May 25, 2009 12:00 PM

In the early morning hours of Jan. 5, 2006, an 18-year-old Washington State man named Joseph Pichler left his friends after a party in the town of Bremerton, got into his silver Toyota Corolla and drove off into the predawn dark. “He seemed fine,” says pal Nicole Tyrpak, who was at the party. “Everything was good.”

That would be the last time loved ones—or indeed anyone—would see or hear from him. A successful child actor who made his mark in the late ’90s in films like Varsity Blues and The Fan, Pichler’s vanishing devastated those who knew him and left them with a mystery worthy of a Hollywood thriller. “He was really sweet,” remembers James Van Der Beek, who costarred with Pichler in Varsity Blues. “And he was really, really good. I was inspired by him.”

The day Pichler—who had taken a break from acting to live near his family in the Pacific Northwest—disappeared began like any other. But when his mom, Kathy, was unable to reach him on his cell phone, she sent his brother AJ to the apartment he’d just moved into since graduating from high school. “It wasn’t like Joe not to check in with us every day,” says Kathy, 47. “I thought he’d just gotten busy.” AJ, now 20, found the door unlocked and the television on, but his brother was gone. AJ drove through town, finally locating Joe’s car parked behind a Mexican restaurant. “I couldn’t bear to open the trunk,” says his mother. “I was petrified of what I might find.” But the trunk was empty. Police also came up empty. “There was no trace evidence in the car,” says Det. Robert Davis. “There is no indication of foul play, murder or suicide. It is like he walked away and just disappeared.”

A precocious boy who was “like an adult trapped in a child’s body,” Kathy says, Pichler told his family he wanted to be an actor after watching the Oscars at age 4. He landed his first commercial a year later and headed to Hollywood, where he immediately got work in TV and movies. “He had such a charm,” says best pal and Friday Night Lights alum Jesse Plemons, who starred with Joe in 2002’s Children on Their Birthdays. “He knew the names of everyone on the crew, took time to get to know them, and he was everyone’s friend.”

At first Pichler shifted between L.A. and his hometown of Bremerton as he pursued his career, but was told that the high school he was attending in Burbank wouldn’t accept his transcript unless he enrolled full-time. So his family decided to move back to Bremerton. “He was heartbroken,” says Kathy, who along with husband John, 53, agreed that Joe could return to L.A. after graduation. “But he understood that we needed to go home.”

By all accounts, Pichler easily resumed his old life, creating a mock television show with his friends and deejaying at the Bremerton High School radio station. “Every single time you were around him, you were laughing,” says pal Stephanie Paulus. “He was always being silly, creating talent shows and dance moves.” After graduating in 2005, Pichler couldn’t wait to get back to Hollywood. “He had to get his braces off first,” says his mother. “Then he was headed back.”

Now friends and family are just desperate to know where he is. Several community-wide searches have yielded no clues, and while his family continues to search—his sisters Shawna, 29, and Samantha, 23, often pull over at highway rest stops hoping to find leads—there have been no answers. With no indication of foul play, police don’t have much to follow up on. “I look at this case every day,” says Detective Davis. “It is unusual for someone to disappear without a trace.”

Still, Pichler’s family won’t give up hope that the actor, who would now be 22, is still out there. “I wonder, ‘Is he hurt? Is he afraid?'” says Kathy, choking back tears. “I won’t ever give up looking. Until my baby is found, life won’t ever be okay.”

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