June 16, 2008 -- A car belonging to a Rice University college student who vanished during his December finals was recovered last week by police in California, six months after he was reported missing nearly 2,000 miles away.
Matthew Wilson, a junior computer science major who was valedictorian at his Oklahoma high school and an honor roll student at Rice, was last seen by his roommate on Dec. 14. His cell phone and clothes were left behind at the Houston campus, but missing were his backpack and car, a silver 2004 four-door Dodge Neon.
Wilson, 21, did not show up for classes for which he had preregistered in the spring semester. A $25,000 reward that has since been offered by his family, Rice University and the Crime Stoppers tip program has failed to produce substantial leads for police.
Wilson's car was towed by the Berkeley Police Department on Tuesday, June 10, from a residential neighborhood in the western part of the university town. The parked Neon was originally tagged as an abandoned vehicle on May 7, according to B.J. Almond, a Rice University spokesman. The car was locked and the interior was dusty, with mold starting to grow.
There was no sign of foul play, according Berkeley Police Department spokesman Andrew Frankel, who described the California investigation as "in its infancy." The car will be traced for fingerprints and other bodily fluids, Frankel said.
"We trying to determine — if there are any other prints — who they belong to," Frankel told ABC News. "We're going to find his prints all over it. We're looking for any signs that Mr. Wilson did anything other than take a trip to Berkeley."
It is too early to know for sure whether the recovery of the car is good news or bad, Frankel said, "but we're hoping someone from our local community may have seen him." The Rice University Police Department notified Wilson's family that the Neon was found.
The discovery of Wilson's car has renewed speculation that the accomplished student may have taken off on his own free will, a scenario authorities have been unable to rule out.
"There's a strong indication that Matthew got the car there himself," Rice University Police Chief Bill Taylor told ABC News. "If that's the case, it at least lets us know that to a certain point, Matthew was safe."
Shortly after his disappearance, Rice police determined that Wilson had recently purchased a car cover, a car window shade, charcoal and matches. He also withdrew $500 from an ATM in Houston and bought a tank of gas just before midnight Dec. 14 using a debit card. The purchase, which required a PIN, was the last financial transaction made from his account.
Some of those items, including the backpack, as well as clothes and books, were recovered in the car. "It could have some good implications, but of course, the downside is that Matthew is still missing," Taylor said. "It doesn't just answer questions, it presents more."
There was no indication that Wilson had suicidal intentions at the time of his disappearance or that he was in any contentious relationships. No note had been left behind.
While unable to rule out a scenario where Wilson may have hiked into the wilderness, Taylor said that the student was "a computer guy," not an outdoors enthusiast.
Attempts by ABC News to reach the student's family at their Oklahoma home were unsuccessful, but Cathy Wilson, Wilson's mother, reacted to the news with mixed emotions in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.
"I'm just pondering what else could have happened," Cathy Wilson said. "If he's safe and he's away because he wants to be, that's fine. I just want to know that he's safe."
Family, friends and authorities described Wilson as an intense, scholarly student focused more on academics than on risky college behavior like drinking and drugs. His roommate, Elliot Harwell, told "Good Morning America" in December that he reported Wilson missing when the straight-A student failed to return to their dorm for three days in the run-up to semester finals.
"He is known for always attending classes and always getting good grades," Harwell said at the time. "He takes school seriously, but he didn't turn in his finals, so it is clear that he is behaving out of character."
Wilson is a white male, 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighing 135 pounds with red hair and green eyes. Wilson had a full beard when he was last seen, but is also known to be clean-shaven.