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March 16, 2011

The Day My Husband Disappeared

the vanishing

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Kramer

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The first few months of marriage, however, were less than rosy. Michelle had just begun a graduate program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology when her father died of lung cancer. The tragedy left her consumed with grief — and concerned about her footing with Mark. "He didn't really seem able to empathize," she says. "It was like he was just going through the motions." Still, she rationalized his behavior away, telling herself he was just a typical self-centered guy. Mark's mother died soon after.

The couple muddled through, reigniting their romance with a second wedding ceremony in Ravello, Italy, in the spring of 2002, on a cliff overlooking the sea. Around this time, Mark opened his own clinic in Merrillville, and his business took off. He and Michelle entered a life of unmitigated luxury, spending the next couple years traveling the globe, often on private jets. They bought a condo in Chicago and property in the Bahamas. They took the Concorde to London. They went to the Cannes Film Festival and partied with celebrities. They bought an 80-foot yacht in Europe; they shopped at Versace and Dior.

Michelle continued her studies, while doing fieldwork in a medical center for war veterans. She paid no attention to the family finances, she says, because she didn't have the time, or inclination. She had no bank account; she never saw the bills. "I was processing this whole issue of wealth," she says. "It was all fun, glamorous, fabulous. But I had come from the land of unions. Suddenly I had maids in maid uniforms, drivers, a massage therapist, sheets with thread counts of like a million. One night, when we were flying into Chicago on a private jet, I looked down and saw all the little blue-collar homes where I grew up. I was trying to find meaning in all this."

Mark, in the meantime, was growing increasingly eccentric about his needs. He wanted a laptop and BlackBerry in every room. He became obsessed with staying fit, buying multiple copies of The South Beach Diet. "He seemed to want to control something," Michelle says. "But I didn't know what." She urged him to get help; he dismissed her concerns.

One day, Michelle came home from a psychology conference in Hawaii to find the condo peppered with security cameras. A safe had been installed in every room. Mark, now facing several malpractice suits, was getting paranoid. "He thought he was being targeted for his wealth," Michelle says, adding that she firmly believed he was innocent. "He wasn't a lousy doctor," she says. "The man I married wouldn't hurt people."

In the spring of 2004, Michelle got pregnant. Five months later, she miscarried. The ordeal sent her reeling, especially since Mark seemed incapable of consoling her. Things were spinning out of control. Mark was pulling away. The couple began fighting frequently, with Michelle saying in one emotional outburst that she had lost the baby because of Mark. The accusation caused him to bawl. "I thought we were soul mates," he said. "Everything has changed." Michelle felt lost. "I could feel him throwing me away," she says. "Still, part of me thought, Maybe the person I fell in love with will come back to me. Maybe this is finite."

A few weeks later, when Mark suggested traveling with friends to Greece to celebrate Michelle's 30th birthday, she had renewed hope: Perhaps this trip was just what they needed to reconnect. Maybe they could recapture the magic.

On their first night together in Greece, in September 2004, the couple shared dinner in a café overlooking a shimmering harbor, planning the week ahead: a birthday celebration with friends, followed by a trip to Turkey. Sitting together in the bedroom of their yacht that night, Mark said, "You really do love me, don't you?" Michelle replied, "Of course I do." The next morning, they sat in that same room, discussing their future. "He said all the right things, but there was an emptiness," she says now. The next day, he was gone.

As news of Mark's disappearance flew across the island, Michelle called her mom, Mark's family and colleagues, the American embassy in Greece. No one had heard from him. Facing thousands of dollars in docking fees, she needed to get off the island, fast. Before she flew home, the captain of her yacht handed her the number of a Greek cell phone Mark had once given him, and she called it. To her surprise, Mark answered, and sounded "all happy," she says. She said to him softly, "Mark." He said nothing for a few seconds, then quietly hung up.

Things were about to get weirder. Back home in Chicago, Michelle hurried to Mark's office to see if she could find any clues to his disappearance. There, she discovered a pile of shredded documents, and began piecing them together. There was a name of a hotel in Paris. There was a receipt for a plane ticket from Paris to Cannes. Maybe he was in France. She called the FBI, and authorities began questioning her. "You were the last one to see him?" they asked. She realized she could come under suspicion herself. She continued digging. In Mark's library at home, she found books on international trade, on how to speak Italian. Was he headed for Italy? At Mark's clinic, she learned of his "scary room," a place where he had been stockpiling survivalist gear — compasses, thermal underwear, flashlights. Michelle couldn't believe it: All along, Mark had been plotting a secret life without her.

Soon after, she received a call from the private-jet company she and Mark had used to fly to Greece. Mark, unaware that she had flown back to the U.S., had apparently asked the company to tell her she could use his account to fly from Greece to Paris and then home. For Michelle, this was a sign: "I thought, Mark is in trouble. He needs me. He wants me to fly to Paris and meet him," she says. She promptly flew to France.

In Paris, Michelle raced to the hotel mentioned in the shredded papers. A front-desk clerk recognized Mark's photo — Michelle had missed him by a day. She then canvassed the clubs and cafés the couple had once loved, desperately showing people her husband's picture. "They laughed," she says. "My hair was a mess; I was wearing sweats. I must have looked crazy." She returned to Charles de Gaulle Airport, certain that Mark would meet her there. "I kept looking around, staring at the men sitting next to me, in case any of them had a message for me from Mark," Michelle says. "I was watching their faces, waiting for my message. I was becoming paranoid. But I wanted answers. I thought maybe he had met someone else. I just wanted him to explain."

That explanation was not to come. Back in Chicago, creditors began circling. Soon it became clear that Mark had left Michelle with $6 million in debt — and that he had traded chunks of his cash for diamonds. Further, he was still buying things, like designer clothes, with his credit cards across Europe. He was maxing out his cards. He was going to casinos, most recently in Cannes.

Michelle jumped back on a plane, with a new plan: She would disguise herself and lurk in the casinos Mark frequented. When she saw him, she would slap a pair of handcuffs on his wrists, drag him away, and demand answers. At a sex shop, she bought handcuffs and a wig. The "outlandish plan," she says, reflected her mental state at the time: "In a crazy situation, you can either retreat and give up, or act crazy to survive."

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