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July 9, 2008

A Mother's Crusade for a Missing Daughter

When a daughter disappears, what's a mother to do? If she's Karren Kraemer, she quits her job, launches her own investigation, and exhumes graves — for starters. But she never could have predicted where the journey would take her.

beckys mother on the fourth anniversary of her disappearance

Karren Kraemer, photographed in December, on the fourth anniversary of her daughter's disappearance.

Photo Credit: Lorne Bridgman

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It was a wintry Saturday night in Milwaukee, and 23-year-old Becky Marzo was out with friends at a local dance club, drinking, dancing, playing darts. Around midnight, Becky's cell phone rang. It was Carl Rodgers II, her live-in boyfriend, wanting to know when she was coming home. "I'm not ready to leave," she told him. A few minutes later, he called again, upset. They argued, and Becky hung up. He called again — and then again.

"Just turn the phone off," her friend Kristina Randall finally said.

At 2 in the morning, Kristina drove Becky home and waited at the curb for the sign that all was well. "She turned on the light and waved out the window," Kristina says.

And then she was gone.

Becky's mother, Karren Kraemer, sits at her dining-room table in jeans and a sweatshirt. The suburban home, in a cul-de-sac near the town of Oconomowoc, WI, about 35 miles west of Milwaukee, is warm and bright, but worry lines crease the 47-year-old mother's face.

"I was getting ready to go to work," Karren says, remembering the chilly day in January 2004 when her niece called to say that Becky had disappeared. "She said, 'Auntie Karren, I don't know what's going on, but something's happened to Becky.'" A wave of dread swept over Karren; she frantically dialed her daughter's cell but didn't get an answer — just Becky's voice mail, her greeting backed by Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You."

"I told my husband I thought something happened," Karren says, clenching her hands. "I'd been having dreams about Becky. So when my niece called, I thought right away that Becky was dead." Fueling her fear was the fact that Karren and her husband, Dave, hadn't spoken to their daughter in eight months, following a string of arguments they'd had with her about Carl. They knew he was abusive — they'd seen the bruises — but their daughter had refused to leave him.

"She would defend him and say, 'It was an accident,'" Karren says. "But we had heard the excuses long enough. We decided to try tough love and told her she couldn't come home again until she broke up with him." Karren stares out the window. "There are some things parents will never forgive themselves for," she says. "And that's one of them."

Karren called the police and said that none of Becky's friends or colleagues had heard from her since the night of December 13, 2003. "But they said Becky had the right to go missing," and didn't open an investigation, she says.

Karren knew that Becky wouldn't just vanish on her own. She was right on the verge of completing an accounting degree, while holding down a job at Target. "She had never missed a day at work," Karren says. "She wanted to be an accountant, have kids, the whole white-picket-fence thing." So Karren hired a private investigator, continued trying to call Becky, and kept after the police. Time and again, she says, the officers dismissed her concerns, despite the fact that Becky had once filed a complaint against Carl.

Finally, Karren drove to a Milwaukee precinct station. "I'm not leaving until you file a report," she insisted. As she waited, officers brought Carl in for questioning — with Karren in the same room. She was stunned. "I know you killed Becky!" she told him. Carl didn't blink. Police classified Becky as a missing person, but didn't open a homicide investigation since there was no evidence of a crime.

It's not unusual for a case like Becky's to be sidelined by police. Hundreds of thousands of missing-person complaints are filed each year in the U.S., and, unlike the case of, say, Natalee Holloway — the American teen who famously disappeared in Aruba in 2005 — most cases don't get much notice. If a family does persuade police to open a homicide investigation, the case can drag on for months, even years, without a resolution. Most, in fact, are never solved, and it falls to the families to do the legwork.

That was certainly the case for Karren Kraemer, who, with hardly any information to go on, became a mother on an extreme mission — channeling her sorrow, anger, and guilt into an all-consuming drive to find her daughter.

Karren's crusade began with flyers; she posted hundreds of them around Milwaukee, on lampposts and telephone poles in Carl's neighborhood, in the parking lot where he worked, along the street where his parents lived. "Please help us find Becky," the flyers implored, showing her smiling, round face framed by blonde hair, her vibrant blue eyes behind wire-rim glasses. Listed on the flyers were Becky's identifying features: 5-foot-3, 130 pounds, double-pierced ears, a tattoo on her back of a heart pricked by a red rose.

Posting the flyers became an obsession for Karren: She would get out of bed in the middle of the night, fill a thermos with strong coffee, and drive from her rural home to paper the town in the predawn hours, often in tears. Sometimes she would talk to people on the street, even vagrants: "There were some bad neighborhoods, but I can't remember ever being scared. I mean, what kind of person would hurt a mother who's trying to find her daughter?"

As she made her rounds, memories of Becky haunted her. "Becky was bubbly," Karren says, pointing to photos in the front hallway. "She was petite and brainy, but naive. And she was such a trouper. She always brought home the underdogs from school — she felt that if she could only befriend them, their lives would change." Becky volunteered in the D.A.R.E. antidrug program in school and played clarinet; on a band trip to New York, she gave her money to homeless people in Central Park. "She thought she could fix the world," Karren recalls.

Soon Karren ratcheted up her campaign even more, quitting her six-figure job as a manager at Kinko's to take a lower-paying job at Target, in the hope of ingratiating herself with Becky's former colleagues to gain information. "They told me Becky would come to work with bruises on her cheeks," she says. But they hadn't heard from her since the day she'd vanished.

Karren then sent around a feel-good video of Becky to local news stations, showing a sentimental young woman who collected Winnie the Pooh trinkets, loved country music, and was addicted to Yahtzee. Karren also called on psychics, following their leads to a set of railroad tracks and a river where they believed her daughter might be buried. She even enlisted "cadaver dogs" to search for a body. "If a psychic tells me there's a chance that Becky is down at the bottom of a river, I want to jump in and find her," she says. "You try anything."

Karren began to stalk Carl as well, reporting any suspicious move he made to the police. "I sat outside the house," she says. On the hood of his parked car, she would leave little calling cards with an illustration of Pooh, a reminder that she was always nearby. "I wanted to keep the fire burning under him," she says, with anger in her voice. "I wanted him to watch me hang flyers. I wanted him to watch me knock on doors. I wanted him to know he wasn't going to get away with it." Yet she also kept her distance, never confronting him face-to-face. And she continued to ask police to look into Carl's involvement, to no avail. "Right now, Becky is on the bottom of the workload," snapped one detective. Karren was livid. "You owe it to me to find my baby!" she said, sobbing.

In December 2004, a year after Becky's disappearance, Karren tried yet another approach. "I brought police the video of Becky," she says. "I went down to the precinct with a bag of peanuts, cookies, hot chocolate. And they sat down and watched the video." Finally, thanks to her perseverance, investigators began pursuing Becky's disappearance as a possible homicide, questioning Carl's friends and family and searching his house. But the proof fell short. There simply wasn't enough evidence to charge Carl with a crime.

Karren's hope began to fade. Becky's credit cards showed no activity; her driver's license had expired; she'd left behind an uncashed paycheck for $500. Karren struggled to accept the fact that her daughter was really gone. "I wouldn't let anybody go in her bedroom," she says. "I didn't change a thing. We held on to all her clothes and photo albums."

Still, she believed there was enough circumstantial evidence to find Carl guilty. So she kept digging. She discovered that Carl's uncle, a former cop, owned a funeral home not far from Carl's house — and that his car and Carl's had been parked outside the funeral home at 4 a.m. on the day Becky had gone missing. (Records of parking tickets had confirmed this.) Karren convinced a district attorney to approve the exhumation of two graves in a cemetery south of Milwaukee — burials performed by Carl's uncle days after Becky's disappearance. But still, no luck.

Karren's punishing crusade took its toll. Her marriage suffered as Dave grew withdrawn, declining to participate in his wife's increasingly driven campaign. Her health deteriorated as well. "I got very sick," she says. "I had an erratic heart rate and had to have surgery for that. I had stress fractures in both feet because I walked so much. It was all stress," she adds, tears welling in her eyes. "Becky had so much more to give. And this guy took so much away."

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