By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
"Have you seen or heard from David?" the caller asked.
Mrs. Provost had talked to David, her 20-year-old grandson, just a few days before. The last she knew, David, a sailor, was on the USNS Bold stationed in San Diego.
"David's on the boat," she said. "Who is this?"
The caller was from the Bold. David had gone to Tijuana the night of Aug. 21, he said, and never returned.
Today, almost two months later, the young man Mrs. Provost had raised since he was a little boy is still missing. Police in San Diego and Tijuana have suggested that David left of his own free will. But Mrs. Provost, a 66-year-old retiree, doesn't believe that. She is afraid something far worse has happened.
She has sent her husband and son-in-law to the morgues, hospitals and jails of Tijuana. No luck. All she has are a few ominous pieces of evidence:
-- A bank statement showing that $1,300 was withdrawn from David's ATM account in a series of rapid transactions in Tijuana;
-- His driver's license, mysteriously mailed to Mrs. Provost;
-- A receipt with David's name forged on it from a cheap hotel in Tijuana.
Each day, Mrs. Provost sits at the dining room table of her comfortable home in Lutz, drinking coffee, smoking Marlboro Lights and waiting for the phone to ring.
"I can't describe the feeling of having your kid out there," she said. "You don't know where he is, you don't know what happened."
* * *
These days, Mrs. Provost talks about David and his dreams to anyone who will listen.
The San Diego police. The U.S. Border Patrol. Tijuana police. The Mexican Consulate, the U.S. State Department and the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis.
She hired a friend, Codye Jumping Wolf, to investigate. He sent handwritten letters about David to everyone from President Bush to the TV show America's Most Wanted.
She is doing most of the work herself because she is legally and emotionally David's mother.
David was born in Tampa to Mrs. Provost's daughter. His biological parents were never married. He went to live with his grandparents when he was a boy because he and his stepfather didn't get along. His grandparents adopted him.
After David dropped out of high school, Mrs. Provost homeschooled him. He decided to attend a Merchant Marine school in Maryland.
But his passion was Costa Rica. He had visited the country with a friend when he was 15 and loved it so much he returned a half-dozen times. He taught himself Spanish.
One day, he hoped he to buy land there.
"Don't ever let anybody steal your dream," Mrs. Provost would tell David when they discussed his plans.
At first, she hoped that David left the ship to trek from Mexico to Costa Rica. Since he disappeared, she has called her grandson's friends who live there, but they haven't heard from him, either.
She keeps calling.
"You don't know what to do, but you call everybody," Mrs. Provost said. "Nobody gives a damn. It's like you're just treading water and going no place."
* * *
On June 27, David flew from Jacksonville to Norfolk, Va., where he boarded the USNS Bold.
David called home in July, and again around Aug. 1. He also called Aug. 15, from San Diego. David told her all about his voyage, about how great it was to sail through the Panama Canal.
He mentioned that he wasn't happy on the ship. "Nan, there's something going on on the boat that I don't like," he told her. She didn't pry. Instead, she listened, and gave him her new phone number because she had a new line installed.
The Bold holds both military personnel and civilians. The ship performs surveillance duties, but its mission is highly classified.
Officials won't discuss David's job. He had government clearance to work on the ship, Mrs. Provost said.
On Aug. 23, Mrs. Provost got the call that David was missing. It was from Dean Sykes, the ship's spokesman and port agent.
According to a San Diego police report, David went to Tijuana on Aug. 21 with the ship's cook. But when he wanted to go down Avenida Revolucion -- known for its bars, strip clubs and aggressive hustlers -- the cook returned to the ship.
The report conflicted with what Mrs. Provost had heard.
The ship's captain told her that David went to Tijuana alone, and when David didn't return, he sent another sailor to look for him.
Mrs. Provost said that David has never disappeared before. He might drink a few beers, she said, but he doesn't do drugs. He had a drug test before he left.
"This whole scenario is very bizarre," said Kathy Bolen, the investigator in charge of David's case for the San Diego Police Department. "We have absolutely no indication that he was kidnapped."
Missing persons reports out of Tijuana aren't rare, said Bolen, but most people are found in hospitals or jails. Since 1998, three people have disappeared in Tijuana, Bolen said. One was a drug dealer who was later found murdered. Another was a 50-year-old man who frequented strip clubs who has never been found.
The third is David Provost.
According to Bolen, the ship's captain said that David wanted to leave the ship for good.
But if that's the case, Mrs. Provost wonders, how is David supporting himself? And why hasn't he called?
Bank records show that $1,300 was withdrawn from Tijuana ATMs, a hotel and a bar between 10:07 p.m. Aug. 21 and 7:18 a.m. Aug. 23. After the card was used three times in a 24-hour period to query account balance information, an ATM retained the card.
When Mrs. Provost found out that David was missing, she froze his bank account.
* * *
Five days after David was reported missing, David's grandfather Ron Provost and his uncle, Ray Daoud, flew to Los Angeles. They rented a car and drove to San Diego. They walked across the border.
They hired a taxi driver to translate and drive them around. Daoud knew where they had to go first.
"To the morgue," Daoud said.
He looked through cadaver records, and then looked at the bodies in the cooler. No David. Morgue employees would have remembered a white man with blue eyes.
The morgue was cleaner than the filthy jails and run-down hospitals they visited next, Daoud said. There, the story was the same. No David.
The police were helpful, but only to a point. One detective refused to give his name.
Their biggest break came when they visited the Hotel Libertad, where a $35.24 charge was posted to David's check card on Aug. 23.
After sweet-talking the hotel owner into letting him search through handwritten hotel records, Daoud found David's credit card slip. It was signed, simply, "David," and a hotel clerk who was working Aug. 23 claimed David had paid for one night of lodging for a man named Juan Marquez.
Daoud was suspicious of her story. It didn't look like David's signature.
He asked the clerk to write the word "David," on a slip of paper.
Her handwriting looked exactly the same as what was on the charge slip.
There seemed to be nowhere else to look. Daoud and Mr. Provost flew home.
* * *
Back in Florida, bizarre things began to happen.
Mrs. Provost got a call on her new phone line -- to the new number she had given to David weeks earlier. It was a woman with a Spanish accent.
"David? David?" the woman said.
"Who is this?" Mrs. Provost asked, frantically. The woman hung up.
Mrs. Provost got a second call, this one from a Spanish-speaking man. Mrs. Provost doesn't speak Spanish. "No policia," is all she understood. He hung up.
Neither call could be traced.
Then one day, Mrs. Provost received a small white envelope in the mail addressed to Daivid Ronnal Provost, his first name misspelled.
The postmark said San Diego. There was no return address.
She tore it open. Inside was David's Florida driver's license. No note, no card, nothing else.
"There's no words to describe what I felt," she said.
The San Diego postmark made her wonder whether David had ever made it to Mexico. Maybe he was robbed in San Diego. Could the male caller have been demanding ransom?
The possibilities haunt her.
* * *
Mrs. Provost used to read mysteries.
She would buy three or four paperbacks at a time and consume them in a reading binge. There is a 3-foot stack of books in her office: A Body of Evidence. Deep Cover. Missing Pieces.
The books have been moved from the bookcase to the floor to make room for some of David's belongings the ship sent back: muscle magazines, a bottle of vitamins, a few Latin music CDs.
She is living her own mystery now.
Worst of all, she feels she has nearly exhausted all possibilities, checked out every clue. There's not much left to do.
So Mrs. Provost waits. For calls, news, anything.
She waits at the mailbox each afternoon, hoping the carrier will deliver another clue, hoping that another piece of David's life will arrive.
"I'm hoping for something," she said. "I don't even know what I'm hoping for."
-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at 226-3373 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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