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July 9, 2008

A Mother's Crusade for a Missing Daughter

a flyer describing beckys features

A flyer describing Becky's features.

Photo Credit: Lorne Bridgman

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Born in Texas and raised in Milwaukee, Karren met her husband, a maintenance engineer and avid sportsman, when she was 17. They married and had five children, raising them in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek. "We were what you'd consider an average family," Karren says, recalling the days when her children were young. "We were strict parents. When the streetlights came on, the kids had to come home."

Karen raised the kids while studying business management and criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. For years, she worked as a police dispatcher, which is where she developed a keen eye for investigative work. In 2000, Karren and Dave moved their family to Oconomowoc, where they live today in a three-bedroom home surrounded by flowerbeds, the garage crowded with bicycles and a riding lawn mower.

Becky had some health issues when she was young — she was treated for depression as a teenager, and suffered hearing loss that required several surgeries — yet her health didn't diminish her playfulness. "Becky was real fun," laughs Karren, grabbing a bottle of water from her refrigerator. "I remember when she was maybe 16 or 17, we went to the grocery store together, and she picked up a package of Depends, then yelled to me down the aisle: 'Hey Mom, what size diapers do you wear?'"

Becky married young, at age 19, taking the last name of her groom, a less-than-ambitious guy named Mike Marzo. But the marriage soon fell apart. She was 20 and very impressionable when she met Carl, in February 2001. He was 12 years older and a charmer, a handsome man who raced high-performance automobiles and rode a red motorcycle. Six months after they met, Becky moved into his place.

"We started noticing pinch marks on her arms," Karren recalls. "And her behavior changed. Whenever she came home, we would get into an argument and then she'd cry. I said, 'This is crazy. We don't know why you're staying with him. You don't have to.'"

Karren and Dave persuaded their daughter to move back home with them around Christmas in 2002. Carl was furious. He called Becky repeatedly. One time Karren intercepted the call. "How could you hurt her like that?" she yelled at him. His reply? "She fell."

Eventually, like so many victims of domestic violence, Becky gave in to Carl. "Don't you understand? I have no choice," she said to her father. "I have to go back."

A few months went by before Becky finally called the police, in April 2003. Carl had broken her nose, bruised her ribs, and torn out chunks of her hair. He was arrested and charged with battery. "At this point we're begging her to break up with him," Karren says. But Becky wouldn't budge. In what they saw as a last resort, Karren and Dave pursued their "tough love" approach, and told her to leave him or leave them, essentially.

So Becky took off for Florida, and Karren tracked her down by phone. "But she just wanted me to leave her alone," she says, her eyes downcast. "That was the last time I talked to her."

Soon after, Becky returned to Milwaukee and stayed with a friend. A day or two later, she abruptly moved back in with Carl and recanted her allegations. "I can tell you I probably cried every day for a month after I found out," Karren says. "I had a premonition: I just knew that this man was going to kill her...if only I could go back in time."

Months passed. On December 10, 2003, a judge formally dismissed the battery charges against Carl. Three days later, Becky disappeared.

Amid the investigation into Becky's disappearance, Karren discovered a new calling. Last year, she cofounded Broken Wings Network, an advocacy group for families of missing persons and domestic-violence victims; she also speaks about domestic violence at Wisconsin high schools and correctional facilities. Debbie Culberson, who started Broken Wings with Karren, also had a daughter who went missing, after breaking off a brutal relationship 12 years ago. "We've dug up barns; we've drained ponds," says Debbie, 54, over the phone, her voice strained by grief. "You picture yourself holding your daughter, her physical body, in your arms for all those years. Just knowing where that body is...that's what Karren and I don't have."

The two have found solace in their shared cause. But solace isn't all Karren is looking for. She needs resolution. Justice.

And there was certainly a measure of it in the shocking phone call she received from police on October 5, 2007: Carl, they said, had been found dead inside his car in his garage — a victim of probable carbon-monoxide poisoning. A month earlier, he had been charged with raping his girlfriend; a trial had been set for January 23. He'd left a suicide note in his kitchen: "I never killed anybody," it read. "I never raped anybody. I'm just tired of all this."

For Karren, it meant she would never again have to lay eyes on the man she believes killed her daughter, or picture him enjoying his life — getting on with it. But it also meant that Carl would take the knowledge of Becky's whereabouts with him to the grave. Still, Karren says, "I'm not going to let him win. I will find her."

She doesn't blame herself for Carl's suicide. "I think he did it because he felt it was the final control over what would happen to him," she says. "I'm past the point of hatred, but I haven't forgiven him. Forgiveness is a very personal thing." For his part, Carl's stepfather, Jeffrey Stemper, says, "This woman had been harassing him [for years]. No evidence has ever been shown that he did this crime." A huge portion of Karren's life now remains on hold. She has cashed out her 401K to pay for her ongoing investigation, and her marriage is in disarray. "Dave and I argue every day," she admits. "I'm just not who I was four years ago."

Since then, she has had a recurring dream: Becky standing before her, holding her hand out to Karren, crying, and asking her mother to find her.

So Karren's search goes on — along with the police investigation. Says Detective Vickie Hall, "If I were a missing person, I would like to have Karren Kraemer looking for me."

"I'm at the point where I'll do anything to find Becky," Karren says. "Until you can bury your child, you really don't have that closure. I want to say good-bye."

Kurt Chandler is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. His work has appeared in The New York Times and The Advocate and on Salon.com. His latest book is Shaving Lessons: A Memoir of Father and Son (Chronicle Books).

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