Fairfield police recently posted an electronic billboard along Interstate 80 asking for the public to help solve a mystery: What happened to Zachery Rose?
Rose vanished back in February after parking his white pickup in front of his on-and-off boyfriend Phil Lasater’s home on Shorey Way in Fairfield.
“It’s like he dropped off the face of the earth,” said Fairfield police Lt. Jausiah Jacobsen.
Rose walked out of the Shorey Way home, leaving the front door open, at 10 p.m. on Feb. 3 by the account of Lasater, a 48-year-old San Francisco sheriff’s department supervisor. Police, friends and family say Rose has not been seen since.
Rose’s mother, Robyn, describes her 28-year-old son as quiet, punctual and dedicated to his work as a biotech engineer – not someone who would just vanish.
“I don’t believe that he would have walked away and left his cellphone, his wallet, his keys, his truck; that’s just not who he is,” she said in an interview. “He doesn’t go anywhere without his cellphone.”
Rose’s colleagues at Bio-Rad, a biotech research firm in Hercules, can’t understand it either.
“Zach is an engineer, and he is very big on safety,” said friend and fellow researcher Leila Ranis. “He would never put himself in a situation where he’s not going to be safe and he’s not able to get home safely.”
Another co-worker, Joe Poplete, agreed.
“I want to know what really happened, because him just walking away is not what I know of Zach,” Poplete said.
Rose left work at 5:37 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2, after telling Poplete he planned to spend Super Bowl weekend playing piano, according to investigators. Police say they have security footage and bridge-crossing photos that confirm he drove his pickup from Bio-Rad to Fairfield, where Lasater lives on Shorey Way. The two had met online, and in 2015, Rose left his native Arkansas to move in with Lasater, according to Robyn Rose. But by the time Rose disappeared, he had leased his own apartment in Hercules.
Investigators say Lasater reported Rose missing 17 hours after he said he last saw him at 10 p.m. Feb. 3. In a dispatch call obtained by NBC Bay Area, an emotional Lasater is heard telling a dispatcher how Rose had left the house the night before, leaving behind his parked truck and all his personal belongings, and had not returned. He said he wasn’t aware of anyone with whom Rose might have left.
As police began to probe Rose’s disappearance, they were reminded of the 2012 unsolved death of Lasater’s husband of 15 years. Bill Volkl, 41, died unexpectedly, apparently in his sleep. But the Solano County medical examiner was not able to determine what caused his death.
Volkl was obese and had a history of heart problems but also suffered an unexplained neck injury. “Our office cannot rule out foul play,” in light of that injury, the report noted.
Jacobsen says the two unsolved mysteries have police stymied.
“We have one individual who died of a suspicious method or manner inside the home, and fast forward in time, now someone’s vanished from it,” Jacobsen said.
In the case of Volkl, the autopsy report describes an emergency room visit two months before he died. Volkl was treated at NorthBay Medical Center in Fairfield. Doctors there suspected he had suffered injuries as the result of domestic violence and notified police. But investigators were unable to pursue the matter after both Volkl and Lasater refused to cooperate, according to the report.
Jacobsen says investigators have repeatedly questioned Lasater as a potential person of interest related to both Volkl’s death and Rose’s disappearance. At this point, Fairfield police say, they cannot rule out the San Francisco sheriff’s lieutenant as a suspect.
Lasater, who has retained an attorney, declined to be interviewed, saying only that he’s been unjustly targeted by homophobic Fairfield police. In a webpage to raise money for Rose’s search, Lasater wrote: “Zach is a sweet, friendly and a humble young man.”
Jacobsen, who is heading both investigations, dismisses any suggestion that his department is homophobic. He says investigators only want to be able to rule out Lasater as a suspect.
“It’s frustrating for us on the side of not being able to solve this,” he said, “but it’s also frustrating for the family because they don’t know where he’s at as well.”
Having repeatedly searched the Shorey Way home and surrounding area with helicopters and cadaver dogs and coming up empty, police started to post the billboard along the freeway asking for the public’s help.
Robyn Rose, who has repeatedly driven out to California from Arkansas to help find her son, says she won’t rest until she does.
“I have to come to grips with the fact that it’s possible I may never see him again, and I may never know what actually happened to him,” she said. “But I won’t stop until I do find the truth. It’s out there. I will find it. I’ll do whatever it takes to find the truth.”