His front door was unlocked and his television was on, but 18-year-old Joe Pichler was nowhere to be seen. On January 5, 2006, his brother AJ had called at Pichler’s apartment only to find that the teenager had seemingly vanished. Pichler’s concerned family reported him missing several days later. But today, the case remains unsolved.
Joe Pichler had been a successful child actor, starring in numerous television shows, commercials and movies. He’d had parts in Varsity Blues, The Fan, A Stranger in Paradise and When Good Ghouls Go Bad. But his most famous role may well have been as Brennan Newton in the third and fourth Beethoven comedies about a rascally Saint Bernard dog.
His high-flying acting career notwithstanding, in many respects Pichler appeared to be a down-to-earth teenager with regular interests. Like many kids his age he liked playing trading card games. He also kept a pet guinea pig and was fond of Mexican food, especially salsa and nachos.
Born on Valentine’s Day in 1987, the fourth of five children, Pichler was a precocious child. He expressed an interest in acting when he was just four, after seeing the Oscars on TV. A year later he snagged a part in a commercial. His family subsequently relocated from Bremerton, Washington, to Los Angeles and he started landing bigger roles after that.
“[Pichler] had such a charm,” Jesse Plemons told People magazine in May 2009. Plemons, who played Todd Alquist in Breaking Bad and appeared alongside Pichler in Children on Their Birthdays, was a close pal. “He knew the names of everyone on the crew, took time to get to know them, and he was everyone’s friend,” Plemons said.
Despite his promising career, Pichler left Los Angeles and returned to his hometown of Bremerton in 2002, in order to complete his high school education. According to his mother Kathy, Joseph was “heartbroken” about the move. But both she and her husband John agreed to let him to return to California once he’d graduated.
In the end, despite his initial reservations about going back to Bremerton, Pichler appeared to adapt just fine. He fitted in well at Bremerton High School, where he worked as a DJ for the school’s radio station and organized media projects with friends. “Every single time you were around him, you were laughing,” his friend Stephanie Paulus told People. “He was always being silly, creating talent shows and dance moves.”
Pichler graduated in 2005 and immediately started planning his return to Los Angeles. In fact, he was set on resuming his acting career, but ultimately chose to remain in Bremerton an extra year until his braces could be removed. He appeared to be biding his time.
Shortly after his 18th birthday, his trust fund released a large sum of money, which enabled Pichler to rent his own apartment. Then, a couple of months before he vanished, he started working as a telephone technician for Teletech. But it wasn’t long before something very strange happened.
On January 5, 2006, Pichler spent the evening at a friend’s house, drinking beer and playing cards. Early the next morning he left in his silver Toyota Corolla, apparently to make his way home. “He seemed fine,” Nicole Tyrpak, who had been at the party, told People. “Everything was good.”
But later that day, Pichler’s mom Kathy became concerned when he did not pick up his phone. “It wasn’t like Joe not to check in with us every day,” she told People. So she sent his brother AJ to check on him. And that’s when AJ found Pichler’s apartment empty, with the door unlocked and the TV on.
Concerned, AJ roved the streets of Bremerton, searching for his brother’s car. And on January 9, 2006, he found the vehicle, abandoned behind a Mexican restaurant called Taqueria Los Cazadores. Apart from Pichler’s wallet and car keys – which he may have been carrying in his pocket – all his belongings, including his cell phone, had been left untouched inside the vehicle.
“There was no trace evidence in the car,” Detective Robert Davis told People. “There is no indication of foul play, murder or suicide. It is like he walked away and just disappeared.” In fact, today, despite years of searching, no one is any closer to unraveling the mystery of what happened to Joe Pichler.
Despite a lack of concrete proof, police did wonder whether Pichler had taken his own life. In fact, there is some evidence to support that theory. For example, a letter was found in which Pichler wrote of his wish to have been a “stronger brother.” He also expressed a desire to leave his belongings to his younger sibling.
Furthermore, on the morning he disappeared, Pichler had called a friend shortly after 4:00 a.m. According to the friend, Pichler was in a distressed state, crying and claiming that he could not stop drinking. Pichler subsequently told the friend that he would contact them again in an hour. However, that call never materialized.
Pichler’s family, however, dispute the claim that he committed suicide. For one thing, his remorseful letter was not exactly a suicide note. What’s more, search dogs were unable to locate his scent on the bridge from which he was suspected of jumping. Instead, Kathy Pichler claims that local police botched the investigation.
“His case was handled SO poorly by police and most of the evidence was lost,” Kathy wrote in a statement published on a missing persons website in 2012. “Their mistakes were because local police didn’t know the correct procedures for missing children/persons.”
Kathy went on to acknowledge that “local law enforcement has learned to handle these cases much better.” Meanwhile, in the years following her son’s disappearance, she has been trying to raise public awareness of what she describes as a national epidemic of missing persons. These efforts, it seems, provide her with some solace.
“Through education and prevention, there is hope,” she wrote. “I keep looking for purpose in my son’s disappearance. The only way I’ve found anything positive about my loss is when I help others live this nightmare. I do understand the suffering of other parents. Now I try to work for a better future so that others aren’t forced to wear these shoes.”
Joe would be around 31 now. He’s 6 feet 2 inches tall with light brown hair and hazel/green eyes. Joe has a distinctive red Star Wars tattoo on the inside of his right forearm and a scar on the bridge of his nose. Anyone with any information concerning his whereabouts should contact Bremerton police department on 360-308-5400.