Family, friends say missing man changed before he vanished
May 11, 2011
WELDON SPRING • Five months since his friend vanished, Jeff Ponder wonders what happened to the fun-loving guy who liked to tell oddball jokes at parties.
"All you really have is the hope that he's still out there," Ponder says of Nick Coppola, who disappeared in December.
Coppola, 25, was last seen in Warren County on his way home to Weldon Spring from Columbia, Mo.
And while authorities say they have no reason to suspect foul play, relatives and friends say the circumstances that surround the disappearance of the normally affable Coppola are as odd as his behavior in the months beforehand.
They are wondering not only where he is but, because of suspicions that he might have been in the midst of a spiritual awakening or experimenting with drugs, if he is still alive.
Coppola, a 2004 Francis Howell High School graduate who used to love playing interactive video games in the basement and cheer for the St. Louis Blues, was trying to finish his bachelor degree at the University of Missouri. He had taken the fall semester off because of a broken hand but remained in Columbia.
On his way home for a visit Dec. 12, he ran out of gas in a traffic backup on I-70 in Foristell. He walked away from the car, leaving behind his wallet and cell phone, police say.
He apparently tried to find shelter on the bitterly cold day at a home near the highway, where a resident became upset that he was trespassing.
From there, Coppola walked to a grocery, got a ride with a woman across the interstate to a Wright City gas station, where he spent an hour in the bathroom. A police officer arrested Coppola there on suspicion of trespassing and peace disturbance involving his run-in at the nearby house. Coppola was taken to the Warren County Jail where he was booked and released at 5:40 p.m. after the homeowner declined to press charges.
Police told Coppola's family he made no phone calls, and they did not see anyone pick him up after he walked outside. But he hasn't been seen since.
Foristell Police Chief Douglas Johnson, whose department has been leading the missing person's investigation because Coppola's car was abandoned within his jurisdiction, said "it's still an active case." But Johnson also said an adult who disappears of his or her own free will has not committed a crime.
"I do believe at this point that he is alive and well," the chief said. "I have nothing to suspect foul play in any way, shape or form. He has just chosen not to make contact with any of his family. ... All they want is to know he is safe and OK."
Johnson said it would have been relatively easy for Coppola to hitchhike his way along I-70, or to beg for bus fare out of Warren County.
"Upon his release (from jail), what he did, I don't know," Johnson said.
Those who know Coppola say he gradually began to withdraw from them in the months before his disappearance. Calls, emails and social networking messages dried up. He stopped showing up at gatherings and parties hosted by old friends.
Ponder, his friend, thinks Coppola wanted to disappear.
"I think he up and left. I really feel like someone came and picked him up," said Ponder, 26, of Maryland Heights. "He's not the type of person just to wander out into the woods."
A hefty kid growing up, while in his 20s Coppola lost about 100 pounds and converted to vegetarianism. His friends also said he used to have a great sense of humor. One friend said Coppola reminded him of the late comedian Chris Farley. But in the months just before he vanished, Coppola stopped showing up at the annual parties of old high school friends and neglected to make plans for customary lunches with old pals.
When Justin Wilson, 24, of Berkeley, first heard about his friend's disappearance, "my mind went to the worst place," and he worried Coppola had wandered out into the cold after he couldn't find a ride.
"For me, it was out of left field," Wilson said. "I just don't see how it could be so premeditated. I don't see how you could really plan all this. ... I just hope he's OK."
His family says Coppola may have been going through a spiritual awakening. Before he vanished, he had become engrossed by "The Celestine Prophecy," a New Age book detailing nine tenets for leading a fulfilling life. Their other theories are that he may have joined up with a traveling religious group or hooked up with fans of a Grateful Dead tribute band, The Schwag. They also heard he may have started taking hallucinogens.
Coppola also talked about going to California or New Mexico, his parents said, to start anew.
"He had something going on in his mind," father Gene Coppola said. "It's like he was just done with society."
"It was a move away from this life," said Coppola's mother, Nellie.
Despite the changes in his behavior, Coppola's parents said he has never vanished before and they continue to search for him.
"We're trying to believe in Nick, and Nick said he would call," Gene Coppola said.
The Coppola family is offering a $3,000 reward for information about Nick's whereabouts. Anyone with information can call the Foristell police department at 636-463-2123.
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