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Police: Remains believed to be student missing since 1998

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FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. » West Virginia State Police said Friday that the discovery of human remains and personal possessions found near the New River Gorge Bridge could solve an 18-year-old mystery: the disappearance of a Virginia Tech graduate student.

The possible discovery of Robert L. Kovack’s remains was bittersweet for his big brother, who helped lead searches after Robert never made it to a football game in Morgantown.

“I’m hoping it is my brother, then we can put these things to rest,” Michael Kovack, a Fairmont pharmacist, told The Associated Press. “It still leaves a whole lot of questions about the case.”

The big one, he said, was how an affable young man with no known enemies and several job offers before him ended up dead in one of West Virginia’s most scenic spots.

“We may never know what happened,” said Kovack, 43. “Knowing my brother, I find it highly unlikely he just gave up and jumped.”

The remains were found in a heavily wooded area Thursday along with Kovack’s driver’s license, a college ID and car keys, according to a news release from state police and the U.S Park Service.

Michael Kovack said state police told him the remains were headed to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., for positive identification. They told him the results would be known sometime next week.

Kovack said he heard from state police Thursday, and he broke the news to his parents, Michael and Jackie Kovack.

Robert Kovack, 24, disappeared Sept. 18, 1998, while he was on his way to a West Virginia University-Maryland football game in Morgantown.

His vehicle was found out of gas five days later. It was parked and locked near the New River Gorge Bridge.

At 875 feet, it is the third-highest bridge in the United States. It is a popular destination every October when BASE jumpers from around the world leap from its dizzying heights. BASE stands for building, antennal, span and earth, the fixed objects from which jumpers leap.

But the span is also a darker attraction: More than four dozen bodies have been recovered below the bridge since Kovack’s disappearance, according to state police.

After his brother went missing, Kovack led volunteers through the rugged terrain in search of any sign of his brother. He said the area where the remains were found is near the pilings of the bridge, difficult to reach and choked with vegetation.

The remains were found during construction on the bridge as crews cleared trees and brush from below the structure, state police said.

Kovack was an architectural student at Virginia Tech. Michael Kovack, who is 18 months older than his brother, described him as well respected, a “people person” and active with volunteer work such as Habitat for Humanity.

“He was an upstanding person,” Kovack said. “He wasn’t anything crazy.”

A surveillance camera video in Blacksburg, Virginia, showed him withdrawing $80 the day he left for West Virginia. After Kovack’s car was found, police searched the area for days using dogs and helicopters. They found nothing.

Kovack said his brother was devoted to his mother, calling her dutifully each Sunday. He regularly made the four-hour drive home to Rivesville, a coal town in north-central West Virginia, according to news reports in 2012.

The calls stopped coming. Then no card arrived for her birthday the next month, Kovack said.

“I knew he was gone then,” he said.

If the remains are identified as his brother’s, Michael Kovack said, “It will allow us to put a chapter that has been very, very difficult to rest.”

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