The disappearance of Jonathan Spollen

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Jonathan Spollen on Hong Kong harbour

In early 2012, Irish journalist Jonathan Spollen was visiting India - and then he vanished. In a series of interviews in the build-up to the anniversary of his disappearance, his friends and family have given their take on a case that has become no less mysterious over time.

"Some people say to me: 'Would it not be easier if you had closure?'" Lynda Spollen says. "But closure is my most hated word in the dictionary."

"Closure" is a way for people to ask her indirectly if she should move on, whether she should now give up hope of finding her son Jonathan.

His last known conversation was on the phone with Lynda on 3 February 2012. She was in Dublin; he was travelling in northern India.

They spoke for just under six minutes; not long, given the fact they could at times happily chat by phone for more than two hours.

Jonathan told his mum he had changed his mind about travelling to Delhi. He would instead remain in Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, to go on a short trek.

He was reported missing on this date five years ago.

Jonathan's life

Image source, Lynda Spollen
Image caption,
Jonathan (left) with his cousins Will and Liz, who would later lead the search for him in India

In school, Jonathan Spollen was a natural joker, perhaps compensating for his being shorter than most of those around him.

But much to Lynda's surprise, he later turned into, they both acknowledged, "a bit of a nerd" - one who went on to take an interest in politics and Middle East affairs.

When he went missing, aged 28, he had not had much of a break since school. From a politics degree in Dublin, he went on to a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies in London, before moving to work as a journalist in Cairo, Abu Dhabi (where I worked with him), then Hong Kong.

It was only natural, perhaps, that he became a journalist - his curiosity towards the world was reflected in his writing, and his affability meant he had no problem getting people to talk to him.

In 2010, in an article written after a visit to Indian-administered Kashmir, he expressed his fear he was idealising the simple life he had witnessed there. "The whole experience, in fact, was as confounding to my world view as it was enjoyable," he wrote, "producing in me each day a lovely sort of confusion."

Image source, Lynda Spollen
Image caption,
Jonathan aged two with his father David and mother Lynda
Image source, Lynda Spollen
Image caption,
Jonathan (L) with friends Robbie (C) and Jack Laffan (R), who both flew to India soon after he disappeared

When people speak about Jonathan - people who knew him at different points in his life - they all mention his compassion.

As a child growing up in Ranelagh, a middle-class suburb in the south of Dublin, he was especially caring towards his dying grandmother: as she hallucinated mice running along her curtains, he understood what he had to do, and carefully removed the invisible mice before putting them in a bin.

While in Beirut airport in his mid-20s, he saw a Filipina maid being scolded by officials for bringing along too much luggage, so he paid her $300 fine on the spot.

Later, when he had moved to Hong Kong, he encountered a woman sleeping on a park bench and in distress having lost her identity papers. Jonathan offered her his room without hesitation.

Image caption,
Jonathan in Hong Kong in 2011

Jonathan and Hong Kong were not a great fit, and he left his job as a copy editor there late in 2011.

As he travelled first to Nepal, then on a journey through India, he was contemplating what he would do next.

"This was very much a time for him to decide whether he was going to continue in print journalism or go into documentaries," Lynda says. "Time to reassess things and make a plan."

By early February 2012, having been in the country a little more than two months, Jonathan's Indian visa was a few weeks from ending, and he was based in Rishikesh, a few hours north of Delhi.

The fact that he disappeared here, of all places, may not have been pure chance.

'It was as if he just walked away'

Image source, Ankit Srinivas
Image caption,
Rishikesh sells itself as the yoga capital of the world - and Westerners are among the biggest customers

In early December 2011, Jonathan arrived in Rishikesh, a small, laid-back city of about 100,000 people surrounded by lush forests in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.

He was not alone - the state attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year, a third of whom come from abroad. Rishikesh, which pitches itself as the yoga capital of the world, is its most-visited city and is dotted with hundreds of yoga studios and ashrams.

Its most famous visitors were The Beatles, in 1968, when they came to learn transcendental meditation under the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi. The group's month in the city was one of the most creative periods in their history - while there, they wrote songs that later featured on The White Album and Abbey Road.

Whether Jonathan was interested in a spiritual journey at this point in his life is one of the biggest questions at the centre of his case.

Lynda is sure he was not going down this path; the subject never came up in their long conversations. Yes, Jonathan was interested in comparing different philosophies. Yes, he had once had a passing interest in Buddhism. But he had not expressed an interest to his mother in pursuing this journey in India, had not sought a guru, and had not been meditating, despite her encouraging him to do so.

In their last conversation on 3 February 2012, he had told his mother he would be away on a short trek for a few weeks, one he wanted to do alone. "I want to do it on my own, kind of a spiritual thing," he said, in a manner Lynda describes as lighthearted.

About 35 minutes after they spoke, she texted him:

She never heard from him again.

When Jonathan failed to contact Lynda within two and a half weeks, she knew something was wrong. He was reported missing on 27 February, and those close to Jonathan began to mobilise. Among those to travel to India were his father David, who separated from Lynda when Jonathan was a few months old, Lynda's brother Eugene, cousins Will and Liz and assorted friends.

On 11 March, police, led by detective Kundan Negi, discovered some of Jonathan's belongings. They were found in a woodland clearing a short walk from a small waterfall not far from Lakshman Jhula, a suspension bridge just outside Rishikesh.

Media caption,

Policeman Kundan Negi explains where Jonathan's belongings were found

A bag - not thought to be the main one he was carrying - appeared untouched, with his passport and money still inside. Nearby, Jonathan's sleeping bag was tidily laid out, with a book on top. Everything was wet, suggesting they may have been there more than just a few days.

It all looked, in Lynda's words, "as if he had just got up and left them there and walked away".

In the following days, some scrunched-up cards and papers, including his health card and Hong Kong travel pass, were found on a narrow trail a kilometre way.

The discarded items appeared to point to one conclusion: Jonathan was doing what some spiritual tourists do in Rishikesh, deliberately shedding his possessions and his past life and renouncing who he was so he could follow a new path.

Lynda seriously doubts the theory that her son was renouncing his past life. "Knowing Jonathan, he would have had to be true to himself," she says. "He would have done something wholeheartedly by throwing his passport away. Not doing that, for him, would have been fake."

He would, too, have insisted on communicating his thoughts had he been pursuing this path, Lynda says. The family learned what drives people who renounce by interviewing guests at ashrams in Rishikesh.

"One thing that comes across strongly is that you need to make peace with your family," Lynda says. "That needs to be righted before you can go forward. Your family need to know where you are. There is no way he would just go off and not tell me, not contact me."

Media caption,

Members of the Parmath Niketan ashram in Rishikesh explain what the procedure is for renouncing one's life.

On one hand, photocopies of articles on spiritual matters found in Jonathan's bag indicate this was something he was considering. But Lynda and others close to Jonathan say this fits his personality: he was interested in the world, in different experiences at the same time.

One friend, Richard Pretorius, with whom he worked in Abu Dhabi and who joined the search, said his first instinct was that Jonathan had moved into an ashram.

"He was always seeking, learning, trying to be more human," Richard says. In one of Jonathan's last emails to Richard, on 27 December, he said "the blinkers have really been removed on this trip".

"The poverty here is astonishing and so much about the place is just an absolute mess," he wrote. Jonathan had been so moved by what he had seen in India, he had spoken of working with a charity to help those in need, Lynda says.

Jonathan's cousin Liz McCauley, at the time a student in the Netherlands, was also part of the search team.

"As I gathered more and more information, the possibility he had maybe been seeking a spiritual journey, and the possibility that this was something he had chosen, started becoming more real," she says.

"Had he gone missing from any other city in the world, this whole spiritual journey wouldn't have come up. But you have to consider it."

Jonathan's uncle, Eugene Lane-Spollen, who also travelled to India, said: "One of the problems is that, in our culture, the concept of simply being so crass as to disappear and not make at least phone calls, is just close to unthinkable. But in their culture, it isn't.

"We met people who had done that. Many people, in their younger years, do it and re-emerge having gone through some sort of retreat, a disappearance."

While Rishikesh has a sleepy pace not in keeping with much of India, the police there told the BBC there were risks that were not always obvious.

"Rules are not very strict about regulating tourism at the moment," said one police officer who asked not to be named. "Many fake yoga centres end up registering themselves. A policy has to be made to check these fake yoga centres and gurus."

Not everyone in the city is who they appear to be, he added. "People also have to be careful about not approaching any man with a long beard. That can be very dangerous."

Hundreds of people are reported missing every year from Rishikesh and the neighbouring city, Haridwar, police said.

Image source, Ankit Srinivas
Image caption,
Jonathan disappeared in hilly terrain overlooking the Ganges river

As it is, the possibility of a spiritual journey was one of many things that had to be considered. Other leads sent the search in different directions.

Of concern was the fact an X-ray was found in Jonathan's bag, showing he had been suffering from kidney stones at one point - though they had probably passed by the time he disappeared. Oddly, given his closeness to his mum and how ill he had been, he had not mentioned his kidney stones to her. Had he perhaps received a wrong diagnosis, making him think he was more ill than he was?

There were also reports that Jonathan had fallen and had been seen limping heavily at one point. He had lost weight too, and appeared frail, according to people who had seen him in the weeks leading up to his disappearance. How much could be read into the fact that a map to a doctor's surgery - drawn by someone other than Jonathan - was found?

The high level of the Ganges river in Rishikesh at the time was also considered - Jonathan's family spent hours fruitlessly scrolling through a website that compiled snapshots of bodies fished from the river.

While Jonathan's family and friends worked to gather more information across northern India, the events there felt very familiar to another family thousands of miles away in Australia.

Ryan Chambers' story

Image source,
Image caption,
Ryan Chambers, right, with his friend and travel companion John Booker

Ryan Chambers had already spent two months in India when he arrived in Rishikesh in August 2005, and he was getting ready to fly home to his parents near Adelaide.

On 23 August, he was staying in an ashram in the city, but was restless all night. In the morning, the 21-year-old walked out of the building in only his shorts, leaving all his belongings behind.

Almost 12 years later, Ryan's parents Jock and Di still do not know what happened to their son.

Not long after Jock Chambers' third visit to Rishikesh, he got a call from a friend of Jonathan. The families then kept in contact; the Chambers' case offering a glimpse of how it feels to live with uncertainty for an even longer time. Lynda calls their ongoing efforts to find Ryan "a constant source of inspiration".

"You go from hoping that he is alive to, 'Hey, maybe we have wasted all this time and energy, and maybe he perished that night'," Jock Chambers said. "It's about keeping the right thoughts. You always have to think positively, but that's not always the case."

The theories persist - among them, the possibility that Lariam, an anti-malarial drug found in Ryan's bag that is known to have caused suicidal thoughts, may have played a part. "But at the end of the day," Jock says, "it doesn't find him. It's another piece of evidence that is out there." (There is no evidence Jonathan took Lariam during his India trip).

Image source, Ankit Srinivas
Image caption,
The wall of 'Missing' posters in Rishikesh's police station makes clear Jonathan and Ryan's disappearances are not rare

The Chambers family found their own way to deal with Ryan disappearing - Di told their two other sons it was crucial they carry on with their lives.

As for Lynda Spollen, she developed a particular coping mechanism that has allowed her to focus completely on getting her son back.

"I feel things will hit me once I acknowledge Jonathan is missing," she says. "The first thing that hit me was, 'He needs me now more than he has ever needed me in his whole life'. That was a very distinct sentence that came to me. As well as, 'I can't crack up now, I will do it when he comes home - and he can look after me'.

"There was Project Jonathan, and Jonathan the son. Project Jonathan became nearly like my mantra, and I lived for Project Jonathan for up to four years.

"There were little moments in those four years that were almost like a pressure cooker," Lynda says. "I thought of Jonathan the baby, and I would let off a little cry. I was just afraid that if I allowed the emotional side through, I wouldn't be able to do Project Jonathan. I couldn't risk that, and I still can't, to a degree.

"But I have had to cope, because the reality, in the past nine months or so, has started to kick in.

"I found Project Jonathan protected me. It's like those stories you hear of people in crisis climbing Everest and managing to get down the mountain with no pain. They can get to the bottom and realise they have got there with a broken leg, before collapsing. It's like adrenaline. And that lasted for me."

Later on, Project Jonathan would be put under particular pressure by a strange development - one that linked Jonathan and Ryan's cases.

'The oddest lead we had'

Image source, Ankit Srinivas

Posters seeking information on Jonathan's disappearance had been distributed across Rishikesh and the wider area, and his case was drawing a lot of attention on an online forum for travellers in India, IndiaMike.

Much of the information that made its way to Jonathan's family was vague - until one long message leaped out.

It was written by a man named Babu, who said he was a dentist originally from India but now living in Australia. He said he had met Jonathan on a bus in Chennai (Madras), some 2,400km to the south of Rishikesh.

Jonathan was well, Babu said, but was seeking a spiritual journey. He had been of great comfort to Babu on their journey, he added.

The email volunteered great detail about Jonathan and his story, and was the most promising lead yet to his family. Lynda changed her travel plans and arranged to fly to Chennai and meet Babu. The search team in Rishikesh prepared to divert there to launch a major advertising campaign: Babu had given them their most promising lead yet.

It was at this point that Liz McCauley, Jonathan's younger cousin, made an important discovery.

"We Googled his name and an email address that he had, and we didn't find anything," she says. But something had clicked for Liz, and she ventured back on to the website set up by Ryan Chambers' parents.

"We went through the guestbook there, and found a message from 'Babu', with the same email address saying, 'I met your son' - and we noticed it was basically the same story."

The mysterious 'Babu' was no more than a hoaxer.

"I rang Lynda and told her what we had found, which was devastating," Liz says. "This guy had just been so incredibly legit - this one was so convincing."

Image source,
Image caption,
The message left by 'Babu' on the website set up to find Ryan Chambers

"Had we not paid attention, we would have been spending a huge amount of money on advertising in an area that was irrelevant," Liz McCauley says.

"The practical implications would have been huge. It was hands-down the oddest lead we had, simply because of its believability."

Any hope that 'Babu' was for real was dispelled when a call was made to the hospital where he claimed to work. They didn't know him. The hoax was confirmed.

As for the Chambers family, they spoke to 'Babu' by phone for an hour, but he backed out of plans to meet them. Some time later, they travelled to Chennai, but with no real hope they would find Ryan there. Their trip took a surreal turn when police tried to convince them an Indian boy they had found was, in fact, Ryan.

Lynda Spollen did end up travelling to Chennai, and reported the strange email to police, in the hope it would prevent 'Babu' from repeating his trick with anyone else.

She and Liz, perhaps surprisingly, feel some sympathy for the hoaxer. "Maybe this is a guy who thinks he is just giving hope, a sense of comfort, by saying 'Your son is OK'," Liz says.

"Strangely, I took strength from my encounter with him," Lynda says. "It proved to me that this 'Project Jonathan' way of thinking that I had managed to adopt worked.

"I now know it was a traumatic stress response to the situation I found myself in - a type of survival strategy for me and, more importantly, my son."

The hoaxer did not respond when contacted by email by the BBC.

'Between hope and hopelessness'

Image source, Lynda Spollen
Image caption,
Lynda Spollen says she "might have to have a word" with her son if he returns

Since 2015, a year after leading a second major search for Jonathan, Kundan Negi has no longer been on the case. Despite that, he still puts up missing posters across the city, and he and his wife keep in contact with Lynda from thousands of miles away.

While a missing person's case inevitably shakes those closest to them, it is easy to forget how the authorities at the centre of the fruitless search can be affected.

"Initially I gave my own phone number on the poster and my phone wouldn't stop ringing," Kundan Negi says. "It was like swinging between hope and hopelessness every time my phone rang. People would spot any foreigner who resembled Jonathan and they would call me."

Those phone calls have now stopped.

"I know hope is fading with time, but I will not give up," Kundan Negi says. "I strongly feel that he is alive, and I will continue to believe in it until somebody tells me otherwise."

There are no immediate plans for any of Jonathan's family and friends to travel to India again any time soon. Instead, like in Ryan Chambers' case, all the gaps in the story will be filled by theories.

Lynda's best-case scenario is that her son has amnesia, was helped by somebody, and has started a new life, in which he is happy.

"There is absolutely nothing I would love better than to learn he had gone on a spiritual journey," she says. "That would be wonderful for lots of reasons. I might have to have a word with him, but it would be amazing for him as a person, and for all of us who would love him to be OK.

"But I just know that if he could contact me, he would. That's something I have never doubted, not for a minute."

Additional reporting and video by Vikas Pandey in Rishikesh

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