Allen Ross Credit: from the documentary <em>Missing Allen</em> (2002)

The Reader’s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.

Jack Helbig’s absorbing 1998 feature “Where On Earth is Allen Ross” has everything: a gifted artist, a mysterious disappearance, intimations of the supernatural, a collective settlement that may or may not have been a cult, and an unsolved mystery.

Ross was one of the founders of Chicago Filmmakers and a documentarian with his own distinctive style. He was best known for The Grandfather Trilogy (1981), in which he spends time with his grandfather in rural South Carolina and then, in the third film, chronicles his funeral. “His stare was always a bit askew,” wrote the Reader‘s longtime art critic Fred Camper, “which rescues and even ennobles imagery that might otherwise be mundane or sentimental; as far as I know, he has no successor, which makes that peculiar gaze his real legacy.”

For years, Ross struggled to survive as a filmmaker in Chicago. He taught at the School of the Art Institute (his alma mater), took jobs as a cameraman on industrial and slasher films, and worked as an editor for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. In the late 80s, he began to dabble in the occult. Then in 1993, he suddenly announced that he had married and moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma, to live with his wife and her quasi-religious group, the Samaritan Foundation. “By the way,” he wrote to a friend, “I’ve resigned from life. Can’t explain. I highly recommend it.”

His wife was named Linda Greene. Or maybe Jennifer. Or Genevieve. And maybe they weren’t even married. The Samaritan Foundation had previously been entangled in a bizarre legal custody battle. Law enforcement officials suspected it had ties to the David Koresh’s Branch Davidians.

Helbig tries to untangle this whole bizarre story.

For nearly three years the only word of Allen Ross has come from phone calls traded among members of Chicago’s filmmaking community. The rumor mill has been running full tilt. Ross is dead. Or he’s hiding out. Or he has some sort of head injury and is wandering around Texas or California or Wyoming suffering from amnesia. The stories have become more elaborate and improbable as they pass from party to party.

Two years after Helbig’s original story appeared, the mystery was solved. The truth was more grotesque than anyone had imagined—and much sadder.