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They disappeared without a trace, leaving behind those who refuse to forget

Scores people turned out Saturday attend vigil held Randall Rd. Aurorfor 22

GUS STUERTZE / SPECIAL TO THE BEACON NEWS Scores of people turned out Saturday to attend a vigil held on Randall Rd. in Aurora for 22 year old Tyesha Bell who has been missing since May 9th 2003. 01/03/04

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Lisa Stebic

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Updated: August 17, 2012 6:34AM

PLAINFIELD — Lisa Stebic has vanished from her family’s lives. And for all intents and purposes, so have her children.

Alexis and Zachary Stebic were 12 and 10, respectively, on April 30, 2007, the day their mother was last seen at the family’s home on Red Star Drive in Plainfield.

The Stebic children, known as Lexi and Zach, are teenagers today. As such, they are presumably privy to all manner of communication, from such electronic marvels as Facebook and email to the comparatively primitive telephone, writing pad and postage stamp.

But members of Lisa Stebic’s family, the Ruttenbergs, haven’t received so much as a text message from either of the siblings in the years that have followed one of the area’s most notorious missing-persons cases. Media interest has been so intense that Ruttenberg family spokesperson Melanie Greenberg sometimes finds herself repeating the same quotes during interviews.

“We don’t have contact with the children,” said Greenberg, the wife of Lisa Stebic’s cousin, echoing a comment she made recently to a Chicago television reporter. “That is another part of it that is extremely difficult. It’s as if their mother has been completely erased from their lives.”

And the years have not made it easier, she added.

“We know she’s dead, but we don’t have a body, we haven’t been able to have a funeral, we don’t have a grave we can visit. We can’t put her to rest as she deserves to be. It’s a nightmare.”

Greenberg said the lack of progress in the case has been especially hard on Lisa’s grandparents, Milt Ruttenberg, 98, and Charlotte Ruttenberg, 92. “They don’t know that they’ll live to see the day that we solve this, that we find her and we have justice.”

Greenberg said Charlotte Ruttenberg, in particular, grieves for her granddaughter. “She’s always thinking about it, almost every time that I talk to her. She’s a worrier, anyway, and the stress of this has been very difficult for her.”

Greenberg has a kindred spirit in Maple Park resident Sue Olsen, whose 26-year-old son, Brad Olsen, vanished on Jan. 20, 2007.

Both women have been approached for guidance and advice by families of other, more recently missing people.

For Greenberg, it was after the Stebic case was featured on “America’s Most Wanted” that calls came in from other families going through the same nightmare.

“We held a press conference with several families of missing men, and we’ve worked very closely” with the family of missing Bolingbrook resident Stacy Peterson, she said.

Stebic’s disappearance also conferred a peculiar form of occasional celebrity on Greenberg. She has a bumper sticker on her car — embossed with a photograph of Lisa’s face — that reminds those passing by of the $75,000 reward posted in the case, along with a telephone hotline number.

“I see people stopping and looking at it, and Lisa’s face is a familiar face in this area,” Greenberg said. “And then somebody sees me, and they say I look vaguely familiar from TV, although that doesn’t happen as much anymore.”

Stacy Peterson’s husband, former Bolingbrook police Sgt. Drew Peterson, is the prime suspect in her disappearance. Lisa’s husband, Craig Stebic, is likewise the lone “person of interest” named by authorities in her case.

“The day that (Lisa) went missing is the day she got the papers from her attorney to have Craig removed from their home,” Greenberg said of the Stebics’ broken marriage.

“There’s only ever been one suspect. And he still lives there in the home with their children.”

— Bill Bird

AURORA — Weeks after her 21-year-old daughter disappeared, Lorna Smith told a reporter: “I’m praying and hoping that she’s not dead. But where else could she be?”

Almost 10 years later, Smith can ask the same question. Her daughter, Tyesha Bell, is neither alive nor dead. She is simply gone. She walked out of her apartment and never came back. That was more than 3,000 days ago.

That’s three thousand days of waking up to a day when Smith may finally get the worst news — or the best — of her life.

That’s three thousand days of anger, hopelessness, optimism, frustration, sadness.

Three thousand days without an answer to the most important question she’ll ever ask: Where is my child? If she is not dead, where else could she be?

Time can be a balm — it does heal some wounds — but when that spark of hope is neither lit nor extinguished, time can be a unique torture.

“The mind is a battlefield,” Smith said. “There’s always a war going on in there. Sometimes, I get worn out. It gets very tiring.”

Every year around Mother’s Day, Smith talks to the newspaper. May is the anniversary of the day her daughter went missing — the day she walked outside to take a phone call and disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

On either May 8 or May 9, 2003, Bell left her home in the 800 block of Randall Road in Aurora. She got a phone call and stepped outside, leaving her two young daughters in the apartment. Bell didn’t have a medical condition. Investigators feel she expected to return. Police were — and still are — convinced she met with foul play. Detectives did airplane and dog searches. They drilled holes in the floor of a suspect’s home. The searches turned up very little.

Smith is always willing to talk, but the truth is there is no progress in the case. No arrests. No discoveries. No reunion. On the news side, nothing has happened. If only the same could be said of Smith’s life.

Smith’s son was murdered in 2006. It was a devastating experience, but one that, over time, Smith has learned to deal with. She knows there is nothing else she can do for him. Her daughter is also gone, but without conclusion. And so Smith is left with the nagging feeling that she can still do something.

But what else can she do? She has raised a $10,000 reward. She has talked to every media outlet that would listen. She has raised Tyesha’s two daughters. The oldest is a sophomore, and Smith is helping her think about college. The youngest carries around a scrapbook full of pictures of a mother she doesn’t even remember.

Lately, Smith has looking at Tyesha’s pictures more often. She even put them on her phone. For so long, it was too painful, but now she wants to remember the good times — shopping and dancing. Tyesha loved to dance. But the pictures have a price. Sometimes Smith will have to retreat to a bathroom to cry. The release helps, a little.

After more than 3,000 days, what else can she do? She has prayed. She has prayed so hard that she wondered if God is listening. But He always offers some sign that He hears. And so she doesn’t stop looking. Because maybe, somehow against all rational odds, Tyesha is wandering around. It happens. We see it on the news.

It is said that everything that will happen is already recorded in the Bible. When Smith first heard that, she thought: I don’t remember any stories about someone going missing. And the very next day she came across the story of Joseph, who went missing for 20 years. His family thought he was dead. But then he returned.

“It always seems to re-kindle my faith,” Smith says.

— Matt Hanley

HUNTLEY — Mike Nelson the police officer is 50. If Barbara Glueckert is still alive somewhere, she also is 50. But to Nelson, the classmate and friend he has been obsessively searching for and still thinks about every day will always be 14.

When Mike Nelson graduated from the eighth grade at St. Raymond’s Catholic School in Mount Prospect, Barbara Glueckert did, too. She lived two blocks away from Mike. On Aug. 19, 1976, they showed up at the same time to register for freshman classes at the local high school.

And then, two days later, Glueckert’s story apparently ended. But Nelson’s went on, and eventually would merge into the shadow, the mirror image, the giant question mark that his childhood friend left behind.

On Aug. 21, 1976, Glueckert left her home to attend a rock concert some 30 miles away on a farm outside Huntley. “I’ll be home by 11:30,” she told her parents as she left. When she never returned home, a massive search began. Fifty SCUBA divers from nine suburban fire departments swam through ponds and a rock quarry in the Huntley and Elgin areas. National Guardsmen, bloodhounds and helicopters searched on land.

In the Mount Prospect police station and Kane County sheriff’s office, meanwhile, attention focused on a 24-year-old Elgin man named Thomas Urlacher. Urlacher had a history of playing rough with dates, and he matched the description of a man who had offered Barbara Glueckert a ride in his car. Getting ready to attend high school, a shocked and dismayed Mike Nelson read the newspapers, watched the reports on TV and looked on from afar.

In December, four months after the disappearance, investigators obtained a long, rambling letter in which Urlacher had written, “I put that girl in the ground. ... Now I am going to go to jail for murder.”

By now, Urlacher was in San Francisco, but police issued a warrant to arrest him on a “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” charge. He was extradited back to Illinois. Then, on March 16, 1977, prosecutors dropped the charges. If you don’t have a body, it’s hard to convince someone that a crime really happened, Nelson notes now.

Flash forward 28 years, to January 2005. Nelson, now 42, had been a police officer in Mount Prospect for a dozen years and had just been assigned to the detective bureau. And he asked his boss whether he could reopen the Glueckert case.

Searching for their prime suspect first, Nelson discovered Urlacher was now dead, killed in a drug deal that went bad.

Nelson remains convinced Urlacher murdered Glueckert. “I have come to the same conclusion every detective ever assigned to this case has come to,” he said this past week.

Nelson is convinced his former classmate is no longer alive. She was a wonderful person from a great family, not the kind who would skip town and tell nobody.

But he did resume searching for her body. When Steve Nagel of Elgin read in The Courier-News that Nelson was reopening the investigation, Nagel called the Mount Prospect police tip line. On the day after Barbara Glueckert disappeared, he had been fishing in Tyler Creek near Randall Road, a remote area often frequented by teenage beer drinkers and pot smokers. And he heard somebody digging nearby.

In April 2005, Nelson and five other cops journeyed to that fishing hole. Hope rose as their shovels uncovered a bagful of bones. But those turned out to be the remains of a small animal.

The team then searched an area near Marengo, where Urlacher reportedly had once grown marijuana, plus a well in South Elgin and a location in Pingree Grove. But every search came to naught.

Today, Nelson is assigned back on the street as a patrol officer. But he says he still works on the Glueckert case off and on, and can never totally get it out of his mind.

“People call us with new leads, or new technology will be developed that was not available in 1976, and we start searching again,” Nelson said. “For example, a new kind of camera is able to detect differences in the plants that grow above a shallow grave. DNA testing wasn’t possible at all in 1976, but we have DNA samples now from Barbara’s mother and father and have coded them, so we can compare them to any remains that we find.”

“We were out digging with cadaver dogs just last year in St. Charles Township,” he revealed, though he declined to say exactly where, or why investigators thought Barbara’s body might be there.

But is all this effort worth it, if the murderer is probably dead now, too?

Absolutely, Nelson says firmly.

“Barbara’s brother came to see me just last week,” Nelson said. “Her father passed away without ever knowing for sure what happened to his daughter, and her mother is very ill now. Her brothers have had to go to sleep every night since 1976 wondering about their sister. If we can find her, it will provide closure and her family will know where her final resting place is.”

— Dave Gathman

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