an editor or reporter at a newspaper or television station and calmly explains her husband's disappearance and her efforts to find him. Reinhard's story has all the earmarks of an authentic crusade.

"When I first came out here, I couldn't talk to anyone without sobbing," she confides. "I've gotten tougher."

She's gained tremendous exposure. At least a dozen newspapers and television stations in Oregon and Washington have picked up her story, though some won't touch it. One day last month in Seattle, two of the city's largest television stations set up cameras at Fisherman's Terminal, home of Puget Sound's fishing fleet where a 30-foot bronze memorial honors sailors lost at sea. It's a fitting metaphor.

The reporters ask the expected questions: Why are you doing this? Do you think you'll ever find him? Are you sure he didn't just leave you? Reinhard has learned to answer each in sound bites befitting a politician. That night, both stations broadcast the interview.

As a map maker, Reinhard is used to dealing with details. And her search is a series of details. She seldom thinks of the future, of what happens when she gets home to a business without a master and a home without a mate.

"It's much easier day to day. I can handle it in pieces," she says that December day on the beach near Grays Harbor. "But when I see the big picture, I want to crawl in a hole and pull it in after me."