‘A tear in the social fabric’— Beloved son, friend still missing
- Published: April 18, 2019
Anyone who spends much time in downtown Yellow Springs knows Lonya Clark, called Leo by many of his friends. A once daily presence in the coffee shops and streets of town, the young man is known for greeting most everyone with a smile and friendly nod.
But despite his growing up here, most people know only small pieces of who he is, how he spends his time and where he goes. And nobody seems to know where he’s been for close to three months now.
Clark, 26, hasn’t been seen or heard from since mid-January. Some people reportedly think they saw him near the library on the afternoon of Jan. 15, but police and his family put the last verifiable contact on the evening of Jan. 13.
Various theories and speculation about Clark’s disappearance have led nowhere, and while there may be someone who knows what happened, that person has yet to come forward. His family and friends just want to know he’s okay.
“It eats me alive not knowing what’s going on,” close friend Anna Burke said in a recent interview.
At 5´6˝ and 120 pounds, Clark’s slight figure and sweet face make him look even younger than his age. He never seemed to light in one spot very long, and was often seen traveling from one place to another — riding a bike, carrying a skateboard, or most often simply walking. In all kinds of weather, all through the day and into the night.
“He would always walk laps around town,” said Burke, who thinks of Clark “like a little brother.”
She said anxiety may have led to his frequent movement, but the effect was like “a guardian, like he was keeping tabs on everyone.”
His circulation around town also gave villagers the opportunity to check in on him.
According to his family, Clark, who has been effectively homeless since graduating from Yellow Springs High School in 2011, has mental health issues that make keeping a job and an apartment difficult.
Many people are aware that Clark has “troubles,” as Burke calls them, though his exact diagnoses are not public knowledge.
People in town provided a wide network of support — feeding him, giving him places to sleep, offering work and odd jobs, or simply lending a sympathetic ear.
Conversely, Clark is known for his kindness, generosity and desire to please. He would give away anything he owned if he thought someone else wanted or needed it, Burke said.
With his disappearance, “there’s a tear in the social fabric of our community,” Yellow Springs Mayor Pam Conine said in a recent interview. Conine has known Clark since he was a child and was one of his teachers in middle school.
Like others in town in the mid-’90s, Conine remembers when Clark’s father, Eric Clark, adopted him from a Russian orphanage when Lonya was a pre-schooler.
“We were so happy for Eric,” Conine said, “because we knew how much he wanted to be a father.”
The name Lonya is a nickname for Clark’s given name, Leonid.
Eric Clark, who was single at the time of his son’s adoption, recently compiled some memories of the experience.
“Many adoption agencies did not allow single parents, and especially single men, to adopt,” he recalled, so he often attended adoption seminars in the company of Jackie Stauffer, a good friend, whom he eventually married 10 years ago.
“Somewhere in the process we found Children’s Adoption Network in New Jersey,” Eric wrote. “They had a solid track record of successful adoptions from Russia.”
Eric first saw photos and a video of Lonya with other children when the boy was three.
He was told that after Lonya’s birth, on Nov. 16, 1992 in Chelyabinsk, the infant had to stay several months in the hospital. During that time, his birth mother died in her unheated apartment building, and “his biological father was unwilling to accept any responsibility for his upbringing,” Eric said. As a result, Lonya was placed in an orphanage.
At four, Lonya had still not been adopted, and was due to go to a group home, where conditions were worse than the orphanage, Eric learned.
Eric set out to become Lonya’s family.
The adoption was burdened by bureaucracy and red tape, and the trip to Russia — which Eric made with his mother, Dorothy Clark — was arduous and filled with uncertainty. Landing back in the U.S. weeks later with his legal son was a relief and a joy.
Upon his return to Yellow Springs, Eric, then owner of Yellow Springs Travel agency, said he had planned to take six weeks off work to settle in as a family with Lonya.
During walks downtown, however, Lonya spotted the Children’s Center, and its playground. “He was happy anytime he could find a playground,” the father recalled. Lonya started asking to attend the center, so after two weeks, Eric agreed.
“He was so happy.”
Childhood in Yellow Springs
Because of Eric’s job, he had frequent opportunities to travel, so during Lonya’s younger years, they traveled a lot: “cruises, beach vacations, time share journeys, trips to visit friends in other states.”
Also, in those early years, “it became clear that his ADHD was kicking in,” Eric recalled.
“Although making new friends was easy for him, he had a hard time maintaining positive relationships,” Eric said.
Other adults who knew Lonya as a child remember that he had difficulty paying attention and sitting still. He would try to get attention with behaviors that had the effect of antagonizing or provoking other children, such has poking or teasing.
At the same time, he wanted to please others and be liked, and he struggled to learn how to have positive interactions.
He had a strong desire “to belong,” his father said.
Lonya started school at the independent Antioch School, but after two years there for kindergarten and first grade, his father felt he needed more structure, and transferred him to Mills Lawn beginning in second grade.
About the same time, Eric left the travel agency business and bought the Springs Motel at the south edge of town, and the two moved in there.
Also as an elementary school student, Lonya started attending Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church.
He appeared a couple of years in the role of Adam in the annual Christmastime Medieval Play at the church.
Church member Theresa Mayer remembers him coming by himself for Sunday School class, for which she was one of several rotating teachers.
“I think he walked over from his grandmother’s house [nearby] while his father was working.”
Mayer remembers Lonya’s trouble sitting still, but said he was a wonderful kid when given opportunities to move and read aloud.
“A lot of kids didn’t like to read, but he loved it,” she said recently. And she found his independent desire to come to Sunday School extraordinary.
“I fell in love with him,” she said.
Lonya’s desire to please and belong took some negative forms in middle school and high school.
In a recent interview, his father recounted how at 13, Lonya accepted a playground challenge to drink a pint of vodka. Further experimentation and use of alcohol and drugs, primarily marijuana, followed, Eric said.
“Sometimes this would have him before a judge, and before long he was on probation,” according to his father. During this time, and all through Lonya’s growing up years, Eric sought counseling and therapy for him. He said some was helpful, and some was not.
Some teachers also championed him.
“The first thing I think of when I think of Lonya is his smile,” Pam Conine, a retired intervention specialist who had Lonya in her middle school math class, recalled.
“He was the only student I knew who smiled all the way through division and decimals,” she said.
Lonya was smart, but he had a hard time with math. Conine said she realized that Lonya’s smile also revealed whenever he was anxious, nervous or unsure of himself. Some adults mistook the smile as a dismissive gesture.
“But he wasn’t being a wise guy,” she said.
“He was anxious to please,” she added. “Not only his teachers, but also his peers. … When I think back to the times Lonya would get in trouble, as all kids do, it would be related to trying to impress a buddy.”
Lonya struggled to stay out of trouble during his high school years, with behavior issues leading to a transfer to the Greene County Career Center and back, and then for a time to a behavioral treatment center in Beavercreek, according to his father.
Nevertheless, former Principal John Gudgel, who retired the year before Lonya graduated and is now a guidance counselor at Mills Lawn, has positive memories.
“Lonya as a student and to this day has always been a caring person, and his DNA is such that he doesn’t want to disappoint others,” Gudgel wrote in an email in response to a request for comment.
“His penchant for offering a friendly hello or similar gesture when greeting someone is what typifies his sense of community,” Gudgel added.
“His unassuming nature and not imposing his will on others also stood out to me while he was a student at YSHS/MMS.”
Lonya was 16 when Eric and Jackie married, and within a couple of years he had a little sister and brother.
Shortly before the marriage, his beloved grandmother, who was a prominent presence in his life since going to Russia for his adoption, died. The change in his family structure and the loss of his grandmother “added more stress to his life,” his father said.
At the same time, Jackie recently recalled, “he was excited” when his sister was born “and tried to follow house rules,” which included “no drugs, drinking or smoking around home.”
That attitude changed, however, when he turned 18 in November of his senior year, his parents said.
“He said, ‘[Now that I’m 18,] I can do anything I want,” Eric said.
They said he stopped following the house rules; and with a toddler in the house and a baby on the way, they felt he needed to live elsewhere unless he changed his behavior.
Lonya stayed with friends for a time, and with the help of the school, completed his senior year and graduated with his class.
His parents kept a bed for him, and they continue to store some of his clothes and belongings at their East Davis Street home. They said they’ve also helped him secure and set up a couple of apartments over the years, but he abandoned them.
Eric said he also offered Lonya the job of managing the motel, which would have provided a salary and housing, but Lonya turned it down. Eric has since sold the business.
Lonya became “a professional couch surfer,” according to his father.
He’s taken a variety of jobs over the years, working at the now-closed Williams restaurant, the Winds Cafe, Tom’s Market and a KFC in Xenia. He also did odd jobs around town, including work for Realtor Shelly Blackman and landlord Bob Baldwin.
“He was a delightful young man,” Baldwin said recently. “He was a good worker.”
Baldwin said he hired Clark to “rake leaves, take trash to the landfill, clean graffiti off buildings, load trucks,” whatever needed doing at Baldwin’s various properties.
“He’s got to be one the strongest people in Yellow Springs,” proportionate to his body size, Baldwin said.
Baldwin’s only trouble with Clark was in follow through.
“He had difficulty showing up as agreed upon,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin also felt that Clark hadn’t always been treated fairly by police.
Problems with the law began with charges of underage drinking, and eventually included OVI. The offenses were nonviolent, but the fees mounted, and the legal issues “became a Catch-22,” according to Eric Clark.
Lonya was on probation in May 2016, when then Yellow Springs Officer John Whittemore stopped him as he was walking on the sidewalk near Mills Park Hotel. The officer claimed Clark looked “agitated,” and when Clark didn’t comply with his order to stop, he physically restrained the young man, wrestled him to the ground, and eventually took him to the county jail in Xenia on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Whittemore was soon let go for this and another incident where the community felt he displayed excessive force, but Clark remained in jail for a month based on his probationary status.
His former Sunday School teacher Theresa Mayer was so outraged she wrote a letter to the judge in the case, and she eventually paid his bail and court costs.
She said Lonya offered to pay her back, but she wasn’t interested. She’s hired him a few times to clean out her garden, and she takes him to lunch occasionally to catch up on his life.
She said he gives her a big hug whenever they see each other downtown, and that’s the best repayment for her, especially in light that as a boy, he was so “touch adverse” that hugs were a painful experience.
Eric Clark said his son seemed to go through cycles of stability.
“He would go a couple of years and be okay,” Clark said.
But the cycle seemed to be quickening in recent years.
Amidst a trip in 2017 to visit a friend living in Colorado, fellow Yellow Springs graduate Dan Collett, Clark got off the bus in Missouri and apparently had a mental health episode that landed him in jail there.
Family and friends have said that bouts of anxiety and paranoia had become more pronounced over the last couple of years. They believe that such an episode led him to throw a rock at a window in the ambulance bay at a hospital there. He was charged with attempted breaking and entering.
While family, friends and community members were already expressing concern about his disappearance in January, it was his failure to appear in court in early February on the Missouri charge that led local police to put him on the national missing person’s registry.
The court there also put out a warrant for his failure to show, which means that any interaction with police anywhere in the country will alert local authorities to his location, according to Yellow Springs Police Chief Brian Carlson.
While some friends have said on social media that he seemed in a pretty good state of mind this past fall, others saw him becoming increasingly agitated.
After the incident with Whittemore three years ago, local police have worked at building a more supportive relationship with Lonya, Chief Carlson said in a recent phone interview.
Officers and the department’s social worker Florence Randolph have helped him find places to stay and given him rides, sometimes giving him cash out of their own pockets, Carlson noted.
The family said that Carlson assisted last fall in getting Lonya into a mental health facility in Kettering when he seemed to be in crisis. He stayed there a week, and seemed better when he left.
But he didn’t continue taking the prescribed medication, his parents said.
His mental state was further stressed in the aftermath of the accidental self-inflicted shooting death of Ken Livingston on Dec. 13. While Clark wasn’t at the party in which Livingston died, he was apparently on the scene during some of the cleanup.
His parents said he remained affected by the tragedy, which preceded his disappearance by a month.
One of the first people, if not the first, to raise the alert that Clark might be missing was his friend Dan Collett, who posted a general query on a Yellow Springs social media discussion page, asking if anyone had seen Lonya recently.
Anna Burke said it wasn’t unusual for Clark to seem to disappear for a few days. But as soon as one friend raised the question about his whereabouts, another would respond with an answer.
This time there was no answer. The last known contact was a text to a friend at about 8:30 p.m. Jan. 13.
He had an appointment to do some work for Shelly Blackman the next morning, but didn’t show.
Friends and family scoured all his known haunts, and put up fliers. They contacted hospitals and jails.
Eric Clark sent private messages to all 98 of Lonya/Leo’s friends on Facebook, getting replies from 95. Nobody had information about his whereabouts to share.
They’ve also posted information with every online resource they can find, and recently implemented a $3,000 reward for information.
At the family’s request, the local police conducted a two-day search of Glen Helen Nature Preserve, assisted by Buckeye Search and Rescue Dogs. Several weeks later, they searched a section of John Bryan State Park.
Carlson said police have followed up on leads in Xenia and Kettering.
The Clarks have expressed frustration in the police response, which they think could be more aggressive.
Carlson said he feels for the family.
“They just want to find their son.”
Carlson said that searching for a missing adult has certain restrictions.
“According to the FBI, if an adult person wants to go off grid, they can.”
The FBI’s National Crime Information Center lists 634,908 people were reported missing in 2015, the year of the most recent statistics. Of those, the large majority, 442,442 were younger than 21 years old.
The question regarding Lonya is whether his disappearance was intentional, or whether he is a victim.
“We have no indication of foul play in anyway,” Carlson said.
For Lonya’s family and friends, the fact of his extended absence indicates a strong possibility of foul play.
“He always contacts somebody,” Eric said.
What’s more, on the weekend of last contact, Yellow Springs had four inches of snow.
“Did he find a way on that snowy day to hitch a ride?” mused his father. “With no money in his pockets, no ID and no jacket?”
“All his jackets are here,” Jackie added.
As time goes by, “it’s harder to come up with a good scenario,” Eric said.
“If somebody knows something, and they’re not saying anything, they’re not doing him any favors.”
Regardless of his mental and legal issues, “he’s still a great kid,” Jackie said. “Nobody deserves not to be found.”
Anyone with information about Lonya’s disappearance should call local police at 767-7206.