Sherrill Britton, an associate vice president at Loyola Marymount University, laughs only once during our 45 minute phone conversation. “Adam used to wear a black ski cap and I hated it and made him wear a baseball cap when he left the house,” she says, referring to her 35 year-old son’s sartorial choices with loving disapproval. Her brief chuckle sounds fraught with exhaustion, though, as if even mirth requires effort now. It is late afternoon on a recent Monday and I assume she is in her office, but I don’t ask because for the past two and a half years she has had to reveal so much so often, I want to accord her whatever scrap of privacy is possible. Also, as Britton would be the first to agree, where she might be located is beside the point.
Britton last saw her youngest son, Adam Kellner, early November 2007 in the comfortable Stevenson Ranch, California house they shared with Britton’s second husband, Leonard, who died last year. The loss of one’s partner is, of course, searing, but Britton lives with a still deeper pain: Adam occupies the netherworld of the missing. Britton was away on an overnight business trip the evening of Wednesday the 7th when Adam offered his ailing stepfather assistance climbing the stairs before bed. Despite the schizophrenia with which Adam had lived since young adulthood, when it became clear his newly askew behavior was more than collegiate posturing, he remained warm toward his mother and stepfather, if remote from nearly everyone else. Which augments the mystery of what occurred next.
“It’s been a long, frustrating ride,” Britton says plaintively. “But we keep hope alive.” As a result of Adam’s illness and medications, he frequently slept past noon, so his stepfather had no reason to worry when he didn’t see him at breakfast Thursday morning, particularly as Adam hadn’t left the house for months. The call Britton received hours later remains indelibly etched: her husband couldn’t find Adam. For years, Britton had laid out Adam’s meds in a day-of-the-week dispenser. Thursday’s pills were gone and, unlikely as it seemed, so was her son.
“I still feel like I’m going to see him on the corner of our block,” Britton continues bewilderedly, as if the facts she’s relaying can’t be real, despite imbuing each facet of her life. “You think you’re going to find him. At first you think it will last a day, maybe two or three. You can’t believe it will go on this long.”
It was reasonable to conclude Adam would appear soon: an avid smoker who was self-conscious about his bald spot, his cigarettes and hats remained, as his did his keys and wallet. He was out of shape, receiving no exercise except climbing the home’s stairs, so it was hard to fathom he could get far. And, crucially, he was stable under the circumstances.
“At some point, you settle for stable,” Britton says. “He had a job years ago, but the stress of losing it caused a psychotic break. But he had been stable for quite some time. If you live with someone with schizophrenia for fifteen years, you can tell if he is having a psychotic episode. Adam wasn’t psychotic.”
Nor was he paranoid or violent. When he heard voices, Adam believed they were his girlfriends and, poignantly, found them comforting. “There’s so much misunderstanding about schizophrenia, but Adam is a sweet young man. He would take out the trash when my husband was ill. He always brought me a Mothers Day gift.”
Britton and her eldest son, Douglas, think the common fallacy that all schizophrenics are dangerous or out of control hindered the search for Adam from the start. Britton filed a missing person’s report with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and for awhile, police conscientiously searched. Unable to find evidence of a crime or foul play, however, they concluded Adam had run away or wandered off, though they discovered no proof of this, either.
Which begat an obstacle-strewn maze for Britton and her family. A local television station ran a segment on Adam’s disappearance and the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily News each ran short pieces, all of which led to scattered and nebulous reports that he had been spotted roughly 30 miles south on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
“I’m sure it was a ‘slow news day’ and that’s how we got coverage, but I was so grateful, so appreciative someone cared,” Britton says. “Douglas and I went to the L.A. missions and handed out fliers with Adam’s photo and information. A security guard said he’d seen him. A homeless couple who essentially adopted us called to say Adam had been picked up by cops. Someone else said he was spotted getting on a bus and asking directions to Santa Clarita, the valley in which our home in Stevenson Ranch is located. But Santa Clarita is a bedroom community. A new face might stand out on Skid Row, but Adam would have been disheveled by then and definitely would have stood out in Santa Clarita.” Each report turned out to be false and Britton doesn’t believe Adam was ever sighted.
“People wanted to help us and felt for us and I think that colored their perceptions. We had people tell us they wished their families would look for them. One woman, who was probably a prostitute was quite kind and said she knew everyone’s faces but she hadn’t seen him. There’s a humanity on Skid Row,” she says and pauses. “It’s scary when you’re driving through but it’s different when you’re walking around.”
Since those early weeks, Britton has hired a private investigator, faxed fliers to hospitals and morgues within a 90 mile radius, given Adam’s dental records and DNA samples to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, and filed reports with the National Center for Missing Adults and the California Department of Justice Missing and Unidentified Missing Person’s Unit. Her home’s proximity to I-5 spurred her to place an ad in a trucker magazine and to contact the 18 Wheel Project, a coalition of truckers who help search for missing individuals. “I’m a very private person, or I was before this. I had to allow people in and I’ve been grateful for their help,” she says.
But Britton’s anguish is palpable, particularly as she describes begging the Sheriff’s Office to search the dense wilderness near her house and trying to procure a helicopter company to do the same, each to no avail.
She recently donated her deceased husband’s clothes to one of the L.A. shelters that helped in her family’s search, explaining, “When you’re doing nothing, you’re giving up. And we don’t give up. But Adam’s clothes and shoes remain in his closet. I haven’t even been able to move his half-pack of cigarettes and lighter from his spot in the garage.”
Then her voice cracks. “When I was at Loyola’s baccalaureate mass recently, the priest asked everyone to reach out to put their hand on a family member. Some people had seven hands on them. I started crying because I had no one.”
The accompanying video contains the television report and additional information regarding Adam Kellner. Please join Sherrill Britton and Douglas Kellner’s Facebook group, Help Us Find Adam Kellner.