With the help of CCTV cameras, mobile phone tracking and social media, police are now able to bring home missing people within record time. In fact, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology‘s statistical bulletin from November 2016, there were an average of 38,159 people reported as missing each year between 2008 and 2015. Around 60 per cent of those people are found or return home on their own accord within the first 48 hours of the report being made and a whopping 98 per cent of those people are located, usually alive. But what exactly happens to that 2 per cent? What happens to those few people who vanish off the face of the earth with barely a single trace left behind? More importantly, how is it possible, in this day and age, to completely disappear?
The Lead Up
Tej Chitnis was born on the 22nd of November 1994 to loving Indian parents Reva and Jayant Chitnis. He also became the younger brother to Rudra Chitnis, who was four years older. His home life in Bonview Crescent, Burwood East, was by all accounts normal. He was close with his family, never afraid to have a good heart-to-heart chat with his caring mother, and always arrived back to his family home by 4 pm each day with a smile on his face.
Described as goofy, helpful and friendly, Tej had a close circle of friends by his side. In fact, these friends were so close to Tej that Reva Chitnis stated to SBS Punjabi that they ‘still have dinners’ at the Chitnis house.
An intelligent boy with a love of all things learning, Tej began to study Health Science at the Geelong Deakin University campus, aspiring to get into medicine. It was an hour-long trip via train from the Blackburn Railway Station, but it was a trip that Tej never seemed to mind. He did well in his studies, too, proudly sharing his High Distinction marks with his friends and family.
He certainly wasn’t lazy, either. When he wasn’t studying, he was hard at work at his part-time Office Works job, adding a little money to his savings and no doubt spending some on his beloved 2005 hatchback VW Golf, a car which Reva says ‘he probably loved more than anything else’.
To the outside world, Tej’s life was nothing short of perfect. None of them knew the secret Tej was hiding.
The Day Of
April 27th 2016 was a special day for the Chitnis family. It marked Tej’s father, Jayant’s, 60th birthday and they had planned to go out for dinner together that night, having booked it months in advance. It was an event that Tej, a true family man at heart, would never miss for the world.
At 10 am that morning, Tej left to meet up with some friends. He was to drive to the Blackburn Railway Station as usual, taking the train to Melbourne City. According to his family, there was nothing odd about this request at all. Tej had a close group of friends and, having taken the train for years to get to Deakin University, he was certainly transport-savvy enough to make his way into town.
Tej’s certainly didn’t forget about that night’s dinner plans, though, telling his parents not to leave for dinner until he’d gotten home. He planned to make a quick change of clothes and carpool with the rest of his family.
His family did leave without him that night, however, as the ever-so-punctual Tej never arrived home.
Behind Closed Doors
Reva and Jayant were suspicious the moment they left for dinner. It wasn’t like Tej to stay out late, and it certainly wasn’t like Tej to miss his father’s birthday celebrations. That sense of dread only built further when Tej didn’t return home that night at all and it wasn’t long before the Chitnis family made the decision to call the police and report Tej as a missing person.
The police, by most accounts, took Tej’s disappearance very seriously. They began their investigation by releasing a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) on Tej’s car: that beloved 2005 VW Golf, a silver hatchback with the number plate ‘TTF 517’ and started to trace Tej’s phone. They asked the Chitnis family for information about Tej – anything that might give a hint as to why he’d gone – and Reva mother mentioned a conversation she’d had with him a few weeks prior, where Tej explained that he was uncertain about his future. Reva, likely put it down to the stresses of University life – a mid-study crisis Uni students know all too well – and told Tej that he should take a break from everything for a while. He was still young, after all, and he had all the time in the world to worry about picking a career. This, of course, peaked police interest. Could Tej’s stress have been more severe than he’d described to his mother? Was it possible that this crisis had gotten the better of him?
Tej’s stories of University life, however, quickly came crashing down when police made a shocking discovery: Tej hadn’t been attending Uni for the past 2 years. His family were in awe. Tej had been not only convincing his parents he’d been attending University, but his closest friends, too, and nobody had suspected a thing.
It appeared his story about ‘catching up with friends’ was false, too. Tej’s brother Rudra stated, ‘his Vodafone records show his mobile phone was switched off at 11:26 am’ and that there was one last ‘ping’ from his phone at 11:49 am. These phone records, however, were traced not to the centre of Melbourne, but to Healesville; a small country town known for its thick bushlands. Police also found CCTV footage of Tej’s VW Golf heading east on the Maroondah Highway, towards the Maroondah highway and Green Street intersection.
Although this was a big break for police, it raised a lot of questions, too. Healesville was approximately an hour away from Bonview Crescent, where the Chitnis’ lived, and the complete opposite way to where Tej said he was going. There was no family of Tej’s living in Healesville and as far as Tej’s friends and family knew, he had no connections in Healesville at all. He’d never mentioned Healesville in passing to anyone he knew, and he’d certainly never told anyone he was planning on travelling there.
Tej’s phone has never pinged since. Reva Chitnis, in an interview with SBS Punjabi, says that Tej’s bank account, which had a large sum of money in it, ‘was opened by [her] when he was very little, so it’s still linked to our accounts, so I can see it’, adding that, since that fateful day on April 27th 2016, ‘nothing has been touched’.
Tej’s family, of course, never stopped searching for their son. Since his disappearance they’ve knocked on doors, put up posters and flyers, and started a Facebook Page to help spread the word and encourage others to come forward with any information.
Tej’s family have also been working in collaboration with the Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MAPN) to run campaigns to help find Tej. Some of these campaigns have included enlisting the help of artist Heesco and writer Benjamin Law to paint a mural of Tej on a wall near the popular ‘Vic Market’ in Melbourne City as a part of ‘The Unmissables’ project, as well as printing Tej’s face on thousands of coffee cups to be sold at 2 MCG Football games.
Another project by the Missing Persons Advocacy Network was the ‘Invisible Friends’ campaign. Invisible Friends uses Facebook’s facial recognition technology to track down missing persons by encouraging people to ‘friend’ the Facebook profiles of missing persons that MPAN have created. When Facebook users befriend these profiles, any photos they upload that may coincidentally include the faces of missing persons in the background will tag the missing person’s created profile, alerting the Missing Persons Network. This allows them to use these photos to find possible new leads.
Unfortunately, these campaigns haven’t appeared to provide any extra information relating to Tej’s disappearance. Reva tells SBS Punjabi that there has been ‘not one word from anybody. No sighting, no nothing’. The Chitnis family had kept in close contact with the lead investigator on the case, saying they ‘used to call and speak with him every single week’. However, as time has gone on and information about Tej’s disappearance has become scarce, Tej’s mother states these calls have ‘become every fortnight to make sure that they haven’t forgotten us.’
In relation to the circumstances of Tej’s disappearance, Reva states ‘There’s so many questions, no answers. You can’t really rationalise it. It just keeps going in your head; it just goes on and on. At some point you have to just stop thinking. It’ll drive you up the wall otherwise’.
Much to the agreement of everybody involved in Tej’s case, Reva says ‘it’s almost unimaginable that a young man and his car can just disappear’.
Information on Tej’s disappearance is scarce, but the consensus has generally been that it was likely an unfortunate case of a young man committing suicide. Tej’s conversation with his mother weeks before his disappearance – stating his uncertainty for the future – make it obvious that Tej was experiencing a period of stress. Although it’s not known why Tej had stopped attending University, his absence may have been a sign he was going through depression, and the fact he hadn’t told any friends or family about his non-attendance hints at his possible shame at no longer studying. Although his parents were relatively relaxed when it came to Tej’s career aspirations, encouraging him to choose his own life path, he may still have naturally worried about the reaction of his family.
Suicide would also explain the missing car. If he had have driven into a body of water, it is likely his car would not be found with general land searches. When it came to a large-scope police search of the surrounding bushland and water sources such as major dams, ‘Bush Search and Rescue Victoria’ Acting Convener Eric Krista stated in 2016 that they had ‘not been contacted at the moment’ to participate in a search. Whether or not this changed over the years in uncertain, but nothing has been openly reported by the media.
Although there were a significant amount of suicides in Victoria in 2016 (624 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ ‘Causes of Death, Australia, 2017’ report) it’s also worth noting that death due to driving into a body of water was a fairly uncommon method of suicide.
Tej also never reportedly seemed upset to any friends or family members. His stress about the future didn’t appear to be too upsetting, as he didn’t seem to do anything that might have struck anyone who knew him as ‘out of the ordinary’. Keeping his 2 year University absence a secret may have hinted to Tej’s talents at hiding his emotions if necessary, but with so many familiar faces around him, it is odd that nobody noticed any changes, however subtle, to hint at a suicidal tendency.
Tej’s intentions of attending his father’s birthday dinner also combats the idea of Tej committing suicide. Why would he tell his parents to wait for him before leaving to the dinner reservations if he wasn’t planning on returning at all? He’d was excited about the dinner and his parents noted that it was unlike him to miss out on his father’s big day. Why would he choose that night to commit suicide if he was looking forward to the night’s events?
Tej also had no connections to Healesville. Although it did have a few deep bodies of water, there were areas closer to Tej’s Burwood East home that similarly had bodies of water capable of sinking a car. Why would Tej travel an hour away to a place he was completely unfamiliar with just to commit suicide?
Another common theory is that Tej had left his life in Burwood to begin a new life. It’s possible he could’ve taken a cash-in-hand job where he couldn’t be traced, abandoned his phone and began living in the Healesville area. Healesville was a small country-town, making it relatively easy to hide out in the bushland and make a new name for himself.
However, this theory also falls short in many ways. If Tej had planned on running away, it’s likely he would’ve withdrawn some of his savings to take with him, as he’d still need to pay for food, petrol and other necessities and it’s unlikely a cash-in-hand job would provide enough money quickly enough to support him for the beginning of his stay. Yet, his bank account was completely untouched. He never took any extra clothing or other essentials with him and if he had planned on running away with little money, it seems odd he would risk having to buy all knew supplies when he could’ve simply brought them with. It’s also likely that Tej’s car or Tej himself would’ve been spotted by now if he were living in the area. The police, along with Tej’s family, had been working tirelessly to get Tej’s face out there, and he’d become very recognisable to the Victorian community.
Another theory brought up online, particularly on the site Reddit, is that Tej may have gotten involved in something dangerous, particularly the illegal drug industry. Tej’s activities during the 2 years he’d been absent from University had been completely unknown and many speculate he had turned to drugs to pass the time, or that he may have left his studies specifically to pursue illegal activities. This might explain why he hadn’t told any friends or family he’d left University. His travel to Healesville might also be explained by illegal activities, as he may have intended to meet a dealer in the area.
However, again, there are some problems with this theory. Neither his family nor his friends ever noticed Tej appearing as if he were under the influence or any illegal substances. He never appeared outwardly upset or nervous about his life over the past 2 years, which could have led people to believe that he’d been involved in something drug related, and he was still notably reliable and timely, arriving home by 4 pm each day, a feat which would be difficult if he were working in the illegal drug trade. He still worked at Officeworks, turning up to each shift, and co-workers never mentioned anything different about his time there over the past 2 years.
The last theory is, of course, that Tej may have been a victim of foul play. In Tej’s last sighting, it was never confirmed that it was in fact Tej driving his car through the Maroondah Highway/Green Street intersection. What had happened on his phone in those last few minutes before it switched off also hasn’t been reported, which could mean that it was someone other than Tej who had been using his phone at the time. This could explain why Tej’s car, wallet and phone also haven’t been found, as they may have been stolen, hidden or destroyed. It could also explain why he took so little with him on his drive – as he was intending on only taking a short trip and returning home by 4 – and why he had told his parents to wait for him so they could carpool to dinner. He also took an hour and forty-nine minutes to get to Healesville, a place that, in good traffic, would usually take less than an hour to drive to. What had Tej done in that extra forty-nine minutes? This may have been enough time for Tej to stop along the way, perhaps coming across a car-jacker or simply getting out of his car at the wrong place and the wrong time. The lack of sightings, CCTV footage and the fact his phone was switched off could all be signs of deliberate foul play.
However, Tej was described as a friendly, helpful man and he was never reported having made any known enemies who may have wanted to cause him harm. Although it only took an hour to get to Healesville and the time he’d left compared to the time he’d last been seen account for an hour and forty-nine minutes, it could’ve been due to heavy traffic. Melbourne mornings are often banked up with the cars of workers and mums on their way back from school drop-offs, and this could easily account for the time difference. If this was the case, and Tej hadn’t gotten out of his car at any point along the way, it would be unlikely he’d be met with foul play.
Tej’s disappearance, odd as it was, has never left the mind of Australians all around the globe. His parents, Reva and Jayant, have never lost hope of finding Tej and have continued to cooperate with investigators and the Missing Persons Advocacy Network.
If you have any information you think may relate to Tej’s disappearance, please call Crime Stoppers at 1800 333 000. Calls can be placed anonymously.
With your help, we can finally bring Tej Chitnis home.