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updated: 3/28/2014 10:39 AM

In a freezer all along: St. Charles missing man case fuels blame game

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  • Tom Karambelas, right, with his father, Pete.

      Tom Karambelas, right, with his father, Pete.

  • Tom Karambelas' body was eventually found in this warehouse, sealed inside a freezer.

      Tom Karambelas' body was eventually found in this warehouse, sealed inside a freezer.

  • This picture of Tom Karambelas is from a Facebook page he opened under the name Tom Karas.

      This picture of Tom Karambelas is from a Facebook page he opened under the name Tom Karas.

 
 

Second of two parts.

The search for Tom Karambelas had become desperate and frustrating.

After five months, it was clear Tom had problems to run from when he went missing in December 2011. His longtime girlfriend dumped him. He lost tens of thousands of dollars gambling. He wasn't speaking to his only brother. And the IRS was after him.

Police checked the obvious places for clues. The home he shared with his girlfriend provided few leads. The business his car was parked at was checked -- several times, according to police reports. Friends were questioned. Family members were interviewed. Phone, email and credit card records were traced. None of the threads led to Tom.

What made Tom's brother, Bill Karambelas, antsy were the woods behind the South Elgin business where his brother's car was found. There were large storm drains there that could contain anything or anyone.

Unsatisfied with the official search of the woods, Bill and several other family members searched again in late May 2012. Nothing. Local police and fire officials conducted a sonar search of a quarry in the area four months later. Again, nothing.

Hope dissolved into fear. It had been almost a year since Tom disappeared. He had not contacted any family members or known friends. Bill didn't want his last contact with his brother to have been an argument.

"That fight is one of the biggest regrets of my life," he said. "I wish I could take it back."

Then came an odd twist in the case.

In November 2012, a college student named Kelly told police she saw Tom and had a short conversation with him at a public pool in Geneva during the summer. Even after two interviews, Kelly was 95 percent sure it was Tom.

Police even suggested to her during questioning that the man she saw was the new boyfriend of Tom's longtime girlfriend, Susan Bacsa. Kelly stuck to her story. There were no other witnesses to corroborate it, but just the possibility that Tom was alive fueled hope for Tom's father, Pete.

"That was a prolonged agony situation," he said. "Basically, she says that she's completely sure it was Tom."

And yet, if he were in the area, why not reach out to someone, anyone?

What seemed to be a promising lead went nowhere after several weeks. Having contacted various federal officials and even exploring the possibility that Tom, who was adopted, went off to track down his birthparents, the trail grew cold.

In June 2013, Kane County detectives placed the case into inactive status.

Tragic discovery

Three months later, Tom was found in the most likely and unlikely of places.

Three workers at the warehouse were moving freezers when they found one unplugged and sealed. Knowing Tom had been missing, they opened the freezer and found the mummified remains of the 6-foot-tall, 210-pound man wearing a Cubs sweatshirt and black jogging pants.

Inside the freezer were two bottles of Coke, one partially consumed and one unopened; two bags of Fritos; an unopened chocolate cupcake; a blanket; a red and black plastic flashlight; some unreadable cards; and a toy that belonged to Tom's dog.

South Elgin police arrived and determined the freezer was sealed from the inside with clear silicone and a bottle of expanding foam, which were also in the freezer. There was no evidence of attempted escape. An autopsy concluded Tom died from "confined space asphyxia" after sealing himself in the freezer.

Tom was found in the first place police looked and several people searched at least five times thereafter. The vending company operated out of the warehouse, business as usual, the entire time Tom was missing.

As crushing as Tom's death was, Bill and Pete Karambelas were equally dumbfounded that Tom was in the warehouse the entire time.

"If his car's parked outside here, the car keys are in here, they have video of a car going in and not coming out, there are some suicide notes, where is the first place you're going to look?" Bill said. "How does everybody miss the same thing when they are being told exactly where to look? You didn't miss the needle; you missed the haystack."

Because of the confounding end to the search, both Bill and Pete now wonder if Tom wasn't found because maybe he wasn't there all along. Maybe he didn't kill himself. Maybe someone shut him in the freezer and removed any traces of the sealant from the outside. Maybe the cooler with him inside wasn't even in the warehouse when the searches occurred.

"Something is not adding up," Bill Karambelas said. "I'm not pointing the finger. We just don't understand how this all could have happened this way. You start to question everything and everyone. Things just don't make sense."

Bacsa wasn't invited to Tom's memorial. There is no communication between her and Tom's family.

"In my opinion, they have a lot of guilt," Bacsa said. "I don't have any guilt. I'm not happy about how it ended, but I did so many things for him for so many years."

When police told Bacsa Tom's body was in the place she regularly worked, she broke down in tears, according to police reports.

"I could have sworn I checked in there," was her immediate reaction, the reports show.

Knowing Tom's body was there all along is a shudder she can't shake.

"I never thought he was going to do this," she said. "The way he did it, I think about it all the time. I worked in that warehouse for two years, me and my employees, and we didn't know. All of us worked so close, within five feet of him. So many people missed it. Did the (South Elgin) Police Department screw up? In my opinion, yes, I think they did. Did the sheriff screw up? Yeah, they did."

Finger-pointing

Asked how Tom Karambelas was never found in any of the police searches, officials point their fingers at each other.

"The only role we played on any of the searches was to assist county in a search at their direction," South Elgin Police Chief Chris Merritt said in an email interview. He referred further questions about the searches to Kane County Sheriff Pat Perez.

Perez, in several interviews with the Daily Herald, said the warehouse is in South Elgin's jurisdiction, and the responsibility for searching the facility was that town's.

"This was South Elgin's, and it should have been theirs from A to Z," Perez said.

He dismissed any theories that don't involve Tom committing suicide.

"There weren't any indications that this guy was killed someplace and put there later," Perez said. "And there's no logic to that idea. He committed suicide. He sealed himself in a freezer with two sealants. He died within 5 to 10 minutes from the fumes. And the sad reality is, even if they found him on the first search, he still would have been dead."

At 89 years old, Pete Karambelas has a stack of underlined police reports, emails and notes of conversations he had with various officers, Tom's friends and family members. Even months after the discovery of his son's body, he recently tried to reach out to Kelly, the girl who said she saw Tom at a Geneva pool, in hopes of coming to terms with what happened to his son.

In some ways, chasing those details and possibilities is a morbid comfort. It's better than thinking about Tom killing himself in such a lonely manner.

"It's tough to take," Pete Karambelas said. "Why didn't he come to me or his mom? Why didn't he come to Bill? It hurts a lot. And it's very unfortunate that Tommy was not found shortly after his disappearance.

"Had he been found at that time, the family would not have had to endure 20 months of suffering and agony, and, in addition, it would not have given us the false sense of hope that Tommy was still alive. We were put through hell."

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