At Schatzie's Restaurant in Baltimore, a favorite gathering place for fans of German food, owner Albert J. Craemer is still serving one of Roman Leimer's imported Austrian vintages as the house white wine.
But the practice is as much a toast to Leimer as it is a tribute to his taste in wine. Like the patrons at Shatzie's bar, who include local police, prosecutors and court experts, Craemer is baffled by the mysterious disappearance of Roman Leimer, who was first thought to have died in a fiery truck crash in Virginia but is now listed as missing.
"Everybody is confused," says Craemer, who was a friend of Leimer for more than a year and believes he could have been the victim of foul play. "You just can't put your finger on it. No matter what way you look at it, it is a very sad state of affairs."
For nearly six weeks, police have talked to friends and business associates of Leimer, and searched in Maryland and Virginia for the 39-year-old Montgomery County truck driver and wine distributor who was indicted by a Virginia grand jury 10 days ago on a charge of felony arson.
So far, Virginia and Maryland state police investigators say they have come up only with "some live leads," including a reported sighting of Leimer in Maryland by a witness police described as reliable, but no tangible signs of the missing person.
Leimer was presumed dead when his 8,900-gallon Exxon gasoline tanker was found ablaze on I-66 near Front Royal, Va., in the early morning of Jan. 13. But 10 days later, this seemingly routine accident was tranformed into a detective story when a Smithsonian Institution scientist called into the case by Virginia medical authorities declared that the charred remains found in the blaze were not human, but those of a pig.
Now Virginia and Maryland investigators are combing the countryside looking for Leimer and possible accomplices. They checked airports and airlines, foreign embassies, and customs officials after getting tips that Leimer (who holds a U.S. passport) tried to leave the country through Puerto Rico. They circulated a composite drawing of a woman whose compact blue car was parked a half-mile behind the Exxon tanker about 15 minutes before the fire broke out. Police have interviewed several German women named "Heidi," hoping that eventually one will know Leimer's whereabouts.
"There seem to be an awful lot of people running around who know something," said one Virginia official, who asked not to be named. "We are still pursuing an awful lot of live leads."
Police say they received "a flood" of new tips last week from friends and acquaintances of Leimer who read newspaper reports that he had been indicted.
Leimer's wife and three children, meanwhile, are trying to keep Leimer's wine distribution business, Romax Inc., afloat, their friends said. The family members have declined interviews on the advice of their attorney, Richard Paugh.
"I still believe he is dead," Paugh said last week. "So far I have seen no persuasive evidence that he is alive. I think the police are fishing now. They are hyping it."
The Exxon Corp., which employed Leimer for 14 years, officially terminated his employment last week, disqualifying his family from corporate benefits. Leimer's wife, Antonia, has filed for an insurance claim and has pressed unsuccessfuly to get a death certificate, according to Virginia police sources.
Leimer was threatened by mounting lawsuits and debts at the time of his disappearance, and his friends suggest he was a victim of foul play.
"The man had his picture on every bottle of wine he sold and on posters in restaurants," says his friend Craemer. "It would be very difficult for a man like him to plan to disappear from the face of the earth. He wasn't the kind of guy who could sit quietly off in a corner by himself."
So far, the only comparable case police have found is one in South Carolina more than 20 years ago in which the remains at the scene of a tanker truck fire--presumed to be human--were found to be those of a dog. The truck driver who set the fire was caught by police two years later, hiding in a nearby attic.