In September of 1945, at the end of World War II, Lt. Ray Hickingbotham settled down with his wife, Dorothy, and three year old daughter, Carol, in Arlington, Virginia.
A decorated war hero, Ray was assigned to Army intelligence. The base housed a top-secret radio operation. Ray may have been part of a select group of expert code-breakers. His assignment was monitoring radio communications from behind the Iron Curtain. It was the beginning of the Cold War.
Former CIA operative John Stockwell explains:
"It's a good ulcer job. You're sitting at a desk, you're not mobile, you can't get up. I've seen them scream sometimes, in just physical frustration, you know, trying to ventilate their frustration while they continue plodding away with this boring but potentially incredibly fascinating job."
In less than a year, Ray and his group were absorbed into the newly created Central Intelligence Agency.
Ray was working long hours and spending little time with his family. In the summer of 1947, he was transferred to another top-secret group, but he didn't tell Dorothy about the new assignment.
Ray's daughter, Carol Solstad, remembers her father's demeanor at the time:
"My mother was worried because he seemed so tired and so uptight. He became very tense, and it became worse. It just got worse and worse."
Late that summer, Dorothy took Carol to Long Island for a two-week visit with her grandparents. When Dorothy tried to phone Ray, she was given the surprising news that he had gone on leave. Then, she learned that the military had, without explanation, hired a moving crew to clean out their apartment.
Two weeks later, a moving van showed up at Dorothy's parents' house. In the boxes and trunks, there was not one single item belonging to Ray.
Ray's daughter recalls the incident:
"No pictures, no letters, no writing, nothing. It was as though he had been purged from our lives, as though he was completely gone and wiped out. And my mother just didn't know what to make of it. "
A month later, a man claiming to be from the Army visited Dorothy with shocking news. He said that on October 14th, 1947, Ray was listed as AWOL. Thirty days later, he was dropped from the military rolls and classified as a deserter.
As a result, Dorothy and Carol lost all of their military benefits. Dorothy later tried to get in touch with the visitor, but the Army said they had never heard of him.
Carol Solstad says her mother always felt that the government knew more than they were telling:
"My mother was alone, she was frightened, and she was afraid something terrible had happened to my father. Perhaps he'd gone overseas and been killed in the line of duty. She could not comprehend that he would just disappear. She really thought the government was withholding information from her."
Former CIA operative John Stockwell thinks those fears are not over-blown:
"It is absolutely not total paranoia to wonder if the CIA or another intelligence branch had something to do with his disappearance. I can think of a half-dozen cases where weird things like that happened, where the family was not told the truth, and the loved-one did disappear or died, and they weren't told how they died."
After Ray was labeled a deserter, Carol and her mother struggled to make ends meet. Carol grew up, married, and moved to Oklahoma. She became a private investigator, specializing in reuniting families. But she never gave up the search for her own father:
"As I look through the material that I received, I began to get a picture of someone very special, someone very highly-trained, someone who had performed at the top level. And I came to believe that this was a man who would not just disappear."
After years of butting heads with government bureaucracy, Carol finally went to the media. An article about her missing father appeared in the local Arlington newspaper. Three hours later, she received a phone call.
The caller identified himself by a code name, Archangel. He provided Carol with what seemed like inside information:
"He said that my article had really rattled cages at the CIA, and that it had really shook people up. Those were his words."
Archangel told Carol that her father had been investigating sensitive leaks regarding atomic energy. He said that in August of 1947, an attempt was made on Ray's life, so a decision was made for Ray to go underground while making it look like he had been a deserter.
But the most astonishing news revealed by Archangel was that for nearly a year, Ray had lived only three miles away from Carol and her mother. He had been hidden by the government in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He told Carol that her father was currently living in a NATO country and that his name was now Nelson.
Carol didn't know what to make of Archangel:
"When I hung up the phone I felt very drained. Maybe he was a jokester or a con artist. Maybe he was going to call back and want money. I just didn't know what to believe. But there was a part of me that kept saying, 'My dad's alive. There's a chance.'"
Carol never heard from the mysterious caller again. But she and her son, Ian, have never stopped trying to decipher Archangel's clues:
"It is possible that my father chose to follow his career and that that was what he wanted above all else, including myself and our family. And that's very painful. I have compassion for a young man who may have made a wrong choice. We all make wrong choices, and I want my father to know that we love him, and that it's forgotten. We just want the pain of not having him to end."