From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.
OK, so, uh, this week’s episode has significantly worse language than usual. And not only bad language, there’s bad behavior, there’s bad judgment … there’s very bad decisions.
And it all starts with this picture. A guy named Grady told me about it.
PJ: Um, Can you describe the photo to me?
GRADY: Um, it definitely looks like it’s shot on film. it definitely looks like a teenager’s bedroom, maybe like a college kid’s dorm room. Uh, in the center of the frame there’s like a – an unmade twin bed and there is a dude sitting on it, and he’s got like baggy jeans and black skateboard shoes.
PJ: The dude looks like a pudgy metalhead. He’s got long hair, goatee, glasses. He’s clutching a Miller Lite. He’s on the left side of the bed. On the right, all the way on the right, are these two really clean-cut girls. One of them’s wearing a GAP jacket.
GRADY: Like, they might as well be in a completely different room of the house because they’re not looking at him at all, and he’s — has just kind of like a … keep-it-together —
GRADY: — uh, don’t-know-what-to-do-but-just-like-keep-it-together kind of look on his face.
PJ: I first saw the picture a couple years ago, and at the time I didn’t see what made it special. It looked ordinary. A picture you’d look at once and then immediately forget. You’d move on. Except of course, that’s not what happens when people look at this picture. It’s not what happened to Grady — it is not at all what happened to me.
But we’ll get to that.
The photo first showed up on the internet in 2006, on a message board for music nerds called ILX. Somebody’d stumbled across it randomly, and they’d posted it just because they just thought it was really funny. A picture of an awkward silence.
But there’s something else in this photo. The boy in the photo looks so lonely, so out of place. If there was an entire nation dedicated to teenage longing, they’d put his face on the 100 dollar bill.
This user named Roxy was the first one to post it, and she included a caption that I think sort of hints at this.
ROXY: “So not gonna happen.”
PJ: So not gonna happen.
ROXY: Meaning this poor guy is [laughs] —
ROXY: — with these two women. And maybe expects that it is a date or will have some kind of romantic outcome, but as observers of the photo —
ROXY: — we can see that that’s unlikely? I don’t know. It’s pretty mean I guess. [laughs]
PJ: Within minutes of this thing being posted, kids on ILX are tripping over each other to make jokes. Just picture pages and pages of black text on a white background; everybody’s trying to outdo each other. And lots of people are just imagining the dialogue between the boy and the girls on the bed.
GRADY: Um, you know — “Look, just sell us the weed, so we could leave.”
GRADY: Another one: “Don’t let my skin condition fool you, ladies.”
PJ: But pretty quickly, they start to wonder — like, really wonder, what’s going on in this picture?
GRADY: Someone saying like, “What are they doing on his bed?”
How did this boy end up here with these girls?
GRADY: And then someone says like, “What if the bedroom’s one of the girls’ bedrooms?” And then Roxy posts like, “First of all, no one brings a purse into their own room,” um, it’s pretty obvious it’s not a girl’s room.
PJ: There’s a lot of theorizing, but it all comes down to basically one question: “Who is this guy?” And of course, there’s no way to know. This is 2006 — Facebook’s barely a thing, there’s no reverse image search. If you want to stalk somebody online, it’s actually really hard.
So it’s surprising, over the next few hours, how much these ILX message board kids are actually able to figure out just by looking really closely at the photo. Here’s another guy from the board, John.
JOHN: One of the details that someone seized upon was the window AC unit. Th- and that there was like duct tape. And said, you know, “Well, this probably isn’t a dorm room … but it probably isn’t Mom’s house, because she would have central AC. It’s probably someone’s college apartment.”
PJ: They’re able to carbon date the photo by using Photoshop to zoom in on a stray stack of DVD boxes piled on the dresser.
JOHN: There was a copy of, um, Anchorman or Old School or something like that and it’s like, “Oh OK. This isn’t the ‘90s, because those movies came out in the early aughts.”
PJ: And then, they pin down the boy’s location. He’s wearing a Hooters t-shirt, but the t-shirt says “Hooters: King of Prussia.” It’s a suburb of Philly, I actually grew up 15 minutes away from there — famous for the mall. Anyway, they’ve got his location. Now they’re like paleontologists, beholding the entire fossil of some new dinosaur. And like paleontologists, they name their find.
JOHN: We all called, that guy “Wayne.”
PJ: Why Wayne?
JOHN: I think he just looked like a Wayne. [Laughs]
JOHN: [Laughs] Which, I don’t know … like, I think at some point someone started calling him Bill, and they’re like, “No. He’s not a Bill. He’s a Wayne.”
Over the course of that first evening, they over-analyze every possible detail around Wayne — the angle of Wayne’s hand on his knee, the allegedly fake Coach purse on the floor, the textbook with a paper bag cover, a weirdly controversial smudge that turns out to be a speaker wire — until finally, it’s like there’s nothing left to zoom in on.
And it’s then, at 9 p.m., that Roxy — the person who first posted the photo and started the madness — she shows up and she tells them, “I’ve cracked it.”
Roxy has found where the picture originally came from. It’s somebody’s personal webpage, and on that webpage, not only is there the actual original picture, there are tons of other photos taken from the same night that the boy in the photo picture was taken.
GRADY: Uh, I – I just — I remember gasping. Like, I remember my jaw dropping and like gasping. That was just like the best shocking plot twist …
So as the message board zooms out and sees the entire party that happened around Wayne, their feelings about Wayne start to change. They’re seeing all these pictures that Wayne isn’t in. And what they’re seeing in those pictures is that all these other kids — some people on the message board call them jocks, some of them call them rednecks — whatever they are, they’re all the same, and Wayne’s different.
GRADY: Like Wayne didn’t look like he was friends with these people. I think there was like another photograph of him … like Wayne was holding two cans of beer, and someone called him the “Two-Beer Queer” in, like, the caption. And it was like, was that like an affectionate nickname for him, or was this guy really like the guy who just like … hung out with them and he really was like kicked around all the time? Like — was he friends with these guys?
Somebody else on the board sums it up much more concisely.
JOHN: His friend seemed like cunts.
PJ: So, up until this point, everything the message board has done is actually, by today’s standards, almost normal. They’re just early adopters of a kind of judgy stalking that 10 years later is going to be pretty commonplace. Up until this point.
First of all, the investigation — which at this point, remember, is only a few hours old — it ramps up. So, picture a cop show. The same way on cop shows they always map out the criminal organization, they’re trying to do this with just, like, a random group of teeangers. Center of the bulletin board is the boy in the photo, that picture of him sitting on the bed. They want to draw a map of everybody who knows that kid and everybody that those people know.
And so the message board starts with this guy named Ryan.
… Ryan Diehl …
… Ryan Diehl…
Ryan is a soldier who deployed to Iraq. The party was actually his party, the website they found with all the photos also belonged to him.
That really opened it up …
They find this picture of Ryan where he’s got this six pack and he’s jumping off a diving board.
That golden-boy glow …
The important thing about Ryan is he’s popular…
These are not people I would be friends with …
… so when they go to his Myspace, they can get all this other information from all these other people at the party. There’s this guy Tansey, there’s this guy Turnbull, and they’ve all got Myspaces, and so they can look at all these guys’ pictures, just building their dossiers.
… scrounging details …
They can see their messages to one another. They get the name of two girls on the bed, Megan and Laurel —
… start messaging all these people …
— and another person brags about calling Laurel’s mom to get more information about her daughter.
But as invasive as they’re willing to get, as far as they’re willing to go, they never actually get closer to the person they really wanted to know about, to the boy sitting on the bed. They learn just one more thing about him. They find it in some throwaway comment under a photo.
JOHN: Someone referred to him as, “That shadeball, Tommy Loftus.”
PJ: Tommy Loftus. The boy in the photo has a name. Which means that this boy who somehow accidentally — somehow — personified all of human longing for one moment at some house party, he actually exists.
But that is the one and only thing that they can find out about him.
The thread doesn’t die though. For the next nine years, the message board keeps an eye on all of Tommy’s friends. Through Facebook, through Google searches, they watch everybody grow up. High school couples split. People get pregnant, people go bald. Some people move away. The board watches as all these things happen to all these minor characters, but Tommy — it’s like he walked out of that party and disappeared. Grady says they never stopped looking for scraps of him.
GRADY: Even if just it was like … you know, one of his friends that had like … more loose, um, privacy restrictions on their Facebook, like, had posted a picture of like, 2013 Tommy Loftus. That would’ve been like a big, big day on ILX. That would’ve been like huge, you know? But he really did kinda like fade out.
Until January 2015, when the other side makes contact.
Somebody signs up for ILX with the username “WaynesCrew610.”
WaynesCrew610 writes a message. Message says basically, “Hello. The whole time you were watching us, we were watching you. We knew about the thread, and so did Tommy. RIP Wayne.”
GRADY: So everyone starts freaking out. Like, someone says, “Holy shit,” and someone says, “Hi WaynesCrew610,” and someone says, “Wow,” and someone posts two exclamation points. And then I’m the first one to say, “Wait a minute, RIP Wayne?”
PJ: WaynesCrew610 posts a photo.
GRADY: It’s a new picture of Wayne. And it’s like the first new picture of Wayne that we’ve seen, like, in years and years and years, and it’s him at the beach.
PJ: The photo looks like it’s taken on one of those last beach days you steal from early September. Wayne’s wearing sunglasses and a backwards baseball hat. He looks happy. He’s smiling at whoever’s taking the photo.
GRADY: And above it, um, it says, “12/31/85 – 03/12/14,” and there’s a quote from FDR, “To reach a port we must set sail,” um, “Sail not tie at an anchor, sail, not drift.” And then at the bottom it says, “Tommy Loftus, Forever in Our Hearts. DelCo’s finest.”
It’s a memorial photo. And along with it, WaynesCrew610 posts these screenshots from a long group message thread between all the guys that the board had been stalking for all these years. And they’re saying, “Hey, remember that thread about us and Wayne?” And that’s when the people on the board realize how real this all is.
GRADY: A lot of people offered their condolences, and then he says, “You guys were right. Loftus was a great dude. And us, his friends are a bunch of cunts. He was the kind of dude that would do anything for anyone, and loved to make people laugh, often at his own expense. He was obsessed with this thread and would call us up when there was a rather amusing comment or a picture left on here. We’re sure he was just happy to be a source of entertainment for so many people. He was talented and caring, and we’re all lucky to call ourselves his friend.”
PJ: And how, what did you think of that?
GRADY: That was like … I might’ve – I might’ve even started tearing up when I read that. Um … it was like kind of the best possible thing that, you know — I mean after finding out that he had died, this guy that we had kind of … you know, unnecessarily obsessed over, like – but like that post … that was like probably the best thing that you could — that you could hear. That, um, we were right. That this guy was a little bit different from his friends, but his friends loved him.
PJ: Did you — were you able to find out how he died?
PJ: Did you wonder about that?
GRADY: Yeah. I mean, because he was obviously pretty young. He was, what, 29?
PJ: So, I heard about this story, I thought it was interesting, and I’d been working on it for a few weeks when a new producer started at Reply All — Sruthi Pinnamaneni. This was back in February 2015. And I sent her the thread and she was like, “Hey — have you really looked at this memorial photo?”
SP: So it’s a picture of a dude, like really, like, dude-capital-D, he’s like, what do you call that like, hand position he’s making with his hands? He’s like, “Yeahhhhh.” And he has like sunglasses and a backwards baseball hat?
PJ: Basically, it was way too spring break to be a real memorial image of someone. Sruthi said, “It’s just gotta be fake.” Ergo, he didn’t really die, ergo, his friends made this up. Ergo, this was a hoax!
We’d found a death hoax — like, this was exciting.
And so I emailed a bunch of Tommy’s friends. I just said I wanted to talk to them about Tommy and what had happened with him. One of them, Tansey, he writes me back, and he just says, “Tommy’s dead. That’s not enough for you?”
I felt so bad. And I would have stopped — maybe. But Sruthi was like, “No no no, he’s trying to get in your head. He’s messing with you.” Because she’s been doing research, and she can’t find an obituary. More importantly, she’s convinced Tim, our executive producer. He is now fully a Tommy-truther. And Tim has a plan.
He’s like, well, we know that their friend Bill Winans is a bartender at this pub in Upper Darby called Cawley’s — why don’t we just drive down to Pennsylvania, we can stay at your mom’s house, we’ll just like go to the bar and ask him about this in person.
[Car door opens and closes]
PJ: So we go.
TIM: Oh [mic handling sounds], OK. So —
We leave from New York. We cross the line into New Jersey, we cross line into Pennsylvania. Tim was in a great mood. He was really excited.
TIM: Alright, I’m – I’m – I’m–I’m taking a picture! [laughs] [smile-sighs]
But I just kept thinking what if we’re wrong and he is dead … like what a bad thing to get wrong.
PJ: I feel so uncomfortable. Ugh. I ju- ugh.
TIM: Tell me where we are.
PJ: We’re – we’re actually in the suburb that I grew up in. We’re five minutes away from the pub … where Bill Winans works. My stomach just feels like a rock tumbler.
TIM: OK, so now we’re driving, um, through wh-
PJ: This is Route 3 — this is the road.
TIM: “The road.”
PJ: It’s Westchester Pike. We’re gonna … [deep breath] it’s gonna be right here on the left.
TIM: It looks very, very Pennsylvania.
PJ: Yeah, this is every street that I grew up on.
TIM: Sharkey’s Wrangler, there’s the … something Lube. Family Wash Day. Eagle National Bank. Busty’s —
PJ: Busty’s Tavern —
TIM: — Tavern.
PJ: — which is not it, but where we’re gonna pass it.
TIM: Chris’s Pizza, Cawley’s Irish Pub and Restaurant.
PJ: Cawley’s was the first floor of a brick building. Nondescript Irish pub with a neon three-leaf clover in the window. I wanted to vomit.
TIM: There’s a biker gang —
PJ: There’s not a biker gang — is there a biker gang? There’s not a biker gang.
PJ: Oh man, I’m like stopping in an intersection out of anxiety. Every — like my body’s like, “You could go back.”
TIM: [laughs] OK, so, I’m turning this off.
We’d promised Sruthi that no matter what happened in the bar, we’d tell her first, and so the next day we called her.
PJ: Hey. Hold on, I’m gonna bring Tim in, OK?
TIM: Hello, Sruthi.
SRUTHI: Heyyy. I’ve been distracted all day. I’m like, um, yeah. I feel like my brain is totally in Upper Darby.
PJ: OK. So … I’m trying to think where to even start. OK, so we drove down from New York to Upper Darby, and we went straight to Cawley’s.
PJ: We walked in at 7, and the hostess asked us — she was like, “You can sit wherever you want,” and, like, I started to walk toward a table and Tim was like, “PJ.”
PJ: And I was like, “Oh, actually, we were just here to —”
PJ: “Is Bill working tonight?”
HOSTESS: Um, yes, what was your name?
PJ: PJ, he’s not expecting me, but I’m a journalist, I’ve been trying to —
PJ: And she was like, “OK?” And so she walked into the back and then we were sitting there and I was just like staring at Tim cause I was scared to look anywhere else. And then, uh, Bill came out of the kitchen.
SRUTHI: Oh my god.
PJ: Hey, PJ.
PJ: Uh …
SRUTHI: Wha – ?
PJ: … and he was like, “Hey, how can I help you?” and I said, “Hi, my name’s PJ Vogt, I’m a technology journalist and I’m working on this story, um, about Tommy Loftus, and is there any way we could talk about it?” And he was just like, “Yeah, yeah, we can talk about it, can you come back in a couple hours?”
SRUTHI: Oh no.
PJ: So we were like, “OK.”
PJ: So we went and ate something and we came back at 8:25 and we get there and he, he’s like, “Gimme just a minute.” And then he comes out of the kitchen and he’s, like, “I called like a bunch of the other guys who are like involved in all this —”
PJ: “ — they’re just over at the other end of the bar.”
SRUTHI: Oh my god they were all there?!
PJ: They were alllll there.
PJ: I mean not all of them, but many of them were there. Like there were a lot of faces that I recognized.
[sound of noisy bar]
PJ: I feel like I know exactly what’s going to ….
SRUTHI: Were you scared at all, were you like, “They’re going to beat the shit out of me now?”
PJ: There were — it went up and down, but definitely the thought that we were just going to get our asses kicked was near the front of my head.
TIM: So, we get over there into the corner. And there’s a table, and everybody’s just kind of smoking and watching the hockey game that’s above the table, and … Four guys, you could totally recognize them from the website. They’re more like the extras in the photos, but we knew their names at this point. There’s John Tansey, Bill Winans, there’s a guy who — he really didn’t want us to use his name, but we’ll call him Rupert.
SRUTHI: And did one of them admit to being WaynesCrew610 on the thread?
PJ: They’re all WaynesCrew610. They share the login.
TIM: And everybody’s just kind of hanging around and it’s very awkward, and — but then it kind of like, the first engagements come, and it’s sort of defensive, like —
PJ: What the hell’s going on, yeah, absolutely?
VOICE: Same here.
TIM: And we’re explaining, “Listen, we’re not from the message board,” and then this guy John who is actually one of the first people who told PJ to fuck off, over email, he buys me another beer, and then he gets — which I was like, ah, I didn’t want to be drinking, but it was sweet, it was nice, he bought me a beer, did he buy you a beer?
PJ: He bought me a whiskey.
TIM: Bought PJ a whiskey.
TIM: And then, he comes with our drinks, plus five shots of whiskey —
TIM: — we all have a round of whiskey, this is in the first five minutes, right, so I was a little like, oh fuck, we are in for a long night.
SRUTHI: But also good, right, cuz they’re gonna talk. But wait, go a few steps back, like, first of all — I have so many questions. I mean, Tommy — is he alive?
PJ: When we walked in I was completely convinced he was alive, and then we started talking to them and the realness of everything kind of set in. Like …
SRUTHI: Oh shit, OK.
TIM: They didn’t even talk about Tommy for the first — Tommy was the elephant in the room for half an hour?
PJ: Yeah. And finally they said they’d talk about it but we couldn’t record. So Bill, he had been quiet for a really long time, and then he was just like, “I don’t understand what it is about that picture.” He’s like, you know, “Who has not had the party where your parents go away for the weekend to the shore, and you get to use the house, there’s like one room where everyone’s drinking, one room where everyone’s smoking, and like a guy’s upstairs on a bed with some girls — like, I don’t understand why these people were so fascinated.”
TIM: And he’s even like a little pissed while he’s saying it, he’s not like, “I don’t understand,” he’s like, “What’s the big deal about that fucking picture? It’s like, who hasn’t seen a picture like that?”
PJ: Yeah, like, “What are you gawking at?”
SRUTHI: What did you guys say when he said that?
PJ: Rupert was like — “Well, its iconic, like it’s not that it’s weird, it’s that it’s a thing that everyone’s experienced so it feels rich and you, like, put yourself into it.” They said like, “Those guys made all these predictions about us.” Rupert, said like, “They predicted I was going to go to jail and I had just got out of jail.”
SRUTHI: Oh shit.
PJ: And they were like, “And they predicted Diehl was gonna be the guy who got out of here and Diehl got out of here,” and all this stuff. And then, I think, that’s when we started talking about it, right?
PJ: So they said, “Tommy was the kind of guy, like … you know, we’d be at a party, and he’d chug a whole bottle of maple syrup to make people laugh. And they said, like, their version of him that he was a loser was totally wrong. Like, the reason he had that haircut was, like, a bet, like it was a bet to see who — him and this other kid — who could grow their hair the longest. Like he was a goofball, but he was a goofball where the joke was not on him.
PJ: Um, and then finally, Tim said, like, “Do you mind if I ask what happened?”
TIM: Yeah, yeah. And then, uh, Rupert — Rupert’s not looking, he’s looking up at the hockey game, and he’s smoking a cigarette, and he’s speaking in a very slow, heavy manner … he says like, “Yeah, like Tommy got into bad stuff.”
PJ: Basically he was like, “Look, I don’t want to get too much into it, but he had substance abuse issues, and his dad died, and things got worse after that.” And he said he found out that Tommy died while he was in jail, and he was like, “That was not a call that I enjoyed getting.”
SRUTHI: Oh shit. I feel like I know him after researching the hell out of him. Obviously, I don’t, but suddenly the whole thing feels so much more intrusive and disrespectful, and like wrong. But — so, he dies, what the hell makes them think of posting to the message board?
PJ: I think they said that they had gone back a while after, and just been surprised that it was still there. And they thought, like, because they had in the end gotten a kick out of the message board, it was like, “We should tell these people how this story ended,” basically. Like “We should tell these people about the person they were always so curious about.”
SRUTHI: It’s like the one place he kind of had celebrity almost.
PJ: Yeah. So then like, yeah, we went home, we woke up today, and we felt like the frustration of feeling like we thought we were going to know more than we did. We thought we were going to get closer to this person, whether he was alive or he was dead. And so we just decided — we went to the cemetery, like his family plot.
TIM: Ritter, Pickard, Sukato Kayo, Lindgren, Angle …
SRUTHI: Uh huh.
PJ: He’s not buried there.
SRUTHI: So where’s he buried?
PJ: I don’t think he’s buried at all.
SRUTHI: [Long pause] What? Shut the fuck up!
PJ: I think they’re completely lying to us.
SRUTHI: [Long pause] Noooooo.
PJ: Can I tell you some things that in retrospect do not add up?
SRUTHI: I can’t believe you did this to me! I knew it, you just pranked me man!
SRUTHI: All the somber tones, oh my god, I feel totally, like, led on.
PJ: Coming up after the break: to reach a port, we must set sail.
PJ: It should be right here. Like right here.
TIM: Evans, Riley.
PJ: Riley … Loftus!
TIM: Oh yeah, there’s straight up nothing. “Boy in Photo is Not in Ground; Boy
Walks Among Us” is my theory.
PJ: We’d told Sruthi the story of what happened when we went to the bar to meet Tommy’s friends. But there was another version of that story, and that version started the exact same way. With us walking into the bar and talking to the hostess.
Hostess: What was your name?
PJ: PJ. He’s not expecting me, but — I’m a journalist, I’ve been trying to —
Hostess: No problem.
But the moment Bill came out the kitchen, we started seeing these clues that pointed to another version of what might have happened to Tommy.
SRUTHI: Alright, tell me, what are the clues?
PJ: OK, so first of all when we first got to the bar and we talked to Bill and we asked him, I said, “D-d-d-,” I was like stammering, and whatever — and then I said, “Tommy Loftus.” And he looked to his left, and he looked to his right, and then he smirked at us. And then he said, “Yeah, I can talk to you at 8:30.” And that smirk was ––
TIM: — it was a quick little thing, that — it’s like there and gone like a summer day.
PJ: And like when we came back to the bar, he was totally withdrawn, and somber-faced and whatever.
PJ: And then, fuckin’ mastermind Tim Howard, at the end of the night, Tim goes —
TIM: I was like, “The in memoriam card had a quote on it that I didn’t recognize, like ‘To set sail you can’t tie anchor,’ whatever,” and Rupert is like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, FDR.”
PJ: Yeah, he says, “Yeah yeah yeah, FDR.”
TIM: Why — I’d never heard that quote, why that quote? And he goes, “Tommy was a staunch Republican.”
PJ: Huh and what is exactly right.
TIM: Because we’re both a little drunk, but we both immediately are like, FDR was not a staunch Republican.
PJ: And yeah, when we asked, at one point, somehow, we asked, “When did he die?” and it was like, a lot of dates got said very quickly, and none of them were right. Tim was like, “Was it a couple years ago?” and someone sort of half-agreed with him, and then somebody else was like, “Uh, 13 months ago?” and then someone said, “Yeah, last May.” The card says March.
SRUTHI: March 2014.
PJ: No one forgets when their friend died last year. Particularly off by a season.
PJ: So we got off the phone with Sruthi, and then just to be 100% sure that we had this right, there’s one other thing we realized we could check. The guys at the bar had said that before Tommy died, he used to work at this local painting company. And it turns out the local painting company had a very robust YouTube presence. And so we got on my mom’s computer, and we watched this recruitment video that they’d published after the date that Tommy had supposedly died.
[Mac volume key sound]
VOICE ON VIDEO: When I hire a painter, I’m looking for somebody who’s nice and friendly —
TIM: Wait wait wait.
VIDEO: — who really wants to satisfy customers. In fact, my saying is, “Hire nice, and train painting.” We have a full curriculum — from customer service to prepping and painting. All the people that work for Nolan Painting are employees full time —
PJ and TIM: (yelling) That’s him, that’s him!
PJ: — where you clearly see Tommy.
TIM: That’s awesome!
PJ: That’s him, that’s totally him.
Tommy was alive. I couldn’t wait to talk to him. I had so many questions, like, “Who are you? What do you think abou this whole ridiculous thing? Are you anything like that kid in the photo?” My mom, meanwhile, was watching me and Tim go crazy about a painting YouTube video in her living room, and she was like, “Wait … if he doesn’t want to talk to you, why are you trying to talk to him?”
And everybody in my family felt this way, including my dad, who almost never agrees with my mom about anything. And so they got in my head. I went back to New York, and just like for three months, all I wanted to do was avoid the story.
I’d just suggest other stories that we could do. And Tim and Sruthi would be like, “What’s going on with the boy in the photo?” And finally, they won. And me and Sruthi went back to Philly.
PJ: Taking a right here.
PJ: Oh my god I’m so obvious.
PJ: It’s here, I think.
SRUTHI: That’s it.
When we’d first started researching him, we turned up a lot of possible addresses for a Thomas Loftus. But there was one right around the corner from the painting company. That seemed like it had to be his home.
SRUTHI: Let’s just, um …
PJ: I can pull up here.
It was a three story Victorian on a quiet street. Sruthi went and checked out the neighborhood while I went to the house. I sat in the car for a while just staring at it.
PJ: [Mic handling sounds] Hey. My name is PJ Vogt, are you Tommy Loftus? [zipper sound] Hi, my name’s PJ Vogt. Hey, Tommy? Hey, Tommy. My name’s PJ Vogt, I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for over a year. Do you have a second to talk? [pause] OK.
[Car door opens]
[Car door slams shut, wind sound]
PJ: In the driveway, I saw a nice sedan and a pickup truck, and I saw a little girl’s bicycle tipped over on its side by the back steps.
I walked up the porch to the front door.
And then I saw it.
Right next to the door I was knocking on, was another door.
Peering through it, I could see a mailbox for an upstairs apartment. The letters were sort of scratched off, but I thought I could make out “LOFTUS.” So Tommy lived upstairs.
Which meant: the girls’ bike, the nice car — they were probably his landlord’s.
I stepped back off the porch into the yard and I looked up. Every window on the second floor was closed, every blind was pulled down. And I just felt this sense of foreboding.
The whole time that I’d been chasing Tommy, I’d been telling myself the story needed an ending and it was gonna be Tommy who got to tell it.
But now I finally understood. Whatever had happened in Tommy’s life, he didn’t want to share it. He already said what he wanted to say, and it was the same thing he’d told the message board people: nothing.
But then Sruthi got back in the car.
SRUTHI: They don’t live here anymore.
Come on! We’d had an ending. Sruthi says, “Listen, here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re going around the corner, we’re gonna go to the paint company, and we’re gonna try to catch Tommy as he gets off work.”
So a minute later, we’re there. We’re at the paint company. My heart’s in my throat, we’re getting out of the car, there’s these two women standing outside smoking a cigarette. And we ask them, “Hey, is Tommy around?” And they’re like, “Tommy Loftus? Actually — he doesn’t work here anymore. But you want his phone number?”
PJ: Back in the car, on a random residential block, I take out my phone, punch in the number for the boy in the photo.
PJ: My hands are shaking.
[Phone beep sound]
PJ: Oh shit.
[Deep breath and exhalation]
PJ: Should I leave a message?
[Phone rings one more time]
TOMMY LOFTUS: Hello?
PJ: Hi, Tommy?
TOMMY: Uh, yes.
PJ: Hey! This is PJ Vogt. I’m that reporter who’s working on the story about the insane prank that you pulled on the message board.
TOMMY: Uh, what was that?
PJ: My name’s PJ Vogt. I’m a reporter — I talked to your friends a few months ago. I’m working on a story about the insane, hilarious message board prank.
TOMMY: Oh, what, for uh … What was — I’m trying to think what the prank was?
PJ: The thing where they were being dicks and then, like you guys said that you had died?
TOMMY: Oh … um … I’m trying to think … aw man, what the hell? I can’t really remember. [laughs]
PJ: Wait. Are you messing with me?
TOMMY: I don’t — I don’t really recall what’s – what you’re talking about or what’s going on.
PJ: Can I – can I try to explain? It’s like, I don’t think — it’s like a funny story, not like a bad story. Do you have a sec?
TOMMY: Uh … uh, I guess.
PJ: OK so, literally two years ago…
I calmed down, and I tried to give him the shortest version of a very long story. How I’d found out about the message board, how the message board had found out about him. We ended up back at the beginning, and I tried to see if I could jog his memory about the photo itself.
PJ: So, do you know about this picture? That, that —
TOMMY: I have, I have a – I have a vague memory. I think I have — it’s a picture of me with like two girls or something?
PJ: Yes. Sitting on like a mattress. Like you are just a normal kid wearing jeans and a Hooters shirt. You’re sitting at the edge of a bed. And then there’s these two girls who look like normal girls with blond hair sitting next to you.
PJ: And you’re holding a beer and they’re holding beers.
TOMMY: Do I have long hair in the picture?
TOMMY: OK. That was awhile ago, man. OK.
PJ: Do you remember even like — is this high school?
TOMMY: This has to be … either high school or a year or two after high school.
PJ: Got it. And —
PJ: Do you remember — you don’t remember like the party or wherever that was?
TOMMY: No. Back in those days I went to a lot of parties, so … [Laughs]
So, Tommy said all the parties kinda blurred together. But as I started to tell him about the message board, he said, “Oh yeah, I think my friends actually showed me that.”
TOMMY: Like they would show me the picture like, “Oh look at this, they think your name’s Wayne.” I’m like, “Ah, that’s cool.” You know, I just, you know disregarded it completely.
PJ: Did you feel anything about it?
TOMMY: Nah! Nah, I was just like, “Alright, whatever,” you know. It’s people on the internet, you know, messing around, you know?
PJ: But you didn’t, did you know that they were this obsessed?
TOMMY: Absolutely not.
I was floored. It turned out the reason there was no trace of Tommy on the Internet, it wasn’t because he was hiding, it was because — get this — he didn’t care about the internet. I know. And his friends, they hadn’t faked his death as some desperate rescue attempt to save him from cyberbullying. They’d done it cause they thought it was funny. They only showed him the fake memorial photo they’d cooked up afterwards.
TOMMY: Well they showed me that picture, and I was like, “What the fuck?” Like —
TOMMY: Sorry, I, yeah, I didn’t mean to curse.
PJ: Oh, you can curse. [Laughs]
TOMMY: OK, alright. I was like, “What, what the?” You know? And I was like, “Jesus, that escalated.” And I guess, my sense of humor is kind of like a — you know, it’s kind of dry. Like a dark, dry humor, so I got it right away. I was like, “Oh, that’s funny!”
TOMMY: So it’s like — cause I think the only person that they could probably pass this off on would be me? I mean, I didn’t care so I was like, whatever, man. Do whatever you want.
PJ: Like anybody else would have been like, “What are you doing telling strangers I’m dead?” And you’re like, “Ah that’s kind of funny.”
TOMMY: Yeah, exactly.
I wondered why his friends hadn’t at least told him that me and Tim’s had visited the bar — but Tommy said that actually they’d texted him around then, he’d just forgotten to get back to them. I still wanted to know who Tommy had been back when the photo was taken, and at this point all I really had to go on was what his friends had said.
PJ: The impression I had from talking to the guys — and they were also saying that you died, so I don’t know if this is true or not true.
PJ: But they were like, they kind of described you as like, almost like a Chris Farley-type. Like they were like, “Oh he’s the kind of guy — he would like drink a jug of maple syrup to make a girl laugh,” basically.
TOMMY: Yeah, that’s pretty much how I was back then.
PJ: Is that true? Did you drink a jug of maple syrup?
TOMMY: Uh … it, it wasn’t jug …
TOMMY: For some odd reason, I kept doing it at parties, and then it became a thing, and then I was like, aw, Jesus Christ.
PJ: That’s who I kind of was too. It’s like you get the laugh but then you kind of have a stomach ache sometimes about the laugh. You’re like — I mean not from maple syrup — but you’re just like, “I don’t know if I want to keep getting this specific laugh.”
TOMMY: Yeah, I was that kind of guy.
But Tommy said that not long after high school, he stopped being that guy. It had a lot to do with this car accident he was in. It was rainy day and his brakes locked up. His car slid into a bus. The doctors said if Tommy were any taller, he would’ve been decapitated.
PJ: Did you ever think about — I don’t want to say what your — like did you ever think about that moment?
TOMMY: Uh …
PJ: It’s sort of a dumb question from me. I guess what I mean was like, did your life feel differently afterwards, like did you think like —
TOMMY: Oh, yeah!
TOMMY: Yeah, yeah. And the funny thing is that picture, uh, I mean within the last few years, that’s another thing. Like I got started trying to get back in shape and stuff like that. So, I don’t look like that guy at all. Like, you know? I mean, I’m still the same height obviously but, you know, everything else about me is pretty much changed. You know I got priorities, my priorities are straight now. Now I got — I got my partying out in my twenties is what I like to say.
Tommy says that picture — it’s like a final snapshot of this person he used to be. He’s cut back on his drinking, he doesn’t really see the guys that he hung out with in high school that much either. He’s too busy trying to start his own painting company.
I found myself asking Tommy questions that were like the kind of questions you’d ask an old friend you’d just run into. I think I was just so relieved that things had turned out alright for him, that he seemed like such a good dude. Even though I was a total stranger, we ended up talking on the phone for an hour. And at the end of it, I told him,
“By the way, I hope this isn’t too weird, but I have a present for you.”
PJ: Yeah, I got you a Hooters shirt from King of Prussia.
TOMMY: Oh wow. [Laughs]
TOMMY: That’s funny! [Laughs] I guess it’s a memento, I guess.
PJ: That’s exactly what I meant it to be.
PJ: Alright, cool. I’m really glad you’re alive. [Laughs]
TOMMY: Yeah, yeah. I know, so am I.
PJ: Alright, have a good one.
TOMMY: Alright, you too, PJ.
I checked the message board one last time this week, and the thread’s still going. Nobody there knows Tommy’s alive. WaynesCrew610 actually still shows up from time to time — always promising more more Wayne photos, never delivering. The board’s still waiting.
Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. Our show was produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos, Damiano Marchetti, Katherine Wells, and Chris Neary. Our executive producer is Tim Howard. We were edited by Peter Clowney. Production assistance from Thane Fay. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Special thanks to Sherina Ong, Emily Kennedy, Mark Slutsky, and Jorge Just.
Extra special thanks to Breakmaster Cylinder, who composed original scoring for this episode, and Nancy Warren, who provided free lodging for our reporters in the field.
Matt Lieber is a perfect Halloween costume.
Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, and our ad music is by Build Buildings. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next week.
PJ: You know what I mean?
PJ: Like I keep finding myself trying to come up with justifications for why it’s OK to be paying attention to this, which is not something I’m used to be doing.
SRUTHI: The thing that drives you, the thing that drives me for sure, is, it’s these guys did a thing —
PJ: That’s the Skatium, that’s where I learned how to ice skate. Sorry. [Laughs] I had my first Cherry Coke there.
SRUTHI: I love that that’s a moment in your life.
PJ: It was the best drink I’ve ever had in my life. We had this crazy — it was my first practice, and I was horrible at hockey, obviously. And it was just some brutal coach who was like, “Crossovers! Backwards skating!” blah blah blah, and he wouldn’t let us drink water. And then practice ended and I had a dollar in my pocket. And I went to the soda machine and I was like, “They have Cherry Coke, I’ll try that.” And it was like, so cold, and so refreshing, and I obviously should have been drinking water, but it was the best drink I’ve ever had in my life, right there at the Skatium. I can’t believe it’s still there.
SRUTHI: See, this town’s not all pain.
PJ: No, that was the end of a story of lots of — like, all that is is, “I stopped feeling pain after a while.” I also choked on a hot dog there.
PJ: My coach was like, “Eh, Peter, Peter, what, you’re gonna choke on a hot dog?” This guy had a fucking DUI that was in the newspaper. It’s like, “Yeah, I choked on a hot dog. It’s not a choice I made.”