Sometimes I shake my head wondering: did this really happen?
I’ve waited for quite awhile to tell this story. It’s a rather sensitive matter, therefore, I will use almost all fictitious names to protect those involved. There are people in this story who were supportive, sympathetic, and brave and then there are the rest. I should start by saying that the entire matter was surreal for me. As I went through the motions and experienced it, I felt as though I was on the set of a movie shoot; none of it seemed real, and all of it bizarre. What I know for certain, is that it happened and it changed me.
Searching for a Needle in an Italian Haystack
It was an ordinary day at The International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York City when I received the call. At the time, I was School Director and Dean of Student Affairs. The year was the early 2000s. I had worked with others to create an Italian cooking training program in Italy. Students would start their training at ICC and then travel to Alma in Colorno, Italy for the final six weeks of their training. I had traveled to Colorno (by way of Milan) several times. Our relationship with the staff in Italy was solid and the student experience was exceptional. I was proud to be a part of a very unique cooking school experience. Most of the students were in the 20s and 30s; very mature and focused.
We did several rotations a year and enrollment was better than expected. I was the administrator-in-charge of the program; however, there were over ten faculty and staff members doing the real work of executing the experience. The cost of the complete course was close to $50,000 and because part of it was overseas, there were many moving parts. My father was born in Italy; in many ways, it felt as if I had come full-circle in my Italian heritage. While I worked with others to create the program, I learned a lot about regional Italian cooking, its rich history, and I got to try every dish taught. In addition, I was a proud judge during finals in Italy on several occasions.
Francesca (her real name) was my contact person at Alma. What we were about to experience created a bond and lifelong friendship born out of a terrifying situation. Francesca’s call about one of our students in Italy, continues to make me anxious all these years later. There are deeply felt emotions that are never lost and never leave us.
“Chris, I need to tell you something, but I don’t want you to worry too much.”
My body tensed and I stayed quiet and I listened.
“One of your ICA (at that time we called the program Italian Culinary Academy) students has disappeared.”
Francesca was not an alarmist and she took care of nearly any incident on the Alma campus, so I knew this was serious. Sal was gone for two days and no one had heard from him. His passport and toothbrush were still in his room and there appeared to be no foul play. Administrators at both schools agreed that he had probably met a girl and he was with her on a sun drenched beach. Sal’s friends and classmates didn’t believe that was the case and this caused great concern. Apparently, there were witnesses to an argument outside of a bar the night before he’d gone missing; in fact, the last time Sal was seen. The argument was between Sal and several locals. Some students speculated that the argument was over a Russian girl from the bar, but no one was certain. Francesca and I agreed that Sal’s parents should be informed. She was also going to call the Colorno carabinieri (local police).
I quickly booked a flight to Milan, packed a small bag, and headed for JFK. Alma had a car pick me up in Milan and I attempted to rest my eyes and calm my brain on the 2.5 hour drive to Colorno. It had been 16 hours since hearing from Francesca and by this time, I imagined all sorts of horrible scenarios. Growing up in Brooklyn during the 60s and 70s made me tough, street smart, and terribly jaded. Film and murder mysteries didn’t help.
Riccardo (head of the school) and Francesca met me at the school when I arrived. There was no news from Sal and everyone was thinking the worst. Sal’s parents were on their way from the States and Francesca was arranging their accommodations. Jet lag was helping make a bad situation untenable; my thoughts toggling between despair about what might have happened to Sal and dread concerning meeting his parents. A living nightmare and nowhere to hide.
Francesca drove me to the police station for a conversation regarding next steps. I sat with several carabinieri officers asking every question I could think of. Francesca was interpreting for me and I could tell she was exhausted and worried. The carabinieri would not confirm or deny a street argument or that there might have been a Russian girl involved.
After hours at the police station and talking with students, I headed for my hotel room to close my eyes. Francesca agreed to contact me with any news.
There was one particular bar not far from the school that was popular with the American students attending Alma. Colorno is a very small town and everyone knows everyone. There were rumors among the students a number of Russian woman were available for hire and that Sal might have owed money to one of the handlers of these woman. Administrators at Alma seemed genuinely surprised to hear that prostitution was taking place under their noses. My mind took me to dark place; imagining Sal buried six feet underground somewhere outside of Colorno.
Sal’s parents arrived the evening of my first day, however, they did not show up on campus until the following morning. By then, I had slept a few hours and I was more prepared to meet with them. Alma was very sympathetic to their anxiety and did everything possible to make them comfortable. Looking back, I was actually quite surprised by their calm and decorum. They too spent time with the local police. They also took several students close to Sal for lunch and tried to better understand where he might be.
At some point at the end of our first full day, we all met to discuss what we might do next — parents intentionally left out. Alma seemed reluctant to contact the press, for fear the school’s reputation might be harmed. I believe we were secretly hoping Sal would turn up on campus behaving as if he’d done nothing wrong.
As time passed, the street argument became more of a factor; all involved were called in and questioned by the police. The carabinieri were convinced that there was no there there. I started to feel as if there might be a cover-up and Sal’s parents were skeptical as well. Although his parents and I were in communication throughout the day during early days of the incident, I felt fairly distant from them; detached. They were understandably frustrated, tired, and concerned.
On the fourth day, none of us believed Sal would just reappear. If he had run away with a girl or decided to bail from the program, he would have taken his passport at the very least. We were all fairly certain foul play of some sort had taken place. The Italian state police were brought in after Alma’s administration began to feel as if the local police were not doing enough. Word got out to the press and just about every local and regional news outlet was covering the disappearance. When word got out that an American student was missing and there was speculation that the Russian mafia might have been involved, a search party was dispatched and the rivers and lakes in the area were dredged. I silently hoped Sal would call us to say that he’d see the reports of his disappearance and wanted to let us know that he was fine and that he was sorry for all of the trouble he’d caused. That didn’t happen, but all I had was hope.
I wasn’t sleeping very well and couldn’t help thinking that this would probably be the last class studying at Alma. One incident, completely unrelated to the cooking experience could threaten the viability of a program we worked on for two years. The pubic relations machine at both schools was working hard to highlight how positive the Alma experience was and that this was an unfortunate one-off situation. Sal’s parents were angry that the Italian police and government were not doing more to locate their son; we were mindful that they alone could potentially raise enough concern to shut us down.
His parents decided that a trip to the American Embassy in Milan might help get the Italian government to take this more seriously. I regretfully volunteered to drive them to the embassy. They sat together in the back seat; Sal’s father consoling his mother most of the way to Milan. Over two hours in a vehicle with someone crying hysterically is not easy for the person at the wheel. I didn’t say much for fear of saying the wrong thing. I tried my best to be supportive and reassuring. I didn’t think the people at the embassy would help, but it wasn’t my son who was missing.
When we got to the embassy it was a well-guarded fortress. I dropped them off as close as I could get to the entrance and parked the car. Just as I arrived they were being escorted in. The guards told me that only the parents would be allowed. I called for Sal’s father and he walked over and apologized. He knew that I would be staying in Milan that night and flying back to the States the next morning. It had been a full week since Sal had gone missing and there was nothing more I could do in Italy. Sal’s father agreed to call me if they needed anything and we said our goodbyes. I felt very sorry for Sal’s parents and I was exhausted.
I recall making a call to Gary, ICA’s president, that afternoon and becoming emotional on the phone. The fear of learning that a dead body was found was becoming more and more real. Gary, as always, was extremely supportive and grateful. He and the rest of the staff at ICC were hoping for the best. He asked me to remain calm and to get home safely. The administration at Alma was also very supportive and assured me that they would do everything possible to find Sal. I flew back to the States the next morning.
Time passed and still no word from Sal. His parents stayed in Italy for a couple of weeks and then returned home when hope of finding him had diminished. They became angry, resentful, and blamed both schools for gross negligence. They claimed that we had placed their son in an unsafe environment. Sal’s brother publicly posted a scathing letter, claiming the school was completely negligent. Threats of a lawsuit were being bandied about. The students in Italy had gone on with their studies hoping to complete the program. I had all but given up hope.
Graduation at Alma was scheduled a few weeks out; I knew it would be best for be to return and attend. When I arrived on campus, the students, whom I had stayed in contact with, greeted me warmly. They all assured me that the ICC was not to blame for Sal’s disappearance. We all wondered if this great mystery would ever be solved. I met with the local and state police for an update — there was none. Still much speculation that there was foul play, however, the guilty party or parties, had not revealed themselves. I returned to New York having lost quite a few pounds and feeling like I’d let a lot of people down.
Thanksgiving came and went. Each day brought less talk of Sal’s whereabouts. My emotions had gone from remorse to sadness to anger; acceptance was not within reach. Then, out of nowhere, shorty before Christmas, a call from Francesca in Italy, Sal had been located. He had joined the French Foreign Legion. Apparently, when you join, you leave behind the material world and those you once cared about; some join to escape their lives. Sal somehow managed to slip a note with his parents telephone Number to an Asian guy who was leaving the Legion and had agreed to make a call. It was the best Christmas gift of my life.
There are several takeaways from this life event that are forever etched in my brain. First, Sal’s family never apologized for their treatment of the two schools. They blamed us for Sal’s disappearance for months and when he turned up, not one of them came forward to acknowledge they were unfair and had hurt several good people. Lastly, when Sal left the French Foreign Legion he did not contact me to explain himself, apologize or thank me or the ICC for trying to find him. Oddly, I didn’t care. It bothered others at the school and it made several people in my life angry, but I had something far more important to me, I had peace-of-mind and Christmas that unfortunate year.
Disclaimer: This incident occurred over ten years ago, therefore, I cannot swear by every detail outlined in my accounting of the story. Due to the seriousness of the situation and my own personal involvement, I can only vouch for my own recollection of what took place.