On the Friday evening of October 19, 2007, a group of friends celebrated a birthday party at a steakhouse in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. One of those friends was Lee Sterling Cutler, a high school senior who had recently celebrated his own eighteenth birthday on October 2. Five feet nine inches tall, weighing 150 pounds, the handsome, fair-skinned, brown-eyed teenager wore his brown hair in a collar-length longish style reminiscent of the 1960s and ’70s. He also wore a traditional Jewish yarmulke on his head.
As the party wore down, Cutler’s mother, Beth Frazin, headed home while Lee and some friends played hacky sack outside the restaurant.
The game drew to a close and Lee also drove home. He asked Beth’s permission to sleep over at a friend’s house. She agreed and asked him to give her a call the next morning. Lee gave his mother a hug. She later recalled that the hug lasted unusually long.
At about 9:50 a.m. on October 20, 2007, Lee drove another friend home. That friend assumed that when Lee drove off in his gray 2007 Toyota Corolla that he was on his way to his job at a Rock America, a music merchandise store in a Vernon Hills, Illinois mall.
That morning, Beth repeatedly called Lee but received no reply. She drove to his job. Lee’s boss told Beth that Lee had not shown up. The boss suggested Lee might have been confused about his hours and thought he was supposed to start work at 5:00 p.m. Beth recalls a sinking sensation in her stomach but hoped this confusion was the problem. She called the store at 5:00 p.m. and learned he was still not there.
Beth expected Lee to attend the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) meeting scheduled for that evening at a bowling alley. Lee had a special relationship with that BBYO Chapter, having helped found it as an eighth grader.
Beth Frazin and her husband, Lee’s stepfather Barry Frazin, drove to the bowling alley. Seeing that Lee was not at the BBYO meeting, Beth called police to report Lee as missing. That Saturday evening, a police investigation began.
Police examined his bedroom and found no evidence he had packed for a long trip, but then family and friends searched the room, they realized that a large stein was missing. Lee had kept between $500-800 in that mug.
Investigators soon found that Lee was seen at a gas station he often frequented at about 10:00 a.m., shortly after dropping his friend off.
Either because his cell phone was off or out of batteries, it was untraceable.
Forty-two hours after Lee was last seen, on Monday, October 22, 2007, at 3:40 a.m., a deputy in rural Wisconsin spotted a car parked near a rest stop in the town of Baraboo, close to a river and a cornfield off Highway 33. The deputy ran a registration check on the vehicle and found it was registered to Lee Cutler, a missing person out of Buffalo Grove, Illinois.
Buffalo Grove investigators headed to the Baraboo rest stop, some 177 miles from Lee’s home.
Lee’s car was locked. Police watched and waited for a few hours. When Lee failed to return, officers began investigating the car and the area. Inside the car, police found a printed receipt indicating Lee had visited Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest at 1:41 p.m. on October 20. Also found inside the car were some of Lee’s clothes, a backpack, and blankets.
Also found was a copy of Into the Wild by Jon Krakeur, a true story about Christopher McCandless, a young man who journeyed into the Alaskan wilderness – and died during his adventure. Observers speculated that Lee, who was fond of the outdoors, had gone to live in a wilderness like McCandless. However, Beth noted that the book had been assigned in a class Lee was taking. She believed little importance should be attached to its presence.
A cryptic note addressed to his mother was found. It read: “My head is too big for my body, finally I’ll get to sleep. I’m sorry mom for being a coward, I love you mom, please be happy.” The words suggested a suicide note but were open to other interpretations.
Investigators soon found more of Lee’s possessions in the area. Among them were his yarmulke and love letters from a girlfriend.
An empty bottle of Advil PM was found near the car. He had recently been taking the over-the-counter medication to help him sleep. An empty body of Coricidin, an over-the-counter cold and flu medicine, was also found.
Khaki pants like the ones he was last seen wearing were found sticking to a partially submerged tree branch in the Baraboo River. Inside a pocket were keys fitting his car’s ignition and a wallet containing identification and a small amount of cash.
Dive teams searched the Baraboo River multiple times, using underwater cameras and sonar. The areas nearby were also thoroughly searched multiple times.
No body was found nor was anything discovered that would indicate violence had taken place in the area. Captain Kevin Fults of the Sauk County Sheriff’s Police commented, “We believe we searched the river well enough that if the body had been there, we would have discovered it.”
Investigators did not find his cell phone but records show that it had not been used since October 19, 2007. Lee had his own bank account. Nothing has been taken out of it since his disappearance.
Lee was a good student at Stevenson High School. He was also friendly and concerned about others. If he saw another teen looking sad, he often playfully poked the person or offered a hug.
Sensitive and introspective, Lee had enjoyed his first major romance a year and a half before his disappearance. Lee was a freshman and she a junior when they met. She went away to college and Lee believed there was no way to continue the relationship. Although Lee broke off the relationship, he became depressed in the aftermath. At one point, he brought a knife to school and threatened to commit suicide. School authorities took him to a hospital.
He continued seeing a therapist after being released from the hospital.
Lee had a troubled relationship with his stepfather, Barry Frazin. After Barry died of a heart a heart attack in August 2008, Beth told reporters that Barry “was an addict, all around. And he was smoking pot with my kid.” Family friend and private investigator Penni Clobridge said Barry was unfaithful to Beth and told Lee about those infidelities. Lee was understandably upset by such revelations.
Soon after Barry’s death, Beth moved out of their home to get away from the many bad memories it held.
Lee’s friend Brian Meyer said Lee cherished time in forested areas. Meyer remarked, “He would go off on his trips. He really liked to observe nature.” Meyer remembered, “When I first heard he was gone, it was like ‘OK, Lee is just chilling somewhere. Then, when the whole thing stretched into November, it was just like, ‘Wow, he’s gone.’”
Stevenson High School senior Anna Graham commented on the tormenting nature of the mystery. “The problem is there’s nothing that says he’s definitely dead and nothing that says he’s definitely alive,” she observes.
A year after his disappearance, Beth Frazin told reporters that uncertainty about her son’s fate haunts her. “I feel like I’m suspended in the air. A part of my heart is broken,” she said.
Beth continued working at the Northeastern Illinois University library after Lee’s disappearance but had to take medication to deal with her emotional pain. Nadia Malik reported for the Daily Herald, “On Oct. 2, Cutler’s 19th birthday, Frazin went to work so that she wouldn’t spend her day crying. The decision provided a moment of serendipity when a woman came into the library talking about her own missing son.”
Beth has said that she believes her son might have been kidnapped or that he might have just wanted to get away from problems he had with his stepfather and others. Although the note he left behind reads like a suicide note, she does not believe it was one. “I am convinced totally that he did not take his own life,” she asserts.
Lee’s older brother Carl Cutler was initially hopeful. “I really assumed he would turn up or something would lead us to him,” Carl stated in 2008. As time went on and there was no new information turned up, Carl became increasingly confused. “I didn’t really know how to feel or what to feel,” he said.
In 2010, Beth speculated that Lee might suffer from amnesia. “Who knows, maybe Lee fell and he can’t remember who he is,” she said.
Although baffled, Beth cherishes the hope that she will one day be re-united with her long lost son. “I never in my entire life would imagine that this would happen to my family,” she said. “I’m never going to give up hope. All I want to do is just hold him and be with him.”
*Originally published February 25, 2013
Sources on following page.