“I don’t remember my age exactly, but I remember when I was little, you know, I was at my grandmother’s and my grandfather’s,” Amanda Vargo Wattecamps said. “And I’m, like, you know, looking at the pictures on the walls.”
She remembers frames that held photos of her father when he was younger. A photo pleased him. “Above their TV cabinet…was a picture of the family — meaning my dad’s immediate family,” Amanda said. “My grandmother, my grandfather and the five children.”
Amanda thought something was wrong when she looked at this family portrait. “I look at this and I count the kids and I’m like, ‘OK, it’s Uncle Mark. Okay, that’s my dad. It’s Aunt Robin. And this is Aunt Vanita,” Amanda said. “Grandmother only had four children. There are five here. And that’s when I’m like, ‘Who is this guy?’
“That’s when I get the, you know, the – the nudge or the nudge,” Amanda told Dateline. “Like, ‘We don’t want to upset Grandma, we’ll talk about that later.'”
As Amanda got older, she found out who this guy was: her father’s little brother, Brian, who disappeared in March 1976.
Amanda never met her Uncle Brian, but his story stuck somewhere in her mind. She grew up and had her own children. “That’s pretty much why I started – I started digging more,” Amanda said. “I can’t believe my grandmother has gone so long without knowing where her son is. It must be awful.
Amanda’s sister, Christina Vargo Brooks, was 5 years old when their uncle disappeared. “I have a memory of him. Of course, he was in college when my memory basically kicked in,” Christina said. “He was a very conscientious child.”
Ron West grew up with Brian. He lived in a house adjacent to the Vargo house. They were in the same class and attended the same elementary, middle and high school – then they made the decision to attend the University of Texas at Austin together. “I mean, he’s a great guy,” Ron told Dateline. “Really calm, like a very bright individual. Very, very smart.
In 1976, Brian was 20 years old and in his second year of school studying architectural engineering, which came as no surprise to anyone who knew him. To them, Brian was always the smartest guy in the room. “He was quite studious when we were in college,” Ron said.
Brian’s niece, Christina, told Dateline that ever since Brian was little, he was doing calculations in his head. “It was all a math problem for him,” she said. “He was very good at math.”
Brian’s roommate at UT Austin, Tim Murphrey, agreed. “I remember he was really proud of getting good grades in his engineering calculus class,” Tim said.
It seemed that Brian made the transition to college life well. He had good friends and worked hard to graduate. For spring break this second year, Brian told his roommates that he was going to Colorado and planned to take a self-guided tour of the state.
He got into his white Mazda RX2 and hit the road. But somewhere along the way, his car broke down, which interrupted his travel plans.
“His car broke down and I guess he decided it wasn’t worth fixing,” Brian’s niece Amanda said. “He left it with a mechanic. He went back to Houston to get the car’s title, so he could sell it.
Amanda told Dateline that Brian had come home to get his Mazda papers. “My grandma remembers him, like, going through papers,” Amanda said. But they don’t know if he found it.
His family then took him to a Houston bus station, assuming he was heading back to Colorado. “My great aunt and my grandmother took him to the bus station. She didn’t go with him or watch him get on the bus because he was a 20-year-old kid and, you know, that’s not cool,” Amanda told Dateline. “That’s what we know…I don’t know if he got on the bus.” We don’t know if he got out of Houston.
It was the last time anyone in the Vargo family saw Brian. “Forty-six years later, we’re still waiting for him to come back,” Brian’s niece Christina said.
Amanda told Dateline that at the time, her grandmother tried to find Brian, but faced roadblocks with the police. “My grandmother was told – every time she tried to contact the police – that he was an adult and maybe he just disappeared because he wanted to,” Amanda said.
There have been no official reports of missing persons since 1976. “Even back then, you should have spoken to a police officer and made some kind of report and – and there – it never happened,” said Amanda told Dateline. “Even though she called and even though she said she wanted to report there was a missing person, they didn’t write anything.”
When Brian didn’t return to his Austin apartment after spring break, his roommates also grew concerned. Tim Murphrey told Dateline he only lived briefly with Brian, but remembered feeling worried when he didn’t return from his trip. “It kind of set off an alarm in us, ‘Hey, something’s wrong. He didn’t come here. We haven’t seen him for a while. We didn’t get a rating,” Tim said. “I don’t know how long it took before alarm bells rang in our heads.”
Tim also told Dateline that he thinks Brian might have faced some sort of identity crisis. “I wouldn’t have been surprised if you knew he was gone and just decided to strike a match and…start a new life,” he said.
That’s what some of Brian’s family members also thought, a theory only reinforced by what they learned later: Before spring break, Brian had dropped out of school. The youngest of Brian’s siblings, Vanita Vargo Netek, told Dateline she remembers her brother needing time off from school. “He was doing very well in his freshman year,” Vanita said. “And then the second year – I think maybe it’s not going so well.”
Vanita, who was very young at the time, grew up knowing little about her brother’s disappearance. “All I knew was that he had been to Colorado,” she said. “He went to Colorado.”
Vanita remembers Brian being very introverted and reserved. “I knew he was collecting stamps. He also built model cars,” she said. Vanita thought Brian would be home soon, and there was no easy way to contact him in 1976. “There was no phone,” she said. “He just left and, you know, I just thought he was coming back.”
Initially, the Vargo family was not too worried. They thought Brian might have gone on a journey to find himself. “I found a letter he wrote to my dad that said, ‘I just need to get away. I need to take time off,” Vanita told Dateline.
According to Vanita, their mother always believed that one day Brian would come back on his own. “For a very long time, she kept her room exactly as it was,” she said. “They thought he would come back.”
But a call from a mechanic in Colorado has the family suspicious. “They said, ‘Hey, we have this car, what do you want us to do with it? ‘” Vanita told Dateline. “And that’s when they realized he might be missing.”
Shortly after, according to his sister Vanita, Brian’s family hired a private detective to investigate his disappearance. Brian’s roommate, Tim, remembers talking to the private investigator. “I remember his line of questioning — he approached it like — that it had to be drug-related,” Tim said. “At the time, I absolutely didn’t buy this and I still don’t all these years later.”
Tim told Dateline that he had been around drug addicts and that Brian was not one of them. “He smoked weed and drank beer, but he didn’t have a craving for drugs,” he said.
Brian’s niece, Christina, also remembers hearing about the private detective. “We were always told my grandfather hired a private investigator,” Christina said. “But the matter has gone cold.” The Vargo family began to lose hope.
Vanita told Dateline that Brian’s disappearance had become too emotional for their mother. “It’s kind of, like, we just haven’t talked about it,” she said.
Vanita said she attempted to file an official missing persons report about 20 years after Brian disappeared. She said she had the paperwork, but needed her mother’s help to fill it out. “She didn’t want to know. She said, ‘I don’t want to know. I feel like something tragic happened to her and I just don’t want to know about it,” Vanita told Dateline. “So I couldn’t do anything.”
But last year, her mother changed her mind. “I think now that she’s 99, she’s changed her mind,” Vanita said. “She wants to have peace and know what happened to her.”
On February 2, 2021, the Vargo family decided to let Brian’s niece, Amanda, file an official missing person report. Forty-six years after Brian’s disappearance, investigators are finally looking into his case. “For my mother, I would like her to close and for everyone else,” Vanita told Dateline.
The Austin Police Department told Dateline that Brian’s case is an active investigation and declined to comment further for this article. An April 2021 City of Austin press release detailed information about Brian’s disappearance stating that he “did not return to his apartment located in Austin” and that “his wallet was found at the interior”.
Now the niece Brian never met, Amanda Vargo Wattecamps, leads the charge to find him and bring Brian home. She runs the Searching for Brian Vargo Facebook page, plus a TikTok account and an Instagram, hoping someone, somewhere might know something.
Amanda conducted her own interviews on her uncle’s case. “I reached out to his friends, roommates, girlfriends of friends, people he worked with even when he was in Houston,” Amanda said.
And if she ever finds someone named Brian Vargo, she contacts him as well. “If I find someone named Brian Vargo and his address, I send him a postcard with a little story about the photos of Brian and Brian,” she said.
At the time of his disappearance, Brian had hair ranging from strawberry to dirty blonde and was about 6 feet tall. According to his family, he was walking with his feet outward and had a snake bite on one of his fingers. Brian Vargo would be 66 today.
Anyone with information about Brian’s case should contact the Austin Police Department’s Missing Persons Unit at 512-974-4123.