Tourist loses ID, money and nearly life after vanishing in NYC
An Uzbek tourist, after missing a bus from Chinatown to Ohio, lost his way, his identity — and nearly his life.
The 61-year-old visitor was planning to go from Manhattan to visit his daughter in the Midwest when he left his nephew to run across the street for a bottle of water before their nighttime bus was set to depart Aug. 3.
He never returned, leaving his nephew bewildered.
As the weeks passed, family members became convinced their patriarch was dead. He was, in fact, alive at a Manhattan hospital, where the staff knew their nameless patient as “Mr. Unknown.”
The man had been discovered, three days after disappearing, unconscious in a park 7 miles from where he went missing. Somewhere in between, he suffered severe brain trauma. He carried no form of ID.
No one knew who he was — or how to find out.
* * *
On the day of his disappearance, Sabirjon Akhmedov arrived at Kennedy Airport and took a cab with his nephew to Canal St. From there they planned to catch a late bus bound for Columbus. It was his first day ever in America.
Akhmedov was carrying nothing more than about $ 100 and his passport when he left for the deli. The nervous nephew waited for hours before finally calling the police.
Detective Sal Tudisco of the Lower East Side’s 7th Precinct caught the case, making his way to Canal St. to investigate the bizarre disappearance.
There was an immediate problem, he recalled: “The people didn’t speak any English.”
The nephew could understand a little Russian. The detective, wracking his mind for a possible on-the-spot translator, had an idea — he called his barber.
The Russian-born barber, cutting clients’ hair with one hand and holding the phone with the other, helped translate between the worried nephew and the puzzled detective.
“We were told he walked away and never returned,” Tudisco told the Daily News. “He didn’t say anything to the nephew, which we found very odd.”
Tudisco explored every possible angle — did Akhmedov have a secret girlfriend? An unpaid debt? A suicide wish?
“We came up blank on everything,” said the 22-year NYPD veteran. “It turned out this guy had no reason whatsoever to disappear.”
Tudisco, bouncing between Chinatown stores, began piecing together surveillance video from just before the disappearance. Eventually, he found footage showing Akhmedov approaching a deli before walking right past and appearing to get lost.
“He goes around the corner, over to Orchard St. then over to Division St.,” the detective recounted. “He crosses the street and he’s by himself and he starts to panic a little. He starts jogging a little.”
And then he disappeared from camera view at Ludlow St.
Tudisco, determined to find Akhmedov, created a “missing person” flyer with the victim’s photo and description. He included his NYPD contact information at the bottom.
He taped the flyers across the Lower East Side and distributed them to local hospitals. Akhmedov’s daughter Feruza Akhmedova soon arrived in New York to help out.
More than a dozen members of the local Uzbek community assisted in the effort, distributing the flyers to stores, taping them to lamp posts, spreading the word.
Akhmedova, 36, nervously looked for her dad for days, but eventually had to return to her young daughters in Columbus.
“I thought he was dead,” she told The News. “But police said he’s not dead, we’re going to find him and he will get better.”
Weeks passed, and the trail grew cold. Tudisco stayed in touch with the family, never with any good news.
“Really, really hard,” Tudisco said of those calls. “I spoke to the family on a regular basis and I really felt bad. Usually if somebody doesn’t return in the first couple of days, it’s not good.”
Though nobody saw it coming, this case became the exception to that rule.
On Aug. 6, Akhmedov was discovered lying unconscious by a woman jogging near 110th St. and Riverside Drive. The jogger called police and Akhmedov was taken to Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital on the Upper West Side.
He was suffering from a traumatic brain injury. Doctors theorized he had been hit by a car — or thrown from one.
Cops found a bit of Uzbek money on the victim. His passport had disappeared. He had no wallet, no phone and his $ 100 was missing. He had no identity, as far as the doctors were concerned.
Cops in the Upper West Side’s 24th Precinct opened an unidentified-person case.
The St. Luke’s staff soon dubbed their anonymous visitor “Mr. Unknown.”
Akhmedov spent about three weeks in the ICU, where he required a tracheotomy to help him breathe. A stomach tube was necessary to feed him.
When he stabilized somewhat, he was moved to the trauma surgery unit. There his doctors included a 26-year-old first-year anesthesiology resident from Long Island named Dr. Ayesha Arif.
Arif, who is bright-eyed and empathetic, felt unsettled that “Mr. Unknown” was languishing alone in a hospital.
“He’s in an unfamiliar place, and a hospital is not a comforting place,” she said. “I knew he must have family somewhere. I felt like, if this was my family member, I’d hope someone would be doing everything in their power to figure out who he was.”
Because of the foreign currency plucked from the patient’s pockets, Arif and her fellow intern knew he might be from Uzbekistan.
“Every day we used Google Translate on our phones trying to figure out how to say ‘Hello’ or ‘What’s your name?’” Arif said.
She was desperate to communicate with him. But even if her patient spoke English, the hole in his neck and windpipe from the tracheotomy made it impossible for him to raise his voice above a whisper.
There was a moment of hope when Akhmedov scribbled some random words on a piece of paper. “But no one knew what it meant,” Arif said.
Every morning, the patient waved hello to Arif. And each evening before she left, she stopped by his room and he waved goodnight.
Finally, one day, he croaked what sounded like a name. Arif, unsure of the spelling, wrote it down phonetically.
She plugged the name into Google, trying variations on the letters and pairing it with different search terms, such as “missing person” and “Uzbek.”
An article from the Uzbek press popped up on her screen. It showed an NYPD missing-person flyer noting an Uzbek man had vanished in New York. He was last seen Aug. 3 on Canal St.
Fifty-two days after his arrival at the hospital, Mr. Unknown had a name.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s him!’ ” the doctor excitedly recalled. “I was losing my s–t.”
Her eyes furiously scanned the bottom of the NYPD flyer for the number to call — only to find the bottom part of the image cut off.
Arif had an idea. She dragged the image of the NYPD flyer and dropped it into Google Images to do a reverse search — a function that retrieves other pictures that match or closely resemble the image.
“So that allowed me to find the full missing-person poster, which had the detective’s number,” she said.
She called immediately. Tudisco was just as excited as she was.
“He was really surprised,” Arif told The News. “He said, ‘Where are you? I’m going to come to you right away.’ Everyone was freaking out.”
The detective called Akhmedov’s daughter in Columbus, who was flooded with surprise and relief.
“I was crying and yelling to everyone, ‘I found my dad!” Akhmedova told The News. She drove through the night and arrived at St. Luke’s the next day.
“He definitely recognized her instantly,” Arif recalled. “He knew she was his daughter.”
“I was so happy to see her, and I was surprised,” Akhmedov said.
Akhmedova thanked Arif profusely for helping to identify her beloved dad. “All she could do was hug me, and she was crying,” Arif said. “She thought he was dead. It was a very emotional moment.”
“It was a particularly good day,” Arif added, her big brown eyes shining. “Taking care of patients is rewarding. But this was rewarding in a different, more human way.”
Akhmedov had a final surgery and was discharged, in noticeably better condition since being reunited with his daughter. He planned to spend a couple months in Ohio — where he was going to meet his wife — before returning to Uzbekistan.
“He thanked all of us. He shook our hands,” Arif told The News. “He was grateful.”
* * *
There’s no question it was a happy ending, certainly better than most involved expected.
“It was really gratifying. I was just so happy for the family that he was alive,” Tudisco said. “I knew how concerned the daughter was, so I was really happy.”
But the question still remains — and it nags at Tudisco — where was Akhmedov between Aug. 3 and Aug. 6?
“I don’t remember what happened,” the Uzbek visitor told The News, with his 16-year-old granddaughter translating. “I woke up at the hospital. I was so scared.”
He’s unlikely to retrieve the memory, Arif said.
Tudisco searched for surveillance cameras near 110th St. and Riverside Drive, where Akhmedov was found.
“There was no video at that location,” he said. “So we don’t know what happened to him.”
But the cop hasn’t given up on figuring it out: “All you need is one lead.”