THIS MONTH HILARY SWANK tries to swoop in on a third Oscar, portraying another scrappy, short–haired heroine in Amelia. Front row and center at the theater will be UW alum Ron Bright of Bremerton, a spry–minded septuagenarian who for the past 10 years has tracked “the last of the great unsolved mysteries”: the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, who flew off radar in 1937 while attempting the first around–the–world flight by a woman. The one–time Navy criminal investigator and private eye took up the Earhart mystery as a way to fill his retirement days. Today he’s one of the world’s most respected Earhart researchers, one who has scoured every document pertaining to the case and interviewed its leading personalities, including the sons of Leo Bellarts, the radio technician who was the last to hear Amelia alive.

In the official U.S. account, issued two years after her disappearance, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan were flying from New Guinea to Howland Island in the Pacific when the plane sputtered, out of fuel, and fell into the ocean.

But what if she crashed on land instead? Some researchers believe Earhart flew off course and smashed into Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro) where she and Noonan spent their final days as castaways. This theory was buoyed in 2001, when a historian unearthed a report detailing the discovery of an unidentified human skeleton on Gardner in the 1940s. Convinced it was Earhart, a research group from Delaware has made several trips to Nikumaroro and plans another next year. But, says Bright, “they haven’t found one single conclusive artifact.”

In the most tantalizing scenario, Earhart and Noonan were government moles sent to spy on the Japanese–governed Marshall Islands. They were discovered, captured, and transported to Saipan. There, some believe, they were killed; others say Earhart secretly returned to the States and assumed the identity of one Irene Bolam of New Jersey. “Interesting,” says Ron Bright. “But there is never enough of a positive identifier to say, ‘Ah! That’s it.’ I think she just ran out of gas.”