A runner went missing. Detectives say it's an 'unprecedented' mystery


It seemed like the breakthrough search-and-rescue teams had been hoping for.

Eight days after missing runner Philip Kreycik was last seen, a crew of expert rappellers descended deep into a ravine at Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park and emerged with scraps of a T-shirt.

But the shirt, much like earlier, equally fruitless clues, yielded no answers in the sprawling search that has frustrated authorities and mystified those who know the Harvard-educated father of two.

For detectives used to resolving missing person cases within hours or days, the 37-year old’s disappearance has seemingly defied logic.

“I can’t even speculate on this one — it’s very, very odd,” said Sgt. Aaron Fountain, investigations chief for the Pleasanton Police Department.

The mystery occupying Fountain and his department’s six detectives began the morning of July 10, when Kreycik left home to go running and did not return.

According to police, the Berkeley resident drove 32 miles to the Pleasanton recreation area, where he left his car in a small parking lot at the base of a residential cul-de-sac with sweeping views stretching to the foothills of Mount Diablo.

Video: Alameda County Sheriff’s Office

The region was under an excessive heat warning that day. Temperatures in the East Bay topped 100 degrees.

Around 11 a.m., Kreycik told his wife he was setting out from the parking lot for a one-hour run, police said.

Three hours later, when Kreycik failed to show up at a family engagement at his in-laws’ home in Stockton, his wife, Jen Yao, phoned police to report him missing, Pleasanton police Lt. Erik Silacci said. Police responding to the parking lot found Kreycik’s cell phone and wallet inside his parked car.

Attempts to reach Kreycik’s family were unsuccessful.

Within two hours of Yao’s call, police commenced a search that would eventually encompass hundreds of personnel from more than a dozen government agencies and an army of volunteers.

Civilian searchers started a Facebook page to pool tips, tools and theories about Kreycik’s route and whereabouts.

Kreycik, an ultra-marathon runner, is believed to have used a running app to map out his intended route through the park’s winding, sun-scorched hills. Police believe he was wearing a smart watch to record his speed and heart-rate during the planned 8-mile run, but the watch did not have a cellular connection for tracking.

“We know Philip is a highly analytical type guy,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. “He did things with precision.”

Kreycik’s planned route was a “groomed, manicured trail” where he would have been unlikely to fall into a ravine or become trapped in an inaccessible location, Kelly said.

“If he went off his defined route, then we get into those questions — could he have fallen or slipped,” Kelly said.

Search-and-rescue teams scoured Kreycik’s planned route, then branched out to more remote sections of the park. Volunteers on electric mountain bikes zigzagged the hilly terrain. Other volunteers logged thousands of miles on foot.

An airplane equipped with highly sensitive thermal-imaging technology scanned the ridge line for human body heat on four consecutive nights.

The possibility that a disoriented or dehydrated Kreycik became lost seemed unlikely, officials said. An experienced outdoorsman, he often exercised outdoors on hot days. The park was dotted with drinking water dispensers for runners and troughs for livestock.

Officials entertained the possibility that Kreycik had been attacked by a mountain lion, but found no evidence to suggest it. Searchers did, however, find carcasses of animals eaten by lions. The fact that the urban East Bay recreation area probably saw hundreds of weekend visitors the day Kreycik vanished further discounted the mountain lion scenario.

“This is a heavily traveled park,” said Ron Seitz, search-and-rescue chief for Alameda County.

Investigators gave a dog trained in scent detection one of Kreycik’s unwashed shirts. The dog had once successfully located its trainer among a crowd of thousands at Cal Stadium — “That’s how good they are,” Kelly said — yet it lost the Berkeley father’s scent.

Searchers grew more flummoxed with each passing day.

On July 13, three days after Kreycik vanished, someone found blood droplets on a rock. A sample sent to a crime lab determined the blood belonged to a wild animal.

The next day, a bystander reported hearing cries for help in a Sunol canyon, at the southernmost tip of the park. A team of volunteers mobilized to search the canyon late into the night, but found nothing.

After four days, authorities announced they would “scale back” their hunt for Kreycik, citing the paucity of clues and the diminishing likelihood that he would be found alive.

“We are left with two probabilities,” Kelly told reporters at a news conference. “One is that we are not finding Philip in the terrain and that he is incapacitated. Or, he’s not there.”

Three days later, the expert ropes team found the T-shirt in the ravine, but Kreycik’s family told investigators it wasn’t a match.

Detectives have continued to parse the runner’s whereabouts in the days and minutes before he went missing. They have interviewed family members, friends and colleagues, but have found “no indicators that there is any criminal activity afoot,” according to Fountain from the Pleasanton Police Department.

Through a public tip line, detectives have received five to 10 reports of Kreycik sightings daily, he said, yet none has yielded fresh leads.

In his two-decade career, Fountain said he has never seen such a baffling missing person case.

Seitz has led Alameda County’s search-and-rescue efforts for 45 years, but called the weeks-long hunt for Kreycik unprecedented.

“People don’t typically get lost in Alameda County,” he said.

Nearly two weeks after the search began, authorities have not found a single clue to explain the Berkeley father’s sudden disappearance.

“We’ve come up empty,” Kelly said. “I mean empty.

Nora Mishanec is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: nora.mishanec@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @NMishanec