Lt. Barry Hull (search) emerged from his F/A-18 Hornet and climbed onto the deck of the USS Saratoga, unhappy with his landing. He knew to expect better when his squadron mate, Lt. Cmdr. Scott Speicher (search), zoomed onto the aircraft carrier from the sky over the Red Sea.

Speicher's landing, of course, would be perfect. This his colleagues all knew; he was the best Navy pilot in the squadron.

Cmdr. Michael "Spock" Anderson (search) had led the squad out of the hellfire over Baghdad. Once over the sea, he radioed the others. All but Speicher checked in.

Hull didn't worry at first, he remembers today. They all figured "Spike" was out of range. Hull radioed: "Come in, Spike. This is Skull. Talk to me!" Nothing. So they waited. And then they waited some more.

It was Jan. 17, 1991. A war with Iraq was beginning, and American planes were in the air. But Scott Speicher, 33, didn't land that day, or the next one, or the one after that. He never landed, and he never came home.

They declared him dead at first; the Secretary of Defense said it on live TV. His widow remarried, his children grew. But then doubts began to worm their way in. Odd clues surfaced. A shadowy informant told a story. After a decade, the Pentagon changed its mind: Speicher, it said, was not dead but missing. He was promoted to captain in his absence.

Did Speicher tumble from the sky to his death, or did he eject and survive to see his captors, to scrawl his initials on the stone wall of an Iraqi prison? Did he endure another, more intricate tale — one that, even now, remains untold?

The questions reached Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, the Oval Office itself. Leads were followed to their lonely ends. Half-truths were wrung like damp washcloths. Speculation, hope, dread, cynicism — all made cameo appearances in the saga of the missing pilot.

Eventually, with another Bush in the White House and Saddam Hussein's Iraq still an enemy, it transcended one fighter, one family, one loss. The case of Michael Scott Speicher had become something more — a small part of the rationale for another war.

A Name Echoed

In late 2002 and early 2003, as the administration of George W. Bush made its case for invading Iraq, Speicher's name began echoing again in the halls of power. Had Saddam Hussein held him captive all these years?

Saddam's government insisted it wasn't holding Speicher. Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, said the missing captain — if he was alive — was one reason to invade. Bush himself got involved, raising Speicher's presumed capture to the United Nations.

These were only the latest in years of private and government efforts — each unsuccessful — to determine the airman's fate. But the push didn't start immediately, friends of Speicher allege. In 1991, says Hull, Speicher "had been left behind."

On the day Speicher disappeared, the military told his wife that search-and-rescue teams were looking for him, his friends say. But that wasn't happening, Hull contends. Even today, he bristles at the memory.

"Part of the deal is that if I go down, by God, it's your job to come get me," Hull says. He doesn't buy the Navy's belated argument that, without a distress call from Speicher, a rescue mission would have been futile.

He asserts that the Navy knew — or should have — that Speicher's new radio didn't fit in its pouch and had probably been blown out of his survival vest when he ejected. Why, he wonders, didn't the military follow information from a fellow airman who had marked the coordinates of the fireball that investigators later linked to an air-to-air missile fired by an Iraqi MiG?

As the 1991 Gulf War ended, two ephemeral clues to Speicher's fate planted seeds that would sprout over the years into a fragile culture of hope.

The first came from a hospital in Nasiriyah, a city that became famous last year as the site of the deadliest ambush of a new Gulf War. The second came from a tiny canister and its grisly contents.

The Mystery Remains

Tim Connolly was an army captain with the 405th Civil Affairs Battalion during Desert Storm. Not long after the shooting stopped, he told The Associated Press, he was summoned to talk to a man who claimed to be a Kuwaiti secret police colonel.

The Kuwaiti said he had been taken to a hospital in Nasiriyah four months earlier after being captured by the Iraqis. At one point, he said, an American pilot was in the next bed.

The colonel offered to look at photos of captured American pilots. But when Connolly told his superiors about the offer, he was told not to bother: With Speicher officially dead, all missing and captured pilots were accounted for.

Months later, Dr. Victor Weedn, a military medical examiner and DNA expert, was asked to examine a canister that had been turned over by the Iraqi government. It contained a pound of tissue and dried skin with hair attached — material the Iraqis said was the remains of an American pilot known to them as "Mikel."

Weedn told the AP that he tried matching the tissue sample with Speicher's DNA, obtained from whiskers in his shaver. DNA matching techniques were still rough then, but Weedn eventually concluded the remains were not Speicher's. (Years later, a more sophisticated test reached the same conclusion.)

By 1994, Connolly — then a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration — was still involved in the Speicher mystery when he was told about a discovery in the Iraqi desert.

U.S. intelligence agents had heard reports about pieces of an F/A-18 Hornet being shopped around on the black market, Connolly said. Then, in December 1993, a group of Qataris discovered the wreckage of an American warplane in the Iraqi desert.

The Qataris, ostensibly in the area on a falcon hunt, returned to Qatar with photographs of the site and a metal plate stamped 163470. They gave them to U.S. authorities, who found a morsel of hope: The ID number on the plate matched the one from Speicher's Hornet.

Meanwhile, a Defense Intelligence Agency satellite pinpointed the wreck site. It matched coordinates supplied by David Renaud, a Navy flyer who saw a brilliant flash of light in the sky the day Speicher disappeared.

Finally, something tangible to work with — if anyone could get to the place.

Finding the Wreckage

Connolly urged an undercover mission to the crash site before the Iraqi government could tamper with anything that might reveal Speicher's fate.

According to Connolly, a special operations team had a plan: slip in by helicopter at night, recover evidence and be back in Saudi Arabia before dawn. On Dec. 23, 1994, Connolly made his case to Secretary of Defense William Perry.

At that meeting in Perry's Pentagon conference room was Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who confirmed Connolly's account. Shalikashvili told Perry: "I don't want to be the one to write letters home to the parents telling them that their son or daughter died looking for old bones."

A month later, Perry notified Connolly that he had decided, instead, to ask the International Committee of the Red Cross to arrange with Baghdad for a U.S. team to visit the site.

After postponing the visit three times, the Iraqis escorted investigators to Speicher's plane, Connolly said. As he feared, the site had been picked over — either by looters or government agents.

Some items remained — the jet's data storage unit, fragments of life-support equipment and, later, a barely weathered flight suit turned over by the Iraqis. But what did these items suggest? Different Defense Department offices couldn't agree on what might have happened, or even if Speicher survived after bailout, according to a report issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

That didn't sit well with Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas. He pressed the issue, and things began to happen.

Still Alive?

To Roberts, the evidence suggested Speicher had survived. His office said the pilot "may at one time have been — and conceivably could still be — a prisoner of war."

Roberts held closed hearings, criticized how some government agencies analyzed evidence, and called for a new investigation by a special Defense Department team. He said he was "deeply concerned" that the Navy's decision to list Speicher as dead "did not reflect the information provided by the intelligence community."

On March 27, 2001, Roberts' committee released a report re-evaluating all the evidence collected over the years. It dismissed the lack of an emergency call from Speicher as definitive evidence that he was dead. (Earlier, a parachute rigger had warned that squadron members' new radios could be lost upon ejection.) And because "press reports" during the war said Speicher was dead, "Baghdad probably did not feel compelled" to account for him, the report said. "Baghdad is concealing information," it added.

"Speicher probably survived," the report said, and if he did, "he almost certainly was captured."

Weeks earlier, the military, in an extraordinary decision, changed Speicher's status from killed to missing — 10 years after he was pronounced dead. Evidence cited in the committee report contributed to the decision.

But the Navy wasn't done. In October 2002, it changed Speicher's status again, this time to "missing-captured," without citing additional evidence.

Navy Secretary Gordon England wrote at the time: "While the information available to me now does not prove definitively that Capt. Speicher is alive and in Iraqi custody, I am personally convinced the Iraqis seized him sometime after his plane went down."

Five months later, the United States invaded. Saddam fell. Speicher was not found. In the midst of it all, a man surfaced to talk to U.S. officials. His name was Eduard. And he reportedly claimed he had information that Speicher was alive.

Something Not Right

If true, the new morsel of information was stunning: An Iraqi secret-police captain attesting to the pilot's continuing imprisonment. But for the probe's critics — those who had started to believe the memory of Speicher was being manipulated to political ends — the story smelled bad.

That was the assessment of Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector who became a harsh critic of the American invasion of Iraq.

Ritter had already been involved in the Speicher investigation. He told the AP that he was working in Iraq in late 1997, overseeing searches for weapons of mass destruction, when he was asked to assist with the Speicher investigation by adding Hakmiya Prison in Baghdad to the list of U.N. inspection sites. There, a tantalizing clue turned up; carved into a cell wall were the initials MSS.

Were they etched by a prisoner named Michael Scott Speicher? Ritter doesn't think so. Directly above the letters, in a similar scrawl, were three others — MJN — that meant nothing to the Americans.

Then, earlier this year, Ritter became aware of the secret police captain — "Defector 2314," as the American military dubbed him. He says he learned of the information from one of the witnesses to Eduard's final debriefing by U.S. authorities.

As Ritter tells it, Eduard had come forward as an informant in the months leading up to the Iraq war and asserted that he knew Speicher was alive. (It could not be learned whether Eduard ever contended he had actually seen Speicher.)

Many questions hung over Eduard. He was a Christian, making it unlikely he would have moved in such inner circles. (Though one of Saddam's top men, Tariq Aziz, was Christian, such access was extremely rare for a non-Muslim.)

More damning, according to Ritter, was information from a top Iraqi intelligence official arrested in April 2003 by U.S. occupation forces. He told interrogators Eduard was a "born liar" who knew nothing about Speicher's fate.

Eduard, it turned out, was a phony, Ritter said: His only connection to the secret police was that he once waited tables in their dining room.

Ritter thinks someone put Eduard up to it — that the man was so unbelievable that any decent intelligence officer would have "thrown him out of his office in five minutes."

Ritter, a controversial figure since he declared his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, asserts that most of the evidence pointing to Speicher's being alive was manufactured by advocates of war.

"This isn't just an accident," Ritter said in an interview. "This was done by people who fully knew what they were doing."

Among them, he says, was Roberts — a charge the senator, through a spokeswoman, says is "unworthy of comment." Ritter also suspects the discredited Iraqi National Congress leader, Ahmad Chalabi, whose name was long floated as the potential leader of a new Iraq and who provided prewar intelligence about the Saddam regime that is now considered unreliable.

Zaab Sethna, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress and Chalabi, scoffs at that notion.

"We never gave any information to the United States about Speicher," the spokesman said. "Anybody who alleges anything different is lying."

Status Update

Today, more than 130,000 American forces occupy Iraq. Last month, an interim government took over from the U.S. administration. More than 850 Americans have lost their lives since the invasion began.

And Capt. Michael Scott Speicher is still nowhere to be found.

Earlier this month, Iraq's fledgling interim government said it could cast no light on the Speicher case.

"A joint Iraq-U.S. committee has just finished its work on determining the fate of the pilot. The result of the investigation will be announced by the Pentagon and the U.S. Navy," said George Sada, spokesman for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. He wouldn't elaborate.

These days, Speicher's wife, Joanne, doesn't give interviews. His children are nearly grown. His friend, Lt. Barry Hull, sells tires in Duncan, S.C., at a dealership named after their Navy squadron, the Sunliners.

There is talk now of making Speicher officially dead again. Hope has dimmed. People have moved on. Scott Speicher has become a footnote to war, a man whose story stopped in the middle — and whose ending may be forever beyond the reach of those so hungry to know.