Family Reels After Married Dad Vanishes for 16 Years, Reappears Gay

Eric Myers said he fled in 1991 due to stress over his sexuality.

July 19, 2013, 11:00 AM

July 19, 2013— -- Have you ever thought about leaving everything behind? What if you could start over, just hit the reset button and escape your life?

"I've never encountered somebody who has managed to disappear from their own life," said Robert Anglen, an investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic.

But, in June of 1991, while attending a real estate seminar in San Diego, Eric Myers, 34, pulled off the great escape, disappearing from his life and vanishing without a trace.

Watch the full story on "20/20: I Escaped My Life" TONIGHT at 10 ET.

For nearly two decades no one knew where Eric Myers was. Police in two states and a private investigator only turned up dead ends.

"Most people grow up thinking that magic is an illusion, and that people can't disappear," said Kirsten Myers Ruggiano, Myers' youngest daughter. "I grew up in a reality where people do disappear."

After being missing for 16 years and being declared legally dead by his family, Eric Myers decided to come back into his family's lives.

"He pulled off the great escape. But he came back. He got away clean, but he came back, and destroyed everybody's life in the process," said Anglen.

Why would a wealthy, successful real estate agent living the American dream just throw everything away?

"I just wanted it all to end. I wanted everything to end," said Myers in an interview with ABC News.

Privileged Beginnings

Eric Myers was the third of five kids born to Don and Joan Myers in a suburb just outside of Phoenix.

"He had every advantage: the best schools, the best neighborhoods, the best toys," said Anglen.

The conservative, wealthy Myers family lived among luxury homes, picturesque golf courses and influential neighbors.

In high school, Myers was a popular class president who was also considered a class clown. While in college Myers couldn't shake his memories of a sweet girl he knew named Anne.

"When I'm in Washington state, away at school, I realized that the only thing I miss back in Arizona is Anne," said Myers. He proposed to her over the phone.

What appeared to be a storybook marriage was completed by two daughters, Erin and Kirsten.

"I remember him being fun," said Kirsten Myers Ruggiano. "I remember riding on his shoulders."

The family was deeply religious and soon grew to include three adopted boys from Vietnam. While Eric's career, as a property manager in his father's booming real estate business, was taking off, he confided to his friend David Vandervoort that he was in over his head.

"Eric talked about being in debt. Big time. And he was borrowing money from his dad's company to pay it back," said Vandervoort.

And despite picture-perfect appearances, Eric's marriage was on the rocks.

"Anne tells the story of, she wanted to go to college, she wanted to finish the degree, and that ... didn't fit Eric's mold of a Christian housewife," said Anglen.

"Eric searched high and low through the Bible and could not find a way out. So he felt trapped. But yet he was doing the Christian thing by staying married," said Vandervoort.

There was talk of divorce, and on June 25, 1991, as Eric headed to a real estate seminar in San Diego, little did his family know he wouldn't be coming back.

Eric Myers' 'Reset'

"By all accounts it was a reset, it was a, you know, take a deep breath, let's assess what's going on, get away from the situation and maybe come back and see what happens. But of course that's not what happened," said Anglen.

There were some hints of foul play as authorities searched for Myers, but they all became dead ends. Eric Myers had completely vanished.

"A healthy, successful American man with a wife and five kids just fell off the face of the earth," said Anglen. "They find out that he checked out of his hotel on the first day of the conference, but continued going. But nobody knows where he is, nobody knows where he went."

Myers' family was left reeling. His youngest daughter was devastated. She said she cried herself to sleep every night for weeks.

"I remember screaming that I wanted him back," said Kirsten Myers Ruggiano.

Ruggiano and her sister were 8 and 10 at the time of their father's disappearance. "I think probably because of my age -- and because I was the youngest -- I think it's safe to say I took it the hardest," said Ruggiano.

But where did Eric Myers go, and how could he leave his wife and children behind?

Eric says he was robbed on the last day of his San Diego business trip, then spent the night in a seedy motel with only a few hundred dollars in his pocket. He says the next morning he woke up and in a swirling moment of emotional despair headed south, to Mexico.

He says the details of his trip are hazy but he remembers crossing the border in Tijuana and buying a bus ticket to Cabo San Lucas. Cabo, with its warm sandy beaches, provided a total escape from a life which he says held a secret that would shake his religious roots to their core.

"At 6 years old, I knew I was attracted, drawn very heavily toward other people my same sex," said Myers.

Eric Myers: A New Life

Myers said that because he was gay, he felt forced to create a fake persona from a young age. He said that he believed having a girlfriend would help make him feel how he was "supposed" to feel.

He turned to religion and at the age of 13 became fervently evangelical, he said.

"That was when I started thinking, This isn't right. I want to be with men," said Myers

When religion didn't work, he thought marrying Anne and starting a family would help. But it didn't, and ultimately the lie caught up with him on that business trip to San Diego, he said. He remembers thinking that at first Cabo would just be a temporary getaway.

"I'm sitting there, saying, You can do this and still go back. You can still do this and still be OK. Maybe a week. Maybe two weeks," said Myers.

But Myers didn't go back. Two weeks turned into four months, and then, without one phone call home, he headed to Palm Springs, Calif.

Myers said that while searching for a new job, he met Sean Lung, a tourist from Canada, and they immediately connected.

Myers and Lung soon moved in together and frequently traveled together. Myers assumed different identities and took odd jobs that didn't require an ID.

All the while, Eric's family was forced to go through life without their father and dad, and in 1996, Myers was declared legally dead. His family cashed in a life insurance policy worth $800,000, and the money was placed in trusts for his two daughters.

Myers said that during that time he tried to avoid thinking about the life he had left behind.

"I cannot say anything to deny that it is the most selfish thing in the world. And I will never be painted as a saint. But no one is all good, and no one is all bad," said Myers.

Myers' daughter Kirsten, now 30, had a hard time not thinking about her missing father. She sought out ways to ease her pain.

"I think I was 11 when I first started stealing wine and realized that it made me feel less sad," said Ruggiano.

She said she spent years struggling with addiction and got sober largely to lessen the burden on her mother.

"My mother is one of the most selfless people I've ever met," said Ruggiano. "If either my sister or I called her and said, I need you here now, she would absolutely drop everything to be by our side as soon as she needed to."

Anne Myers helped her family cope with their loss throughout the years. Together they celebrated birthdays, proms and graduations -- all without their dad and husband.

In 2007, 16 years after Myers disappeared, cryptic email messages started to show up in the inboxes of Myers' friends and family. "Would you be curious in knowing what happened to Eric Myers?" read one.

Sixteen years after disappearing, Myers reappeared.

"There was never any plan to come back, just like there was never any plan to leave, and it just happened," said Myers.

Through a friend, Myers arranged to reconnect with his mother, Joan Myers. He said she welcomed him back with open arms.

"My mother and I were past it with one hug," said Myers.

Today Myers has reconnected with most of his siblings. Myers and Lung moved in with Myers' parents and helped care for his father in the last few years of his life.

The return dealt a severe blow to Myers' now ex-wife and his children, especially his youngest daughter, a mother of two who had finally found happiness and peace in her life.

Eric Myers: Return Brings Lawsuit, Fresh Pain

"I know how much I love my children," said Ruggiano. "And if he loved me even half as much as I loved them, there would be no situation where he would ever think that it was okay to leave me."

Ruggiano has only glimpsed her father once since he returned. She has not spoken to him.

When Liberty Life Insurance, the company that had paid the death benefit, learned that Eric Myers was alive, they successfully sued the Myers family for the $800,000 plus interest, and the family is now appealing -- another reason why Myers' return has thrown the family into emotional turmoil.

"It almost hurt more to have him come back than it did for him to go in the first place," said Ruggiano.

Despite the painful consequences, Myers insisted he made the right decision to return.

"To live in a disguise is a horrible prison," said Myers.

To Ruggiano, her father saying that he left because he was gay does not make up for all of the years lost.

"I know a lot of people who would never do this … absolutely never blame it on their homosexuality. I don't believe that he is capable of love," said Ruggiano.

Watch the full story on "20/20: I Escaped My Life" TONIGHT at 10 ET.

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