Forty years later, a Laurel resident’s disappearance remains unsolved
By Kevin Leonard
Baltimore Sun Media|
Jan 23, 2020 | 5:00 AM
Patrick Clifford was a fighter. He never gave up. A high achiever all through his years at Laurel High School, he was a member of the football and wrestling teams, sports editor of the school newspaper The Tatler and inducted into the National Honor Society.
He took special pride in being part of the last class to graduate from the old high school on Montgomery Street. In an article he wrote for the News Leader about his 10-year reunion in 1975, he said, “The class of 1965 holds a very important place in the history of Laurel High.”
After graduation, Clifford’s world began to fall apart. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord for which there is no cure.
Throughout his days, Clifford would continue to fight for a normal life, a path that took him on a solo vacation from which he would never return.
His disappearance is a mystery that 40 years later his family still is trying to solve.
Initially, Clifford had mild symptoms of MS, so he joined the Marines after high school. Soon, though, the Marines realized his limitations and discharged him, according to family friend Jack Goette. Not to be dissuaded from serving his country, Clifford then joined the Army and was assigned to the Army Security Agency, where his mild symptoms were not a hindrance, at least not at first.
He was sent to Vietnam, near Da Nang, with the Army Security Agency. One of his friends in Vietnam, fellow Laurel resident James Welsh, told the News Leader in 1980 that Clifford “didn’t want you to feel sorry for him because of his problem.”
Common symptoms of MS are tremors, lack of coordination and slurred speech. With his physical condition steadily going downhill, the Army discharged him after three years in May 1969.
He enrolled at Boston University, but while there, he was attacked on the subway, stabbed and robbed. He survived and returned home to recuperate. Goette and Clifford’s brother, Terry, went to Boston to bring him home. Upon his return, Clifford found his apartment in Laurel ransacked during his absence. He didn’t give up, though, and returned to Boston and earned a degree in journalism.
Returning to Laurel, he found employment difficult to find with his symptoms now advanced. He was a part-time sportswriter for the News Leader and did some freelance writing. He also became a docent for the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology in Washington, D.C., for four years until his MS made that work impossible.
He moved to the Dona Apartments, a convenient location behind the Laurel Shopping Center.
He “walked five miles a day to maintain his coordination,” according to the News Leader in 1980, but even that presented problems. While out walking, he was picked up a handful of times by police, who suspected he was drunk. He told Goette, “I’m not walking on Route 1 anymore,” since that was where he was regularly detained. His neighbors described him as “courteous and nice” and “pleasant.” One neighbor said they always checked on him if they didn’t see him outside walking.
Without a trace
In 1980, Clifford booked a trip on a cruise ship, despite his family’s apprehension that he would be traveling alone. He flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and boarded the Sitmar cruise ship Fairwind bound for the Bahamas.
In interviews, both Goette and Clifford’s sister-in-law Cindy (brother Terry Clifford died in 2013) recalled that Patrick wrote letters and postcards to family members while on the cruise saying he was having a great time. But Goette also remembered one letter in which Patrick described being hassled by two men who thought Clifford was taking their photo. Also, Terry told the News Leader in 1980 that on one of Patrick’s cards, “he wrote he couldn’t trust anyone. Maybe he had been confronted on ship before.”
On May 9, 1980 — the last night of the cruise — Clifford took his assigned seat at dinner and proudly showed his shipmates a necklace he bought for his mother. According to the News Leader, he “couldn’t wait to get home” and give it to her. After dinner, he accompanied two middle-aged women, who had become fond of him because he reminded them of their sons, to a floor show. When it ended, he said he was heading back to his cabin. Clifford then vanished without a trace.
The next day, Terry Clifford and Goette went to BWI Airport to pick up Clifford, who was supposed to have flown back from Fort Lauderdale. All they found were Clifford’s bags circling in the luggage carousel and no sign of him.
Terry Clifford went to Laurel Police to report his brother missing. The police contacted the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, which dismissed the report as “just another missing person.” After days of unresponsiveness from Florida, Terry Clifford hired Laurel lawyer C. Philip Nichols Jr. to investigate. Nichols, who went on to become chief judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit of Maryland, was in private practice at the time.
Nichols launched an investigation on numerous fronts. His initial request to the FBI to investigate went nowhere, until he enlisted the help of U.S. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. (Clifford’s parents had relocated from Laurel to West Virginia years before.) With Byrd’s prompting, the FBI, Department of State and Department of Justice all promised investigations. Nichols also contacted the Republic of Liberia, under whose flag the cruise ship sailed, as well as Sitmar, the cruise line that owned the ship. Both opened investigations.
Lastly, Nichols hired John Rhoads, a recently retired private investigator from the Prince George’s County Police Department. In an interview, Rhoads revealed that he could take on the job and save Terry Clifford some money because he had just been hired for another private investigation that would take him to South Florida. A wildlife preserve wanted him to inspect a female lion and her two cubs to ensure they were healthy before the preserve would buy them. He admitted to me that he knew nothing about lions, so he took a crash course in lion health before heading south.
For the Clifford investigation, Rhoads visited local morgues for any unidentified bodies and interviewed local police and some of the officers that were onboard the Fairwind.
Patrick’s overnight bag, which passengers use during their trip home since all their other luggage is checked, was found in his stateroom a month after docking. It was overlooked because the Fairwind went into dry dock for maintenance immediately after Clifford’s cruise. Rhoads also found out that, unlike when the passengers board at the beginning of the cruise, there was no passenger count made when departing, so Clifford’s absence would not be noticed.
Clifford never passed through customs or checked in with the airline to take him to BWI. Like all the other passengers, he apparently left his luggage outside his stateroom to be deposited on the dock the next morning. Rhoads thought one of the many friends Clifford had made during the cruise checked his bags for him to help, although it was never proven. Clearly, Clifford never left the ship with the other passengers.
While waiting for answers from authorities, the Clifford family tried to make sense of it all. Did he fall overboard?
“The cruise ship people told me it’s almost impossible to fall overboard,” Nichols told the News Leader in 1980.
Did he commit suicide, as hinted by authorities in Florida?
Goette and Cindy Clifford, his sister-in-law, agreed that Clifford was never despondent, despite the limitations of living with MS.
Was he the victim of foul play? In addition to his body, Clifford’s camera and the gift necklace were never found.
In September 1980, the Liberian government released its conclusions to the Clifford family in a report based on an investigation. (In a recent interview Nichols could not recall any other investigations undertaken by any U.S. Government agency, despite promises to do so.)
The report concluded that it was unlikely Clifford fell overboard, since the decks “are well protected by high bulwarks and rails against such accidental contingency.”
While admitting that Clifford never left the ship after it docked in Fort Lauderdale, the report went to great pains to dispel any thought that Clifford was the victim of foul play.
“Had any attempt been made to relieve Mr. Clifford of his valuables, possibly the gold necklace, and at disposing of his person through violence, it would have doubtlessly been noticed by the passengers and crew who were still frequenting the public spaces and decks.”
However, it stated, “It is conceivable that Mr. Clifford may have become the victim of a robbery assault on the inside of the vessel,” and that his body could have been concealed and then disposed of later at sea.
In summary, the Liberian government found no conclusive reason for Clifford’s disappearance from the cruise ship Fairwind.
“This is a most unique occurrence, and in fact, the first disappearance on record of any passenger on board a Liberian passenger ship.”
Goette recalled Clifford’s mother saying before she died that “the biggest regret in my life was not knowing what happened to my son.”
Karen Yengich, who covered the story for the News Leader in 1980, told me recently that it was one that stayed with her all these years.
“Because of Patrick Clifford’s story, I have never gone on a cruise,” Yengich said.