Mystery of Freshman's Disappearance Ends Grimly

Author: Ed Cohen

Like most students, Chad Sharon was ready to unwind after the last day of fall semester classes.

Five days separated him from his first final exam. So around 11, when a group of guys from his dorm said they were driving to a party off campus and invited him along, the freshman hopped in the car.

By 1 a.m. his friends were ready to leave the party, which was at a house on Corby Boulevard, south of campus. The friends said Chad was still enjoying himself, so he declined a ride home. He said he would walk the five or six blocks back to campus. He assured them he knew the way.

That was the last they saw of him.

Two months to the day later, on February 12, the campus learned what had become of the Fisher Hall resident and honor student from rural Wisconsin. His body was discovered floating in shallows of the Saint Joseph River under the Angela Street bridge west of campus. An autopsy determined he had drowned, but there was no sign of a struggle or foul play. The coroner ruled the death an accident.

Further tests showed the body had a blood alcohol level of 224 milligrams per deciliter, close to three times the Indiana standard for driving while intoxicated, said Rex Rakow, director of Notre Dame Security/Police. However, Rakow, familiar with such tests, said little could be concluded from the finding because blood alcohol content tends to rise as bodies decompose, plus a standard for impaired driving isn’t especially relevant to a case of someone who was on foot.

It remains a mystery, therefore, how Chad Sharon ended up in the frigid waters of the Saint Joseph. Did he fall? Was he chased? Was he pushed? Did he jump in?

Suicide does not appear to be a possibility as by all accounts the freshman was in good spirits. He had been hired as web designer for Scholastic magazine (as of late February, his own elaborate website——was still operating). He had joined an Irish dance club. According to reports he was getting all As and one B. Fellow residents of Fisher Hall called him “Smiling Chad.”

At a press conference on campus in January, when the freshman was still missing, father Steve Sharon told reporters that when his son came home for Thanksgiving and was asked what he thought of Notre Dame, his answer was, “I just love it.”

Sharon attended high school in the small town of Merrill in north-central Wisconsin. He was a straight-A student and president of the senior class, the student council and the local National Honor Society. He was reportedly attending Notre Dame on a full academic scholarship reserved for students from the Merrill area.

An only child, he kept in near-daily contact with his parents fall semester, usually via computer, instant-messaging his mother, Jane Sharon. She had chatted online with him the day he disappeared. Earlier he told her he had purchased sweatshirts at the campus bookstore for Christmas presents. The parents carried these back home after their trip to campus in January.

Police interviewed 58 people who had been at the party. Alcohol was being served, as is typical of off-campus parties, and some remembered seeing Sharon, 18, drinking, but they said he didn’t appear to be stumbling drunk.

No one recalled seeing him leave, but piecing together witness statements, police determined that the freshman probably exited the house between 2 and 2:15 a.m.

A week after the freshman’s disappearance, police uncovered their only potential lead. A security guard at the Madison Center for Children on Niles Avenue, a few blocks from the party house, told police he recalled talking with a person matching the freshman’s description—5-10, blond hair, slight of build, wearing a rust-red all-weather jacket—around 4 that morning when the guard was on a smoking break. The guard said the young man asked directions to a convenience store, and the guard directed him toward the 7-Eleven at Niles and LaSalle Avenue.

But the convenience store’s employees said no one matching Sharon’s description came in that night, and there was no sign of the freshman on the store’s security camera tapes.

Thinking Sharon may have been looking for a pay phone, police subpoenaed the records of all public phones in the area for that night, but this also turned up no leads.

Even if the security guard’s recollection was accurate, it doesn’t explain the more than 90 minutes that appears to have elapsed from when Sharon left the party to his sighting at the Madison Center. Temperatures that night were in the high 20s.

As weeks passed with no further clues, the search focused increasingly on the river. Two search dogs initially picked up a scent at the river, but when other dogs were substituted to confirm the finding, they were unable to do so, Security/Police Chief Rakow said. Though his family lived on a lake, Chad was not considered to be a strong swimmer.

As of early February the University and 10 local businesses were offering a combined $50,000 reward for information leading to his safe return, but it turned up no leads.

The body was discovered by an employee of a concrete cutting company who was examining the bridge to calculate an estimate on work. Rakow said it was possible that the body had been caught on underwater debris upriver and windy conditions the night before helped dislodge it.

A memorial Mass was held February 25 in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart with the Sharon parents attending. The University is establishing a memorial fund in Chad’s name. For information on contributing, contact the development office at 574-631-5150 or 574-631-9385.