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AURORA, Ill. (STMW) — Sometime between late May 13 and early May 14, Amy Fry-Pitzen — cut and bloodied — tried to get out of the bathtub.
She was in Room 108 of the Rockford Motel, where rooms are tidy but sparse: two beds with maroon spreads, a night stand, a dresser and an old TV. Amy had added little to the surroundings. Besides a bottle of water, a flier from the Wisconsin Dells and a bottle of children’s cough syrup, there was the five-sentence suicide note. Amy had double-locked the door and secured the chain.
At some point, she cut her arms lengthwise, letting the blood spill into the bathtub. In her last moments, she took one or two steps toward the sink and collapsed.
“All that was left was the final beats of her heart,” the motel’s manager said.
After two attempts to wake up whoever was in Room 108 about 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 14, a maid unlocked the door. Even with the chain still on, she could see Amy’s body. When Rockford police identified her, it tripped an alert: Reported missing with her 6-year-old son out of west suburban Aurora. The boy was not in the room. Police found no sign he had been there.
What at first seemed to be another motel suicide was now a crisis, one that would inspire hundreds of professional and amateur detectives to try to figure out what happened to 6-year-old Timmothy Pitzen. Was he alive? Trapped? Lost? Amy’s suicide note says Timmothy was safe with unnamed people, but there has been no sign of him since.
It has been a month since Amy checked her only son out of Greenman Elementary School in Aurora; took a three-day, 500-mile road trip; then killed herself. Although unannounced and obscured from her family, the vacation started pleasantly enough, with stops at the zoo and fantastic water parks. Then, on the third day, the trip went into some horrible detour from which Timmothy has yet to emerge.
After driving his wife to work on Wednesday, May 11, Jim Pitzen dropped the couple’s only son at school. Both of the goodbyes were innocuous: love you, see ya later. The day followed the routine of scores before, ever since Timmothy had started kindergarten.
Jim usually picked up Timmothy after the boy’s half-day, drove him to day care and went back to work. At night, the family lived a quiet life in their home on the West Side of Aurora.
But when he arrived at Greenman, Jim discovered his wife, Amy Fry-Pitzen, had already checked the boy out of school.
In fact, by the time Jim was making his first call to check on Amy, she and Timmothy were already on their way to Brookfield Zoo — one of Timmothy’s favorite spots, according to family. From the zoo, Amy and Timmothy headed to Key Lime Resort in Gurnee, a spectacular hotel and water park where rooms are more than $150 a night.
Meanwhile at home, Jim continued to call his wife’s cell phone. Jim refuses to talk about any mental health issues, but police have confirmed Amy had previous suicide attempts. She had left before, but never with Timmothy. Still, Jim was sure they were together. And even if he didn’t know where they were, apparently he was confident they’d return. He went to bed but rested uneasily, he said.
The next day, Amy and Timmothy headed north into Wisconsin. The weather was cool, and there were storm warnings out. But they were headed where weather didn’t matter: the Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells.
The drive to Kalahari is long: about 170 miles through mostly rural Wisconsin. Tracing Amy’s likely route these first two days, the trip seems ordinary. Amy stopped at a convenience store and bought clothes, a toy car and small craft kit — good trinkets for amusing an active kindergartner on a long ride. About an hour after Jim called in a missing person report to Aurora police, Amy stopped for gas and drinks off of Interstate 94 — a direct path from Racine to the Dells.
According to Aurora police spokesman Dan Ferrelli, when police received Jim’s report, Amy and Timmothy’s names immediately went into a database that notified thousands of departments nationwide. Any contact that a police officer had with Amy, Timmothy or Amy’s car would immediately identify them as reported missing.
Amy’s behavior was alarming, but it is not a crime to take your kid on an unannounced vacation. And her actions did not meet the criteria for state police to issue an Amber Alert, the system designed to spread the description of missing, endangered children nationwide in minutes.
For a system like that to work, strict guidelines have been set up. An Amber Alert every day would become background noise, lost in the usual assortment of terror alerts and storm warnings. To make sure Amber Alerts are set aside for the most critical cases, there must be proof the child has been abducted and is at risk for serious bodily harm.
And for the first two days of his trip with his mother, Timmothy was far from danger.
Just like Key Lime Resort, the Kalahari is a pricey children’s paradise. Every room is immaculate, with flat-screen TVs, refrigerators and queen-size beds. Kalahari’s 125,000-square-foot indoor water park is advertised as the world’s largest.
Surveillance video caught Amy and Timmothy checking out the next morning. Timmothy is seen holding his mother’s hand and checking the child’s backpack she’s carrying. He appears to be bored with waiting in line. For police, it’s the last images of mother and son together. Within hours, Amy’s trip would veer from coherence.
Up until leaving the Kalahari, the trip seems to have purpose. Through cell phone calls, iPass records and credit card receipts, police have been able to confirm that on Wednesday and Thursday, May 11 and 12, Amy mostly took main roads, chose logical point-to-point routes and made good time.
Then, while driving south on Interstate 39 and west on Interstate 88 toward Sterling, she finally started calling family members — although not her husband. The conversations seemed normal. Family heard Timmothy in the background, and at one point he got on the phone.
As she makes the calls, Amy drives about 170 miles. It’s not clear why she heads toward Sterling, a humble, post-industrial town that hugs the northern side of the Rock River, about 80 miles west of Aurora. Police have not been able to confirm that she had ties to anything or anyone in the area. At 1:30 p.m., just north of Sterling, Amy turns off her cell phone for the last time.
She will not re-appear until about 8 p.m., 50 miles away, when she’s seen on a surveillance camera — alone — buying Ritz crackers and milk at a grocery store in Winnebago, west of Rockford.
It doesn’t take six hours to drive 50 miles. So if Timmothy was passed off, abandoned or worse, police believe it likely happened between her last call and the Ritz crackers — a tremendous gap of time and distance.
Each time you make a cell phone call, the signal gets reception from the closest tower it can find. If you’re moving — like driving in a car down Route 40 toward Sterling — the call leaps between two or more towers, allowing a consistent signal. Movement can be traced through cell phone triangulation, using the intersection of tower signals to approximate the caller’s location.
This is why Aurora police have a rough idea where Amy placed that last call. It’s about five miles northwest of Sterling, near Oak Knoll Cemetery, which straddles Route 40. Dozens of World War II veterans are buried there. On a modest hill, the armed services flags are flown every day. From that memorial, a visitor can see in all directions for miles: the beautiful expanse of Illinois’ cornfields, dotted by small groves of trees and century-old farmhouses.
At that vantage point, the challenge facing police is obvious. There are thousands of square miles to search. And although it’s easy to get from Sterling to Winnebago on Interstates 88 and 39, police don’t think it’s likely Amy traveled those open, well-traveled roads. She probably followed the Rock River northeast, maybe along Route 2. These back roads twist and turn through hundreds of farms, past state parks, vast open spaces and small clusters of trees.
Hundreds of officers, a canine team and a search plane hunting for any sign of Timmothy came up empty in a search near Sterling. Police openly admit the search was the equivalent of throwing a manpower dart at the region. They didn’t have any clue to focus their search. Timmothy could be anywhere.
Amy’s last night
Police have not ruled out many theories on when Timmothy went missing, but it is not very likely he went to Winnebago with his mom. At 7:25 p.m. Friday, May 13, she bought a pen, paper and envelopes at the Family Dollar. No one at the store remembers her coming in. She was just another customer on a busy Friday, the day when trucks have to be unloaded. Amy then went next door to Sullivan’s Foods, where store manager Benjamin Jacobsen said she was seen on video, alone. About three hours later, Amy checked into the Rockford Motel, near the intersection of Route 20 and Route 251, on the south side of Rockford.
Despite sincere efforts to plant flowers, the two-story, U-shaped motel is not a luxurious place. The building is not so much neglected as it was built unloved. It’s functional, not fancy. One distinct impression it gives: this is no place for kids. There’s an electric bug zapper sitting in the lobby. On a 95-degree day, the pool is drained. The courtyard is concrete.
The owners have tried their best to clean up the place and in the row of three motels off Route 251, it may be the best. At the counter where Amy stood, a note promises that as of Dec. 1, 2009, the motel is doing background checks.
“Do not check in, if a problem,” the sign warns.
Amy parked her Ford Expedition outside the manager’s office and signed in. Her handwriting is neat, steady. She used her real name and address. She requested a non-smoking, single room. Only rooms with two beds were available, so she got Room 108 for $40 cash.
Police will not say exactly what was on Amy’s suicide note other than to confirm it says Timmothy was fine and with people. Sources have confirmed the note also said he would never be found.
Searching for hope
Saturday marked one month since Amy checked Timmothy out of school. Police have searched fields, cars and houses. They have sent dirt and grass collected from Amy’s car to geologists. They have scoured her three computers and cell phones. They have interviewed witnesses and family members, who were all cooperative. All of it has come up empty.
Although it’s hard to find any fliers with any details about Timmothy along Amy’s likely route, everyone seems to know the story. Their theories on what happened are diverse and broad, but they cling to the hope that, somehow, Timmothy was spared.
Of course, Amy’s last act means anything is possible, and looking for common sense in her actions may be futile. Still, even strangers search for some glimmer of logic. Because if reason existed, then a mother could never hurt her child, even in her darkest moments.
People who met Amy — like the manager of the motel, who declined to give her name — won’t believe Timmothy is dead.
“I don’t believe she hurt him and walked away that calmly,” she said. “I really think someone has that child.”
And Timmothy’s family is sure he’s out there, somewhere.
“I’m 100 percent sure of that,” said Linda Pitzen, Timmothy’s grandmother. “After I read the suicide note, I know in my heart he’s alive. I just don’t know where he’s at. And so I pray every night for God to put His arms around him.”
From the Aurora Beacon-News