|This case has remained unsolved for 23 years, 0 months, and 6 days.|
In 2000, Matthew Pendergrast was in his last year at Rhodes College, located in Memphis, Tennessee (TN). He would be graduating in just a few weeks’ time and had aspirations of starting his own nonprofit organization at some point. He already spent his summers volunteering to help kids in developing nations, so it made sense that he would continue to pursue helping others as a career path.
All that changed though when Pendergrast disappeared on December 1, 2000. He was heard getting ready and leaving the house he rented a room in, but he never showed up to his class, and he was never seen again.
Pendergrast’s 4Runner was found over 100 miles away in Arkansas later that day, with the keys in the ignition and the car unlocked, but no one seemed to be around the car. A search was conducted, and his clothes were found neatly folded, but there was no sign of the 23-year-old himself.
Despite extensive searches including helicopters, ATVs, canine units, boats, divers and more, and now over two decades of investigation, the case remains unsolved. What happened to Matthew Pendergrast?
Table of Contents
About Matthew Pendergrast
Matthew David Pendergrast was born on January 4, 1977 to parents Jeff and Mary Ellen Pendergrast. He had two younger sisters, Julie and Diana. His family was based in Atlanta, Georgia (GA), and his father worked as a plastic surgeon.
A Musically-Inclined Athlete
Despite his shorter stature at 5’6, Pendergrast was still very involved with sports. In high school, he ran track, played goalie for the soccer team, and even participated in wrestling. He also had an affinity for music and played several instruments.
In addition to all of these extra-curricular activities, Pendergrast was considered an intellectual by many of his close friends. “We spent many nights in intellectual discussions that ranged from existential philosophy to literature to quantum physics,” said one of his fraternity brothers from Rhodes College.
A Light-Hearted Person
Friends also described Pendergrast as creative, unselfish, kind, introspective. Another fraternity brother explained, “Matt never took himself too seriously. He was a good balance between an introvert and an extrovert.”
In 2000, Pendergrast was a 23-year-old senior at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee and was just a few weeks shy of his graduation. Over past summers, he’d volunteered to help kids in the Dominican Republic and wanted to continue his acts of service by starting a nonprofit after graduating.
“Matt was a very caring person,” said Mary Ellen, Pendergrast’s mother. Pendergrast didn’t seem to have enemies and was well-liked and respected by his peers. Overall, there wasn’t any obvious reason why he’d end up missing, or why someone would want to hurt him. So why did he disappear?
The Day of the Disappearance
December 1, 2000 should’ve been like any other day for Pendergrast. He had some classes to attend, and would be graduating from Rhodes College in just a few weeks’ time. Things were going well, at least to people looking in from the outside.
Pendergrast left his residence — a house where he rented a room — sometime between 7:30 and 8:00 AM, driving his 1998 Toyota 4Runner. He had a Spanish class he was scheduled to attend which started at 9 AM, but he never showed up.
When Was Pendergrast Last Seen?
There is some debate about when Pendergrast was last seen, but many agree that he was certainly seen the night before his disappearance when he was acting in a play for a class assignment. The last person to make contact with him was one of his friends, and they had a conversation in the early morning hours of December 1 around 1:30 or 2:00 AM.
According to this friend, Pendergrast sounded “upbeat” and nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary. Some hours later around 7:30 AM, Pendergrast left a message for his friend that said, “Everything’s all right. No problem. I’ll talk to you later.” That was the last confirmed time anyone heard from him.
That afternoon, hunters found a 4Runner along a private dirt road around 2 PM in Lonoke County, Arkansas (AR). This area was near South Kerr Road and Interstate 40. Most shockingly, this location was over 100 miles away from Rhodes College. The keys were in the ignition and it was unlocked, but no one seemed to be around the car.
The hunters left a note on the car, requesting that it be moved as the 4Runner was parked on a levee. They expected it to be gone come the following morning, but the next day, the car was still there.
Deciding to look through the abandoned vehicle, the hunters found an old oil change receipt that contained a phone number that turned out to be the Pendergrast residence. They called it and asked about the abandoned vehicle. Pendergrast’s mother, Mary Ellen, answered, and later recounted the conversation for a news outlet: “‘May I speak to Matthew Pendergrast?’ I said, ‘Well, he’s at school,’ and they said, ‘Well, his car is in Arkansas.’”
Hearing that their son’s car was in Arkansas, Pendergrast’s parents were incredibly concerned. They contacted his landlord, a woman he rented a room from, but she didn’t pick up. Later, she told them that she’d heard Pendergrast leave early on the morning of December 1, presumably to go to class and hadn’t seen him since.
Next, the Pendergrasts contacted the Rhodes Security Department, but the officers sent out to check on Pendergrast didn’t find any sign of him. They noted that his room was messy, although that’s perhaps not uncommon for a lot of young people who attend college. By then though, it was obvious that the 23-year-old was missing, and an investigation was launched.
At first, law enforcement wasn’t even sure if Pendergrast made it to Arkansas; it was possible that the car had been stolen and dumped there. Upon further investigation, more items were found in the area, including Pendergrast’s neatly-folded clothes: his blue jeans (which were wet up to the knees), shirt, socks, and shoes. His wallet contained his IDs, credit cards, and a small amount of cash, and was located in one of the pockets of the jeans.
When the Pendergrasts heard of the folded clothes and items, they found that strange. “Our son was not the neatest soul in the world,” Mary Ellen explained, “He would not have folded up these clothes and left them in a stack.”
A search of the surrounding area where the 4Runner and other items were found was carried out, with authorities hoping to find some sign of Pendergrast. The surrounding area is called Bayou Meto, a 30,000-acre state-owned wildlife management area, which made searching more difficult.
To try to conquer the bayou, authorities employed the use of boats, divers, ATVs, canines, and helicopters, combing a large area near where Pendergrast was suspected of last being. However, nothing of note was located, nor did they find any clues that pointed to where he might’ve gone.
Investigators didn’t find any blood, footprints, weapons, signs of a struggle, or DNA evidence. There just wasn’t any evidence pointing toward any clear outcome, be it foul play or otherwise, and it was unclear what had become of the college student.
No Known Enemies
An email was also sent out to the students of Rhodes College, asking them to come forward with information regarding Pendergrast’s disappearance. “He’s just not the kind of guy anyone would hate or want to hurt,” one of Pendergrast’s friends said to a news outlet. Despite the plea for information, no one came forward.
Inside the abandoned 4Runner, authorities found Pendergrast’s journal. In it, he wrote about many different things including stories, poems, reflections, as well as life and death. One perhaps strange topic he wrote about “Silver Elves” and the pursuit of immortality by “walking into water and becoming one with nature again.”
The Silver Elves is a group that claims to be real elves and has been “sharing the Elven Way since 1975.” They have a number of books, their own language, and say they aren’t a religion. Instead, they follow The Elven Way:
“The Elven Way promotes the principles of Fairness, that is to say both Justice, Elegance and Equal Opportunity and Courtesy [sic] that is respectful in its interactions and attitude toward all beings, great or small.”Silver Elves (Source: SilverElves)
It’s not clear if Pendergrast was planning on joining this organization or had heard about it in passing and wrote some entries in his journal about it.
A Potential Ransom?
With so few answers in the case of their missing son, the Pendergrasts wondered if someone had taken him and was planning on asking for ransom money: “We thought maybe he had been kidnapped and somebody would call us for ransom or that we would hear from him.” Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on how you look at it), no ransom call ever came in.
A Poor Investigation?
Some of Pendergrast’s friends who’d gone to Arkansas to help search for him accused authorities of not being careful enough at the scene where the 4Runner was found. One claimed to a news outlet:
“[Authorities] walked all around the scene with disregard and flew around in ATVs at high speed, mucking up scents, footprints, and all manner of potential evidence around the car, the levee, the woods, and the fields.”Pendergrast’s Friend (Source: Memphis Magazine)
The friends also wanted police to search downstream, but were told to “butt out” of the search. Law enforcement defended themselves, stating: “At that point, we didn’t know if this was a crime scene or not, and these individuals [Pendergrast’s friends] weren’t trained.”
The Lonoke County Sheriff’s Department (LCSD), desperate for information, hired a psychic in an effort to try to solve the case. The psychic claimed that Pendergrast had taken off his clothes, folded them, then walked out into the bayou to be rebirthed as a Silver Elf. No evidence to support this claim — other than the folded clothes which had already been located by authorities — has ever been found.
A Suspicious Cadillac Driver
About three weeks after Pendergrast’s disappearance, a blue Cadillac was found on the side of Kerr Road. It had run out of gas, and a trooper stopped to offer aid. The trooper noted that the driver seemed to be shaking uncontrollably, although he thought it might be from the cold.
Soon thereafter, another motorist pulled up, bringing gasoline for the stranded Cadillac. The trooper ended up letting the Cadillac and driver go, but not before noting the license plate number.
Later, it turned out that the driver of the Cadillac might’ve tangentially been related to Pendergrast — a friend of a friend. The driver was also a suspected drug runner, busted later for alleged possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms and cannabis.
A private investigator hired by the Pendergrasts has suggested that this friend of Pendergrast and the alleged drug-runner might’ve had something to do with the college student’s disappearance. The investigator suggested that perhaps Pendergrast’s friend convinced him to allow the use of the 4Runner to partake in a drug deal, and then things went awry. However, like so many of the theories in this case, there is no evidence that points one way or the other.
And That’s It
And now, over 20 years later, that’s what we know in this case. Pendergrast’s remains have never been found, nor the man himself, so we can’t be sure of exactly what happened to him.
Theories on What Happened
There are a number of plausible theories about what might’ve happened in this case. Let’s examine the most probable ones: Pendergrast committed suicide, he had a mental health issue, he was on drugs, or he met with foul play.
Pendergrast Committed Suicide
One of the prevailing theories is that Pendergrast went to Lonoke County to commit suicide. (As an aside, if you’re struggling yourself, please reach out to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.) Despite this being one of the most popular theories, Pendergrast’s family disputes the notion that he would’ve taken his own life. His mother, Mary Ellen, explained:
“The idea that he committed suicide was one of the things that was the most puzzling. He was not depressed — he had so many plans for his life.”Mary Ellen (Source: KATV)
It’s also unclear why Pendergrast might’ve chosen such a relatively strange method of suicide — exposure to the elements — versus other quicker and less painful options. I tried to find statistics about how often people choose this method of suicide, but it seems so rare that it isn’t even listed in most suicide statistics.
The only other case I can think of where someone used the wilderness to effectively commit suicide was that of Christopher McCandless, made famous by the book-turned-movie Into the Wild. However, in that case, it’s not even clear if McCandless set out to commit suicide in the first place or if he was just trying to live out in the wild for as long as he could.
Pendergrast Suffered from Mental Health Issues
Some have pointed to the odd writings in Pendergrast’s journal to suggest that he suffered from some sort of mental health issues. Specifically, the passages regarding the Silver Elves and “walking into water and becoming one with nature again” are cited as evidence that he did just that.
However, Pendergrast’s family and friends disagree with this notion. “Matt wrote creatively about all aspects of life,” said one of his friends, Jason Woods, “Focusing on dark poems or a fantastic idea [only] sensationalizes and creates non-sensical mystery.” Furthermore, I couldn’t find any sources that stated Pendergrast suffered from any sort of mental health disorder.
Pendergrast was on Drugs
Others suggest that perhaps Pendergrast had ingested or smoked some drugs that led to his bizarre behavior and sudden disappearance, or was in that part of Arkansas to engage in a drug deal. As far as we know, no evidence of drug use or other illegal activity has ever been found relating to Pendergrast.
Foul Play was Involved
At least one investigator on this case believes that foul play was somehow involved, and that the clothing found at the scene was staged. A former Lonoke County Sheriff’s Investigator named Jim Kulesa explained, “In my opinion as an investigator, I believe that whole area was staged. But by who?”
Investigators have also suggested that the most plausible explanation is a carjacking in Memphis, TN that resulted in the car being dumped in Lonoke County, AR, along with Pendergrast’s disappearance. However, authorities have also admitted that they haven’t found anything that points to foul play. Sergeant Paul Curtis explained:
“We found nothing in the vehicle that would indicate foul play and until we find him one way or the other, it’s difficult to say.”Sgt. Paul Curtis (Source: Johnson City Press)
What Do I Think Happened?
I’ll be upfront and say that I don’t have a great answer for what I think happened in this case. I think many of the theories are equally plausible, and there isn’t a lot of evidence tipping me toward one over the others.
It would be perfectly reasonable to figure that Pendergrast had some sort of mental health break, ended up wading into the bayou, and succumbed to the elements. It also is reasonable to think that the clothes left neatly folded were intentionally placed there in that way by someone trying to throw off law enforcement, or that this was some sort of a drug running situation that ended horribly wrong.
Many Unanswered Questions
This case is difficult because of the limited amount of publicly-available information out there. To be clear: there is ostensibly a lot of physical evidence between the car and the clothes, but that’s it. I couldn’t find any sources out there regarding a cell phone, which could have been used to trace Pendergrast’s movements on the day he vanished.
Since this case took place before the proliferation of cell phones, I don’t think Pendergrast had one at the time of his disappearance, but that could have answered a lot of questions that people have about the case. At the very least, we’d have a more clear record of his movements on the day of his disappearance.
I’m also curious as to why Pendergrast left home around 7:30–8:00 AM when his class started at 9 AM and was just a few blocks away; it wouldn’t have taken him more than a few minutes to get to class. Why did he leave an hour to an hour-and-a-half early? Was he stopping to grab some breakfast or a coffee?
Some people have suggested that perhaps Pendergrast was doing a drug drop-off before class to Lonoke County, but that doesn’t really make sense to me. According to Google, it would take about two hours to drive from Memphis, TN to Lonoke County, AR. How could he have made that drive and been back in time for his Spanish class? Unless, of course, he had no intention of going to class that day.
If I had to bet money on one theory over the others, I would wager that Pendergrast had some sort of mental break or was otherwise delusional, mostly because there is no publicly-available evidence found in the 4Runner that suggested someone else had been in the car with him — no fingerprints, no DNA, no blood, nothing.
If unknown fingerprints or some blood spatter had been found in the car, I’d be more willing to bet that Pendergrast met with some sort of foul play. However, because nothing has been found, I’d lean toward a self-inflicted disappearance, perhaps fueled by mental illness or hallucinogenic drugs.
Over 20 Years Later, No Answers
Regardless of what happened to him, Pendergrast and his family deserve the truth. To this day, his parents have never held a memorial for him, even though they seem to believe he is deceased. “There’s no such thing as closure, but we would love to know for sure that he’s dead,” Mary Ellen told a news outlet regarding her son’s case.
If you know anything about this case, it’s time to come forward. Two decades on, Pendergrast’s family deserves answers as to what happened to their beloved son and brother. Do the right thing and reach out to the relevant authorities.
Unfortunately, there are few case updates in the disappearance of Matthew Pendergrast.
2013: Letter to Jacksonville Police Department
A letter was written to the Jacksonville Police Department (JPD) that listed a group of people supposedly involved in a missing persons case — potentially the case of Matthew Pendergrast. The JPD followed up on the letter as best they could, but they were unable to substantiate what was being claimed in the letter.
Do You Have Information?
There is currently a $15,000 reward for information in this case. At the time of his disappearance, Michael Pendergrast was 5’6, 110 lbs. with blue eyes and brown hair. He has noticeable dimples when he smiles. If you have information about this case, please reach out to your local FBI office or contact the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Department at (501) 676–6494.
Cold Case Questions
- What do you think happened to Matthew Pendergrast?
- Do you think Pendergrast is still alive?
- Will this case ever be definitively solved?
Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!
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