Mothers know fear.
They know it when their toddler first jumps into a pool, they know it when their teenager stays out past curfew, and they know it when their child goes away to college.
But sometimes fear does not go away.
So it goes for Jacqueline Kovack, who 10 years ago tried to call her son Robert, then a graduate student at Virginia Tech. She called on a Friday, but her son wasn't home. She waited until Saturday, but her call was never returned. She called several times on Sunday, but Rob still wasn't there.
Rob always called home on Sunday night, but this time Jacqueline's phone never rang.
Jacqueline called again on Monday morning demanding answers. But this time, she was told that Rob had left Blacksburg on Friday evening, heading home to Rivesville, W.Va., for the weekend.
His vehicle was found abandoned three days later - Sept. 22, 1998 - on U.S. Route 19 near Fayetteville, W.Va. And so began one of the most mysterious cases in Virginia Tech history - a missing person investigation full of contradictions, loose ends and boundless conjecture.
But it's also the story of a young man of modest means and tremendous potential. It's the story of a brotherly love spanning decades. And it's the story of a mother's fear that, in 10 years, has never been replaced by relief or closure.
Chapter One: The last sighting
Robert Kovack withdrew $80 from an ATM at Freedom First Credit Union on South Main Street in Blacksburg at 5:21 p.m. on Sept. 18, 1998. The ATM's video surveillance confirms that this was the last record of Robert Kovack.
An hour before, Rob had been positively identified getting gas at the Wilco station on 825 N. Main St. He was wearing blue jeans and a polo shirt and had a brief conversation with the station's attendant.
Rob told the man that he was heading home to see friends, and after paying for his gas with a check, he took off in his red Geo Tracker, heading up Progress Street toward his apartment.
Perhaps just after his sighting at the ATM, Catherine Porzio, a fellow architecture student, saw Rob in Cowgill Hall at approximately 5:45 p.m.
Porzio arrived at the building and entered the elevator. It stopped on the second floor, and as the doors opened, Rob stepped onto the elevator. The two had a brief conversation before Porzio exited on the third floor. She said Rob asked her how she was doing, but nothing further.
She told police that he looked exhausted, with "bags under his puffy eyes." He had also shaved his beard, something that, to her, made him appear considerably heavier.
Porzio was supposed to see Rob later that night at a party, but she heard through mutual friends that Rob would not be there, despite an invitation.
If her perceived timing is accurate, Porzio may have been the last known person to interact with Robert Kovack.
Chapter Two: Rivesville, W. Va
By most measures, Robert Leroy Kovack was not someone who stood out in a crowd. He was tall and slender at just over 6 feet 3 inches tall and 175 pounds. Rob had dark hair, frequently sported a goatee, and by his brother's standards, had the appearance of a typical college student.
Rob's dedication to tasks and modest nature were reflections of his upbringing, though the perceptions of a small town atmosphere may be deceiving. Rob's small frame and stature, as well as his boldness, made him an easy target for bullying - but not an easy victim.
"Where we grew up, you held your own or got picked on," his brother Michael said. "He was small and scrawny, but he was scrappy. He wouldn't take anything, despite the size difference. He would take his ass with him before he walked away."
Michael said that Rob would not back down from any situation, no matter how high the odds were stacked against him.
"He was one of the nicest guys in the world, but if someone tried to pick a fight, I don't care if they were 500 pounds and 10 feet tall, he'd go," Michael said. "They might beat the hell out of him, but he wouldn't shy away."
The underdog trigger inside Rob that brought him into brawls also pulled him closer to Michael.
"There were times when we were growing up where someone would say something, an altercation would go on, I'd step in, and they'd say, 'This isn't about you,' and I'd say, 'It is now,'" Michael said.
As children, Rob and Michael were inseparable, in a younger brother-older brother fashion. At close to one year apart, the two would patrol the neighborhood together, looking for something interesting to do. If Michael went to a friend's house, it was given that Rob would be just steps behind.
As the two grew older and went their separate ways through college, their brotherly bond faded but never dissipated. The two would get together as frequently as they could, usually in the summer.
Robert was a 1991 graduate of Fairmont Senior High School, and true to his roots, received his undergraduate degree at Fairmont State University in West Virginia, just miles from his home in Rivesville.
The two would talk infrequently, usually several times a month, but would spend the most of their time together when they could be home at the same time.
"In the evenings we'd go down to the local bars, have a beer, shoot pool, things of that nature," Michael said. "We'd go about our business the next day, and in the evening we'd get together again."
The summer before Rob's disappearance, Michael's home was being built in Martinsburg, W.Va., so he spent time in Rivesville with his brother and family.
And when Rob was accepted to Tech's architecture graduate program, the brothers shared the excitement.
Rob was set to begin a new chapter of his life, much further from home - a chapter that to this date still has no ending.
Chapter Three: The Geo Tracker
Rob's clean-cut appearance transferred into his lifestyle
His immediate family insists that he kept his car in immaculate condition, refusing to let it collect dirt, and had a payment plan to cover its cost in a reasonable time. It was the first vehicle he'd bought himself, a financial decision he was forced to make because of transportation needs to and from Tech.
But the dirt and grime found in his vehicle is the least puzzling to family members and investigators.
Sgt. Brad Mankins of the West Virginia State Police said there were no keys in the vehicle's ignition, while Michael noted that the driver's side door was locked, but the passenger's side door was not.
State police crime lab technicians swept the Tracker for fibers or hair strands, but they were largely unsuccessful. Police found small, white-tipped black hairs from a Dalmatian dog in the vehicle. A friend of Robert's came forward to police and said his dog and he had ridden with Rob earlier in 1998.
Police found one latent print, or a fingerprint, that shows only a small portion of the finger's surface that is often smudged. Investigators also found one palm print.
They were unable to positively identify either print and were also unable to find a laundry basket that Rob was thought to have taken with him. The only item
Rob's roommates remembered seeing him leave with was a blue clothes hamper. It has never been recovered.
A slit was also found in the soft-top canvas, near the passenger's side door, and an amplifier that had rested in the rear part of the vehicle was missing, something investigators said may have been stolen by rafters frequenting the New River.
Police theorize that rafters spending their summer in the area may have seen the car abandoned for multiple days and gone to investigate. They would have used a knife to cut through the soft-top roof and unlock the passenger's side door. They may have then stolen the clothing and amp from the cargo area of Rob's vehicle.
At one point, a resident of Craig County called a trooper involved in the investigation and said she had found an empty blue clothes hamper, missing its lid, on her property while walking. The sheriff's department investigated and described the hamper to Robert's mother. But she said although it was similar, it was not the same size and did not think it belonged to Rob.
When the Tracker was discovered, it was just beyond the New River Gorge Bridge, out of gas, just two and a half driving hours from where he was last seen, and engaged in 4-wheel drive, harvesting another unanswered question.
Rob had learned to drive on a stick shift, 4-wheel drive Subaru in Rivesville. He had then purchased the Tracker, a 4-wheel drive SUV, and driven it for several years before his disappearance. He was experienced with switching between 4-wheel drive and 2-wheel drive, and understood the use for each gear.
And in a mild September, there would be no need for Rob to put his Tracker in 4-wheel drive on the highway.
"My theory on that, and it is just a theory, is that something happened in Blacksburg," Michael said. "Somebody that knew my brother knew where he was from, and just drove the vehicle as far north as they could. You go in 4-wheel drive because you'll run out of gas much quicker."
It was briefly conjectured that Rob had been 4-wheeling earlier, but the theory was ruled invalid shortly after, as the vehicle's exterior was not dirty enough, Michael said. He thought most of the dust had been blown onto the car as it sat on U.S. Route 19, unoccupied.
The Tracker was also found a half-mile past the nearest gas station, Mankins said.
"This wasn't a stupid kid," Michael said. "This was somebody who was very smart, very intellectual, and had driven that same course multiple times. Anybody who has driven that stretch knows that if you don't have gas when you hit Fayetteville, you aren't getting any until you hit Mount Nebo, another 15 miles away."
Lansing Road is the only access road to the Canyon Rim raft removal point after the Fayette Station rapids, though there are many other entrance and access locations along the New River for whitewater rafting. The road winds approximately five miles down to an area under the gorge bridge.
The Canyon Rim Visitor Center is located just a quarter-mile from the spot on Route 19 where Rob's car was found.
Park Ranger Leah Ferkowski has been employed at Canyon Rim in its present location for more than 15 years and was vaguely familiar with Robert's case.
Though she was never interviewed by investigators, she did remember seeing fliers posted in the area and hearing of the disappearance.
Ferkowski was surprised to hear that Rob has been missing for more than 10 years, and she noted the difficulty search parties would have in finding someone in the region because of how open and immense the space is. Ferkowski said the park service occasionally acts on reports of missing hikers and hunters, but added that none has been as mysterious as Robert Kovack's.
Dog teams, whitewater rafters and National Park Service rangers helped in multiple searches of the vicinity of where Robert's car was found. Their searches included door-to-door visits to homes on Lansing Road and the Canyon Rim area.
State police also conducted helicopter sweeps, while Rob's family and friends walked the area searching for anything that could shed light on his mysterious disappearance.
The searches turned up no useful evidence.
Perhaps one of the most inexplicable factors in the Kovack case is the absence of any signs of struggle or foul play in the vehicle, something extremely unusual for the 24-year- old who never backed down.
Chapter Four: Graduate studies
Robert Kovack loved life in Blacksburg and at Virginia Tech. He played softball in his free time and took up mountain biking as a student.
"He enjoyed the total atmosphere," Michael said. "That was his first experience at a larger college or university, and he made the best of it. He enjoyed the fact that everything was really close to his apartment, and typically he would ride his bike back and forth to class."
He excelled in Tech's architecture program, quickly rising to the top of his class.
But as a young man from Rivesville, finances were a strain. In the 2000 census, the median annual household income in Rivesville was slightly more than $20,000, or approximately $10 per hour for standard, 40-hour-per-week employment. He had come to Tech for the architecture program's prowess, but also for two other factors.
First, Tech was geographically close to home, something that Rob valued greatly because of his close relationship with family members. Secondly, with the program he was enrolled in, Michael said that Rob was offered in-state tuition to attend, despite his home residence being across state boundaries. Since there was no school offering the degree he wanted in West Virginia, he entered a program qualifying him for the reduced tuition rates at Tech.
During his time at Tech, Rob applied to be placed in a pool of students wishing to become graduate teaching assistants. To be a GTA, one must demonstrate a clear financial need, as the position provides the GTA with money to be applied to the costs of their education.
Chapter Five: Terrace View
Numerous questions surrounding Rob's disappearance have surfaced from the place he was to call home for nine months out of the year.
Rob first met Jason Yoho growing up in West Virginia, and over time the two became good friends. As with most pre-college relationships, the two went separate ways and remained in touch.
But as fate would have it, Rob and Yoho ended up at Tech together for graduate studies. They lived together until Yoho's fiancee announced her intentions of moving to Blacksburg to live with him.
Opting not to be a third-wheel, Rob elected to move in with two other people that he might have known through classes.
The roommates were part of 15 to 20 interviews conducted by Mankins and the West Virginia State Police.
It will never be known what state his room was in when Rob was last present, because his roommates had packed nearly all of his things in boxes and taken apart his bed before it was ever inspected, despite direct requests from the Kovack family to steer clear of the crime zone, Michael said.
When investigators and family searched Robert Kovack's Terrace View apartment in Blacksburg, it appeared as though he may have never even left the town.
In fact, very few of Rob's personal items were absent in the search. His backpack sat in the room, just as it would if he had stopped by after class to drop it off. Inside it investigators found unopened mail, including a bill for rent. No architecture supplies were discovered, but rather a single pen and two stamps.
Rob's bike was found in the apartment.
Rob's shaving kit was also in the room, something that at first may have appeared unusual if he planned to go home for a weekend, as his roommates claimed he intended to do. But because Porzio had seen him earlier in the day clean-shaven, there may have been no need to shave.
But in addition to shaving supplies, his toothbrush and toothpaste were also found in the apartment.
Though most of his personal belongings were found boxed up, Rob's wallet and credit cards were never located in the apartment, or anywhere else. The bill for two cards amassed $12,000.
Since his disappearance, his bank account has remained unused.
"His bank account is still untouched," Rob's mother Jacqueline said. "The account is still open, and we get statements every month, but there was no credit card use, no phone bill to his phone, no link to him anywhere. We've done everything and there is just nothing. He just vanished."
Robert Kovack's roommates insisted to family members and investigators that he was heading home, having left at approximately 5 p.m., possibly to attend a West Virginia University football game that Saturday. They said that Rob had been packing clothing earlier when they left the apartment, and when they returned, saw that the laundry hamper was gone, figuring he had left.
But Robert never called home to inform his parents that he was leaving his apartment for home and would be arriving late that evening, something that has never sat well with Michael or the rest of the Kovack family.
"It would be crazy to walk into my parent's house at those hours of the morning," Michael said. "You wouldn't do it. He would have at least let them know, 'Hey I'm on my way home. I'll be there after midnight,' or whenever, just to let them know it will be 'me' pulling up."
Yoho had offered him a ticket to the West Virginia football game against Maryland, though Rob never confirmed that he would attend. Rob had told Yoho several times that if he could get there, he would try, but he wasn't 100 percent sure he could make it.
In fact, Yoho drove the same route that Rob was supposed to have taken, only 12 hours later. He told investigators that he had no recollection of there being a vehicle parked where the Tracker was found.
"Had he seen it, obviously he would have stopped," Michael said. "They were very good friends. That's something you'd recognize, and he couldn't even recall it being there on his way back on Sunday."
Neither Yoho nor Catherine Porzio returned calls or e-mails from the Collegiate Times.
Sherri Shaffer of Morgantown, called police to inform them that she and her husband had been traveling to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and stopped at the Gorge Bridge between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Saturday morning. Shaffer made it very clear that she always noticed vehicles parked on the side of the road, but she did not see the Tracker that day.
Chapter Six: Graduate Teaching Assistant
Rob met Jack Davis, the current dean of the College of Architecture, shortly after being chosen as a GTA.
Davis met with Rob at least once a week for the year and half that they had a GTA-professor relationship.
"I met him when classes started in August 1997," Davis said. "I had requested a GTA, and he was proposed. I reviewed his capabilities and said, 'Sure.'"
Rob's duties as a GTA included "the preparation of lecture materials and tasks that support the teaching missions," Davis said.
"He was a kind person," Davis said. "He was conscientious and very interested and quite eager to be involved. He did an excellent job."
And in addition to helping Davis with lectures, Rob was also interested in having Davis review his own studio work.
Rob thoroughly enjoyed the architectural engineering that he was studying, and was hired to begin working for Blackwood and Associates, a reputable architecture firm in Fairmont, after he graduated.
At a time in the architecture industry that saw many college graduates hard-pressed to find work, Davis said that Rob's portfolio and work experience would have been attractive to employers, even in the job crunch.
Though he had met with his employers, Rob was never actually able to experience his first day in the profession as he went missing just weeks into the first semester of his second year in Tech's graduate architecture program.
Davis put Rob in touch with the New River Valley director of Habitat for Humanity.
"I put him in contact with Habitat for Humanity because there was a need to produce a document that would identify all the houses Habitat had done in the area," Davis said. "Since I was on the board then, I was working with him on that as well."
Davis worked with Robert during his time at Habitat, but never truly became close with his GTA.
But even with the professional relationship between the two, Davis was still selected to provide the opening remarks at a memorial event for Rob six weeks after his disappearance:
"It has now been over six weeks since Rob Kovack, a graduate student in architecture, disappeared. His family is faced with many difficult questions and few answers. To this effort, they have established a reward for information and are considering the hiring of a private investigator to assist the police. This family of modest means is not asking for donations; however, as members of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies family, we can make a difference by making a contribution to help resolve this unfortunate situation. Rob was my GTA last year and I can tell you personally, he was the kind of person who would be active in an effort to support one of us," Davis said at the memorial.
Though Davis could not remember specifics on when he last saw Robert Kovack, he noted that it would not have been long before his disappearance.
As Rob was expected to meet Davis in his office weekly to talk, Robert Kovack's last trip to Cowgill Hall, the same trip in which he encountered Porzio, may have also been the final meeting to discuss architecture with his adviser.
Chapter Seven: Halloween parties
Oct. 31, 1996. For Michael and Robert Kovack, this signified two things. The annual Halloween parties were in full-swing downtown, paired with the celebration of Rob's Oct. 30 birthday.
The family had their own party at home for Rob, consisting of cake, ice cream and everything else one would expect at a birthday festivity. But as Rob and Michael were growing older, so were the parties being held. After the family gatherings, the brothers gathered their friends and hit the bars in town that consistently hosted exceptional Halloween parties.
For a stretch of time, Rob actually bartended at a place holding several of the parties.
But after his disappearance, Michael said, the mood of the Rivesville gatherings became more somber. They no longer ended with friends lounging around drinking and playing games.
"We'd be rehashing it all again," Michael said.
Be it to inquire about updates in the case or to offer their own two cents, Michael said, "There's not a time that people don't ask about it."
Ten years have passed since Rob was reported missing, and as autumn fades to winter in Rivesville, the Kovack family, as well as the town, must again face a season of somber memories and dismal emotions.
Robert would have turned 35 on Oct. 30, 2008.
Chapter Eight: Private investigations and the paranormal
The private investigator hired by the Kovack family was disturbingly unsuccessful.
Rob's computer was inaccessible, as the P.I. could not crack his password-protected machine. None of his work panned out, and the investigator asked family members to conceal his identity, so as not to inhibit Rob's case, or any other that he was involved in.
But Davis and Fitzwater both said that they were never contacted by the P.I., an alarming fact considering the general lack of evidence already present in the case.
"We had to let him go because there was nothing," Jacqueline said.
Jack Cunningham, a private investigator from Lynchburg, Va., has been in the field since 1999, around the time that Kovack was reported missing. Though he was unfamiliar with the specifics on the Kovack case, Cunningham did say the investigator's work did raise some questions.
"(Cracking the password) would not be easily done by me because I've never attempted to do it," Cunningham said. "But there are a lot of companies that offer that particular service. The police department, in particular, would absolutely be able to do that. Especially in a forensics investigation."
Cunningham added that anything over $1,000 in credit card debt would demand his attention. And since Rob's topped $12,000, the bill would likely be of interest.
"Most credit card companies will notify you at a certain amount to make sure you are the same person," Cunningham said. "It would not be a lot different in 1999."
Cunningham added that in some situations, it's possible that someone could have made the person in question withdraw money from the bank or a credit card.
Rather than give up hope entirely when the private investigation turned up nothing, the Kovack family consulted a psychic to analyze Robert's case. The results of the psychic session were expectedly strange.
Anticipating death to be the reason Robert Kovack has not been seen since September 1998, the psychic predicted that the motive for murder was money and gave a mildly detailed description of the suspect.
The psychic told the family that the suspect would have a tattoo on his upper right arm that reads "love," and that he had an earring on his right eyebrow.
The family was told that Robert did not know his killer well, but that he had called Rob requesting a ride, feeling that he could trick the student and get him alone. The suspect was supposed to live in an area close to where Rob did, and the psychic predicted that Rob would be found in a pool of water that had numerous streams running into it, next to something burnt. The psychic thought the charred object could possibly be a wallet.
Sgt. Mankins, a presiding officer, said that multiple psychics mailed information to police, but the WVPD did not specifically reach out to any of them.
"You take it with a grain of salt," Mankins said. "We'd look at anything because we have a missing person that has still not been found."
Chapter Nine: Commitment to service
Just after the spring semester in 1998 concluded, Robert Kovack, beaming with self-satisfaction, handed Terri Fitzwater a book, pleased with his final product. It was the result of weeks upon weeks of work, though it never seemed like a chore.
Fitzwater was the New River Valley director of Habitat for Humanity and had a relationship with Rob that would later blossom into something that had a lasting effect on Fitzwater.
He had just completed a compilation of all of Habitat for Humanity's homes, including detailed maps, descriptions and a manual.
Fitzwater was grateful and impressed with Rob's submission, but far from surprised.
"He was very detailed-oriented and always had a smile on his face," Fitzwater said. "His dedication to get things done struck me the most about him. He was a sweet young man."
But the day Rob submitted the book was also the last time he and Fitzwater would meet face to face. Rob was soon to be headed home to Rivesville for the summer.
"He was such a likable person," Fitzwater said. "He was friendly, open and volunteering for all the right reasons."
Fitzwater said that in her position, she sees numerous students coming to her office just to boost their resume.
"You have volunteers that are just there, and you have volunteers that are very dedicated," Fitzwater said. "He was very easy to talk to and work with. He had a great sense of humor."
Echoing Davis' description of Rob, Fitzwater said he was a typical college student, though a small bond grew between them over the time they spent together.
From time to time, Fitzwater would go to meals with Rob to talk about life in general, not just his project for Habitat for Humanity.
While Fitzwater said that she would talk a lot about her fiance, Rob often spoke highly of his family members, and expressed excitement over the job with the architecture firm he had already locked in.
And though she did not classify her relationship with Rob as friendship per se, their acquaintanceship had a profound effect on the Habitat's director, as she has spent considerable time in the past 10 years consumed by the Kovack case.
Fitzwater has compiled a case file of her own for Kovack, having acquired her information from countless interviews with numerous people from 1998 to 1999, immediately following Rob's mysterious disappearance. She maintained contact with his family, giving and taking information as it became available.
Fitzwater talked to police investigators, demanding answers and names, collecting information from anyone and everyone who may have known information about Robert.
In fact, at times when police turned possible witnesses away and discredited their information, Fitzwater did interviews with them anyway, searching for potential clues that could shine light into an otherwise dark investigation.
Fitzwater even went to West Virginia with an architecture professor to conduct a foot search of the area Robert may have traveled.
She noted possible reasons for the general failure by police searches, be it with helicopters, dogs or troopers.
"From Blacksburg to where his vehicle was found, the whole national forest is right there," Fitzwater said.
But instead of finding information to blow the case open, Fitzwater has found herself continually puzzled by the same questions that investigators have faced for years.
"If he was going home, why didn't he get gas at that station?" Fitzwater asked. "Why didn't he stop at that station, knowing it was the last station for a while? There's no justified reason that vehicle should have been out of gas. None."
"Why would he pack dirty clothes for a football game if he weren't going home?" Fitzwater wonders. "And if he was going home first, why didn't he call?"
Chapter Ten: Credit collectors and unanswered questions
Michael Kovack still receives numerous calls every month from credit and collection agencies, demanding money due to them from years ago.
Though he tells the solicitors time and again that his brother has been missing for a decade, Michael says he can sense the uncertainty in their tones.
"They automatically think you're lying to them, and that can just become so irritating," Michael said. "You try to be polite, but after they harass you it's a never-ending battle. They can't collect on these outstanding debts."
Somewhere since his brother's disappearance, Michael had all of his brother's bills forwarded to his address, hoping to ease the stress placed on his parents.
But before closure can be achieved in this investigation, a laundry list of questions linger.
Both Davis and Fitzwater are baffled at the lack of investigation from the FBI, and even Mankins struggled to offer an explanation for why the FBI was never actively looked to for support.
"I don't know why they were never pursued," Mankins said. "I've talked to a couple agents, but there's nothing other than his vehicle that says he actually crossed state lines."
The FBI will only get involved in cases that involve crimes crossing state lines, and because Blacksburg was the last place Kovack was seen, they have had no interest in an investigation, Mankins said.
And since the cause of disappearance has never been established, police have not given up on the idea that Robert may have chosen to walk away from his life and start over new.
"They kept saying that maybe there was no crime at all; maybe he elected to disappear, and a person can legally do that if they want," Davis said.
Cunningham echoed that, on occasion, people do not want to be found.
"If he is wanting to not be found, it will be difficult to track him," Cunningham said. "But on the same token, to have survived you would have to use your date of birth and Social Security number, or someone else's. Changing your name doesn't help because your social and date of birth still exist."
And Kovack's case is different, according to family members and police investigators. Even Cunningham said the typical character of a person starting a new life does not match what he was told about Kovack.
"The general mold is a person who is depressed and maybe running from something. Maybe he was afraid of failure, or not doing well in school and not wanting to disappoint," Cunningham said. "But this sounds rather suspicious. He had everything going for him. He was doing well in school and was in communication with his family. He had no reason to leave unannounced like he did."
Mankins said that there were potential sightings in West Virginia immediately after his disappearance, though they were all rejected for one reason or another.
"There were some within a few weeks after he came up missing," Mankins said. "All of those were followed up and unfounded. There were reportings, but not sightings because they ended up not being accurate."
Mankins added that the state police were asked to respond several times to what were potential breakthroughs, though none of the leads ever panned out.
"There were times where people called us to an area where they found bones and stuff in the woods, but we responded and they were always animal," Mankins said. "There were other times when people thought they had seen him alive, but when we found the person they had seen, they are of another identity."
And for Mankins, the case that is now a decade old still resonates within him.
"It's something you think about every day," Mankins said. "I would like to see him found alive or dead so there is an end to it. Anytime there is any information that comes in, I pursue it. But there has just not been very much information coming in."
In fact, Mankins said investigators "have not got any one substantial lead or bit of evidence that will resolve the case."
The lack of information only hinders the future of the investigation.
"The longer this trail is cold, the worse it's going to be. It's going to be hard at this juncture to go back, because everything has changed," Cunningham said.
Though the case is cold, neither the West Virginia State Police nor the Salem branch of the Virginia State Police Department would relinquish documents regarding the disappearance. Special Agent Charles Eaton, a criminal investigator from Salem that handled the Virginia side of the investigation, declined to comment.
After the Collegiate Times filed a Freedom of Information Act Request for the police file regarding Rob's disappearance with the West Virginia State Police, the department responded denying the request because the file was part of an on-going investigation. The Collegiate Times is currently involved in litigation against the West Virginia State Police in pursuit of the documents.
Chapter Eleven: Closure
Michael said Rivesville has deteriorated in recent years, becoming more of a passing-through town between Fairmont and Morgantown.
Rivesville rests on the banks of the Monongahela River and is dominated by an oversized coal power plant. Residences occupy much of the land in the small town, though abandoned shops, bars and office spaces are also in abundance.
Michael said the bars they used to frequent and where Rob used to work have all shut down, and he said that while the city hall in the center of town remains, not much else is constant.
"Even the playgrounds at the schools are in shambles," Michael said. "It's completely different. You don't see kids doing anything on the playgrounds, so there's no incentive to fix them."
The passing of each year ushers in a new mentality for the Kovack family and investigators.
Cunningham and Mankins agree that the entire scope of the investigation changes and becomes more challenging with each day.
"This person could have been killed or buried," Cunningham said. "There are plenty of places in West Virginia with the mountains, not to mention with Kentucky and Tennessee and Virginia. You have coalmines and shafts that people fall in. There are a lot of ways for people to disappear."
The once optimistic declaration of hope that Robert will be returned to them has begun to fade, something that Michael labeled as true reality setting in.
"At this point, I'd say in the first few years, you still had hope that he was alive somewhere," Michael said. "It's pretty safe to say that if there were someway in which he was alive, he would have found a way to contact someone. He wouldn't just leave everyone in limbo if he had any way. Even if it was just to say, 'Hey, I'm safe, I'm fine, don't worry about me.'"
"Deep down we all have hope that he is out there," said Michael, who has named his son Robert in memory of his missing brother. "But as each day and year go by, you have to be a realist. The hope is diminished. All we as a family want is a little closure to put things to rest."