James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

Leonard Bariana, the missing person who wasn't

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: June 16, 2014 - 5:27 PM

I told part of the story of Theresa Rossi's lost and found brother in my Sunday column about the national database of missing and unidentified persons. Every family searching for a missing person holds that faint hope that their loved one is alive, but it almost never happens. In Leonard Bariana's case, it did. It's still possible for someone in modern America to "disappear," even without a change of identity.

In Rossi's account, Bariana was not an easy man to live with, but his family cared deeply about him. Bariana grew up in Philadelphia, one of five brothers and sisters. He suffered his first mental health crisis in his 20s, when "he freaked out on a bus" and was taken to a hospital, Rossi told me. Bariana had a wife, children and did terrazzo work, but his mental illness strained his ties to his family. He eventually boarded a bus for Florida and never returned to the Northeast.

At some point, Bariana landed a job cleaning up a laundromat. The owner eventually decided to close up and move back home to northern Minnesota. And he took his janitor with him. The name of this person is unknown to Rossi, but his act of kindness resonates with her. "He was watching over him," she said.

Having lost touch with Bariana, Rossi added his name to the NamUs database in the mid-2000s. She figured that he might be merely bones at that point, so she included information about how Bariana once broke his leg. Bariana became Missing Person #1701 (the record has since been removed from the system).

Of course, he probably wouldn't have considered himself a missing person. But by 2008, Bariana's ability to take care of himself deteriorated to the point that a judge in Duluth appointed a guardian to oversee his affairs. He lived in a group home for a while, and it was the head of that group home who found out about NamUs from a TV public service announcement and then spotted Bariana's name on the web site in February 2010.

Rossi got the phone call and heard the description of the Leonard Bariana of Minnesota: a guy who loved singing oldies and smoked incessantly. That was him, no doubt about it.

Terminally ill in a Duluth hospital, Bariana learned over the phone from his sister that he had a great-granddaughter. Rossi had a second and final phone call a few days later, but her 65-year-old brother had lost the ability to speak. Rossi said, "Lenny, are you there? Can you hear me?" He made a little noise that meant "Yes."

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