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Toronto man, missing for 5 years, found wandering on Brazilian highway

CBC logoCBC 9/02/2017 CBC
Anton Pilipa was found on a Brazilian highway five years after disappearing near his home in east Toronto. He now says he knows he's 'lucky to be alive.' © (Alberto Cesar Araujo/BBC Brasil) Anton Pilipa was found on a Brazilian highway five years after disappearing near his home in east Toronto. He now says he knows he's 'lucky to be alive.'

A Toronto man, missing for five years and feared dead, is now back home after being discovered wandering on a highway in Brazil.

Anton Pilipa, 39, who was last seen in Scarborough in 2012, flew back to Toronto Monday morning with his brother Stefan after being released from a hospital in the northern Brazilian city of Manaus.

Stefan Pilipa told CBC Toronto he believes his brother — who had lived in Toronto, Montreal and British Columbia before disappearing — had mental health problems when he went missing.

He believes Anton, whom he describes as an anti-poverty activist, got to Brazil at least part of the way by walking, sometimes with no shoes, as well as hitchhiking and hiding in the back of transport trucks.

The family had no idea where Anton was until late December, when they were notified that he had been picked up by Brazilian state police. For the Pilipa family, it marked the end of a half decade of pain and worry. 

"I found myself being really frustrated all the time [during those years], always having that aching question: 'Where is he? What happened to him?'" said Stefan.

Now, he has his brother back. "I feel amazed that he's alive and had made it that far." 

Found with no ID or passport

It's thanks to Brazilian-Canadian police officer Helenice Vidigal that Anton was able to return to his family.

When he was picked up by the highway police in November, he carried no identification. Vidigal, who has lived in Canada on and off and who has Canadian citizenship, began asking him questions in English.

"I knew he didn't belong to that road. Anton is a different type from us Brazilians, he stands out," she told CBC Toronto over the phone from the Brazilian state of Rondonia.

When she spoke with Anton, he didn't seem entirely "reliable" and offered few details, she said, but he did tell her that he was from Canada.

"I thought, if he says he's Canadian, I'm sure I can find his family." She took her search online, and finally made a connection through Twitter.

The news that Anton had been found reached Stefan in late December.

"I was really shocked … I didn't want to get my hopes up," he said.

He immediately made plans to travel to Brazil to retrieve his brother, launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to help pay for costs of the trip, which included flights, hospital bills and consular fees.

He also set to work getting his brother an emergency travel document that would allow him to get home.

'We got him just in time'

After he was picked up by the police and his family was notified he was in Brazil, Anton was placed in a hospital.

Shortly after, he ran away and headed into a jungle area in the northern Brazilian state of Amazonas, prompting a new round of worry for the police and his family.

"That is the area where we talk about huge predators like crocodiles and jungle cats. We truly were afraid he could be eaten by one of those animals," said Vidigal.

She said she was "so glad" when Anton was found safe again and placed in a hospital in Manaus.

When Stefan arrived to pick him up in late January, he "looked really rough." "

His health was starting to deteriorate," said Stefan.

"We got him just in time."

Now his brother is doing "remarkably well," he said.

Stefan felt his brother was not ready for an interview in his first days back in Toronto, but Anton, speaking to BBC Brasil last week, told a reporter that he was happy to be found.

"I know that I am very lucky to be alive," he said.

"I am very happy to be able to return to my family."

5 years spent off the grid

As for where exactly Anton had been in the five years since he was last seen in Toronto, the gaps are still being filled in.

"I haven't wanted to press him too much about it," said Stefan.

Anton is something of an "individualist" who prides himself on being tough, Stefan said, and people who know him won't be surprised that he undertook a journey across two continents on foot.

Picking up the pieces

In the two years leading up to his disappearance, the family had struggled to get Anton the support and treatment he needed.

In January 2011, Anton was involved in an altercation and charged with assault and weapons offences.

He went missing before he was due in court.

After he disappeared, the family notified police and tried to spread the word, checking shelters, jails and morgues for any trace of him, but the search turned up no leads.

"When someone disappears you suddenly realize there isn't a lot you can do," said Stefan.

"We hit a wall." After Anton's return to Toronto Monday, Toronto police said he was arrested for his outstanding charges before being released later in the day on bail.

He has upcoming court dates to address the charges. As for what comes next for the family, first up is to simply "hold him close," said Stefan.

Then the family will work to get Anton "a place to live and some treatment and some help," he said. "And help him have the life he deserves."

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