Six days before Christmas, 24-year-old Josh Valentine, a former Parsons student who left The New School in October, went missing in his hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
On the night of his disappearance, Valentine was seen at The Whole Hog, a popular barbeque restaurant on the southwestern edge of downtown Santa Fe. After eating dinner there, he walked across South Guadalupe Street and went to The Cowgirl, a low-hung, adobe barbeque joint. Four days later, the car Valentine was driving, his mother’s 1994 blue Toyota Camry, was discovered by a local towing company. His family has not heard from him since.
Tall and thin, with blue eyes and brown hair, Valentine came to Parsons after helping an ex-girlfriend with her Parsons application portfolio. Realizing he could gain admission as well, he applied for the photography division and was accepted in 2011. His dream of becoming a professional photographer is evident on his numerous websites; one of them, “Josh Valentine Photography,” offers examples of what appears to be his professional work.
At The New School, Valentine may have been best known for his appearance. He had a series of tattoos, among them two stars on both sides of his neck, his name on his left shoulder blade, and a large one across his chest that declares, “You make your own luck.” Those who got to know him best in the university community recall a troubled student, one who, according to his family, had long yearned to leave Santa Fe.
The search for Valentine, now seven weeks old, continues. But opinions vary as to what has happened to the former Parsons student. The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department has opened a missing person’s investigation, but thus far has not announced great progress. His family remains optimistic and has been in touch with homeless shelters across New York City, contacted his friends in New York, posted requests on the Internet for information, and, most recently, hired a private investigator.
All those interviewed expressed hope for his return, yet noted that Valentine was a sensitive young man who often acted on his emotions — a tendency that got him in trouble with the criminal justice system more than once.
“He falls in love very easily and he always had a broken heart,” said his mother, Celeste Valentine.
“Watching him deal with his mother, everything looked so normal: hugging, nice, smiling,” said Milano student Joe Bussing, recalling the first time he saw Valentine during a trip to IKEA with other incoming students. “Most people have an awkward moment when their parents are there at college with them, but he seemed perfectly comfortable with his mother.”
Not only did Valentine seem close with his mother, but friends said that he was kind-hearted as well.
“He’s a very sensitive guy, and anything you would say that would insult who he was, he would take to heart,” said Scarlett Butler, 20, Valentine’s former girlfriend in New York, who remains a friend.
At The New School, where he moved into the William Street dorm in September, Valentine made a name for himself fast through his photography and his outsized personality. He had an uncommon flair, according to his friends at Parsons. But they also said that he was deeply misunderstood.
Later in the fall, friends began to notice a more troubled Valentine.
“He seemed like a nice guy at the [beginning of the semester], but it wasn’t until later that I learned about his behavior,” said Bussing.
According to people who knew Valentine at the William Street dorm, he had a history with partying. Butler said alcohol was a main reason why Valentine left Parsons.
The behavior was not new. In Santa Fe, Valentine had been arrested for charges including possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of contraband substance (marijuana), receiving stolen property, tampering with evidence, minor under the influence, disorderly conduct and failing to appear at a court date, according to Mugshots.com, a private website that lists criminal information released under the Freedom of Information Act.
On one such arrest, Valentine told the police that his name was Michael Angelo, according to the the Santa Fe New Mexican’s police blotter from December 27, 2007. Additionally, on May 1, 2011, Valentine was arrested for robbery after breaking into a liquor store and stealing 12 bottles of alcohol valued at more than $500, according to the New Mexican’s police blotter from that day.
Valentine’s mother said that her son never went to jail for any of these charges, but was put on probation several times and had to complete community service. At the time of his disappearance, he was still on probation for the robbery arrest, she said.
Several William Street residents recalled that Valentine drank often, which became a source of contention with his roommate. According to Butler, Valentine’s roommate grew exasperated and the two quarreled often.
“He told us he was going to rehab in California,” said Butler.
However, Valentine tried staying in the dorms after he decided to leave Parsons, a violation of the housing system, which says you must be a student in order to live in the dorms. At some point after he was excused from William Street, Valentine checked himself into the small Holiday Inn just a few blocks away on Nassau Street.
As students returned from holiday break, news that Valentine had gone missing didn’t come as a surprise.
“He was one for attention,” said Bussing, “from the tattoos on his neck to the diamond rings and taking his shirt off in the bar and throwing fives everywhere. That’s outrageous behavior.”
Bussing believes that Valentine’s disappearance may be a cry for attention. His family, too, has considered this; finding out why Valentine would leave home willingly is a question that had haunted the them since the day of his disappearance. But even though Valentine left Parsons reluctantly and admitted that he didn’t like his hometown, his family insists that he would not have left without a warning or saying goodbye. This has led many to believe that Valentine has met with foul play, or that the disappearance is a hoax.
“He was happy to be back for the holidays and we thought he was looking forward to it,” his mother, Celeste Valentine, said. “He never showed signs of being unhappy.”
Valentine spent much of the morning of December 19 with his mother at work before she gave him a little cash to take his younger sister, Rickey Valentine, out to lunch.
“We both had plans to take my mother’s car but we argued about who would get it and then I just let him have it,” said Rickey Valentine.
At around 6:30 p.m., Valentine dropped off his sister at a friend’s house and then went to dinner at The Whole Hog, where he parked the Camry in a handicapped spot — an inexplicable and unusual move, according to his mother. After dinner, he crossed over to The Cowgirl, where he was last seen.
Valentine’s family has hired private investigator Dr. George Walker, a retired FBI agent who has been in business for 12 years and handles about 1,000 missing person cases a year. He only recently began to scour the surveillance footage from The Cowgirl in the hopes of finding out whom Valentine left with, if he left with anyone.
Celeste Valentine’s car showed no evidence of foul play; other than a jacket left in the car by Valentine, it yielded no clues. Valentine’s digital footprint has also run cold: His cell phone has not been used since 9 p.m. on the night of his disappearance and he hasn’t logged into his Facebook, his website, or accessed his bank account since.
Walker believes there remains a possibility that Valentine is alive, and maybe even in New York with a close friend or mentor. Some of Valentine’s friends have called Walker, although he could not tell the Free Press who has called, or when. He and Valentine’s family have also issued a $3,000 reward to anyone who can tell them verifiable information about Valentine’s whereabouts.
Because Valentine was no longer enrolled at The New School when he disappeared, New School officials said that the university’s role in the investigation has been limited.
“When we believe that a currently enrolled student may be missing, we have a protocol we follow to find the student,” said Linda Reimer, senior vice president for Student Services. “Since Josh is not currently enrolled, we would not implement that protocol.”
For the Valentine family, the only thing to do is keep searching.
“We’re letting our private investigator do what he needs to do and hopefully his team will get us an answer,” said his mother. “Whether it be the answer we want or not, whether or not he’s alive or dead. We just want the best for him.”
Celeste Valentine remains optimistic that her son is alive, although she concedes that the odds are slim. She plans to come to New York soon if he isn’t found.
“He’s not stupid, he’s a very bright kid and I know he can make it on his own,” she said of her son. “He’s a strong person and has been through a lot in his life and has seen things he shouldn’t have seen. He has a good life ahead of him and he was meant to be somebody. I believe that, I truly believe that.”
Reporting by Amanda Aschettino