Constable: After 10 years, Buffalo Grove mom believes she'll find her son
The phone rings with a telemarketer's pitch from Rhododendron, Oregon, Fergus Falls, Minnesota, or some other unfamiliar place, and Beth Nathan rushes to answer.
"It could be," the mother says, not needing to add that it never is. "I answer it all. Whoever calls, I've had some calls where I couldn't get to the phone, and I call them back. I always have hope."
Her son, Lee Cutler, an affable, kind and troubled 18-year-old senior at Stevenson High School with a lot on his mind, vanished on Oct. 20, 2007, and hasn't been heard from since.
"I hope they find him," Danny Cutler, the boy's biological father, said 10 years ago. Unfortunately, they don't know much more than they did a decade ago.
Attempts to reach Danny Cutler for this story were unsuccessful, but Nathan, who was divorced from Cutler at the time of their son's disappearance, reflected on the pain she has experienced and the hopes she clings to.
"I never allow myself to say he's dead," Nathan says, visibly shaking that thought from her shoulders before continuing. "I just have this vision of him walking into this room and he's there. I always have this hope he's going to show up."
The last time anyone saw Lee Cutler was that Saturday morning 10 years ago. The night before, he and his mom attended a friend's family birthday dinner at a local restaurant. Cutler spent the night with some buddies at a friend's house. The next morning, the Buffalo Grove teenager gave a friend a ride home at 9:50 a.m. and never showed up for his job at a shopping mall in Vernon Hills. His mom reported him missing to the Buffalo Grove police that afternoon.
"We have no evidence of foul play, or that he met someone. It's literally as if he vanished," says Buffalo Grove police Lt. Tara Anderson.
A Sauk County, Wisconsin, sheriff's deputy discovered Cutler's locked 2007 Toyota Corolla at 3:30 a.m. Monday, Oct. 22, parked in a paved pull-off near a historical marker along Highway 33, east of Baraboo, a few hundred yards from the Baraboo River.
Officers found Cutler's favorite yarmulke on the muddy bank, not too far from his backpack and a blanket. They fished his pants, with his wallet and car keys, from the river. They found letters to and from loved ones, an empty bottle of Advil PM that he apparently bought in Wisconsin, a school-assigned copy of "Into the Wild," and notes apologizing for being a "coward" and telling his mother to be happy. A rescue team searched the nearby fields in an airplane, on foot and with dogs and heat-sensing detectors. Divers combed the muddy, cold river, believing, as did many people that day, that they would find his body.
"I didn't. I was running around calling his name," remembers Nathan, who roamed the nearby fields that day as if she were a mom searching for a wayward toddler in a department store. "I remember the echo, 'Lee! Lee!'"
She has had countless one-way conversations with her missing son since then, assuring him that he is loved and urging him to make contact.
"I just think he thought life was unfair, life was too hard," Nathan says, recalling how her son empathized with animals and people who were struggling. "I think someone knows something about him and isn't saying anything."
His disappearance has been featured on several TV shows, which spur calls to police from people saying something along the lines of thinking they saw Cutler working at a Walmart on the East Coast or living in a Las Vegas park or holding a cat on the streets of Chicago, but none of those has panned out. Cutler's missing person case remains open.
"I actually still have it on my desk," says Lt. Anderson of the Buffalo Grove police. "Anything that was concrete, we followed up on."
Cutler's DNA is in a national database and has not matched any human remains.
"He made it look like it could be the end. Anyone can interpret it that way," Nathan says. "But I know Lee would not kill himself. In our religion, he would never do that. He was very big into being Jewish."
She still has his yarmulke and a colorful ribbon from the Jewish youth group of which he was president. She keeps his clothes. A private investigator she hired followed clues but came up empty. Although skeptical of psychics, Nathan talked with a couple, who assured her that Cutler was alive but couldn't pinpoint a location. A man who claimed to see Cutler at a homeless shelter in Minnesota wasn't believable.
" Anything is a possibility," Nathan says, running through theories. "Maybe he's captive somewhere and can't contact anybody. Maybe he has a family somewhere and he's happy. It's all story until we know the facts."
Cutler's older brother, Carl, 30, got married last month, and Nathan included the groom's missing brother in her speech.
"It's been hard. We love Lee and miss him," says Irving Cutler, the missing man's 94-year-old grandfather from Wilmette. "He had a great future. He was a leader. He was well-liked. There's always a little hope, but it's very small now."
The smaller the hope, the broader the possibilities for Nathan.
"When I see a homeless person walking, I look. I look. I'm always looking," she says.
Cutler's profile is listed on the website of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, where Cutler's likeness has been modified to show what he might look like as he aged.
"This is somebody I don't know," says Nathan, who vividly remembers the last time she saw her missing son.
"Lee was outside playing hacky sack with a bunch of the boys," she says, remembering how she and other parents were talking outside the Japanese restaurant where they celebrated a friend's birthday. She was in bed when her son came in to ask if he could spend the night with other kids at the house of one of his friends.
"I know all his friends. They are good kids," says Nathan, who gave her permission. "He gave me a hug, like a really long hug. I wish I would have stopped and thought, 'What's going on here?'"
She told him to call her when he got to work the next day. He didn't.
"I went to the mall at his work. I just had this odd feeling," says Nathan, who has been searching since that moment.
"It would mean the world for all of us who love him to hear. I just want my son back. If he doesn't want to come back, I just want to hear from him," Nathan says. "It's unimaginable, surreal, a nightmare. I have to go on. It's kind of like being a clown. You have to be happy, but inside you are sad."