They called it an “emergency” U.N. Security Council meeting but no one had any idea it would lead to a real crisis. Jesse Ross was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Missouri-Kansas City when he arrived in Chicago on Nov. 18, 2006, for a four-day American Model United Nations (AMUN) event. The first three days were a blur of committee meetings, speeches and sightseeing. On what was supposed to be his final night in Chicago, Jesse attended the AMUN dance with some of his friends.
Alcohol wasn’t permitted at the event, but, according to students who were there, Jesse and some of his fellow delegates from colleges around the country were partying and drinking before and after the dance. At 1 a.m., Jesse and about 50 of the more than 1,400 students in attendance were called into the emergency Security Council session that was to last through the night. It was a “historical” session from the year 1990 and the delegates were debating how to respond to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Attendees later testified that Jesse, who was part of a delegation representing the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), didn’t appear to be impaired and wasn’t acting strange. According to hotel surveillance footage, he walked out of the ballroom in the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, where the meeting was held, during a break sometime between 2 and 2.30 a.m. and vanished.
Nearly seven years later, Jesse’s parents, Don and Donna, both 65 and retired, are still trying to figure out what happened to their son. His body has never been recovered and neither the Chicago Police Department nor the cadre of private detectives the family has hired has been able to produce a suspect or even a credible clue as to what happened to him.
Did he leave the meeting and decide to walk back to his hotel, the Sheraton Four Points, about a half-mile away? If so, was he attacked? Or perhaps he was impaired and fell into the Chicago River, which is just steps away from the Sheraton Towers? Could he have died in the hotel? Perhaps another student delegate disposed of his body after a drug overdose or some other accident? Was he abducted? Is he still alive?
“The police told us he probably fell in the river,” said Don Ross, who worked for the Bell Telephone Company before retiring. “But we’ll never accept that. If he fell in the river, we want to know why. Did he fall? Was he pushed? Or did something else happen? We just don’t know.”
Jesse Ross had a lot to live for. He was a communications major who joined the Model U.N. because he had a keen interest in international affairs. Jesse was also passionate about music. He was a D.J. who liked to make his own mixes and he managed a rock band called A Dead Giveaway. At least one of the AMUN attendees said that he talked about going to a rave while in Chicago, though no one is certain if he followed through on the plan.
“He was a fun-loving kind of guy,” said Bryce Veazey, a friend who was also in the band. “I don’t think Jesse was depressed at all. He wasn’t shy — you were aware of his presence when he entered the room.”
His parents say that he was planning a trip to Costa Rica and had just been promoted from unpaid intern to paid morning host on the Kansas City radio station 95.7 FM “The Vibe” for a show called “Shorty and the Boyz.” A redhead with a pale complexion and freckles, he was nicknamed “Opie Cunningham,” inspired by the character Opie Taylor from “The Andy Griffith Show” and Richie Cunningham from “Happy Days,” both played by Ron Howard.
The station frequently featured “Where’s Opie Cunningham?” segments in which they’d send Jesse out to mystery locations somewhere in Kansas City and then invite listeners to guess where he was. No one had a clue that one day Jesse would truly disappear. He would also play pranks on people for the show, but friends and family members say they don’t think he had any enemies.
“He was kind of square. He went to Catholic schools and was probably what you’d call a social drinker,” recalled Chantal Savage, whose on-air nickname was “Shorty” when she worked at the same radio station with Jesse. “Was he a little gullible? Maybe. He was a little naïve and maybe a little sheltered. I do think he might go off with a stranger if they invited him somewhere. He was looking for excitement but maybe wasn’t worldly enough to go off and do something different on his own.”
Jesse lived in the basement of his parent’s home — “it was his little kingdom,” Don says — and there were plans to paint it the colors of his beloved University of Kansas Jayhawks and have all his friends sign the walls.
Don says that when he dropped his son off at the University of Missouri, where he would travel with a group that was heading to Chicago in a van on Nov. 18, 2006, Jesse was excited about going to Chicago. He had attended the AMUN event the previous year and couldn’t wait to return. Later that afternoon, he called Don from the road — he was somewhere near Joliet, Ill. — just to check in and tell him not to worry. The two talked about the movie “The Blues Brothers,” and Don had no idea it would be the last time he’d ever get to speak to his son.
“I told him to have fun and that was it,” Don recalled. “I thought I’d see him again in a few days. Maybe I should have talked to him longer. Maybe I should have stuck around after dropping him off. You just don’t know that you have to appreciate each other every single day.”
‘No One Wanted To Tell Us Anything’
On the third day of the gathering, the delegates had five free hours in the afternoon and Jesse brought a friend and fellow delegate named Megan to the Billy Goat Tavern, a place made famous by John Belushi in a comedy skit on the television program “Saturday Night Live.” Megan thought that the tavern was a little “dark and scary” but Jesse liked the place.
The details of what Jesse did the night he disappeared are murky. Based on interviews with conference participants and footage from security cameras, his parents know that he and other students were drinking and they know that he walked out of the ballroom during a break in the emergency session, between 2 and 2.30 a.m., and he went down an escalator toward the hotel’s lower level. The hotel has security cameras at all of its exits, save for the ones on the south side of the property.
None of the cameras showed Jesse exiting the hotel, but if he left via the south side, where there were no cameras, he would have exited onto an esplanade along the Chicago River. Could he have fallen in? Anything is possible, but given the fact that there is a four-foot-tall iron security barrier along the length of the pedestrian walkway, he would have had to have been horsing around or trying to climb over the barrier. It isn’t an area where a wayward pedestrian could simply slip and fall into the river.
The student delegates were staying at three different hotels, and Jesse and his roommate, Ralph Parker, were at the Sheraton Four Points, just over a half-mile northwest of the Sheraton Towers, where the conference was being held. If Jesse had decided to walk back to his hotel, he wouldn’t have crossed over the Chicago River, to the south, unless he was lost. Late on a Monday night in late November, the streets would have been very quiet, with just a few homeless people and an assortment of night owls out and about.
The Sheraton Towers is just east of Michigan Avenue, the city’s iconic “Magnificent Mile” strip of upscale shops, restaurants and hotels. There are a number of hotels and office buildings and a few bars, like the Grape Street Piano Bar and Timmy O’Tooles Pub. The short walk from the Sheraton Towers to the Sheraton Four Points, which is just west of the Magnificent Mile and around the corner from luxury retailers like Rolex and Cartier, would have taken Ross through the heart of Chicago, an area most consider safe, even in the middle of the night.
Ralph Parker, Jesse’s friend and roommate at the event, told investigators that he returned to their hotel room after the emergency session was complete, around 6 a.m., but didn’t notice that Jesse wasn’t in his bed because the room was dark and there were clothes and other items piled on the bed. When he woke up, several hours later, he contacted the AMUN organizers who may have initially believed that Jesse had simply stayed in another student’s room. When it was time for the group to return to Missouri and Jesse still hadn’t been found, the police were called, according to Jesse’s parents, around 4 p.m. on Tue., Nov. 21.
Chicago police detectives found no unusual clues in his hotel room or in a search of Jesse’s personal computer. No one attempted to use any of his credit cards and his cell phone went dead shortly after he disappeared with no unusual calls made before or after. Jesse’s parents say that the other students who were there that night were reluctant to talk to them or to police after their son disappeared. Initially, they chalked this up to them being traumatized, but as the years have gone by, they wonder if perhaps someone knows something that they haven’t divulged about Jesse’s disappearance.
“No one wanted to tell us anything,” said Don Ross. “We did start to wonder if someone was trying to cover something up.”
Don said that a few of the students told them that the university asked them not to talk to them or to police. He said he felt that the school was afraid of a lawsuit (the family has not filed any lawsuits in connection with their son’s disappearance) and mentioned that they wouldn’t even accept a donation for a memorial scholarship fund they wanted to set up in Jesse’s name.
“It seemed like they didn’t want any direct connection with us,” he said.
John Martellaro, the director of media relations for the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), denied that any representative from the university discouraged students from speaking to either police or the Ross family. In a statement, he wrote, “We provided Chicago police with a full list of all students who were on the trip, and … we have done everything we can to assist the family and the police in investigating and publicizing the case.”
Martellaro said that the UMKC Model U.N. team was accompanied on the trip by an adjunct faculty member who served as the advisor to the team.
“The role of a faculty advisor for an organization like Model U.N. is a teaching role, not a rules-enforcement role,” he said. “Students at UMKC are advised of the University of Missouri System Standard of Conduct and are required to follow those standards or face penalties. Ultimately, students are responsible for their own behavior.”
Ralph Parker died in 2010 in an alcohol-related accident in which he lost control of his car in a late-night crash. The Rosses say that some of the other students who were there that night have refused to speak with them or their private investigator. Jesse’s friend, Megan, who was there that night, did not respond to an interview request.
Bryce Veazey and some of Jesse’s other friends find it odd that some of the students who were there have been reluctant to come forward and make themselves available to the Ross family.
“To me, it’s always been a little suspicious that they didn’t want to talk to anyone,” said Veazey, now an independent video producer in Blue Springs, Mo. “These are the people who should be talking about it. Even if they think they didn’t see anything, they need to come forward because you never know what clues they could provide that could help.”
Resurrecting a Cold Case
On a muggy, overcast Tuesday morning in August, the Chicago Police Department’s 19th District office at the intersection of Belmont and Western Avenues is a hive of activity. The phones are buzzing, a middle-age African American man wearing a primitive-looking eye patch with a nasty-looking wound on his arm is here to report a crime, and a boy who must be 11 or 12 is curled up asleep on the floor in the corner of the lobby, with his sweatshirt serving as a blanket.
Detective Mike Roth has been a Chicago cop for 19 years, and he became a detective in 2006, the year Jesse went missing. Stocky, with receding red hair and an Irish complexion, he’s wearing a crisp white button-down shirt and a narrow tie. We walk past his open workstation, by a slew of other detectives, and into a nondescript office with bare white cinder block walls, discarded office equipment, cleaning supplies and some ugly green office chairs from the 1970s. Next to the desk, there are filing cabinets with stacks of papers and a few children’s books on top of them. Roth takes a seat next to a filing cabinet with the handwritten words, “Jesse Ross File HM 733282,” written on a white scrap of paper.
“There isn’t the smallest shred of evidence to indicate that he was the victim of a crime,” Roth says when I ask if there are any suspects in the case.
Roth, who was asked to take on the cold case about a year ago, says that after Jesse disappeared, the police department’s marine unit did an extensive underwater search in the river but found nothing. He refused to speculate on whether Jesse fell or was pushed into the river, but maintains that nothing can be ruled out.
“The river is a nasty environment,” he says, propping his feet up on the side of his desk. “There are cars in there, debris, branches, you name it. It used to be a dumping ground. It’s dark and murky and there are all kinds of chemicals. Some bodies come up to the surface within a day, but others come up months later — there is no rule.”
The marine unit recently acquired some new underwater sonar equipment that is more sensitive than what was used in the investigation back in 2006, so Roth ordered them to comb through the river again a few weeks ago, but nothing turned up. He concedes that some of the students, perhaps including Jesse, were drinking on the night that he disappeared but maintains that the Chicago Police Department has received good cooperation from UMKC and the students who were at the AMUN event.
“No one has refused to talk to us,” he says.
I ask if he thinks that underage students would be willing to tell a cop about possible drug or alcohol use, and he insists that he and his colleagues know how to set people at ease. He says that the kind of kids who go to Model U.N. events are “straight arrows” and doesn’t believe that Jesse decided to disappear.
“His kite was going up,” he says, reclining in his green office chair. “He was a bright young man who had a great future ahead of him. Nineteen years old and he already had a paid job lined up at a radio station? A lot of kids would love to have an opportunity like that.”
I ask about the possibility that Jesse was abducted and he says it can’t be ruled out but reminds me that the overwhelming majority of abduction cases involve women. Roth says it’s an active investigation, one of just two cold cases he is responsible for, and he wants the public and Jesse’s parents to know that he hasn’t given up on the case.
“I have two kids myself,” he says. “I would want answers too if one of my children disappeared. We want to solve these cases, but people lose sight of the fact that we are human just like everyone else.”
Dashed Hopes, Unanswered Questions
The Ross family continues to hold out hope that Jesse is alive but good news has been hard to come by. After a brief, 15-second appeal about Jesse’s disappearance aired on the television program “America’s Most Wanted” a couple years ago, a few leads trickled in. A trucker in Texas thought that he’d seen Jesse entering a vehicle; a couple in Florida who run a rehab center thought that Jesse had stayed with them; and another person thought they had purchased an item from him on Craigslist.
Each lead gave the family a glimmer of hope but none led them any closer to finding Jesse. But Don and Donna Ross haven’t give up looking. Each November, around the date Jesse disappeared, they host an event called Opie Fest to raise awareness of missing persons, commemorate their son’s life, and to try to keep his case in the media spotlight.
Meanwhile, the AMUN event, which has been held in Chicago each year since 1990, goes on. Brian Endless, AMUN’s executive director, said that Jesse’s disappearance caused the organization to beef up their safety advice for delegates. AMUN still hosts the overnight “emergency” council meetings — Endless says there is no reason to believe that the event’s late hour contributed to Jesse’s disappearance — but they now “strongly encourage” colleges whose students will be taking part to book at least one room in the hotel where the event takes place to avoid the late-night commute.
Endless also stated that AMUN cannot police the student’s behavior because they are adults, and he noted that there have been no other serious security issues since the event started in 1990.
“Chicago is as safe as any major city in the country, and we believe it is still an appropriate venue for this event,” he said.
Jesse’s family members have found different ways to cope with the devastating loss. The Ross’s older son, Andy, 28, doesn’t like to talk about it. And even Don and Donna catch themselves occasionally referring to Jesse in the past tense. Donna said that the couple has found strength in their faith, but she still can’t understand how this could have happened to her son, whom she said was never in any kind of trouble.
“We thought we’d done everything right to keep our children safe,” she said. “The people who harm the missing, they have no clue what they put the families through. It’s a wound that never goes away.”
Don says that he wants to see the Chicago police devote more resources to solving his son’s disappearance.
“We don’t want cover-ups,” he said. “We want to know the truth about what happened to our son up in Chicago. We need the truth, even if it reflects poorly on Jesse. We just have to know.”
The Rosses have spent too many sleepless nights speculating on what could have happened to Jesse. The only possibility they’ve ruled out is the notion that he simply decided to run away.
“He had too much going on,” Don said. “Someone has intentionally interfered with his ability to come home. If he had decided to run off and live in Tahiti, someone would know about it. A cab driver. A person at the airport. Someone.”
Donna has also pondered all of the bleak possibilities and has no clue what to hope for.
“Jesse may have made a bad choice, or maybe not,” she said. “He might have simply crossed paths with evil. Was there an accident? Did he drink too much and hit his head somewhere? Maybe one of the kids put his body in a bag and they snuck him out? He could be alive and living anywhere in the world, or he could be dead in a ditch somewhere. We just don’t know.”
Don Ross said that the couple has decided to grasp onto the assumption that their son, who would now be 26, is still alive.
“We still hope that he’ll come home some day,” he said. “But if the reality is something different, if Jesse is beyond this world, then he’s also beyond all the hurt, the danger and the pain that exist in this world. So we can hold onto that.”
If you have any information about Jesse Ross, please contact Detective Mike Roth at:
Chicago Police Department
2452 W. Belmont Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618
Or contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (843-5678).
For more information, visit http://findjesseross.com.
About the Author
Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.