For five years, time has stood still for John Roberts.
He has watched his son’s friends grow up, but for him, Martin is still 19 — frozen like a photograph, unchanging and youthful as the day he vanished.
The last time he saw his son is still seared into his mind: They grilled steaks at his son's request and talked about the future. A week later, Martin Roberts was gone.
So when authorities handed John Roberts an age-progressed photo of his son earlier this year, the image felt foreign and disorienting, like that of a long lost childhood friend.
“It’s quite eerie and a bit jarring to look at it,” John Roberts said of the photo. “Having not seen Martin in person in five years, your brain and memory are locked in the past.”
Martin Roberts, who would be 25 in August, was last seen April 21, 2016, walking near the Appalachian State University’s Convocation Center.
The release of the age progression photo is yet another attempt to piece together what happened to Martin Roberts in a saga of frustrating dead ends for the Boone Police Department despite extensive efforts.
The photo — generated by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children — serves as a prediction as to how Martin Roberts would look today, relying on photo editing software and family photos.
“It’s never a portrait. You can never create a perfect image,” said Paloma Galzi, the forensic artist who created Martin’s age-progression photo. “But if somebody can see a resemblance to someone who kind of looks like the photo, that’s what we’re hoping for.”
The photo of Martin Roberts was constructed using six photos of him and four photos of his father from when he was 24 — the age Roberts is now, Galzi said.
If Martin Roberts, who is an only child, had any brothers, their photos would also have been used in the composite image.
But Galzi said she was able to glean more photos than in a typical case after reviewing Martin Roberts' Facebook profile.
“We do everything by hand using Photoshop. It’s a bit like a collage,” Galzi said. “In (Martin’s) case, it wasn’t a very big gap between the age he went missing and right now, so there’s going to be some changes in skin, for example, but not too many facial changes.”
Typically, NCMEC creates age-progression photos every two years for children under 18 years old and every five years for adults.
Since 1989, the organization has produced 6,700 age-progression photos of missing children, Galzi said. Of those, more than 1,500 have been found.
While John Roberts said the photo is difficult for him and his wife, Abbie, to look at, he hopes it will help bring about a positive resolution in their son's case.
“There’s so many negative things you could dwell on, so it’s nice to have something positive,” John Roberts said. “It gets you through another day.”
No new leads
It’s been five years since Martin Roberts disappeared, but the exhaustive investigation has yielded more questions than answers.
Among them: Where did he go after being captured on bus surveillance footage around noon? Where was he in the unaccounted periods of time leading up to his disappearance? Why did he only appear to pack frozen dinners with him when he left his apartment that day?
But the greatest question of them all: What happened to Martin Roberts?
“April 21, 2016 started out just like any other day and yet it changed everything,” Martin Roberts' stepmother, Abbie Roberts, wrote on Facebook early last year. “Our hopes and dreams for the future, our plans, our sense of normalcy all vanished in an instant. … We couldn’t imagine going four hours without finding you and yet somehow, it’s been four years.”
Two alleged sightings of Martin Roberts walking the day he disappeared near Trout Lake — an area a few miles from campus that students were known to frequent — led authorities to explore that area extensively and eventually drag the lake, but nothing was found.
Helicopters armed with infrared cameras, cadaver dogs and a review of 12,000 of Martin Roberts' emails also fell short of answers.
Along with his bank card, phone, passport and laptop, he left behind a cryptic note saying that he regretted not taking advantage of more opportunities, but police declined to characterize it as a suicide note.
Martin Roberts — who had attended Appalachian State University in previous semesters — had not logged into his community college online classes in a month, police said.
“I would venture to say the Boone Police Department has gone above and beyond the typical investigation of a missing person,” said Sgt. Candace Burlingame, who oversees the department’s criminal investigations division. “The case is still active and will remain active until Martin is located.”
The intricacies of Martin Roberts' disappearance were chronicled in an episode of Investigation Discovery’s TV series “Disappeared,” which aired worldwide in 2018.
The documentary — which explores the time leading up to Martin Roberts’ disappearance and recounts the exhaustive investigation — has prompted tips, theories and more than 50 alleged sightings as far away as Yellowknife, a city in northern Canada.
Last year, a friend thought they saw Martin Roberts — an East Forsyth High School graduate — in Greensboro, but a thorough investigation and collaboration with the Greensboro Police Department turned up empty.
While none of the information has panned out, Burlingame said she pursues every tip no matter how outlandish.
“We’ve had people say ‘Oh I saw him in Canada,’ and someone else say ‘Oh, he was my waiter at a restaurant in Arizona’ at the same time,” said Burlingame, who took over the case in 2018. “While it hasn’t led to anything yet, I want people to know any bit of information provided is not wasting our time.”
Burlingame said she has also been in touch with agencies across North America using DNA to rule out possibilities, including a human leg in Indiana that had the same gray New Balance shoes that Martin Roberts had been wearing and a skull recovered in the aftermath of the California wildfires.
While COVID-19 has uprooted the world for more than a year, Burlingame said the pandemic has not hindered the Roberts investigation in any way and that they continue to pursue every tip.
“If somebody were to know something from five years ago, we strongly encourage them to reach out,” Burlingame said. “This has been indescribable for the family. It’s heartbreaking, and we would love to provide a resolution.”
Still holding out hope
In hopes of drumming up awareness, the Robertses have distributed more than 1,000 bumper stickers across the U.S. and Canada via the Facebook page “Help Find Martin Roberts.”
The stickers are available upon request and feature an artistic rendition of one of Martin Roberts' two tattoos — multicolored mountains that he bore on his left forearm. He also has a quote from a Bob Marley song tattooed on his chest.
“Anybody can play a big part in this,” John Roberts said. “There’s the six degrees of separation theory, that someone knows someone who knows someone who knows something. That’s what we’re hoping.”
The Facebook page has garnered 15,000 members with well-wishers voicing support from around the globe, including Australia, Uganda, the Netherlands and South Africa.
John Roberts said the comments mean a lot to him and emphasized the importance of showing kindness in a world that isn’t always so.
“You never know in these situations — whether it’s a missing person or a person who’s lost, so to speak — if you could be the one to make the difference,” John Roberts said. “Especially right now with COVID and less human interactions, we all need to take care of each other.”
While John and Abbie Roberts recently moved from Kernersville to Southmont, they continue to light a candle in their window for Martin, just as they have every night since he disappeared.
For more than 1,800 nights, the candle has served as a symbol of their undying love and their everlasting hope that one day he will find his way home.