Man who disappeared in '79 and resurfaced in '93 is talk of the town

February 23, 1993|By Gary A. Warner | Gary A. Warner,Orange County Register

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- In all the years he lived in Coffeen, Ill., Gary Elliott didn't make much of a ripple -- a shy young family man with a big, toothy grin whose only passion was for quiet games of chess.

But today Mr. Elliott is the talk of Coffeen. Fourteen years after he disappeared, leaving his wife, Maxine, alone to raise their seven children, Mr. Elliott has resurfaced in Orange County, Calif., with a new identity, a new fiancee -- and in jail.

"People in the town are very angry about Gary -- how could he do this to Maxine?" said the Rev. Mike McClanahan of the New Life Assembly church in Coffeen.

Mr. Elliott is being held at Orange County Jail on charges that he committed perjury in obtaining documents under his new identity, Clifford Leighton, the name of a 2-year-old Simi Valley, Calif., boy who died in 1953.

Mr. Elliott's past in Illinois came to light earlier this month when he was found on a roadside in Hemet, Calif., an apparent mugging victim.

At first he feigned amnesia, Orange County sheriff's deputies said, but Mr. Elliott admitted his dual identities after he was shown records from Illinois and confronted by his brother, Wayne. Asked why he did it, Mr. Elliott said: "I don't know; I'll have to think about it."

People in Coffeen are thinking about it, too.

"Everybody's talking about Gary," said Glen Crocks, who runs the Phillips 66 gas station in Coffeen. "A lot of people knew him. Quiet guy who kept to himself. Everybody thought he'd been murdered. But I had my doubts."

But Mr. Crocks conceded he was in the minority. Mr. Elliott didn't seem like the type to cook up such a scheme. He lived in a small house with his wife, who like clockwork every other year gave birth to another child.

Mr. Elliott worked for Central Illinois Public Service Co. Outside of his job, he had few interests, except for his family. It was only in the year or so before his disappearance that he developed a sudden penchant for chess. A quick learner, he was soon winning games against co-workers and then in small tournaments.

It was on a trip to one such tournament on July 1, 1979, that Mr. Elliott disappeared. He was last seen winning a $32.50 prize at a two-day competition at St. Louis University.

Later that night police found his pickup truck near the Gateway Arch, an area near the Mississippi River well known for its high crime rate. The driver-side window was broken, and there was blood on the door. Inside, police found the keys still in the ignition, Mr. Elliott's empty wallet and a chess board.

A search proved fruitless. The Mississippi River was dragged for bodies. Five were found -- none Mr. Elliott's.

Back in Coffeen, Maxine Elliott struggled to keep her life together. Mr. Elliott's employer gave her a job, and local residents rallied to her side. Two local banks set up special funds for the family. Local churches and community groups weighed in with emotional support.

For the next 10 years, Mr. Elliott's family had to struggle with uncertainty and legal hassles. The family had two automobiles, both in Mr. Elliot's name, which could not be sold until he was declared legally dead in 1989. The ruling freed an $85,000 life-insurance policy that made the family comfortable again. Though the memories of Mr. Elliott faded, Mrs. Elliott never remarried.

"It was hard, very hard on her," Mr. McClanahan said. "But her faith and her children saw her through. She had really put it all behind her and rebuilt her life. Now all this."

Mr. McClanahan said the Elliott

family plans on visiting California soon to see Mr. Elliott.

"They're glad he's not dead, but obviously they are very hurt by what he has done," Mr. McClanahan said. "Obviously, they have a lot of questions."

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