For loved ones and friends, searching, praying for sign of missing Michigan student
Brendan Santo joined the many others on Oct. 29 who flocked to East Lansing a day before the much-anticipated football game between Michigan State University and its rival, the University of Michigan.
He left Grand Valley State University on the state’s west side to stay with friends amid the weekend excitement. But long before kickoff, even as crowds coursed through campus on a Friday night, the 18-year-old from Rochester Hills vanished.
His disappearance has sparked searches; a multi-jurisdictional investigation including the FBI; an $11,000 reward for tips; more than $90,000 in donations to an online fundraiser aimed at aiding the efforts; and a pledge by MSU officials to immediately install more than 300 new security cameras.
Another wide-scale search was planned Sunday at the university, a day after hundreds gathered for a vigil at Rochester Adams High School, where Santo graduated.
As time passes, his friends, family and an army of strangers are ramping up their work to spread the word online and across the state, vowing to find him.
“We don’t know what happened to him. We don’t know where he is,” said his aunt, Dawn Brewer. “We just need that one person with that one lead to help the police go in the right direction to bring Brendan home.”
Brewer launched a Facebook group dedicated to the cause soon after Santo was reported missing and has been consumed with tasks she never imagined: rallying volunteers, helping coordinate search routes, ensuring posters displaying her nephew’s picture are distributed across the region.
His face has appeared on billboards and even a scoreboard, Brewer said. Meanwhile, supporters have routinely shared the case on social media or canvassed part of MSU’s nearly 5,300-acre campus.
The weekend after Santo’s last known appearance, hundreds picked up flyers at the student union and then ventured out to search.
Among them was Jerry Shiroda, who works with the teen’s father, and his wife. The couple donned safety vests to seek clues in a field, brush, even a dumpster.
“In situations like this, you feel so helpless,” he said.
Soon after hearing about the missing teen, Jennifer Alter, whose son played hockey with Santo on the Rochester United varsity team, corralled his teammates and drove more than 80 miles to MSU to search.
“It’s just hard not finding him,” she said. “You just never think it’s going to happen to your community.”
The searches started within a day after Santo left Yakeley Hall, on the northern edge of campus near Michigan Avenue, where police say the teen was last spotted walking away shortly before midnight.
He had driven his truck to campus and planned to stay with friends in the complex of residence halls known as the Brody neighborhood, a nearly 15-minute walk west, Brewer said.
Wearing a black baseball cap, black T-shirt, gray sweatpants and white Converse high-tops, Santo wore a gold cross necklace and had an iPhone in hand.
Investigators learned the device had zero power, Brewer said, and was last pinpointed on Beal Street, south of Yakeley Hall.
Any hope that that security footage at the entrance to Yakeley Hall was dashed this week.
“While we do not disclose the precise number or their locations for security reasons, I have learned our camera at the entrance of Yakeley Hall was not operational the night Brendan was last seen,” said MSU President Samuel Stanley in a statement Friday. “We are fixing that.”
Santo failed to meet with his friends; they later checked his vehicle, which remained where he left it, and alerted MSU police, Brewer said.
The student's bank card has been unused since that night, his aunt said. Investigators have not recovered Santo's phone and through extensive data reviews found it showed no activity.
Along with the MSP and federal partners, investigators have partnered with East Lansing and Grand Valley State police departments, Ingham County Sheriff’s Office, Michigan Department of Attorney General and Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.
Authorities have combed the campus on foot, by helicopter, drone, a boat and using canine units and divers, representatives said.
The probe has turned to the Red Cedar River, which snakes through campus and near the dorm where Santo was last seen.
The waterway “continues to be of particular interest, however, we continue to explore other possibilities,” said Inspector Chris Rozman, the MSU Police and Public Safety public information officer. “…Our genuine hope is that with these additional resources and collaboration, we will ensure that all investigative avenues are being explored and the work that we have already done can be reviewed by other professional agencies for collective investigative practices.”
In his message Friday, Stanley noted investigators do not believe foul play was involved.
“We remain hopeful as we do with all of these cases, while at the same time acknowledging that he has been missing for almost two weeks now,” Rozman said. “It’s important that when we do our jobs we always carry a level of hope and not make any assumptions. We are doing everything we can to find Brendan.”
Santo’s relatives insist he did not intend to harm himself and was excited about his future.
The longtime hockey and lacrosse player was in his first semester at GVSU. He had talked about parlaying his love of technology into a career in cybersecurity, Brewer said.
His personality loomed over the vigil Saturday at Rochester Adams High.
Santo was “a joy to be around” and a supportive teammate, said Isaac King, 16, a sophomore at Rochester Adams. “We’re just praying that we can find him or anything. It’s just a bummer that he’s a gone. Everyone loved him and we need him back.”
“Our hearts have been breaking for Brendan, and for his family, and for all of you that knew him so well and loved him,” said Steve Andrews, a founding pastor of Kensington Church at the vigil, the Associated Press reported.
Shane Arbour, a member of the school hockey team, sought help from St. Anthony of Padua, who in the Catholic faith is invoked when people or important things are lost, the AP reported.
Arbour also added some humor, noting that Santo was “the only guy in the locker room who consistently had the worst-smelling gear” when he was on the team. The crowd laughed.
The event was another way to offer support, said organizer Amy King, another parent of a Santo classmate.
“It’s affected the community in a huge way,” she said. “It’s hard for anybody to wait for answers, and the not knowing is hard.”
While it’s possible Santo has died, “there are so many different scenarios in play,” said Sarah Krebs, president of the nonprofit Missing in Michigan who formerly led the state police’s missing and unidentified unit.
“There’s no way to really know until we get more evidence. That’s going to be in the form of a tip or a sighting or some digital evidence we haven’t found yet.”
Authorities initially offered a $5,000 reward to those with credible tips leading to Santo. This week, the award Crime Stoppers of Mid-Michigan managed through the MSU Police tip line climbed to $11,000.
A GoFundMe fundraiser launched this week to help the family and volunteers quickly exceeded its $91,000 goal.
Though no solid leads have materialized, Santo’s loved one push on in their quest for answers.
"We want to know what happened and we want to know where he's at," Brewer said. "There is no giving up."
Kellee Steimel, whose son is a former classmate and attends MSU, has traveled from Oakland County more than once to pass out posters and scour the campus for any clues. Santo “is a great kid,” she said, and shouldn’t be forgotten.
“Everyone wants closure to this,” Steimel said. “Usually people don’t vanish like this. It’s scary.”
Anyone with information on the case can call (844) 99-MSUPD or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Crime Stoppers of Mid-Michigan also accepts tips at (517) 483-STOP.