Nearly a year after the 26-year-old disappeared from Union Cafe, friends, family and police search for answers in his mysterious death

I.

Joey LaBute wasn't the type to barhop. He was a homebody, content to play videogames and watch “Sleeping Beauty” or episodes of “Game of Thrones.” He liked to knit scarves. But on Friday, March 4 of last year, he ditched his Gahanna apartment for a night on the town at Union Cafe in the Short North.

His cousin Stacey Reigle and her then-husband Kyle Reigle, along with some other family and friends, were going to be at the Union to celebrate Kyle, who had recently come out as gay. Just a couple days earlier, on Wednesday, Stacey and Kyle hosted LaBute at their house to tell him Kyle's news. Stacey made dinner, and they played Monopoly till late in the evening.

“We said, ‘Hey, we're going to the Union. You should come,'” Stacey said. “He said, ‘I don't know. I might be busy on Friday.' He was totally kidding. His idea of being busy was watching Netflix on the couch.”

On Friday, LaBute, 26, met some co-workers for pizza at Fabian's in the Short North, then made his way to the Union, where Stacey, Kyle and others met him sometime after 9 p.m. The place was packed. Union Cafe is a popular nightlife spot any weekend, but the first weekend in March also coincides with the Arnold Sports Festival, which brings 18,000 athletes and around 100,000 out-of-town spectators to Columbus each year. Many of the Arnold events take place at the Greater Columbus Convention Center and the Hilton Columbus Downtown, both of which are about a 15-minute walk down High Street from the Union.

“We didn't know a bunch of other people. We stayed in our little corner,” Kyle said. LaBute, on the other hand, mingled, flitting from table to table amid Union's dark-wood interior, neon-lit bar top and rows of TVs playing music videos. He ordered a gin and tonic, and, later, while getting a raspberry vodka with Sprite for Stacey, he got the same for himself. Like a lot of people, LaBute tended to be more social after a couple of drinks. It was a side of him that his family didn't often get to see.

Friends and acquaintances chatted and danced with LaBute as the night went on. Justin Mertz, one of LaBute's best friends since sixth grade, tended bar that night and noticed LaBute, but the two weren't on speaking terms because of what Mertz termed a “stupid and petty” argument that had come to a head a couple of weeks prior.

Sometime after midnight, Stacey wasn't feeling well and wanted to leave. She and Kyle had lost track of LaBute in the crowded bar, so they texted him and called him, trying to let him know they were leaving. He didn't respond.

They hoped LaBute had decided to stay the night at the apartment of a friend who lived nearby, but they never saw him again. A few weeks later, on March 29, LaBute's partially submerged body was found in the Scioto River near the Scioto Audubon Metro Park, just south of Downtown.

Nearly a year after LaBute's disappearance, no arrests have been made in what police have labeled the “suspicious death” of Joey LaBute Jr. While online conspiracy theorists post about serial killers and attempt to connect LaBute's death to still-missing Columbus man Brian Shaffer, police have offered few details in what they say is an active, ongoing investigation.

Meanwhile, LaBute's friends and family are left with a nagging, haunting question: What happened to Joey?

II.

Seated at a breakfast joint near some shopping outlets in Jeffersonville last fall, Joey's father, Joe LaBute Sr., wears two green wrist bands. One reads, “Bring Joey home,” and the other, “Justice for Joey.”

“He was never any trouble,” LaBute Sr. said, describing his son, who was born in Cincinnati on June 16, 1989. Even as an infant, Joey was quiet and reserved. “He never fussed as a baby,” LaBute Sr. said. “When he was sick, you didn't know it unless you touched him and felt he was warm.”

At age 5, Joey moved with his family to Central Ohio and attended Granby Elementary in Worthington. In 1998, when Joey was 9, his mother died of breast cancer.

“It seemed like he took it in stride,” LaBute Sr. said. “He handled it better than I did, I think. I'm not really sure why or how. He was just always like that. He was so even-keeled. It seemed like he never got upset. … I can remember maybe three times or four that I ever got upset with him.”

In sixth grade, Joey met Justin Mertz. “From day one he was basically my brother. We instantly clicked,” Mertz said. “We spent the summer as friends, talking about Pokemon and ‘Sailor Moon.'”

LaBute Sr.'s job soon took the family to Liberty Township, north of Cincinnati, but Mertz and Joey stayed in touch. “We would call each other after our parents went to sleep and talk all night. That was how we maintained our friendship for years,” Mertz said.

After high school, Joey and Mertz decided to go to college together, attending Ohio State's Newark campus the first year and then transferring to the main campus. “All he really wanted was to live in Columbus,” Mertz said. “He met my friends, and they instantly were enamored with him. ... There was no division between my friends, his friends, our lives. My mom and grandma thought of him as their son.”

Joey graduated from OSU in 2011 with a financial planning degree. Ever since his move to Columbus away from his family in Cincinnati, he grew especially close with his aunt, Julie Holly, the sister of Joey's stepmother, Liz LaBute. “Everyone calls [Holly] his Columbus mom, which, basically, she is,” LaBute Sr. said. “As an adult, she knows him better than I did.”

Holly and Joey would get lunch together and go to Broadway in Columbus shows. Every year, they participated in the Komen Columbus Race for the Cure to honor Joey's mother. “He was my go-to buddy,” Holly said.

The first thing Joey's friends and family mention about him is his sarcastic sense of humor. “He had very witty one-liner remarks with a little bit of sass to them,” said Eric Renner, who met Joey through a dating app, which led to a nine-month relationship in 2013 and 2014. “He enjoyed his time most with people he could joke around with.”

For Joey's relatives, some of the best memories of him are from yearly trips to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. “He'd sit back and observe, and you'd think he'd be asleep, and then he'd come off with something [funny],” said Joey's other aunt, Wendy Rider (mother of Stacey Reigle).

At the Easton offices of Morgan Stanley, LaBute became close with 53-year-old co-worker Diane Willis. LaBute took Willis under his wing, teaching her tricks for Microsoft Excel and sending detailed emails about how to do certain tasks. He walked Willis to her car whenever it was dark or cold or icy.

“He would come down and have lunch with me. He loved Taco Bell,” Willis said. In turn, she took LaBute, who went by “Joe” at work, under her own wing. “He wouldn't eat right at home. He'd eat popcorn for dinner,” Willis said. “I would tell him he needs to eat better, and I would give him his vitamins every day.”

When a co-worker passed away unexpectedly, LaBute and Willis went to see a counselor together. “He was scared to go by himself,” Willis said. “He wanted to learn how to process it.”

Now, Willis and others who knew LaBute are trying to process his death, but so many questions remain unanswered. Why did he leave the bar that night? Why didn't he tell anyone before he left? Where was he going? Whom did he meet up with? And how did his night end so tragically?

III.

On footage from Union's security cameras in the early morning hours of March 5, LaBute can be seen walking briskly toward the exit by himself. He doesn't look frazzled or fearful, but he walks with purpose, without a coat, out into the cold night.

Sgt. Dave Sicilian and Detective Eric Wooten of the Columbus Division of Police's homicide unit say that data from cellphone towers in the area indicate LaBute's phone was active for at least two hours after leaving the bar, and that he remained in the Short North/Grandview area.

At 12:19 a.m., LaBute texted Holly. “To help so goo5,” the text read, which Holly interpreted as LaBute saying it felt good to help Kyle celebrate with a fun night out. At 1:22 a.m., LaBute sent his last known text to another friend, but it looked like gibberish: “Jnhstioj.” Stacey theorizes that LaBute was trying to say “Johnstown,” which is where she works as a dental hygienist. (The topic came up earlier in the evening in relation to the friend.)

Police would not confirm or deny that another friend spoke to LaBute on the phone at some point after he left the bar. According to Renner, LaBute told a friend in a brief phone call, “I'm driving.” Later that weekend, Holly found LaBute's red Mitsubishi Lancer parked at the Thurber Gate complex, where he used to share an apartment with Mertz and often parked when in the Short North, making use of an old Thurber parking sticker still on his car.

“Maybe he was in somebody else's car, or maybe he got in the car and then took the car back,” said Renner, who remained good friends with LaBute after their romantic relationship ended.

Based on interviews with LaBute's friends, Sgt. Sicilian said LaBute may have been using a dating app at the bar, and Detective Wooten said he has looked into that possibility. Renner also said it wouldn't be entirely unusual for someone to casually use a dating app like Grindr or Tinder throughout the night, and then duck out to meet up with somebody.

Starting on Sunday, March 6, LaBute's family began passing out flyers and combing the Short North for Joey. “There's not an alley in the Short North we didn't go down,” Holly said. Many in the LGBTQ community soon rallied around them, joining searches for the quiet 26-year-old whose face was now on flyers all over town, in the newspaper and on TV.

“When it initially went down, and there was all this media attention, I was like, ‘He would hate this,'” Mertz said, “He was so private. He would think it was ridiculous.”

The family was desperate for answers. Sometimes a certain house gave Holly and Rider an eerie feeling. They'd stop and yell, ‘Joey!' and wonder if someone was holding their nephew hostage inside.

Once LaBute didn't show up to work, and then a couple of weeks went by, LaBute Sr. didn't have much hope they'd find his son alive. He got the call on March 29 that police found a body in the river that they were pretty sure was Joey's, and the next day, with everyone gathered at Holly's home, police confirmed what they all feared.

“That ended up being my bad night,” said LaBute Sr., who's typically private like his son and not one to show a lot of emotion. “That's when I had my meltdown. I let it all out.”

“My grandma called me in the morning and told me it was him,” Mertz said. “It was something straight out of a movie. … I ran outside and cried on my porch for probably three hours. It was raining and ugly. He would have appreciated the cinematic drama of that discovery.”

The Franklin County Coroner's office told police that LaBute was likely already dead when he entered the water, but the full autopsy report offers few clues as to what happened to LaBute before he wound up in the river. There were no signs of physical trauma. No unusual chemicals came up in the toxicology report, just ethanol and caffeine. Given the decomposition process and the fact that LaBute had consumed alcoholic drinks the night he went missing, the presence and levels of ethanol in the blood were not particularly noteworthy or surprising.

Police also ruled out suicide early on in the investigation.

“There's no physical trauma, and no known medical issues. There's really only one option left,” said Detective Wooten, who brought up the possibility of certain drugs that dissipate in the body after a period of time.

“GHB is a drug that could possibly be used in date rape scenarios,” Franklin County Coroner Chief Toxicologist Dan Baker said. “The human body already has low levels of GHB. After death and during decomposition, those normal GHB levels become elevated in everybody. So it would be impossible to tell if someone had exposure to GHB in a decomposed state.

“With that said, in my experience, GHB use in date rape scenarios is exceedingly rare. A more common date rape drug would be alcohol.”

LaBute's cellphone, wallet and keys were never recovered. And although LaBute left the bar by himself, police believe he was meeting someone he knew or, at the very least, someone he felt comfortable with.

“We don't know what was in his mind,” said Sgt. Sicilian, who mentioned that LaBute's death could have been the result of an accident, after which whoever was with him panicked. “The big question for us is: Did he die at the hands of another? There's no indication of that. But we're not quitting.”

IV.

LaBute Sr. never talked to Joey about his son's sexuality. “I thought about bringing it up lots of times,” he said. “But I never did, and now I sort of regret that. The way I treated him, he must have known I was totally fine with it. He was my boy, and I loved him. I still do.”

He remembers his last interaction with his son fondly. “We didn't talk that much, but the last text he sent me said, ‘You're the best dad I ever had,'” LaBute Sr. said, tearing up and laughing simultaneously. “Obviously I'm the only one. He was funny like that.”

When Joey's mother died, LaBute Sr. bought three burial plots at the end of a row. He plans to someday bury Joey's ashes next to his mother, but he's not quite ready to go through with it yet. “I thought I'd be the one next to her, not Joey,” he said.

Joey's death and disappearance has affected his family in ways that go beyond grief. “This whole situation makes you a little paranoid,” Stacey said.

“I walk every day at lunch,” said Rider, “and there's an empty office building on my walk. I was going around the perimeter of it to make my walk longer, but for the last week, there's been a pickup truck there. It's remote, with a field next to it, and I'm like, ‘I'm not going up there. I could disappear.' I probably never would have thought about that before.”

The family also recently enlisted the help of psychic detective Troy Griffin, who will attend a vigil in Goodale Park on March 5 to commemorate the anniversary of LaBute's disappearance.

Joey's half-brother, Patrick LaBute, lived with Joey for a time, and he said the lingering questions about the case make it difficult to find a sense of peace or resolution. “It's surreal — almost like he went on a long vacation,” Patrick said.

Sam Schisler, chief marketing officer at Union Cafe, craves closure, too. “It doesn't stop for us. We're coming up on the anniversary and the Arnold Classic. So we're heightened,” he said. “As much as we love Arnold weekend, there are a lot of international travelers and a lot of people who we'll never see again. They come into the city for three days, and then they're gone.”

Meanwhile, police are still requesting information from anyone who may have seen Joey LaBute on the night of March 4 or in the early morning hours of March 5. Callers can leave anonymous tips through Central Ohio Crime Stoppers (614-461-8477).

“We're not necessarily looking to get someone indicted or charged,” Sgt. Sicilian said. “We're looking to find the answers to get the case resolved.”

Renner still thinks about his friend every day. “I can't make any sense of it. There's no closure whatsoever,” he said. “I talk out loud to Joey in my car sometimes. I don't know if he can hear me, but it makes me feel better to think that he could.”

The hardest part for Mertz is knowing he'll never get a chance to make amends with his longtime friend. “I just wish I could talk to him,” he said, wiping away tears. “Even if we were still mad at each other, I just wish we could still talk to each other.”