LA PAZ, Bolivia — After an unusually long lapse in communication with her son, Sheila Poirier called the Peace Corps in Bolivia to tell them she was concerned about him. Two days later, on March 6, 2001, Walter J. Poirier was officially declared missing, and neither U.S. nor Bolivian authorities have been able to figure out what happened.
When Mrs. Poirier called, Peace Corps officials did not even know where the 22-year-old was living in the Zongo Valley, a mountainous, tropical-forest region about two hours north of La Paz, the capital, and where he had been sent by the foreign-service agency to organize an ecotourism project.
Later, investigators went to his small room in the Zongo Valley and found, among other personal items, his wallet. It contained about $12, credit cards and all his personal IDs, suggesting that Mr. Poirier had not strayed far. Neighbors said they did not see him enter or leave the room during the period he became missing.
Now, nearly four years later, officials can only presume Mr. Poirier is dead. But his family and others familiar with the case say they think the U.S. Embassy, the Peace Corps and Bolivian officials botched the investigation.
Mr. Poirier’s parents, Walter Sr. and Mrs. Poirier, say that most recently, the U.S. Embassy halfheartedly followed up a lead from authorities in August in which a Bolivian kidnapping victim claimed to have overheard what had happened to their son’s body.
“This is the best lead to have surfaced since the disappearance of our son,” the Poiriers said in an e-mail from Lowell, Mass., the hometown of the missing volunteer. The Massachusetts congressional delegation also has been critical of the investigation.
In 2001, a General Accounting Office investigation, done at the request of Rep. Martin T. Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat, found the Peace Corps at fault, saying it had failed “to properly supervise Mr. Poirier and lost track of him.”
In 2002, a GAO study concluded that major physical assaults on the 7,533 Peace Corps volunteers had more than doubled in the preceding decade and that organizational problems likely had worsened the problem.
“This investigation has been mishandled since the beginning,” Mr. Meehan said. “While the Peace Corps may have instituted changes, they have been too little too late as far as Walter Poirier and his family” are concerned.
Barbara Daly, a spokeswoman for Peace Corps, said that at the request of the Poiriers, the agency is maintaining their son in “active status,” which allows it to continue to investigate. “We have been investigating, and will continue to do so,” she said from Washington.
Mr. Poirier joined the Peace Corps shortly after graduating from Notre Dame University in 2000 and had been in Bolivia for about six months when he was declared missing. An extensive search was carried out soon by U.S. and Bolivian authorities in the Zongo Valley, near the room where he stayed and at places he frequented.
In addition, a publicity campaign was conducted on Bolivian radio and television, and in newspapers. At the insistence of the Poiriers, the Peace Corps recently boosted to $50,000 the reward for information leading to the recovery of their son’s body. The family is contributing half the amount.
But U.S. authorities said they have gotten nowhere.
“The effort to obtain additional information on the disappearance of Walter Poirier has been extremely frustrating,” the U.S. Embassy said. “Despite a number of apparently promising leads, every trail thus far has been unproductive.”
In June, under pressure from Mr. Meehan and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry, the Peace Corps agreed to hire a full-time investigator. The unidentified investigator began work in September and was given six weeks to do an in-country assessment, said a Bolivian private investigator hired to assist him.View Entire Story
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