The Biggest Brian Shaffer Theories: What Really Happened?

The last time anyone saw Columbus, Ohio, man Brian Shaffer alive was a few minutes before 2 a.m. on Saturday, April 1, 2006, outside the Ugly Tuna Saloona bar, where he was talking to two women before seemingly re-entering the establishment through the front door. Per Columbus Monthly, the 27-year-old Ohio State University medical student spent the night of March 31 bar-hopping with a friend named William "Clint" Florence, starting out at the Ugly Tuna and returning there at around 1:15 a.m. with Florence's friend Meredith Reed. Come closing time, Florence and Reed realized that Shaffer was missing, though no one thought much about it until April 3, when Shaffer missed a flight to Miami he was supposed to take with his girlfriend, fellow medical student Alexis Waggoner.

The 15 years since Shaffer vanished have seen one key person in his life pass away — his father, Randy, died in a freak accident in 2008, per The Columbus Dispatch. Waggoner married another man soon after, and she now has a family of her own, as does Brian's younger brother, Derek. And there have been multiple false dawns, including, but not limited to a post on Randy Shaffer's memorial page from Brian, who was purportedly living in the Virgin Islands — unfortunately, that turned out to be a hoax. But people are still wondering what really happened to Brian Shaffer, and theories regarding his disappearance continue to spread to this day. Here are the most widely discussed theories on the subject, but be warned — just because many people believe them doesn't necessarily mean that they're accurate.

Was it an accidental death or suicide?

According to Talk Murder With Me, the Ugly Tuna Saloona had what many referred to as an emergency exit, though notably, this exit was not intended to be used by patrons, and it apparently led to a construction site. That's not the safest place to be if you're four sheets to the wind, but some theorize that Brian Shaffer might have wanted to take a shortcut home by using the emergency exit, only to fall into a hole while navigating the construction site. On the other hand, the publication wrote that construction workers would have likely noticed a man inside a hole before pouring cement into it.

As Shaffer was never seen on security cameras leaving the Ugly Tuna, the site added that there are others who think he "died accidentally" while inside the bar and that the staff covertly disposed of his body at the construction site to avoid potential lawsuits from Shaffer's family. This, too, was countered by Talk Murder With Me, as there would have been a good chance that someone would have been racked with enough guilt to report the matter to the cops.

A third theory suggests that Shaffer might have died by suicide. One Redditor hinted that the cellphone ping in Hilliard — a city 14 miles northwest of Columbus — three months after his disappearance might have been triggered by Shaffer turning his phone on one last time before killing himself. This, however, is purely speculative and has yet to be backed up by any hard evidence that Shaffer was considering taking his own life.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Some believe Shaffer might have disappeared to start a new life

When people disappear without a trace, one of the most common theories that come is up is that they might have chosen to start a new life. This has been postulated about Brian Shaffer, per the True Crime Times on Medium. At the time he vanished, he was still grieving the loss of his mother Renee, who died of cancer just three weeks prior. While he seemed to be putting up a brave face in front of friends and family, it's possible he was hiding how much the loss had really affected him. There's also the fact that he had musical ambitions and his claim that becoming a doctor was merely a backup career plan. Could his mother's death have pushed him to do a hard reset on his life?

According to the True Crime Times, the theory doesn't sound too plausible. Not only was Shaffer doing well in school and showing promise in two potential career paths; he was also in a happy relationship with his girlfriend and was supposedly planning to propose to her. Additionally, he would have needed to change clothes if he wanted to leave the Ugly Tuna Saloona undetected; nobody he was with on the night of his disappearance has mentioned anything about a bag or an extra set of clothes, and it would have been hard not to notice if he brought a bag and changed into a new outfit.

Was Shaffer's friend hiding something about his disappearance?

Clint Florence was one of the last few people to see Brian Shaffer alive, and he also stands out for one other reason — he is the only person familiar with the case who refused to take a polygraph test, according to The Lantern. Speaking to the publication in April 2009, private investigator Don Corbett revealed that Florence, through his lawyer, was still against the idea of taking such a test as of September 2008. Furthermore, the lawyer, Neil Rosenberg, seemed to blame Shaffer for the distress his loved ones were feeling since his disappearance. "If Brian is alive, which is what I'm led to believe after speaking with the detective involved, then it is Brian, and not Clint who is causing his family pain and hardship. Brian should come forward and end this," read an email Rosenberg sent to Corbett on September 22.

In April 2009, Florence told The Lantern in a phone interview that "ANY and ALL questions" — with those words specifically capitalized — about Shaffer's case should be directed to his lawyer. Rosenberg, meanwhile, said around the same time that he considered the case closed and would not be providing any further comment.

Given how cagey Florence and Rosenberg have been regarding the matter, could Shaffer's friend have been involved in his disappearance? Some Reddit users think so, though others believe he was doing the right thing by refusing a polygraph, considering how Shaffer's brother Derek had suspected Florence of withholding information and had claimed he cast Brian in a negative light after he disappeared (via Medium).

The Smiley Face Killers theory and possible foul play

As reported by Rolling Stone, the Smiley Face Killer (or Killers, due to the possibility there's more than just one) was the name given by a group of investigators who believe that the suspect, or suspects, went after college-educated young white men who were out drinking with friends. These men were then found lifeless near smiley-face graffiti — hence the nickname — and were typically drowned in nearby bodies of water. Being a 27-year-old medical student who was clearly intoxicated at the time of his disappearance, Brian Shaffer seemed like the typical victim.

According to the True Crime Times blog on Medium, this theory has some holes in it that make it hard to believe that Shaffer — or any of the Smiley Face Killers' other purported victims — was murdered in such a way. "If these highly educated, 'privileged' young men are being targeted, one would think there would be at least a few reports of them being followed or stalked," the site explained.

One similar theory suggests that Shaffer had become friendly with the band that played at the Ugly Tuna and, not realizing that the front door was already closed, he left through the emergency exit with the band and the staff. As the bar was located in a dangerous part of Columbus, Shaffer might have "met with foul play" after opting to walk back home by himself. True Crime Times sees this as the most plausible theory, though the blog stressed that the "when, where, and how" of things is highly unclear.

Shaffer was supposedly seen in Tijuana in early 2020

As is often the case with missing persons, and especially celebrities who died under mysterious circumstances, there had been multiple alleged sightings of Brian Shaffer in the years since he vanished. The most recent one came early in 2020, when an image of a supposedly homeless American man who resembled Shaffer started circulating among those hoping to find out what really happened to him. According to 614Now, Columbus detectives looked into the poster, which showed a bearded man on a Tijuana sidewalk and a message stating that there "is a possibility this same man was seen in San Diego."

Wanting to "[proceed] cautiously," as the outlet noted, the local authorities worked with the FBI and requested a facial recognition analysis on the poster. After four weeks of waiting, the FBI got back to Columbus detective Blanch Tucker, informing her that the man on the image was, in all likelihood, not Brian Shaffer after all. Although she was disappointed by the outcome, Tucker told local television station 10TV that she wanted to re-interview certain people involved with the case due to her suspicions that someone might not have told everything they know about Shaffer's disappearance.

Since last year's sighting, there haven't been any similar reports, though in March 2021, investigators released an age-progression photo showing how Shaffer might look like as a 42-year-old man at the present (via The Columbus Dispatch).