In the days before his disappearance, Tom Karambelas lost his girlfriend, his money and his way. But it wasn't like he hadn't skipped town before.
When he was 20, Karambelas was implicated in a burglary. He fled to Florida, and family members are unsure if he ever spent time behind bars. When he was 25, he pulled another disappearing act to Atlantic City.
Even as a 42-year-old man, it wasn't unheard of him to spend several days in Las Vegas without telling many people where he was.
When he walked out the door of the St. Charles house he'd shared with Susan Bacsa for 17 years in the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 2011, she thought it was just another of Karambelas' dramatic stunts. So did police.
As Karambelas left, he told Bacsa, "You will never see me again." And this time, it seemed like he meant it.
He wouldn't surface for more than 19 months. When he did turn up dead, how and where he was found created a new set of questions that have police agencies pointing fingers at each other and loved ones finding little solace at the answers they have received.
The Daily Herald reviewed dozens of pages of police reports and interviewed numerous family members, friends and police for this story. What emerges is a range of theories, suspicions and speculations about what happened during the 19 months Karambelas was a missing person. Police investigated many of those twists. There is only one truth. Yet for some loved ones, the theories bring a strange source of comfort beyond the official conclusion.
The relationship between Karambelas and Bacsa had been crumbling for more than a year. A few days before he disappeared, the pair ended their relationship. She had just returned from a trip to Florida where she began seeing another man.
Soon after, on Dec. 20, 2011, Karambelas lost $40,400 in about 75 minutes at the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin. It was neither the first nor the last time. A police investigation revealed nearly $158,000 in gambling losses in the five months preceding his disappearance.
He had money to lose, at least for a while. Karambelas was involved in an accident several years before his disappearance and reaped a settlement worth up to $1 million, according to his accountant. He had invested in properties in Wisconsin and Florida. And he helped run a South Elgin-based festival vending company with Bacsa.
The same day as the big gambling loss, Bacsa witnessed Karambelas writing numerous letters to family members. It was a process he'd started several days before. He sent a text to one friend that said he was fleeing the state to start over. He told another friend he was leaving for Montana.
On Dec. 21, 2011, after losing more money at the casino, Karambelas left messages with his parents saying he was driving to Florida with Susan. After leaving credit cards and his cellphone at home, and telling Bacsa he was done with their relationship, Karambelas disappeared.
Video footage at a South Elgin BP gas station showed him filling his tank and buying two bottles of soda and two bags of chips. Shortly after, a security camera recorded a car that looked like his 2008 beige Mercedes pull up to a 70-by-100-foot warehouse in South Elgin where supplies for the vending business were stored. A person exited the car, went into the warehouse and did not come out.
Bacsa discovered the car at the warehouse later that day.
"I wouldn't go in there because I thought the worst," Bacsa said. "The car didn't upset me. It was the letters I found in the car."
Bacsa called the South Elgin police. While she waited for them to arrive, she looked through the letters. There was one written to his dog, Pepperchini. She opened the letter marked "Baby Doll." Inside was a plea for forgiveness. He wrote that he was sorry for letting her down and leaving.
Then the police arrived. An officer opened the door and went in.
"He was in there maybe 5 or 10 minutes," Bacsa said. "I remember saying to him, 'You weren't even in there that long. It doesn't really seem like your search was that great."
The police found no clues. Knowing Tom had disappeared before, Bacsa decided not to file a missing person's report. She was sure he would turn up sooner or later.
"I thought he was just playing games," Bacsa said. "I just figured, 'Here he is again, drama king,'"
Tom didn't turn up. Instead, family members received large flower arrangements on Dec. 27. Bacsa also received $20,000 in gift cards.
Bill Karambelas was not accustomed to receiving flowers from his brother. The two hadn't spoken in more than a year after a family argument.
"The card said, 'I hope this will make you smile,'" Bill said. "I knew something was wrong right away."
The flowers triggered phone calls to Bacsa, who then told Bill and his father, Pete Karambelas, that Tom had disappeared several days earlier. They told her to file a missing-person report. She did. And so began a search for Karambelas that examined everything from the hard drives of his personal computers to his phone, credit card records and gambling habits.
He'd booked a trip to Las Vegas, but he never showed up at the hotel. There were rumors he owed money to a group of guys with whom he played cards. Business associates thought Karambelas may have skipped town to avoid a $10,000 debt to the IRS.
Police chased all those leads. No one thought Karambelas could take his own life. And yet, there was the mystery of Tom's car at the warehouse.
Even before Tom was officially missing, Andy Shanahan began searching.
Shanahan owns the warehouse where the vending business' supplies are stored. He'd also conducted some real estate transactions with Karambelas on the side and considered himself more than just a landlord to Tom. He decided to check the last place there was any sighting of Tom -- the warehouse.
Tom's car had been moved inside by Bacsa. "The car is on the inside; our cameras show him walking in and not leaving the building," Shanahan said. "It just makes sense that he would be in there."
Shanahan searched. No Tom.
"I thought for sure I looked over everything in there," he said.
Bacsa reported Tom missing on Dec. 27. Two days later, police interviewed her and her mother at the warehouse. Before the police arrived, three friends with whom Tom played cards, concerned about his disappearance, combed over the interior to search for any clues of where he was.
"I was 75 percent sure we would find a body," said Perry Anguelo, one of the friends. "With the car and the notes he left, it just made sense that he was in that warehouse."
The warehouse contained about 30 storage freezers stacked on a series of pallets.
"All we found were two coolers we couldn't open," Anguelo said.
The friends told the officer interviewing Bacsa and her mother about the sealed freezers. The subsequent police report indicates a search yielded no further clues and no evidence of foul play.
With those four searches of the warehouse complete, and police actively looking for Karambelas in other states, family members thrived on the idea that Tom was alive. But Bill Karambelas couldn't stop thinking about the woods behind the warehouse.
On Jan. 29, 2012, Bill and Pete ventured into the woods. They didn't find Tom, but they did find large drain pipes that could contain a person or any number of animals. The woods themselves were simply too large an area for two people to cover with any certainty they didn't miss something. After several calls urging the police to check the woods, Kane County sheriff's deputies arrived on Feb. 6 with a police dog.
While waiting for the dog, Bill entered the warehouse. Tom's Mercedes was inside. It seemed like a good chance to have a look at the vehicle for himself.
Opening the passenger door, Bill found a sealed envelope marked "evidence." It had been more than a month since police had been at the warehouse. Bill didn't want to open it, so he waited for the detectives.
There is no record of any such envelope recorded in police files of the case, and sheriff's detectives denied the envelope was one of theirs when they saw it, Karambelas said.
When they opened it they found a partially eaten hamburger. Karambelas wanted it tested for poison. There is no record about what became of the envelope or hamburger. Bill Karambelas said sheriff's deputies told him it was discarded as not relevant to the search.
The police dog did not find Tom Karambelas in the woods. And, when detectives learned Bacsa wasn't told about the search and did not provide consent to enter the warehouse, they left without taking the police dog inside.
Three months later, Tom was still missing.
Coming Friday: Blame games.